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Tag Archives: aquarium set up

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Aquarium Gravel and Substrate vs Bare-Bottom tanks: Pros and Cons

One of the first purchases most aquarists will make for a new aquarium, be it freshwater, saltwater, reef, discus, goldfish, cichlid or any other – is the gravel and substrate. It could be sand, crushed coral, Fluorite, neon pink pebbles, glass marbles or countless other materials  but it all tends to be the very first thing to go into an empty aquariums. But….why? Do you really need it? Are there alternatives? Much like the eternal home decorating debate of hardwood-versus-carpets, the battle brews among aquarists over what covers the bottom of their aquariums, a layer of substrate or nothing at all.

 

So why has substrate become such an integral part of the aquarium culture, and why are some aquarists now looking past it in favor of the bare glass or acrylic bottom of their aquariums? Much of it has to do with our understanding of the aquarium ecosystem now over what we knew years or even decades ago. Even as recently as five or ten years ago, undergravel filters were thought as indispensable for all types of aquariums and as such, gravel was thought vital to their function. We’ve come a long way with filtration technology since then, and we’ve also come a long way with understanding how the water chemistry in our aquariums functions. Alternatives and advancements have made the old undergravel systems nearly obsolete and the aquarium gravel that went on top of them is become more of an Option instead of a Requirement.

 

That said, how do you make the choice? Like so many other parts of our hobby, it comes down to personal preference and your goals. Bare-bottom tanks are becoming more common and have their benefits of substrated tank and vice versa; substrate is still a better choice than going bare for some other types of tanks. Weigh your options carefully before you choose which one is right for you. We’ll go over a head-to-head comparison in the major factors to consider to help you make your decision.

Cleaning a Fish Tank

 

The ever-iconic Gravel Vacuum

The ever-iconic Gravel Vacuum

An aquarium that is easy to clean and easy to care for is the dream of most aquarists. Bare-bottom tanks win this category easily. Ever wrestle with starting the siphon on a gravel vacuum, then have it clog up repeatedly with gravel when you are cleaning? With a bare-bottom tank, a gravel vacuum isn’t needed; you can just use tubing to vacuum up any waste sitting on the bottom of the tank and water pumps or powerheads can be used to circulate the water underneath and behind the rockwork more efficiently. It can be a lot easier to scrub algae off of the glass bottom and sides without having to worry about missing some at the gravel line or getting bits of sand stuck in your scrubber as well. For tanks like reef aquariums with lots of rockwork, debris and detritus can get stuck under the rocks or in the back where your vacuum cant reach as well, causing the nitrate levels and algae blooms to increase. While not as vital in, say, a freshwater community tank, nitrate and algae can spell Doom (and Headaches) in a reef tank.

 

Aesthetics & Natural Environments

 

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A natural planted freshwater nano-tank

I have to give this one to Substrate. Surprisingly, flat panes of glass or acrylics just aren’t found at the bottom of most environments in the wild. Natural environments have sand, or mud, or pebbles or some other natural material. Besides just plain looking more natural, some animals also need this substrate to live normal lives. Some fish and snails bury themselves in it or find their food in it. Timid animals need it to hide or camoflauge themselves and in some specialized ecosystems, the substrate plays a vital role in the water chemistry. Most live aquarium plants won’t survive without a substrate to root into. Having a substrate also provides many more options in changing the look of the aquarium, whether its a natural substrate or a decorative one.

 

Aquarium Water Chemistry

 

This one is an even draw; both having substrate or having a bare-bottom can negatively and positively affect the water chemistry in an aquarium. Some substrates like crushed coral can buffer the pH and hardness of the water. For a saltwater tank with a target pH around 8.0-8.4, this is a good things. For a tropical tank with a target pH around 6.0-7.0, maybe not so much. A Flouorite substrate for planted freshwater tanks can give the plants some much-needed minerals and nutrients through their roots that a bare-bottomed tank can’t give them.

 

As much as this exchange helps, any waste that can get trapped in the substrate can hurt the tank. If waste becomes trapped, it will decompose and increase nitrate, phosphates, ammonia and other negative levels which can lead to fish illness and algae blooms. As we mentioned before, this waste is much easier to get rid of in a bare-bottomed tank.

 

Microinverts, hitckhikers and other “bonus” tankmates

 

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Our bare-bottomed 700 gallon store display tank

Unexpected new arrivals like bristleworms can be the ban of a saltwater aquarist’s existance, and tiny little nuisance snails or flatworms can harass a freshwater aquarists to tears. Most of these critters live or reproduce to some extent within the substrate and getting rid of the substrate to go bare-bottom will help get rid of them. Unfortunately, it will also get rid of the good critters like copepods and amphipods that can provide a natural food source to some of the pickiest fish and inverts. If you are making your choice to go bare-bottom to get rid of the nuisance critters, weigh the needs of the rest of your tank carefully to see if they can do without the good to get rid of the bad.

 

The (Bare-)Bottom Line

 

Choosing whether to add substrate to your aquarium or stick with the bare tank ultimately rests on you. Most aquariums will survive either way but one choice may be more successful than others. In our store, we have both bare-bottom tanks and tanks with substrate among our display tanks as well as the tanks we sell fish out of. Stocking these tanks is determined by the needs of the fish and the care that they need. Generally, coral-only reef tanks can go bare, planted freshwater tanks can’t; freshwater fish-only tanks might not need it but saltwater fish-only tanks (or fish-only with live rock) will do better with it. If you can’t decide which way will be more successful for you, we’d be happy to help you make the best decision for you and the success of your aquarium.

Which Filter Should I Choose for My Aquarium?

Emperor Power Filter Choosing the right filter for your aquarium can be an intimidating task. We’re asked this question every day, from people setting up their first aquarium and from those hobbyists who are upgrading to a larger or different type of aquarium. Most people are looking for a quick and easy answer, which they rarely get from me.  There is no one-size-fits-all in the world of aquarium filters, and anyone who is new to aquariums, and is trying to do some research, is probably overwhelmed with all the options.  We have assembled a lot of good basic information for all the major types of aquarium filters in the article archives on thatpetplace.com. These articles are meant to help and guide you through the process of choosing a filter for your set-up by breaking down how each type works and in which applications they really shine.

The follow up question that I am often asked, is what is my favorite filter?  Again, that is not an easy question to answer with so many options, but I thought I might highlight a some of those I would recommend  from a few different filter types.

If you are looking for the most bang for your buck, especially for freshwater aquariums, it is hard to beat the good old power filter.  Also known as hang-on-the-back filters, power filters are easy to use, provide proven performance, and most are inexpensive and energy efficient.  My favorite power filters are the Marineland Emperor line.  These filters have been around for many years, and have changed very little since introduction.  There are two models of Emperor Filters available for under $50, that can handle aquariums up to 80 gallons.  The Emperor filters, if properly maintained, will provide excellent mechanical, biological and chemical filtration.  The Biowheel feature of these filters is what sets them apart from simpler power filters, they maintain biological filtration at all times, something that is lost on power filters that depend on their filter cartridges, which will lose all their bacteria when filters are changed.  These filters are great for any freshwater aquarium set-up as a standalone filter, or as part of a filtration system for saltwater aquariums.

Filstar Canister FilterFor larger aquariums or aquariums that demand more powerful or customized filtration, the next step up are the canister filters.  My choice in this category is another filter that is time tested, and has been around for many years, the API Filstar XP line of filters (Formerly known under the Rena brand name) The Filstar canister filters are available in several sizes, up to the XP XL model that is rated for aquariums up to 265 gallons.  Modular filter baskets allow you to customize your filter media, so you can add extra biological media for heavily stocked tanks, chemical media for low nutrient levels, peat moss for amazon tanks, the possibilities are endless.  These filters are quiet, energy efficient, and easy to set up.

ProFlex Model 1For the more advanced aquarist, especially the reef enthusiasts, the filtration system of choice is the Wet/Dry or Sump type of filtration system.  Ultimate flexibility, and high performance, are the key features of the these filters, and they are probably the most diverse of the filtration types, in terms of form and function.  My choice here is the relatively new Aqueon ProFlex filter system, mostly because of its 3 in 1, modular design.  With the ability to be used as a traditional Wet/Dry or Refugium, or Berlin style Sump, the filter has the ability to perform many functions as your needs change. If you want to convert your freshwater system to saltwater, your fish tank to a reef tank, or anywhere in between.  The Aqueon ProFlex can be whatever you need!

I hope that this helps guide you towards the filter you are looking for,

Until next blog,

Dave

Adding a Personal Touch to Your Aquarium Décor

Hey, Eileen here. Ever have a certain look or item in mind for your home or wardrobe or aquarium, and were not able to find just what you wanted? Ever decide to just make it instead? Despite the huge selection of aquarium ornaments on the market today, this DIY approach is what many aquarists are beginning to turn to when the ornaments in the stores just aren’t personal enough for their own unique tanks. So, how can you get in on the action to make your tank truly your own? Here are a few tips to making your own aquarium ornaments or using non-aquarium items to personalize your aquarium.

Silicone Sealant is Your Friend

Custom Slate BackgroundSilicone aquarium sealant can be found in almost any fish store and is usually available in clear or black. Sealants designed for aquariums are safe for fish and aquarium tankmates when fully cured, but stay away from other sealants like those used for bathroom or hardware applications. You can use sealants to make caves from pieces of rock or rubble, glue shells, stones or other decorations together, or even to cover things like PVC or plastic “caves” with substrate or rocks to form a more natural-looking hideaway.  Note: The tank in these photos has a custom background created by arranging and attaching layered slate with black silicone.  The effect of the rock wall is rather permanent, but impressive as it adds dimension.  This background was applied before the tank was set-up.

Think Outside the Box

Most rigid plastic toys, ornaments and figurines are safe for aquariums as long as they are not painted and do not have any sticker decals on them. Make sure the object is well-cleaned and any stickers or adhesives are completely removed. If you aren’t sure if it is painted or printed, try soaking it in water for awhile, then try to scrape the color off with your fingernail. If it comes off, it isn’t safe for your aquarium. You’ll also want to make sure any small pieces are removed or firmly attached with an adhesive like silicone sealants, and make sure nothing is small enough for your fish to eat.

A lot of ceramics and pottery like coffee mugs and flower pots are generally safe for aquariums, too. This is a great way to get your companies logo in that aquarium you have set up in the lobby! If a mug or plate or bowl is safe for food use, you can generally use it in your aquarium. Decorative pots that are only partially glazed or have fragile artistic glazes are not safe enough for aquariums. To see if an object will last in your aquarium, you can soak it for a few weeks in water that is the same conditions as your aquarium (or better yet, is at the extremes of your aquarium as far as temperature and pH). If it is unchanged in color, texture and strength at the end of a couple months, it should be safe to use as a decoration. Completely unglazed terracotta pottery is also perfectly suitable for aquariums.  These items can make excellent caves and breeding shelters for fish like cichlids and gobies.

Some of the only artifacts leftover from ancient shipwrecks are pottery and glassware. It may look different and become completely encrusted with corals or algaes – especially in saltwater aquariums, a problem all of these ornament ideas – but glass is very durable (which is probably why most aquariums are made from it as well).  Decorative glass bottles can be found in craft and antique stores and even very well-cleaned beer, wine and condiment bottles can be made into aquarium décor! As with the other materials listed, you’ll want to make sure there are no labels or adhesives left on the glass or bottles you decide to use and the glass should not be painted – if the glass is colored, make sure it is the glass itself that is colored, not a glaze or paint over it. You can also fill a light-colored bottle with small objects, ornaments, beads or substrates and seal the top closed to form a decorative glass “bubble” within your tank.

Cues from Nature: the Good and the Bad

Using natural items can be good and bad. In general, avoid the temptation to use something you’ve picked up off the ground since it is difficult to tell what chemicals orforeign substances may have leeched into it. Things like seashells and coral skeletons that can be cleaned VERY, VERY thoroughly in very hot water are usually safe, but avoid organic matter like starfish or wood that can decompose when put back into the water of your aquarium. Wood ornaments created for aquariums are usually safe for freshwater aquariums since they’ve already been cleaned and treated, but wood from the forest behind your house or that you’ve found at the shore is usually not a good addition to a home aquarium. If you aren’t sure if an object like a shell will affect your water quality if it is submerged, soak it in water with similar conditions to your tank and monitor the changes in color, smell, and chemistry of the water over a few weeks.  Most shells are not suitable for freshwater aquariums except african cichlid or brackish set-ups, as they may raise your pH.

The Don’ts and Disclaimers

Of course, there are always disclaimers. These tips are just to give you an idea and starting point for your own creativity.  Always make sure any non-aquarium ornaments you re-purpose for your aquarium are very clean and are safe for your fish, inverts and water chemistry before adding them to your aquarium, especially in extreme aquarium conditions like saltwater aquarium, low pH/acidic aquariums, high temperatures and sensitive or very aggressive animals. Make sure all objects are free from chemicals and sharp edges are sanded down or covered with silicone to avoid injuries to yourself or your aquarium residents. When in doubt, feel free to ask and we’ll be happy to help you figure out if your new decorating idea is a safe one!

These are just a few ideas. Be creative and let your personality shine through into your aquarium.  And, don’t forget to show us the pictures of your new, unique aquarium!

 

 

Visit the next blog in this DIY series, "Aquarium Decoration Ideas - Fish Bowl Designs & DIY" for more tips, tricks, examples and ideas!

Visit the next blog in this DIY series, “Aquarium Decoration Ideas – Fish Bowl Designs & DIY” for more tips, tricks, examples and ideas!

Part 3: More Decoration DIY: Materials and Aquarium Suitability

Read even more in Part 3 of our DIY series, “More Decoration DIY: Materials and Aquarium Suitability”!