Ask any experienced aquascaper what they’d suggest to create a stable, vibrant tank, and you’ll likely get a thousand different answers, ranging from super-specific “dose X dry chemical at Y concentration, then dose Z…”, to the generic “water changes are important” type response.
But all the recommendations can be reduced down to a few simple, proven principles that can be added to your routine without much effort. These are principles I’ve practiced for years, and have given me great success with various tanks. Here they are, in no particular order:
Swap to RODI water as soon as possible
I can’t emphasize how drastically this changed my tank’s maintenance requirements and appearance. Predictable water parameters makes troubleshooting and investigation so much easier.
If you use tap water, humor me and measure the TDS of the new water you put in your tank for the next few water changes. If your water is like most public water systems in the United States, it’s going to fluctuate by 50ppm or so.
For humans, that’s completely fine; whatever’s being added/removed (remember, TDS might as well be short for Total Dissolved Somethings) isn’t going to cause issues.
For an aquarium, that’s 50ppm of something—you have no idea — that you’re putting in your tank with every single water change.
With RODI water all those problems go away.
For example, I know—100% — that after remineralizing my RODI water the total TDS is 171ppm. I can essentially tell when I need to do a water change based on the TDS value — it rarely gets above 200ppm, since I do water changes 3 times a week.
Again, I can’t overstate how effective this is for tanks. Is it hard? Initially, yes. A maintenance routine turns it into something you can do in 5 minutes or less.
This is the #1 most effective principle to stable, vibrant tanks.
It also makes the next principle into an easy routine, instead of a tri-weekly headache:
30% water changes, 3 times per week
No matter how often I tell people this, I always have a large portion of listeners dismiss me immediately over this principle, saying that ‘nobody has time for that’, or ‘that’s a waste of effort; you don’t need to change water that much’.
I counter with this question: how much time (and money) do you spend fighting or preventing algae and poor growth — scrubbing, cleaning, researching? What if that time just… went away?
That can happen, and (barring significant error in your tank) it’ll drastically reduce or eliminate algae and growth issues. When it comes to aquatic plants and preventing algae, nothing beats consistent, predictable water.
Changing water on this schedule makes it very, very hard for algae to take hold, since any spores released into the water (or caught from the air) are soon removed by a water change. Meanwhile, your plants are getting consistent water parameters and constant fert doses, which results in stronger growth… which uses more of the available fertilizer in the water.
It’s a one-two punch: it’s harder for algae to grow, and easier for plants to push vigorous growth.
Don’t miss that point from the paragraph above — consistent water parameters is a key point to plant growth. When water parameters significantly change, they need to acclimate their processes to the new conditions, and that takes energy away from visible growth.
Enough fertilizer to thrive, but no more
In my experience, the most common mistake beginners make is over-fertilization, which makes for a very sensitive tank. Even a little extra light (such as ambient light from a sunny room) can disrupt the tank’s nutrient/light balance and cause an algae bloom.
The Estimative Index method is notorious for causing this, and that’s why I caution beginners that use the EI method that they should really stick to the water change schedule, because that’s critical to ensuring there’s no buildup of nutrients and reducing the likelihood of algae blooms.
When finding the right dose for your tank, it’s always easier to start lower and incrementally increase the dosage than to start with a larger dose and constantly fight/clean large algae blooms. While under fertilization can cause algae (by not allowing plants to efficiently use the available nutrients and outcompete algae), over*-*fertilization causes much larger algae issues, and can cause them within hours.
When I’m testing a new fertilizer, I usually start with the lowest reasonable dose. You can use tools like Rotala Butterfly’s Fertilization Calculator to find what that reasonable dose actually is.
In terms of which product to use, these days I mostly stick with Tropica Specialized, since I rarely have fauna in my tanks.
Plant heavy, right from the beginning.
Another common mistake (even from moderately-experienced aquascapers) is a desire to ‘save money’ by planting less in the initial setup.
This is a critical mistake, exactly because of the previous principle—
Fewer plants use less nutrients, leaving them in the water for algae to use.
Order (and plant) as many specimens as you reasonably can right at the very beginning of a build. That gives you the best conditions to create a thriving tank environment where algae never has the chance to occur.
But what if you can’t afford enough plants in the species that you want to use? A reasonable problem; some rare plants can be quite expensive for those with smaller budgets.
Drop in a fast-growing plant (floaters are a great choice here) to ‘suck up’ the nutrients that aren’t used by your other plants. (Note: this can hinder the growth of your desired species, if they’re not able to utilize the nutrients fast enough.)
Having a large plant load in your build also introduces a ‘forgiveness’ to your tank. It will be very hard for nitrates to build up in a heavily-planted (and reasonably healthy) tank. A stray bit of sunlight in the afternoons isn’t necessarily the end of the world (particularly if you follow the earlier principle of “enough to thrive, but no more”).
What are your ‘must-follow’ principles for healthy tanks?
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