Getting back in the habit

So, in the past couple weeks, with prodding from the wife, I’ve gotten back into a highly addictive and potentially expensive habit. It’s one that requires specialized lighting, heating, and fertilizers, but probably not what some may be thinking. No worries about DEA raids, RICO seizures, or failed random drug tests here, the habit is…

Fish keeping. With live plants. In a 150 gallon aquarium.

I first got into the hobby several years ago, when Cathy brought home a small aquarium and fish she’d been keeping at work. It soon grew from that first 5 gallons to a 10 gallon tank, then a 29 gallon one, then the 10 *and* 29, then finally 2 29 gallon tanks.

Somewhere along the way, fairly early on, I decided that we needed something other than the plastic plants we were using. So we started replacing all the plastic with live plants. At that point, we started replacing the tiny under powered single-tube lighting with more and more fluorescent lights, until the 29s were maxed out at 4 24″ (well, really 20″, if I remember correctly) tubes.

This provided at least a minimum amount of light to allow plants to grow, and some to even flourish. The addition of more fish, aquatic fertilizers, carbon dioxide (both in liquid additive and yeast fermentation forms), etc just made the addiction worse.

When we moved from our apartment to a house, we got. 150 gallon tank, to consolidate both of the 29 gallon ones we’d been keeping. Unfortunately, the lighting levels weren’t the best, and as time went on, aquarium maintenance started to slip from every week to every few, to once a month, and beyond. Compounding the problem, the 150 gallon was in the basement, which still doesn’t qualify as a “living area”, because we were worried that approximately 1500 pounds in a 4 ft by 2 ft area would cause problems on the main level.

Since we’ve had a dog for over a year now, we’ve been passing through the basement on our way to the back yard for “potty time” (dogs, kids, apparently it’s common to use the same euphemisms for things…), and I’d gotten really good at ignoring the tank sitting against the wall.

After regular prompting for a few months, however, we finally found the time one weekend to perform a much-needed water change and filter cleaning. We’d lost some fish and all the plants, but enough fish survived to guilt us into getting back into the maintenance habit again.

At this point, we’ve mostly fought off a blue-green algae infestation (brought on by an overabundance of nutrients and poor lighting), cleaned up an embarrassingly-thick layer of mulm (a nice term for fish food, fish poop, and…dead fish & plants), and mostly have what’s left of the tank under control. We’re planning to restock in the near future, building up schools of fish around the current survivors. I’d also like to take the time to get a sufficient amount of lighting in place to make the place viable for a range of plants.

Why plants? Because most of the “waste” in an aquarium can be used by plants, keeping the water cleaner, which keeps the fish happy. That, and live plants just *look* better, providing homes and hiding places for various aquarium fauna, as well as some supplemental food. I’d also like to introduce Malaysian Trumpet Snails to the tank, which will act as scavengers while leaving the living plants alone, as well as burrow through the gravel, to keep that healthy.

Going forward, some of the challenges I see are;
1. Maintaining the current weekly water changes and other routine maintenance, which has obviously been a problem
2. Slowly increasing the fish population, to avoid overloading the current biological filter (bacteria that convert poisonous ammonia into poisonous nitrite, and other bacteria that convert the nitrite into much less harmful nitrate)
3. Getting enough lighting into the tank to make plant growth possible, without turning the tank into a bubbleless hot tub
4. Finding and arranging plants to soak up nitrates and all the other by-products of keeping live fish that can tolerate the likely low light levels (1 watt/gallon is “low”, 2 wpg is “medium”ish, 3-4 wpg is “high”…that’s 150W, 300W, and 450W-600W, respectively, with a 4 foot fluorescent tube putting out about 40W)

Something tells me this is going to get expensive, especially when you start to factor in items like a carbon dioxide injector (for the plants), heaters & chillers (to maintain a constant water temperature), additional fish food variety, and liquid fertilizer for the plants. Then again, I’ve managed to do this on a smaller scale already, so hopefully I can use that experience.

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