4 Important Tips for a Successful Aquascape - Part 1
Video in Cantonese with Malay subtitle
We all want a healthy and beautiful aquascape but unfortunately many of us will stumble into failure. Let's face it, aquascaping is not easy but the rewards make it worth it. If you're having no luck with your aquascape despite all the necessary equipment and proper maintenance, here are some tips that might help you out.
Each life is built to live in a certain temperature range, therefore if the temperature gets too low or too high, that will affect the survivability rate. For instance, a polar bear will never survive in a warm climate while a desert tortoise will die in a cold place. Ideally, 23-26ºC is preferred by most aquascape plants. 27ºC is still alright, but 28ºC is considered a risk.
So how do we achieve said temperature? As we all know, here in Malaysia our temperature is usually above 28ºC so you have 2 options.
The first option is to use a cooling fan. The cooling fan doesn't really reduce the temperature; similar to our ceiling fans, they work by blowing away our body heat only. But in aquascaping, we can use the fan to induce rapid water evaporation. During evaporation, the temperature will drop. By encouraging rapid water evaporation, we can further drop the water temperature in our aquarium. But such a system can't be utilized in an aquarium with a closed top. This is because when the evaporation and condensation rate reach an equilibrium, no further evaporation can occur.
The second option is to use a water chiller. However, water chillers may not be suitable in a nano tank due to its size and cost.
Plants require light for the photosynthesis process to produce food for themselves, but not all lights are suitable for use in an aquascape aquarium. First, your aquarium light must be bright enough to supply light for the plants’ photosynthesis process. Our human eyes can't really accurately tell the brightness of a light if it's not compared to another light source. That is because our eye's pupil constantly changes in size to make sure that we get just enough light as possible to see well.
But it’s not just about the brightness. The type of light wavelength also has to be right. Plants adsorb certain colors and light wavelength better. This was not a problem when fluorescent lights were used for aquarium lights. But as it is the age of LEDs now, getting the right light wavelengths for the aquascape has become an issue. This is because unlike fluorescent light which produces a more even spectrum of light, light from full spectrum LEDs normally lacks in certain wavelengths while emitting more of others.
What is spectrum and wavelength?
(You can choose to skip this part as it doesn't really matter much for aquascaping but if you're interested, you can continue reading below.)
In short, the white light that you see is called full spectrum light, it is a light whose spectrum closely mimics that of natural daylight. It can be white with little bit of yellow or white with some what blue hue to it. The shift in color is due to the differences in color temperatures, and the light wavelength is the factor that causes that change. Each color that exists in the full spectrum of visible light has its own wavelength. The unit to measure wavelengths of visible light is nanometer (nm). Our human eye will respond to wavelengths from about 380nm - 700nm. This visible spectrum shifts from violet in the lowest wavelength to blue, cyan, green, yellow, orange, and red in the highest wavelength.
The most effective light wavelengths to be used by plants for photosynthesis are 450nm, 600nm and 640nm. Basically, that refers to blue, orange red, and red. As you can see, the wavelengths for green are not used, and therefore those wavelengths are reflected and that explains why most leaves appear green in color
Most full spectrum LEDs contain high amount of green lights and are somewhat lacking in blue or red wavelengths, depending on whether it's warm or cool daylight. This means that if you're using full spectrum LEDs for your aquascape, you're essentially shining a lot of light that is not going to be absorbed by your plants. Algae, that grows regardless of wavelength, benefits from this and you will end up with slow-growing plants and an algae infestation.
Algae and plants are constantly competing in an aquascape. The more robust algae will always have the advantage, in addition to that, most of the plants used in aquascapes are actually terrestrial plants (plants that grows on, in, or from land). So this is why we have to create the most ideal conditions for the plants to overtake the growth of algae.
So, how can we tell which aquascape lights are good and which are not? To be honest, it isn’t so straightforward. You can measure the amount of light produced for photosynthesis with a PAR (Photosynthesis Active Radiation) meter but they are expensive. They usually cost more than RM1000 a unit and it's not even water resistant. Even if you find a light that produces a high PAR value, it can be hard to determine the quality of the LED light itself. A good quality one can last for 5 years while a poorer quality LED light would reduce in brightness within a year of usage. A good quality LED that doesn't have good heat control will also effect its lifespan. This poses as a problem because we can’t immediately tell with our naked eyes if a particular light has decreased in its brightness unless we compare it side by side to a new one.
The good news is that even without a PAR meter, there are a few methods that we can use to try to judge if a particular light is good or not:
Carbon dioxide or CO2 is part of the macronutrients that is needed for plants to grow. CO2 is absorbed during photosynthesis and carbon is extracted to convert into carbohydrates aka food for your plants. Because most, if not all, plants used in aquascapes are actually terrestrial plants, they need higher than normal CO2 saturation levels in the water to survive.
There are several products in the market that claim to provide CO2 for aquatic plants such as liquid CO2 and CO2 tablets but unfortunately none of them will work in an aquascape. The only 2 effective methods of introducing enough CO2 for aquascapes are:
- CO2 injection with the slow release of CO2 gas stored in a high-pressured cylinder into a diffuser, or
- CO2 production by feeding yeast with sugar and releasing them slowly in the aquarium.
This is because we actually need to maintain a 20-35mg/l of CO2 saturation in the water in order for aquascape plants to be able to make use of them. To do this, we need to slowly and constantly diffuse the gas into the aquarium. Over saturated gas will be naturally released back into the air, so that’s why CO2 saturation in the water is a constant process.
So how do we know if we have the proper CO2 saturation in the aquarium? We can use a drop checker or a CO2 tester. A drop checker will collect and read the pH of gas that is released from the water and since CO2 is acidic it is able to interpret if you have enough CO2 in your aquarium. A CO2 tester will measure the amount of CO2 that is in your water and give you a proper value of dissolved CO2.
The advantage of a drop checker is that once it's set up in your tank it will constantly tell you if you have enough CO2 in your tank for several months. The downside is that it can't give you an exact value of the CO2 levels. A tester’s advantage is that it can give you proper reading of dissolved CO2 in mg/l, but the downside is that you have to collect a water sample each time you want to know the value. Usually I like to use both by using a drop checker for constant monitoring, and a tester once a month to check, just in case.
It is VERY important to maintain the macronutrients for aquatic plants at their proper and ideal values to have a successful aquascape. So that’s why my next article will be dedicated to micro and macro nutrients, with a large focus on macronutrients.