Simple Maintenance Routine for Low-Tech Planted Aquariums

Low-tech doesn’t mean low-care. A consistent maintenance routine is important for the health of your plants and fish. In this article, we will share a simple and effective routine you can apply for maintaining your low-tech aquarium.

Weekly maintenanceMonthly maintenance
✔ 20-30% water change
✔ Liquid fertilizers to 20ppm nitrate
✔ Root tab fertilization
✔ Remove algae
✔ Clean your filter
✔ Trim and propagate plants

Weekly low-tech tank maintenance

We recommend performing a small maintenance to your low-tech tank once per week.

You can likely get away with doing maintenance every 1.5-2 weeks once your tank is established. However, we find that once-per-week is easier to remember, is more likely to become a habit, and will allow you to nip issues in the bud before they escalate into bigger problems.

Here is how we maintain our low-tech tanks each Saturday.

Perform a 20-30% water change

Using your aquarium syphon and a 5-gallon bucket, syphon out 20-30% of your tank’s water. While doing this, carefully vacuum the substrate to remove any loose debris.

Water change syphon

We recommend doing a larger water change percentage if your tank is less than 20-gallons – perhaps a 30% volume. Smaller tanks will accumulate waste concentrations more quickly.

Therefore, a slightly larger water change will allow you to lower the concentration of waste more effectively.

Replace with conditioned and clean water of the same temperature

After your siphon out the dirty water, take note of how much water you removed. We draw lines on the outside of our 5-gallon bucket to help us with this.

These lines are on the outside of the bucket to help us see the water volume

Also, note the temperature of the tank’s water. We personally use a laser water thermometer. But you can simply refer to the temperature on your aquarium’s water heater.

The laser thermometer we use during water changes

It is important that the water we add back into the tank is the same temperature to prevent shock to our fish. We like to keep it within 0.5 degrees Fahrenheit.

We then dump the dirty tank water down our sink or bathtub and rinse the siphon and bucket with clean tap water.

Next, we run the tap or bathtub water until the temperature matches our aquarium’s temperature. This is where the laser thermometer comes in handy.

Once the temperature is right, we simply fill the bucket up to the volume that we removed.

Actually, we suggest filling it a little above that mark because there is often a little evaporation that occurs in your tank over time. So you will likely want to add a little more water back in than you removed.

Make sure you add your water conditioner to your bucket of clean tap water now before adding to your tank. This will remove chlorine and heavy metals present in your local water source.

Seachem Prime

When pouring the water back into the tank, we like to either pour over a colander or over top of a sponge filter. This prevents the water from creating a crater in your substrate, which usually stirs up additional debris you were unable to syphon from before.

Pour water onto something, such as your hand, plate or colander

Fertilizer dosing schedule

Each week we also dose liquid fertilizers to provide plant nutrition. We also occasionally add root tabs as well.

Aquatic plants requires a variety of macro and micronutrients. These nutrients are present in some active substrates, such as ADA Amazonia or Fluval Stratum.

Each plant species requires nutrients in varying amounts, and may demand more of a particular nutrient than others. As a result, professional aquascapers may choose to individually dose each nutrient to specific levels.

But for most planted tanks, especially low-tech tanks, an all-in-one fertilizer will be more than sufficient to promote healthy plant growth.

Here is what we recommend:

Root tabs

Root tabs are dissolvable capsules or tablets that are buried beneath the substrate. This method of fertilization provides nutrition in close proximity to the roots.

This is especially useful for heavy root-feeding plants, such as cryptocorynes and amazon swords.

We recommend adding new root tabs every 3-5 weeks in low-tech tanks. Your frequency will depending on whether or not you’re using an active substrate and which plants you are trying to grow.

Aquarium Co-op root tabs

You may not need to use root tabs at all if you are using an aqua soil substrate and your tank is less than a year old. This is because your substrate will already provide sufficient nutrients to your plants.

You may also not require root tabs if you’re only growing floating plants, ephiphyte species or other water-column feeders. These plants absorb most of their nutrients from the water and not the substrate.

We do recommend the 3-5 week schedule if you’re using an inert substrate and are growing root-feeding plants.

Liquid fertilizers

We recommend dosing liquid all-in-one fertilizers each time you perform a water change. As a general guideline, try maintaining 20ppm of nitrates.

Meaning, if you perform a 30% water change each week, that means that you are lowering the concentration of nitrates by 30% as well.

So we recommend experimenting with how much of your liquid all-in-one fertilizer you need to add to bump your nitrate level back up to 20ppm.

For example, in our 10-gallon low-tech tank, we perform a 30% weekly water change, which brings the nitrate concentration to around 10-15ppm.

We then add 1ml of Thrive all-in-one liquid fertilizer, which increases the nitrate level back up to approximately 20ppm.

Thrive all-in-one liquid fertilizer

We use the API Freshwater Master Test Kit, which measures nitrate in increments of 0, 5, 10, 20, 40, 80 and 160 parts-per-million (ppm).

As you’ll notice, the nitrate scale is not particularly precise. Nor are the colors very different from each other. This makes it challenging to discern between 10, 20 and 40ppm.

API water kit chart

Our goal isn’t to exactly hit 20ppm. As long as we’re in that ballpark we’re happy.

In our experience, maintaining this concentration seems to be the sweet spot for our low-tech aquarium plants.

Monthly low-tech tank maintenance

Each month we extend our weekly maintenance session and perform a few extra maintenance tasks. These tasks are not necessary to do every week but are good practice to do at least once per month.

Scrape algae of your glass and hardscape

First of all, we recommend using an algae scraper to scrape algae off your aquarium glass, rocks and other decorations. We also find that using a sponge is often more effective for most surfaces.

Just make sure it’s a clean sponge that hasn’t been used for anything else.

You could also try using a clean, unused toothbrush as well.

A sponge works great for cleaning tough algae off surfaces

What we like to do is remove some of the water from the tank first. This will allow you to submerge your arm and scrape surfaces back and forth without the water splashing out.

But we suggest keeping some of the water that you planned on water changing out. That way you can siphon out the algae you just scraped off.

For example, if you plan on doing a 30% water change, start by removing 10%. Then remove the algae, and finish removing then 20% of the water afterwards, being sure to syphon the algae that was scraped off.

Cleaning the filter

How to clean sponge filters

To clean a sponge filter, simply disconnect the air stone from the sponge. The air stone can remain in the tank.

Next, thoroughly squeeze and rinse the sponge in water that was siphoned out of our tank during the water change.

The reason we don’t clean it in fresh tap water is because the chlorine will kill of any beneficial bacteria colonies that have built up in your sponge. All of the holes in a sponge gives it a ton of surface area for bacteria to grow.

If you have artificial tank decorations, we recommend cleaning them on a different week than your sponge filter to lower the risk of killing off too much beneficial bacteria at once.

How to clean hang-on-the-back filters

If you have a mechanical filter cartridge, you can consider rinsing it the same way we suggest rinsing a sponge filter – in the dechlorinated water that you just siphoned out of your tank.

However, these cartridges often need to be replaced every month or so.

If you have a sponge filter inside your hang-on-the-back box, rinse it the same as above.

Activated carbon should be replaced every month or so as well. Although we recommend only using carbon if you’re trying to removed medication from your water.

Plant trimming and propagation

Once per month is a great frequency for trimming down and propagating your plants. Your plants may not be bursting out of your tank after one month of growth, but they may still benefit from a trim.

When you trim your plants, they often grow back more lush and full. This is an easy trick for improving the look of your aquarium’s plant life.

For most plants, you can replant the trimmed pieces and they will grow into a new plant of their own – this is called propagation.

In order to maintain a healthy ecosystem, it’s important that your plants continue growing. This means that it is important to trim over-grown plants.

Otherwise, they may block the light that allows other plants to grow.

How frequently do you need to maintain your low-tech tank?

It is beneficial for you to more frequently maintain your aquarium when you are first setting it up. This will allow you to control pesky algae blooms and ensure your plants get a healthy start.

The first 3-4 weeks may require 2-3 times as much maintenance than normal.

What we do is simply perform our weekly water change routine, but bump up the frequency to 2-3 times per week initially.

You can bump back down to once-per-week once your tank has established a biological filter and you have learned how much fertilization and light intensity is ideal for your tank size.

Why it is important to maintain your aquarium

Removing nitrates

The main function of water changes is to remove the excess build up of nitrates, which occur naturally as nitrifying bacteria convert ammonia into nitrite, and then into nitrate.

Nitrates can be naturally removed through a denitrification process via anaerobic bacteria. These are a special type of bacteria that colonize in environments with low or not oxygen, such as beneath 2-3 inches of compact substrate.

In most aquariums, this denitrifying bacteria is unable to colonize because the substrate is not deep enough. Therefore, we must perform water changes to remove the nitrates ourselves.

How beneficial bacteria convert ammonia into nitrate

Fish waste, uneaten fish food and decaying plant materials create ammonia. This is toxic to our fish in small concentrations (0.25ppm or higher).

A beneficial bacteria, called nitrosonomas, grows in our aquariums naturally abd oxidizes ammonia into nitrite. In other words, it causes the ammonia to lose an electron and converts it into a different compound (nitrite), that is also toxic to fish in small concentrations (0.25ppm or higher).

Another beneficial bacteria, called nitrobacter, then oxidizes nitrite into nitrate. Fish can tolerate much higher concentrations of nitrate before it becomes harmful (40ppm or higher).

Providing nutrition to your plants

Part of our routine planted tank maintenance involves dosing macro and micronutrients to our plants. This comes in the form of liquid all-in-one fertilizers or root tabs.

Liquid fertilizers add nutrients to our tank’s water column, such as nitrogen, magnesium, manganese, potassium and other nutrients.

These nutrients are used in the process of photosynthesis and other functions to support plant growth.

Plant macronutrients and micronutrients
Plant macronutrients and micronutrients

Root tabs provide many of the same nutrients. The main difference is that they are buried underneath the substrate, which provides better access for plants that take up nutrients primarily via their root systems.

We call these plants “root feeders.”

In low-tech planted tanks, it’s beneficial to replenish these nutrients at least once per week as part of our routine maintenance.

Cleaning the substrate

Cleaning substrate is an important part of maintaining a healthy aquarium.

Over time, fish waste and decaying plant material will accumulate within your substrate. These materials will break down and release ammonia into the water column, which is toxic to fish in small concentrations.

If your tank is cycled then you should have enough beneficial bacteria to convert this toxic ammonia into a less-toxic nitrate.

However, this process doesn’t happen instantly. So an unmaintained tank may create ammonia spikes in higher concentrations than your biological filter can process quickly.

Do you need to vacuum substrate if you have live plants?

Some people may argue that gravel vacuuming will damage plant roots. This is true if you’re shoving your gravel vacuum into the substrate to clean it.

If you have plants, you can vacuum by simply hovering the syphon just above the substrate surface. This will allow you to to generate enough suction to remove surface-level waste without damaging root structures.

Maintaining your filter

Over time, our tank’s mechanical filter will accumulate waste and debris. This debris needs to be removed manually on occasion so it can continue functioning properly.

The consequence of not cleaning our mechanical filter is that it will become clogged and will be unable to capture debris. This debris will accumulate in our tank.

Preventing disease

The bottom line is hat a consistent maintenance routine will create a heathier environment for our fish to live in. A clean tank with clean water will allow our fish to live longer, happier lives.

Tips for reducing your aquarium maintenance

In addition to your weekly and monthly maintenance routines, we have a few extra tips for making your maintenance a little easier.

Buy a larger tank

Larger tanks are generally easier to maintain, which may seem counter-intuitive. The reason for this is because the concentration of waste build up is usually much slower.

10 units of waste in a 10-gallon tank will be twice as concentrated as 10-units of waste in a 20-gallon tank.

Add an clean-up crew

It might be beneficial for you to add algae-easting critters, such as plecos, shrimp or snails. Just make sure your water parameters are ideal for the species you choose.

These species will pick away at your algae all days.

Put your lights on a timer

Many low-tech balancing issues, such as algae blooms, are caused by imbalances among nutrients, lighting and carbon dioxide.

In low-tech tanks, we have little control over the amount of carbon-dioxide present in our water. And nutrients are usually fairly easy to dose accurately.

This leaves lighting:

Medium-intensity HICREW lighting in our 20-gallon

It’s not uncommon for fishkeepers to keeps lights on for too long and at too high of an intensity. Let’s be honest, it makes our tanks look better!

But excess light will quickly allow opportunistic algae to wreak havoc on your ecosystem. That’s why we recommend buying a light timer that automatically turns your lights on and off each day, at a set duration.

Under-stock your aquarium

Many problems are caused by adding too many fish to your aquarium. Under-stocking, or adding fewer fish than your aquarium can handle, will make happier fish and may slightly reduce the need for frequent tank maintenance.

Build a deep substrate tank

A substrate that is 3-inches or deeper will create anaerobic conditions. This means there will be pockets where there is little to no oxygen.

This is where a unique type of denitrifying bacteria can grow. These bacterial colonies take nitrate and convert it into nitrogen gas which is then released through the surface of your tank.

Remember, one of the main reasons water changes are necessary is to remove the build up of excess nitrate. So if we can cultivate anaerobic denitrifying bacteria, we can create an ecosystem that requires less maintenance.

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