A step by step diary of a planted tank

by Christoforos Petrides

It has been quite some time since I acquired a great bare top tank which I thought was ideal to turn into a planted tank. I had spent some time setting up my smaller tank, playing around with the plants and experimenting with CO2, lighting with some success. However I would still not consider myself an expert since I had moderate success with the real difficult plants and had to fight with algae many times.

But this time I wanted to go a step further and try a couple of tricks I had seen in books and the net as well as create a specific layout. Since I was going to start from the beginning I thought it would be a good idea to write everything down and also take some photos. In fact I had to construct quite a few things in order to set it up, and since I did not want to spent much money, I had to figure out some DIY solutions as well.

The tank measured 80cm length, 47 cm height and 40 cm wide, a maximum of 150 liters completely filled. There was no top cover on the tank, so a new one had to be constructed, because the tank would not be fitted into a self as it is very common especially in planted aquaria. The top should accommodate all the appropriate lighting, and also cover all the filter hoses and all needed cables so these would not be visible when viewed from the front.

For filtration an Eheim 2213 external canister filter was purchased.The filter is adequate for tanks up to 150 liters. I knew that when mine would be filled with gravel, wood, rocks, plants etc it would be much less than 150 liters. On the other hand it would be a heavily planted tank, without many fish, or with many small fish, in any case a small bioload, so I assumed it would be sufficient.

I already had the equipment to support 2 sets of two fluorescent lamps. 3 18 watt cool whites were selected plus a 15 watt red fluorescent lamp. Still not enough but more lighting will be added later on.

Fine sea gravel, 0,5 mm was selected from a specific beach that was of a very specific dark black and brown coloration. Two were the main reasons to get gravel from nature, the first because of the color, the second that it is cheap (actually free !).

I would use at least two DIY bottles (1,5 lt each) with the yeast-sugar method, and later on try to switch to a proper pressurized CO2 system. CO2 would be inserted in the intake of the external filter hose, so that bubbles would travel a long way until the exit hose and dissolve completely.

Decorative materials
I would only use wood as decorative material in the tank. In fact I was planning to create a layout around a quite large piece of wood, if I could find one. I already had a couple of smaller ones, and had successfully tied Anubias barteri var nana on them.

Building the top

When I first saw the tank, I immediately came up with the idea for the proper cover. But to be on the safe side I first tried with one of my smaller tanks. You can find my previous test in this article which will give you an idea of how to measure glass, how to silicone it together etc. since I don't mention these things here. The cover I built for this tank is much more complex than the small one.

The real benefit of a bare top tank is that it gives the ability to work on the tank very easy. Planting it, or cutting the plants becomes an easy task, compared to the tanks that have fixed tops.

So in order to leave the top completely exposed, it had to be moveable and also carry the lights with it.
Next challenge was that no lighting cable, no filter hose, or thermostat cable should be visible from the side or top of the tank, mainly for aesthetic reasons.
Apart from that since it would hold all the lighting it should also be water proof. In order to avoid extra heat and also make it lighter in weight all necessary ballasts would be outside of the cover…. So how would you move it ? Easy, all you need is a male – female electric connection that you could unplug and then its free to move.

Lets go into details.
I chose 6mm thick glass for the cover which is exactly the same as the glass of the tank. At first I wanted to be on the safe side with quite thick glass that would last any high temperatures produced form the fluorescent lamps, later on I realized that it was not necessary and had I chosen a thinner glass the whole cover would be lighter, and would be easier to lift. But its ok, when you perform water changes you build muscles as well :).

Glass was measured in order to form a “box” and was cut to the proper dimensions. The height of the box was about 7cm, enough to hold any kind of fluorescent lamp, but also the Energy saver bulbs (which are thicker). Glass was stuck together with silicon. The whole idea is that the cover will "sit" on top of the tank since it has the exact dimensions, and should not move sideways in order to avoid any accidents (like the whole cover falling inside the tank).

Here is the tank. You can see the filter hoses as well as the thermostat cable (on the right side) coming out of the tank. We have to cut the bottom glass of the cover shorter than the width of the tank, so that the hoses can go through.
At the same time we will leave the top of the cover in the same width of the tank so it covers the gap that will be left at the rear, so that dust is not falling in the tank. The self adhesive strip on the top part is used for aesthetic reasons.

In the photo on the right you can see the bottom of the cover and the back side. Watch how the bottom glass is shorter than the top, leaving the gap we need for the hoses.

I also made a mistake here. I should have left a small cut in the bottom glass as well, in order to be able to feed the fishes, or add liquid fertilizer. As it is now, I have to struggle and throw fish food from the gap that is left in the back. :(
If I want to add fertilizer I have to lift the entire cover just a bit from one side and squize the bottle in to add a few drops. :(
All it would take was just a diagonal cut in one of the bottom corners.


The lamps are held on the glass by small pieces of self adhesive tape on the cables. Doing this we can move the top without worrying if the lamps move or crash on the sides of the cover.
The photo on the left shows the cut that allows the cables of the lighting system pass through the cover. These are actually two different pieces of glass, which their total length + the width of the gap that is necessary equals the width of the cover.

The two cables that are visible are parts of the plugs that are connected and disconnected at will, with the rest of the cables that lead to the ballasts and the power plug.

When the photos were taken we only had two systems of two fluorescent lamps each. That is why you see only two cables. Later on we added one more Philips energy saver bulb.
In order to fit the cover on the tank and also make sure that it is not possible to move sideways, two pieces of glass were cut and siliconed to the bottom of the cover. They are marked by the number 2 on the photo on the right. Watch the 6mm difference (marked by number 1). This difference allows the cover to sit on top of the tank, while the two pieces of glass fit on the inner side of the tank glass, blocking any kind of accidental movement of the cover.

The top of the cover also opens to an extend, so to be able to work on the lighting system. It is made of two parts, that are siliconed together. Only the front part opens, the rear remains stable. After all the silicone work is over we used a plastic self adhesive sheet with a black and white marble decoration to dress the glass.

(You may find this aesthetically strange but I liked it! In fact the back of the tank is covered with this as well, instead of the plain black background that one usually sees in planted aquaria.)


But enough of covers, lets move on to the real fun part, plants and planting layout !


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