The essentials...

A lot of hobbyists ask me what kind of "stuff" they need to create a botanical-style, blackwater aquarium (beyond the aquarium, heater and the botanicals, of course!), and it's something I've never really discussed or dwelled on much, so perhaps it's a worthwhile discussion to have!

Quite honestly, my botanical tanks are very simply equipped. The important thing is to have a proper filter- one which has the ability to hold both chemical and mechanical filtration media...which is pretty much every filter out there that's not a sponge, right? And the mechanical media is important, because you may have some "micro-debris" in your system for a while, especially after you just start, because there are lots of little bits and pieces of botanicals "flaking off" into the water column, as they settle in to a submerged existence.

It's important to especially use a good "pre filter" sponge or other material to accomplish this, and clean it or replace it very frequently, so that it doesn't clog your filter. Even the "fines" from botanicals will accumulate, almost like silt from potting soil, and can impede flow if not attended to in your filter. I am a big fan of sponge-type media for this purpose, because they're inexpensive, easy to clean, and absorb a lot of material. Of course, if you like floss or fiber material, have at it. I'm personally not a fan of the "ceramic noodle"-type filter media, because it's too much effort to clean, IMHO, and tends to clog easily...and it often doesn't "hold on" to the fine materials that it absorbs. And back to the "easy to clean" thing: Human nature (and knowing myself well, lol) is that we tend to take care of stuff more frequently if it's easy to work the sponges work great for me!

Now, a lot of you might be surprised to know that I employ chemical filtration media on a full-time basis in my tanks. Specifically, I use activated carbon in small quantities, and/or chemical media like Poly Filter. I really like Poly Filter because it has an affinity for volatile organics, and provides an extra measure of "insurance" for my tanks, particularly when they're new, or if I get a bit too "exuberant" adding more botanicals or fishes! Now, I know the first thought is, "Won't that defeat the purpose and remove all of those beneficial tannins and the tint from the water?" And my answer, is that if used judiciously, you won't see any real significant reduction of the me on that!

The other piece of equipment that I've played with several times is a fluidized reactor. I love reactors, because they're sort of an "empty canvass" that you can do all sorts of stuff with...Yeah, probably the reefer in me, but I love 'em! You can fill them with botanical materials, like "Mixed Leaf Media", Alder/Birch/Casuarina cones, "Mariposa Pods", and just about any botanicals you can think of. Reactors are also great in instances where you want the "effects and benefits" (like the brown tint or the addition of humic substances), but don't want/need their physical presence in the tank (examples would be a densely planted tank or a breeding tank that you want free from anything but the spawning mop or cone, etc.).

The final piece of equipment that I consider almost essential, at least for me- is the use of an auto tipoff system. Now I know, most of you are like, "Fellman, aren't you the anti-automation guy?" And my answer is, "I'm the 'anti-automation-to-do-the-regualr-work-that-you-should-be-doing-yourself' guy" (that's a mouthful!). An automated topoff system is great because you can set a defined water level in your tan and the system will keep it there. Stable water level means stable water chemistry in most cases, and less potential to "fall behind." Now, this is perhaps more important for me, because I run open-top aquariums, and I live in a fairly dry climate (Los Angeles). And it is a real lifesaver in reef and brackish water systems where maintaining a constant specific gravity is really important. However, I think they're a great piece of equipment for any hobbyist who wants the type of stability that a well-set-up system can bring. 

My "ATO" of choice is the "Smart ATO Micro", which relies on an LED sensor to monitor the water level in your tank, which activates a tiny pump when the sensor is not submerged and injects just enough fresh water into the tank to keep the level constant. The only real maintenance on this system is to keep the sensor clean (just wipe it down once in a while) and to refill the reservoir that holds your top-off water. I love this device! I had my buddy Marc Levenson of Melev's Reef ( build me custom reservoirs for my tanks to fit underneath their stands.  (In addition to being one of the reef hobby's great personalities, he builds great stuff and his site is filled with amazing information!) 

The final "essential" that I think EVERY hobbyist needs is...patience. Ridiculous amounts of patience. The kind of patience that encourages you to refrain from adding a ton of fishes right after you set up your tank. The kind of patience that compels you to add botanical gradually, and to wait it out as the water tints, the biofilms wax and wane, and the tank "breaks in." It's the single most valuable, most useful "essential" there is, IMHO.

Sure, there are probably some other pieces of equipment you can employ, but these are the ones I feel are most important. Of course, there are differences of opinion, and at lest a thousand different ways to do everything in this hobby, and I'd love to hear about and discuss yours!

Stay patient. Stay engaged. Stay smart!

And Stay Wet.


Scott Fellman

Tannin Aquatics 

Scott Fellman
Scott Fellman


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