How much time does it take to do the maintenance of a planted tank?
It is without a question that all beginning aquascapers just love the impression of a beautifully scaped Nature Aquarium. The underwater world will undoubtedly enchant all of us. This is something that we experience every day - by just looking at our customers in the Green Aqua Gallery.
It is a pleasure for most advanced aquascapers to spend a certain time and energy on maintenance. It's not a burden, but a pleasure that helps them break away from their everyday activities, something that will give them a positive charge. This active and energizing psychological process that will result in enjoyment for the one who performs it is called "flow". The concept is introduced and named by Mihály Csíkszentmihályi - the world-famous Hungarian-born psychologist living in the USA. Beginning aquascapers sometimes express their worry that they will not have the time or energy to regularly maintain their aquarium - besides their family, business and other activities. They often ask us about the about the length of maintenance. We usually give the following answer to this:
Maintenance can take precisely as much time as you wish to spend on your planted tank. Ideally, it will take a minimum of 35-40 and a maximum of 60-90 minutes - weekly. In addition to this, you will need to spend another 2-3 hours every month to do other (less regular) tasks your Nature Aquarium. You will learn, that in order to complete the weekly tasks in 35-40 minutes, you will have to get some things in order, but we will write about these later.
Those hobbyists, who will not have the minimum time for maintenance, or simply do not want to deal with the weekly tasks, still have the choice to enjoy their own underwater world. Green Aqua can do the maintenance for you, or - if you live further away from our headquarters - we can assist in finding and educating the right professionals to do the job for us. Our colleagues are mostly performing weekly regular maintenances at our clients. Some bigger, more stable aquariums can even be maintained every second week (the Green Aqua team would not recommend that though). We even have know a few who are not doing any maintenance at all on their older tanks - they just refill the evaporated water and enjoying their aquariums for years. Their story proves that there are so many possible ways to operate a stable aquarium - but we would strongly discourage beginning hobbyists to try this at home... It is very hard to provide ideal circumstances to your fish and plants in low-maintenance aquariums. Chances are that your livestock will suffer or die and algae will cover everything.
So how should I build my aquarium to be quickly maintainable?
Best case scenario is when all of the below requirements are met:
1. You have an open-top, rimless aquarium, which makes it easy to you to access it. You do not have to switch off the hanging lights or lights that rest on the side-walls of the aquarium. Just push the latter back towards the rear glass to give you space to move... Never use curved front glass as that is a bit more difficult to maintain. Try to avoid aquariums that are built in a wall if possible. You will start having all kinds of unforeseen problems with those.
2. The top edge of the aquarium should be below armpit height, making the interior easy to reach. It is very tiring to do the maintenance from a step-stool. Trust us, we did that and we hated it...
3. The height of the aquarium glass should not be more than 60 centimeters. You should be able to reach to the soil during setup and maintenance - even at the back of the tank.
4. Water changes should be made with water prepared in advance and using hoses. Never use buckets to change the water, it is a slow method and it is nearly impossible to pour in the new water without stirring up the soil.
6. You possess the proper and efficient, high quality maintenance tools. We have a good idea of how difficult and tiring it will be to trim the plants in a bigger aquarium with low-quality scissors, or how time-consuming it will be to wait for a weaker water pump sitting at the end of a 10-meter flexible hose (in the RO water barrel situated bathroom for example) to fill the aquarium.
7. Use slow-growing plants. Although stem plants can be beautiful and help with the biological equilibrium of the aquarium, they require regular trimming and therefore having them in your tank can be time-consuming. Some faster-growing mosses are also difficult to maintain as they do not float up to the surface and will disperse in the aquarium.
8. Do not overpopulate your aquarium. It will cause excess organic matrial production which will in turn degrade to ammonia and you will fight to keep the algae at bay. (Algae are caused by light and ammonia in the first place.)
How to perform a professional maintenance?
Experienced aquascapers all have their own maintenance routine and "script" to do the weekly water change, cleaning and trimming duties. These are different routines for each of us and we are sharing our own maintenance checklist here. We are always going through the following tasks during maintenance at our customers as well as with the 22 tanks at our own gallery.
1. Inspection and surveying general tank condition. Let's just stop for 1 or 2 minutes in front of the aquarium and plan the maintenance tasks in advance. Look at how much water has evaporated in a week, check the bubble count of the CO2, the color of the drop checker, the flow-strength of the filter, the cleanness of the filter hoses and lily pipes, the condition of the aquarium glass, the proper functioning of all other equipment (UV filter, heater, chiller, fertilizer or fish food dosing units, skimmer, Twinstar sterilizer, air pumps, etc.). Observe at the movement of the fish, the condition of aquatic plants and their growth rate, the condition and situation of our hardscape, the cleanness of the decoration sand and other substrate. We usually make a high-quality full-shot picture of the conditions before and after the maintenance for all the tanks we lay our hands on. We use these images for later reference. It really helps evaluate things in the long run.
2. Prepare the maintenance tools and hoses. If you are using RO water, make sure you have enough clean water in the barrel to complete the water change.
3. Unplug all equipment from the electrical outlet - with the exception of the light. It is advisable to connect all equipment in such a way that a simple push of a central button will switch off the electrical current. Try to avoid stopping the external filter for more than 40 minutes - the absolute maximum allowed is 90 minutes. It is good to know that in order to keep the valuable nitrifying bacteria alive in the filter, you need to drain it and leave the wet filter media in contact with the air for the duration of the maintenance (or photo shoot for example).
4. Glass cleaning. Use an algae scraper with a blade. The blade will not stretch for the whole length of the scraper, so you will need to use it at a sideways angle to be able to clean the glass along the edges - close to the silicone. The cleaning of the aquarium walls has to be done even if you have an apparently algae-free glass. Most of the time you have some kind of barely visible layer of organics on the glass, if you fail to remove that, it will quickly become visible during the week after the maintenance. You can also use cleaning magnets or wipes. Always clean you glass with downwards movements and lift the blade off the glass when you reach the soil. If you fail to do so, some small particles of sand or gravel can be trapped between the blade and the glass and you can scratch your aquarium.
5. Trimming the plants - if necessary. This step is often unnecessary during a routine maintenance - especially with aquariums planted with slow-growing plants or aquariums with less light. Use the draining hose when you trim your mosses (hold the end of the hose in one hand and the scissors in the other hand - close to each other). This method helps remove floating mosses from your tank and prevents them to drift to other places in the aquarium where they can start growing in new colonies. Most other plants (with the exception of some Ferns and Anubias types) will float up to the water surface and you can use a fish net to take them out later. Use curve-type scissors to trim the foreground plants. It is usually enough to trim your plants once-a-month in an aquarium with slow-growing plants. The time needed for this procedure depends heavily on the size of the aquarium and the type of the plants used, as well as accessibility of the different areas in the aquarium (some places can be really difficult to reach - for example below wood or rocks, etc.). As a rule of thumb you can spend between 30 minutes and 2 hours trimming your plants.
6. Cleaning the filter hoses - if necessary (if they are getting brown or green). Close the filter taps. Clean the hoses with a flexible brush and the lily pipes with a special glass-cleaning-brush. Never use a brush suitable for flexible plastic hoses to clean the glass because you will scratch it, or even worse - you will break the lily pipe... We selected these cleaning brushes here for you. Be very careful when you remove the glass filter in- and outlets (lily pipes) from the flexible hoses for maintenance, they can break easily. The flexible hose can be fastened to the edge of the aquarium using straight tweezers - just push one arm of the tweezer inside the hose leaning against the aquarium wall from outside and the other arm should go inside the aquarium. Lift the hose 2-3 cm-s above the edge of the aquarium, then push it gently down together with the tweezers to fasten the hose to the edge of the glass. It will stay there. If the cleaning procedure is done we can open the taps and start the filter again. As the filter hoses will usually remain attached to the filter (you only work at the top of these) the system will not get much air, so the filters will start without a problem. Remember to hold the draining hose (that you use for water change - in "open mode") in front of the filter inlet (lily pipe) just before you let the filter go - it will help to suck out the debris that has remained in the filter or hoses for a couple of seconds, you can then take that water change hose out...
7. Cleaning the filter - if necessary. The bigger the filter is relative to your aquarium the less you will need to maintain it. Generally speaking will need to clean it just when you observe that it is visibly clogged. This will indicate that organic material has set into the filter media and has been attached to the hose interior wall. Close the filter taps, remove the filter-hose adapter from the filter head (or unscrew the double taps), remove the filter-head (by opening the claps on the sides of the filter head careully) and dismount the impeller taking out and carefully cleaning the ceramic impeller shaft (be aware that the axis will break if bended, and make sure that you do not loose the two small rubber ends). Use tap water to clean all moving parts. Take the filter canister full of water to the bathroom, take the filter media compartments out, and pour out the water carefully from the canister. The biological filter media can only be cleaned in aquarium water (the chlorine from the tap water will kill the bacteria and you can loose your effective filtration that you have cycled in weeks - in just minutes). Take one or two buckets of aquarium water and rinse the filter media in that. The sponges (filter pads) can be washed in tap water (they are mechanical filter media, not biological). The fine filter mesh can just be replaced with filter cleaning (it turns brown when used). Buying the spare fine filter pad is not a serious expense. Assemble your filter, connect your hoses, open your taps and you are done, you can restart your filter now. We either use the water-change hose to push in water into the filter or we use the self-priming mechanism of our filters to get them running. Remember: the impeller situated at the top of the filter needs to be under water to be able to work. If it does not have (enough) access to water it will not work...
8. Cleaning the skimmer. Do not forget to clean filter pad of the surface skimmer with every water change. You can clean the foam in tap water.
9. Remove 50% of the aquarium water. Never mind about the hardscape or the actual amount of water inside your tank, just drain it to the half height using a long hose that takes the water to the toilet or bathroom. 30% water change might be enough for bigger fish tanks (larger than 250-300 liters). Making regular water changes is crucial. It has three important functions. A. It will get rid of the excess organic material, helping the external filter cope with the biological filtration and keeping the general biological equilibrium in place. B. It will remove the ammonia that might be present in the water. C. It will remove the excess plant fertilizers from the water and prevents their accumulation in the long run. Do not worry, "aged water" is a myth. Water is in fact H2O that contains plant fertilizers (macro and micro elements) as well as Calcium and Magnesium (elements that will affect water hardness). You will find very few useful bacteria in the water, the bacteria are living in the substrate, filter and on the hardscape. You should therefore not be afraid of changing as much water as you can - if needed - but always check the temperature of the new water. It should match the water temperature in your aquarium. Also note that any change in water parameters (hardness and pH mainly) might have a negative effect on sensitive inhabitants. There is no need to "vacuum the gravel" - this would only damage the fragile ecosystem in the substrate. It is enough to gently move the suction hose a couple of centimeters above the carpeting plants - this would float the organic debris and it can be sucked out easily.
10. Fill the water. Be careful not to stir the gravel with the water jet - it is advisable to restrict the flow with a tap. Do not forget to treat the water with aqua conditioners that will remove the chlorine and heavy metals. Again, make sure that the aquarium water and new water temperatures match. If you are using RO water always let it heat up to room temperature (by waiting for it, or using a heater to reach the desired temperature quicker). Do not forget to raise the water hardness of the water if you are using an RO filter (you might damage the filter bacteria if you apply the new water and forget to raise the GH). You can do this by using water hardness raisers that re-mineralize the water.
11. Cleaning the exterior of the glass. Use paper kitchen towels and spray some window cleaning liquid on them. Apply only on the exterior of the glass, making sure that the chemicals do not reach the water. Clean the inside part of the aquarium glass above the water level with clean paper towels.
12. Restarting the equipment. Switch on the main power supply of all equip,ent and observe the filter. It should start without a problem if you did not clean the filter hoses. Remember to use the drainage-hose to suck out the eventual debris that comes out in the first seconds after you switch the filter on.
13. Re-fertilizing. You will have to use just a little more fertilizers than usual to compensate for removed nutrients during bigger water changes. If you also trimmed your plants you can use fertilizers that will hope them cope with that stress.
14. Final visual check. Look at the equipment... Does everything work as it should? Check your digital timers too. Some brands tend to misbehave after a power shortcut. Make sure that the same level of CO2 (same bubble count) is injected in the aquarium as before the water change. Observe the aquarium, the movement of fish and condition of plants. You are ready.
GREEN AQUA MAINTENANCE
Let the maintenance work be done by professionals. Members of the Green Aqua team will help you do the regular tasks, or help you find somebody with proper skills in your neighborhood who will. We only offer this service for aquariums built by us. We do regular maintenance in Hungary and surrounding countries on a regular basis, or on demand. The maintenance schedule is always customized. We recommend a weekly schedule, but some clients will require these tasks to be done on a case by case basis. The work will not be finished for us after setting up an aquarium.
Precision of execution and importance of communication has always been top priority for Green Aqua. This is the most important thing for us after building beautiful planted tanks: customer relations and reliability.