The aquarium to test the Radion

So the awesome folks at EcoTech Marine sent me a review model of their Radion to test out in a planted aquarium setting. It’s the perfect excuse to set up a new tank.

I happen to have a 24 gallon Cardiff aquarium lying around so I decided to use it for this experiment. You can see it below. I’m going to run you through how I completed the initial set up. It’s a test tank so I didn’t spend the time thinking through the aquascape design that I would normally do. However, I don’t think it came out to bad.

aquarium to be set up

Plocher System – Penac P and W

Yes, I use the Penac products. In my experience, I have better success when I use them especially for a long term setup. Call them snake oil if you like. However, before you cast that stone, ask yourself if you should try them first. Did you know Penac P is 98.1% CaCO3 and .9% MgCO3? How about Penac W being 99% SiO2 with the 1% being Al2O3, Fe2O3,TiO2, K2O, Na2O,CaO and MgO?

Penac P and W

Tourmaline BC, Clear Super, Bacter 100

I also use the ADA base system that uses Tourmaline BC (an insoluble form of boron), Clear Super (tiny activated charcoal) and Bacter 100 (bacterial culture). Again, experience has taught me that my success with them is better than without for long term setups.

Substrate addatives

I start by adding the Penac W over the area to be planted as you can see here:

Penac W

I then follow that with the Penac P over the same area:

Penac P

Tourmaline is next. I prefer to use a lot:


Clear Super covers the Tourmaline. I also like to use a lot. It helps with quickly clearing the water:

Clear Super

Finally, the Bacter 100 goes over everything. I like to put it below the Power Sand. Some put it on top of it.

Bacter 100

Here’s the finished substrate base. I’m now almost ready to add the Power Sand.

base substrate

But first, I like to sweep the base out of the sides so that it won’t show later.

cleaning the edges

Ah. That’s better. Nice and neat. Well, kinda.

ready for Power Sand

Power Sand L

Bring on the Power Sand. As with some of the base substrate additives, Power Sand will help you if you are setting up an aquarium for the long term. If you’re going to be redoing your aquarium annually, you can skip it. If not, use it or something like it. It’s a combination of pumice stone, peat and a few other ingredients that provide a great area for substrate organisms to flourish and do their job. Their job? Jobs, better said. Many processes rely on the work of the substrate microorganisms that live in the substrate solution. At the end of the day, think of it as the workers that live in the nutrient storehouse we call the substrate. They create the right conditions for the plant roots.

Power Sand L

It is best to cut the tip of the bag and carefully pour it over the planting area. Be careful or it will go everywhere.

Pouring Power Sand

I like to pour it out in the center and then use a triangle to spread it out to where I want it. Notice the peat-coated pumice stones? I chose the large size due to the 24+ inch water column. The larger size won’t get squeezed down as much with the water pressure.

Smoothing out Power Sand

All done. Nice and neat and only over the area I plan to plant.

Substrate final

The hardscape – stone

I chose to use the stone I had lying around and available. I bought this batch at the last AGA Convention in Ft. Lauderdale and I’m finally going to use them. They will come in handy as I try to build a wall between my substrates.

Stone for the aquascape

The substrate – Aqua Soil Amazonia normal

I’ve tried almost every substrate out there except some of the newer European ones. In my experience, Aqua Soil has been set it and forget it. I normally would use the powder type for easier planting but as our ADA importers are currently out of stock, I’m using the normal. What are you going to do?

Aqua Soil Amazonia

The boundary layer

One of the issues with doing a two substrate system is the unavoidable mixing that happens. When I don’t have time to do a bent acrylic boundary, I resort to using stone. They are heavy and do a pretty good job holding the separation. It’s not perfect but they do work.

Rock retaining wall

Bring on the Aqua Soil. Note that I am using a container to control where it falls. Pour from the back when you need to be this careful is a bad idea.

Pouring Aqua Soil

The hardscape – wood

Tom Barr sold me some awesome wood a few years ago and I’ve been saving it. It’s time to get it wet. When I got the shipment from Tom, what you see here was one giant piece of driftwood. I cut it down to several piece so that they are easier to work with.

Hardscape material

I chose a piece that I wanted to use as the focal point and went to work. At first I positioned it with the tall side to the front. As you can see here, this threw the aquascape out of balance.

Initial placement

I repositioned it to the back and BAAM! balance is back. It feels to me like it belongs that way so I left it. I’m already starting to visualize the moss, microsorum and bolbitis I may use on it. I’m thinking about the plants I’ll use to draw attention to the beautiful branches and to highlight it’s height by having low foreground plants. The aquascape is starting to reveal itself to me.

Better placement

Here’s a view from the front. Apologies for the flash in the picture. I was working quickly.

front view placement

The show sand – Forest Sand

I’m not a huge fan of the sand look for aquascapes because they are like owning a nice black car. They’re a pain to maintain no matter how much you look after it. However, I thought this scape really called for the look due to the aquarium shape and being visible from various sides. I chose the larger grained Forest Sand.

forest sand

Notice how those rocks you probably thought were too big and ugly are now starting to disappear and doing their job.

final substrate

Here’s a few shots showing a close up of the separation line. Note that I will be further hiding this line with additional stones and transition plants.

close up substrate

another close up substrate

transition edge

The aquascape is now starting to take shape and really speak to me. I can visualize placement of plants and the types of plants I’m going to need. I’m also starting to visualize the species of fish I will like use to give the impression of a cloud around the tall branch on the right.

final front view

Here’s an angle view. This aquarium is really nice as it gives a seamless transition due to it’s curves.

Final side

A close up of the old tree. What types of plants do you see on it? What does your imagination tell you about this tree? Is it old, barren, lush, green?

close up hardscape

Finally, a quick shot of the leftovers. After so many years and so many aquariums, a part of me still feels bad leaving stuff out. However, as I’ve learned from the masters, what you leave out is just as important as what you put in.

leftover hardscape material

I hope this quick view of the initial set up was entertaining for you. Please stay tuned for the rest of the series that walks you through the entire process up to and including the hands-on testing of the EcoTech Marine Radion. It’s going to be very cool.

Don’t beat your aquascape with the ugly stick!

cinder block DIY stand

What your aquascape sits in is just as important as the aquascape itself.

There is no excuse for wrapping an aquascape in an ugly setup. I know times are tough, people, but it’s better to postpone setting up your beautiful aquarium until you have the time or money to house it in a modern and pleasing arrangement. Don’t beat your aquascape with the ugly stick!

The past is the past, lets move on

The aquarium hobby has come a long way in the United States. Modern aquarium husbandry and technology allows us to keep our aquariums in tip top shape with great flexibility and relative ease.  Aquascaping, in particular, has gone from the exclusive realm of experts to almost commonplace.  Truly, anyone can build a beautiful aquascape if they put their mind to it and learn from the great body of knowledge that’s out there for free.

Unfortunately, I think we’ve gotten stuck in focusing on what’s in the aquarium and don’t pay much attention to what’s outside of it.  Are we missing the forest for the trees?

In the past, almost everyone had a plain, vanilla wood stand with a wood canopy top.  That’s all that was available. Heck, we could stain it or paint it and it was passable. Although, I know of plenty of aquarist who were forced to take down their aquariums or move them from the living area because it didn’t “fit with the decor.”  Sound familiar?

That’s the past, folks! Lets get past it. Leave ugly in the past and start focusing on the beauty that can be outside of your aquarium.  A beautifully designed aquarium stand and lighting setup can complement, and even, enhance an aquascape. I’d say it can even make a mediocre aquascape look better than it really is. An ugly, eyesore of a setup can make even the most brilliant aquascapes look like your first 10 gallon tank.

Here are just a few examples that I pulled from the Internet. I’m sure there’s many more in homes all over the world.

Cinder block aquarium stand

The frame is just as important as the painting

With the availability of information today, you can easily build a beautiful, eye-pleasing setup for your aquascape at a fraction of what it would cost you retail. For those of you that can afford to purchase a modern setup from a retail establishment, you have many, many more options today. I would recommend looking at Aqua Design Amano or Elos products that are both available in the US.

Bear in mind, however, that a beautiful setup does not mean expensive. It can, of course, but it doesn’t have to.  What it means is that you put as much thought and creativity into your setup so that it fits into the overall design of the location and complements your aquascape. The setup can be very simple and inexpensive such as this simple tabletop setup:

Tabletop setup

Also, don’t think that it must be a minimalist setup.  Today, many aquarists believe that they have to setup a minimalist, zen-like setup in order to be modern. That is simply not true.  I’ll be writing a future post on this topic where the question I ask is whether a planted aquarium must be natural. The answer is, it doesn’t. Instead, focus on what will look good in the location you have chosen and how it can complement the aquascape you have or will be doing.

Aqua Design Amano is focused on what I call a minimalist, zen-like design as you can see from the picture below. However, this may not look good in a living room with a more traditional design incorporating big plush sofas and area rugs.

Aqua Design Amano's minimalist design

Elos, an Italian manufacturer, also tends to have more minimalistic, simple and clean designs.  I like them a lot and will be a doing a future post on the company and its products soon.  Here’s an example of one of their new lighting systems.  The idea, I think, is to minimize distractions away from the aquascape itself.  The light seems to melt into the background and let your eye land where it should, on the beautiful aquascape.

Beautiful Elos minimalist design

And, here is a beautifully designed aquarium setup from our friends at Aquarium Design Group.  Please focus on how well this aquascape fits into the overall decor of the area in which it is in.  In fact, in their fantastic book, The Inspired Aquarium, they mention how even the aquascape itself depicts the natural area that the house is located. Truly inspiring!

Aquarium Design Group design


In the end, what is beautiful is up to you. No one can tell you what you should think looks good. My only words of wisdom to you are that you should put as much thought into what’s outside your aquarium as you do with what’s in it.  Take some time with it and make it look good. Don’t get stuck in the past and don’t go cheap.  You will be spending a lot of time and effort building your aquascape. It’s a piece of art that you’re creating. Treat it as such.

Wrought iron aquarium stand