How To Set Up a Low Light Low Tech Planted Tank

Planted tank set up article

  1. Dolfan
    Author: @Dolfan

    Quite often members ask how to set up a low-tech tank or what low light plants would be best. I thought that I would compile a list of a few links that really helped me out when getting into planted tanks. Remember that no one singular source of info is the end all be all, so do your research and double check things.

    First off some basic info....

    What is a low-tech planted tank? - These are tanks with low light and no addition of CO2 injection. They are much easier to care for and a great way to get started with live plants without having all the hassles of a high-tech tank. A low tech tank is perfect for beginner or experts alike. They offer a variety of plants that can be maintained without all the hassles like expensive light fixtures, CO2 injection, strict fertilizer regimes, difficult/tricky plants, to name a few.

    Easy plants -
    What are some good low-light plants to get started with? - Here are a few that I recommend that are easy to find and great for beginners...
    java fern
    java moss
    hornwort
    bacopa
    frogbit
    anacharis
    anubias
    water wisteria
    crypts
    rotala
    subwassertang
    amazon sword

    Here is a longer list from plantetank.net....

    Excellent List of Low Light Plants - The Planted Tank Forum

    Google search for some images and info about each one and pick a few to start with. Fishlore also has a plant profile section that is helpful....

    Aquarium Plant Profiles

    Substrate -
    With low light / low tech tanks any substrate will do. Regular gravel, sand, pool filter sand, special plant substrate, whatever. The special plant substrates like flourolite, eco-complete, etc are nice but an unneeded expense for easy tanks. They will provide some nutrients but eventually run out and need some supplementation. I prefer the regular old gravel route, and add some root tabs if needed. The specialized plant substrates can sometimes complicate things for beginners with ammonia spikes, clouding of the water etc, if not done properly. They can be great, but only needed for a more high tech approach with trickier plants. Easy plants are just that easy, they can grow in anything.

    Lighting -
    Often many ask about their light and is it low, medium, high, and what about watts per gallon, etc. Watts per gallon is an outdated method for estimating light as it doesn't take into account things like depth of tank, height above the water that fixture is mounted, reflectors, high output (HO) vs normal output (NO) bulbs, spiral CFL bulbs, etc. PAR is the best way to estimate the light amount. Here is a great link to understanding PAR....

    Lighting an Aquarium with PAR instead of Watts - The Planted Tank Forum

    The other important factor for lighting is the color temperature usually represented on the kelvin scale or "K". Ideally 6500k works best for most plants. It is close to regular sunlight, and is often listed as natural or daylight bulbs.

    Most standard light fixtures that fit on tanks will put you in the low light range, so as long as you get a bulb that is close to 6500k then you should be good to go. If you have screw in sockets, then get some screw in spiral CFL bulbs. For a real cheap fix, you can get some clip on "shop lights" with the metal dome reflectors sold at Home Depot, Lowes, even Walmart. Put a screw in CFL bulb in, and you have a decent light fixture.

    There are a million different options for lighting, so some research goes a long ways. Odds are that just about any light fixture will work for low light plants though.

    I really like and recommend the Finnex LED light fixtures, specifically the Finnex Planted Plus models. I have them on both of my tanks now, and the growth is great, colors look great, and I couldn't be happier; great investment all around.

    Feel free to post a question in the plants forum if you have a specific lighting question, just be sure to post tank size(with measurements), bulb info (T8,T5, length, wattage, "K" rating), and what plants you want to grow.

    Fertilizers / Nutrients -
    Many also ask about fertilizers and nutrients. The usual starting point for most fertilizers is the Seachem Flourish line of liquid fertilizers. Here is a thread where I explain the difference in their products...

    Seachem fertilizers and what they do

    With a low light / low tech tank you may not even need fertilizers as the fish will provide much of what is needed. If you are pushing the lighting up toward the medium range and/or using some DIY CO2 or Excel you may want to check out using dry ferts which are cheaper, concentrated powder versions of fertilizers sold at places like greenleafaquariums.com.

    CO2 -
    Remember CO2 injection is not needed and by definition not what a low tech tank is all about. We are trying to keep it easy, and not worry about PH levels, CO2 levels, regulators, diffusers, etc. The ambient air will keep enough CO2 in your water to grow easy plants in low to medium light, as long as their is a little bit of water movement. Your filter should provide that. Seachem Excel is a nice alternative if your plants need a little CO2 boost. Remember that Excel can be rough on certain plants like Anacharis and Vals.

    The Balancing Act -
    Remember the most important part of keeping aquatic plants is balancing the 3 main factors.....light, nutrients/fertilizers, and CO2. You can't have one factor high and others low. They all have to be in balance. If they are out of balance you will have problems with algae, nutrient deficiencies, plant melt, die offs, stunting, etc. This is what makes low light / low tech tanks so great, as it keeps things easy. With low light, you don't need a rigorous and strict fertilization schedule, you don't need extra CO2 injection. Just a little bit of light, some fish waste, and you are most of the way there, just fine tune things a bit, and find your "balance", as it's different for every tank.

    Here is some more info that I found very helpful from Sudeep Mandal's sites about low tech tanks. He breaks down the setups very well and has 2 versions. The first is a basic low-tech setup without any form of CO2. The second is with using Seachem Excel (a liquid CO2 substitute) that can be helpful to give your tanks an easy to apply boost.

    Guide to setting up a Low-tech tank planted aquarium (no CO2 or Excel)
    How to Setup a Low-tech Planted Tank: Planted Aquarium Guide – Welcome to Sudeep Mandal's spot on the net

    Guide to setting up a Low-tech tank planted aquarium with Seachem Excel
    Low-Tech Excel based Planted Aquariums: A Guide – Welcome to Sudeep Mandal's spot on the net

    Algae -
    Every tank gets some algae. Generally most have some algae issues at first as you try to figure out the balance. Some algae will almost always be present but with proper setup and care you can minimize it to very little. Here is a very helpful link that explains most of the common algae problems with photos, causes, and solutions.

    Algae in the Planted Aquarium-- Guitarfish

    Here is a link to a thread I put together recently all about algae....

    Algae problems and how to deal with them

    Snails and plant dips -

    Often snails are kept in planted tanks whether by design or not. Many snails are very beneficial for plants. Especially the Malaysian Trumpet Snail. They help dig around in the substrate to help with aeration and to break down the detritus so the plants can use it as fertilizer. I recommend them in any planted tanks. MTS, nerites, and ramshorn are 100% plant safe, and will only consume dying plant material like old fallen off leaves. There is some debate on pond and bladder snails. Some say they are fine in planted tanks others say they will eat plants. I can't prove it one way or the other, so I try to avoid them just to be safe. Many plant keepers have a variety of snails in there tank to help clean up etc. Some don't want any incoming snails, so you need to use a "plant dip" to treat the plants for the snails and their eggs. Here is a link to a great article that provides a variety of plant dip methods.....

    Dipping Plants to Eliminate Snails

    I prefer the Alum method listed in that article. I go with the heavier dosage of 3 tablespoons per gallon and it works well for me. Alum is found easily in most grocery stores in the spice section. I get mine at Walmart. Potassium Permanganate is another recommend method and may have success with it, I just can't find it locally so I go with Alum. I do not recommend the bleach method mentioned in the article, it is very harsh on some plants and will cause instant melt, especially on sensitive plants like mosses, subwassertang, anacharis, etc.


    I hope this article helps many, as live plants can really make your tank a beautiful and more natural habitat for your inhabitants. Many have started not even keeping inhabitants just going for the sheer beauty of a myriad of plants and colors. If anyone has a link to some info that has helped them or has good info on low-tech easy plants, be sure to reply and link for others. I would like to make this a good starting point for members wanting to join the planted tank world.

    If anyone is looking to buy some easy low light plants, and they have met the forum required 50 posts to be able to participate in buying/selling here on fishlore, then shoot me a PM or check out my sales thread in the forum.....

    Aquarium plants for sale - easy low light

    All of my plants are easy to care for and I can provide any information needed to help ensure your success in your own tank.

Recent Reviews

  1. WTFish?
    WTFish?
    5/5,
    Thanks for this. Starting my first live plants soon
  2. EJ_Fresh
    EJ_Fresh
    5/5,
    Thank you for writing this! Such a great resource.
  3. xaipe
    xaipe
    5/5,
    Really helpful for a newbie like me.
  4. bleedingheartmommy
    bleedingheartmommy
    5/5,
    Very thorough yet clearly explained in plain words
  5. Anders247
    Anders247
    5/5,
    Great write-up!
  6. el337
    el337
    5/5,
    Huge help in getting me started with my planted tank!