Hitting the first problems and finiding solutions

By mid-November, the newly set up, fish-free tank already showed some problems, the biggest being the appearance of fluffy clouds of dark green algae along the surface of the substrate. To counteract this, I suggested reducing the lighting period (which had been set to around 12 hours by the family) to 10 hours. I also gave them some Spirodela spp. which is a type of giant duckweed that can have a nice red tinge and a bottle of EasyCarbo, a liquid carbon fertiliser which also acts as an algaecide. We then manually removed as much algae as possible while doing a water change and left it at that. I also gave them some sera Florenette A root tabs (which are best value for money), two of which were inserted into the substrate at the time.

In that 6 or so weeks, some of the plants settled in nicely and some died off. Mainly, the Limnophila sessiliflora tried to take over the tank, while the Bacopa lanigera, Lindernia rotundifolia and Lysimachia nummularia ‘Aurea’ died back heavily. This corresponds with my experience that without investigation and special attention, some plants just take to some tanks while some just don’t.


The other problem that the family encountered is high levels of evaporation as can be seen in the photo below. With the tank temperature set to 24°C, this was unexpectedly high as I get considerably less evaporation in my “hot” tanks. The problem with topping up is that it increases the water hardness in the tank, and disturbs the substrate, but this was resolved later.

In the mean time, I had failed to find my background for this tank, so it was looking a bit bare without one. The sagging lid was also irritating everyone.


Restarting the 60 litre project

Following a rather unfortunate end to the 60 litre project, I have now re-set it up at a friend’s house for their 5 and 6 year old children. The parents have the previous white-ups from this project for reference, and my advice, in person, on demand. Their life style is relatively busy, with little free time, so we’ll see how a fish tank fits into their schedule.

We set up the tank with the 5th of October. I wanted to use Moler clay for the substrate because it resembles the popular gravel more closely than sand would. It should also keep a higher bank at the back more easily. Moler clay is a ridiculously dusty substrate which is sold by some aquatics suppliers, but is also available for the bonsai tree hobby as a substrate for the plants, as cat litter (which may be fragrant) and in some other industries as well. Moler clay, which is calcinated clay consisting mostly of diatomaceous earth from Denmark, supposedly has a high cation exchange capacity. In simple terms, this means that it will extract some nutrients from the water column and make them available to the plants through their roots instead.

I was reminiscing about one of my first tropical aquaria around this time, which was set up in the early 2000s. I was using Dorset pea gravel at the time and as it sat in the corner of the room, I created two tiers: a 1 cm layer of gravel at the front and a 10 cm tier across the corner which was propped up by oak branches and had a “cave” from a plastic pot that was cut in half. As this tank will be viewed mainly from the front (from the dining room, across the lounge) and the right side (from the sofa in the lounge), I decided to try for a taller tier at the back-left of the tank sloping downwards to the front-right and only a little substrate at the front. I’m hoping this will allow the higher tier to be planted heavily, while keeping the front clear for viewing and feeding. I was recently lucky enough to acquire some dragon stone at a good price from another hobbyist, and wanting to involve the children, I let them pick out a few pieces for the new tank. These now line the tank about a third of the way to the back, and from the left side to three quarters across the tank.

Next came the plants. The children, stayed relatively engaged while washing the substrate as they enjoyed plating with the hose and getting soaked (in October?!?). Guiding their dragon stone placement strategically was a bit more challenging. Filling the tank with water was slow torture. They did redeem themselves on unpacking and sorting the plants by species.

2 pots of Bacopa lanigera went into the back-left corner, next to the filter, thermometer and heater. Two pots of Lysimachia nummularia ‘Aurea’ went in front of the Bacopa. To the right of the Bacopa, one pot of Limnophila sessiliflora and next to that the Cryptocoryne wendtii ‘Tropica’. Two pots of Lindernia rotundifolia went in between the Crypt and the right side of the tank. The Cryptocoryne sp. ‘Green Crisped Leaf’ took the spot on the right side of the tank, on the substrate slope between the front and the back.

60-litre-1I left them with a bucket, piece of hose, net, dechlorinator and a full test kit (ammonia, nitrite, nitrate, GH, KH and pH).

First shopping list – the details

Following on from the first shopping list, here are the explanations for why the items on the first shopping list are needed and what to look out for.

  • Aquarium

    The best aquaria for beginners are long, rectangular ones as most beginners do not know which way the hobby will take them and these are the tanks which give the most stocking options. It is best to go for at least a 90×30×30 cm (3×1×1 ft) tank as anything shorter will restrict you even on many of the “popular” fish. 60×30×30 cm (2×1×1 ft) is the absolute smallest that I can recommend to any beginner as setups smaller than that will not tolerate mistakes. Taller aquaria will not allow you to keep any larger fish, nor (really) any more fish, but the extra water will result in more stable parameters. Tank height does matter for some fish, such as Pterophyllum spp. (angels) and Symphysodon spp. (discus), but they should have quite large tanks anyway (for most species starting from 150×60×60 cm (5×2×2 ft)), so are usually not kept by beginners. Tank width/depth (the front to back measurement) does not matter too much for tanks tanks under 120 cm (4 ft) as they are too small to keep any fish that are large enough to have trouble turning around in a standard 30 cm (1 ft) wide tank. Odd shaped tanks and ones with low surface areas should generally be avoided if one does not want an extra level of difficulty and more stocking restrictions, this includes cubes, hexagonal prisms, “picture frames”, bowls and tanks with artificially reduces areas such as the Fluval Edge.

  • Filter

    Usually, the filters that come with the aquarium kits are fine, but if you do not have one, then I recommend external filters. I prefer to use Fluval internal filters or Eheim external filters. If the filter has activated carbon inside it, then the activated carbon should be removed and replaced with a media that does not affect the water while providing a high surface area for bacteria, such as porous ceramic media or sponges.

  • Test kits for ammonia, nitrite, GH and KH (water hardness), nitrate and pH

    It is only worth spending one’s money on liquid test kits, or maybe digital ones, but the strips are usually very inaccurate and can give false positives and, more worryingly, false negatives.

  • Dechlorinator

    Your first dechlorinator should be one that claims to “deal” or “neutralise” chlorine, chloramine, ammonia and nitrite. These are usually about the same price as ones which only work on chlorine and chloramine and add an extra level of protection because one of the by-products of chloramine removal is ammonia, so if your water supply has chloramine, as many in Europe do, then using a more traditional dechlorinator would leave the new water with ammonia in it, which would make the water changes during cycling redundant. Also, tap water can contain both ammonia and nitrite, both of which are harmful to fish.

  • Household ammonia

    Any household ammonia that does not contain anything other than water will do. Apparently the test to see if it contains other things is to shake up the bottle and see if it produces foam: if it does not, then it is what you want, but if it does, then it contains other constituents. I have never tried this method as I have never seen ammonia that contains other cleaning agents or perfumes in it. In the UK it is possible to buy ammonia from Boots, in the USA from Ace Hardware and in Germany from eBay.

  • Tubing for water changes

    Anything that is clean will work, starting from filter tubing all the way to garden hoses. If you plan to refill the tank straight from the tap, then it is worth getting a short length of tubing and a longer one or a python system.

  • Bucket

    Useful for lugging around water and for acclimatising fish. The bucket needs to be a new one and must never be used for anything other than fishkeeping to avoid contamination and poisoning the fish.

  • Thermometer

    Alcohol and digital thermometers are the most accurate. Avoid liquid crystal thermometers as they measure the temperature of the room and glass, not the water.

  • Heater

    Almost any heater is fine, I prefer to use NeWatt heaters because they are ceramic, so are more difficult to break and are less likely to fail than a glass heater. A good heater should last you a very long time (my oldest working heater is probably around 15 years old), while a bad (normally cheap) heater can break very quickly (most of the “cheap” heaters that I have had have failed in under 5 years). If you use a glass heater, make sure you have a heater guard for it: this is a plastic cage that goes around the glass, preventing the fish from touching the hot heater and burning themselves. A heater guard will also reduce the risk of you or a large fish smashing the heater. As a very general rule of thumb, one should have approximately 1 watt of heater per litre in a well heated house. So for our 90×30×30 cm (3×1×1 ft) example tank, which is approximately 80 litres in volume, we need an 80 watt heater. Since most heaters come in 75 or 100 watts, I would chose the 75 watt heater if I knew that the room was always warm, or the 100 watt heater if I could not be sure that the room is always heated. Another option would be 2× 50 watt heaters.

  • Substrate

    Research the substrates and go for your final choice right from the start. I recommend sand from a garden centre because it is usually no different from aquarium sand, but is considerably cheaper, and allows for a much wider selection of stock.

  • Plain background

    I prefer black, but dark blue also works well. White is more difficult to pull off, and the printed backgrounds usually look just tacky. At the very least, a background will hide the equipment cables, and it can even make fish more bold.

Next time, I will be writing a post-cycle shopping list.

The end and a new start

At the start of December 2011, my husband was made redundant. It would have been very difficult for us to remain in Berlin as I could not support both of us on my wage and it would have been almost impossible for him to find a new job there.
I started selling off most of my livestock and plants immediately, taking some of the fish to my LFS (Aquarien Meyer) in exchange for fish bags and dechlorinator which I used for the return journey, but unfortunately it was quite difficult to sell the aquariums as so many people made appointments to view them, then did not turn up. In the end, I managed to sell one of the AquaOne AquaStyle 980 for 50 EUR, the second for 60 EUR and the 420 litre aquarium (including substrate) for 275 EUR, which is approximately what I paid for the tank and substrate when I bought them.
The keyholes, two male rams and plecos were packed into three fish boxes and taken back to UK by van, alongside the rest of the furniture. These fish have been living in a very cramped, 50 litre aquarium since then, with most of the plants from the 420 litre in with them and with one of the Eheim 2076(Professional 3e for 450 litre tank). While such an overrated filter would normally be too strong for a small tank, the 2076 has adjustable flow rate and the plants, combined with pointing the spray bar at the surface, next to the intake, reduce the flow to something which is suitable for such a small tank.But this is not the complete end to this tank: I have ordered a nice, custom sized aquarium from ND Aquatics, which arrived today. It is a 4.5×2×2 ft sized tank with a solid topped hood, optiwhite glass front and sides, clear silicone, glass condensation trays and flat hood with an aintree oak cabinet to match the existing teak furniture. There are so many options available for customisation with ND Aquatics that I have probably forgotten some of them! The service from the company was good, and the tank looks great:

Since I have to be careful about the carpet, I have invested in a painters’ fleece which is lined with a plastic sheet on one side. The one which can be seen in the photo is a 10×1 metre piece which was around GBP 5 from Aldi.
While waiting for the tank to arrive, I decided to try adding laterite under the substrate. Laterite is a weathered clay which has a high cation exchange rate because it is rich in iron oxide. One of the cheapest sources of laterite is cat litter, but not all cat litter is laterite. After a quick search, Tesco Low Dust Lightweight Cat Litter appeared to be the best choice. I read that a 2 cm layer was recommended, for which I would have needed approximately 12 litres of laterite (length×width×2 cm/1000). Since the cat litter I had chosen came in 10 litre bags, I purchased two bags at GBP 3.29 each and ended up using all of it, with a 1 cm deep bed at the front and right side of the aquarium, going up to about 5 cm at the back:

It did take much longer to wash the laterite than it usually does to wash substrate: I probably gave each 3 litre lot at least 10 rinses before I could see the laterite through the water. It felt like the laterite might have been “99 % dust free”, but the 1 % was just dust and no laterite. Also, I found out that this particular cat litter is fragranced; it took me at least 3 rinses before I could not smell the fragrance coming off the water. In other words, this laterite needs considerable cleaning, more so than most substrates!

Tomorrow, I plan to add three bags of sharp sand (sharp sand is sand which has been recently weathered from granite or gneiss) and one of play sand, as I like to see some texture in the substrate, but this sharp sand has too many large grains when used on its own, although I thought it was still worth GBP 0.50 per bag from Homebase. I will also add a plain, black background to the back and the left sides of the tank tomorrow, and a branch of hornbeam which was cut down a month ago so that the van would fit down the driveway during the move.

Adding sand and filling the aquarium

Setting up 1 Setting up 2 Setting up 3 Setting up 4 Setting up 5 Setting up 6 Setting up 7 Setting up 8 Setting up 9 Setting up 10

Setting up 11

Once the water is in, it is almost clear right from the start. I used a plastic bowl for pouring the water on to, so that I would not disturb the sand too much. The whole process of washing the sand and adding the water took about 45 minutes, it needed about 120 litres of water and I finished it off with 15 ml of dechlorinator. Last to go in were the filter and heater.

The aquarium is currently on the floor (that’s my old AquaOne next to it, which I am trying to sell) because I do not have any small table which is sturdy enough to take the 70 odd kg that the full aquarium weights (about 55 kg of water and 15 kg of substrate), so I am planning to build a wooden stand for it in the near future.


Substrate choice partially depends on personal preference, but mainly on whether the fish you are planning to keep have any specific requirements. For example, loaches, Corydoras and earth eaters are a few of the fish which benefit from fine substrate because they will sift it through their gills while looking for food. Some loaches will even bury themselves under the sand, while some cichlids will only spawn in pits which they have dug.

As I am still undecided on which species of fish I will have for the bottom of the aquarium, safest choice is sand. I have bought some play sand, which is aquarium safe and is considerably cheaper than aquarium sand.

Regardless which substrate one chooses, it is important to make sure that it is not dyed because most dyes will come off with time and some may be harmful to aquatic animals.

Another important point to consider is that some substrates will alter the pH of the water. For example, peat will result in the water becoming more acidic, while crushed coral will have exactly the opposite effect. These properties can be very useful to for adjusting the aquarium pH in the long term, but I would still recommend that anyone new to fishkeeping should avoid these and pick fish which will be happy in the water parameters that one already has. Normal sand and gravel are usually inert, so have no effect on the water chemistry.

The first thing to do with new substrate is to clean it: this can be done by placing a small quantity of it into a bucket and rinsing it with water until the water runs clear even when one stirs it. If the substrate is not clean enough, it will cause the water to become cloudy because of the dust in it, so I usually give it an extra rinse before adding it to the aquarium. The water is still likely to be slightly cloudy for a couple of days even though the substrate has been washed, so it is possible to temporarily add filter wool (also known as floss) into the filter, so that the water clears quicker. Luckily for me, this play sand was quite clean, so each 3 litre lot took only three goes to clean, instead of the more usual 6-8. Before draining the water after each clean, I waited a few seconds to let the smaller bits of sand, which were not the dust which can make the water cloudy, settle.

Wet and dry play sand

Wet sand will often look darker than dry sand, so it is important to take that into account when picking a colour. In the photo above, you can see the dry sand on to top with the wet sand below it. The sand which was available at my local DIY store is a dull brown with specks of larger dark and pale stones. I think this gives it quite a natural look, which is what I am aiming at.