Step 1. Purchasing the equipment

Here's a rundown of the business end of my setup and my main considerations in selecting each element.

Aquarium: 90 Gallon 48" x 18" x 24"

With a 5ft wall that had been pre-selected as the fish tank site when inspecting the house for the first time, I was keen to get the biggest tank I could for this spot (which is visible from the entrance, hall, seating room and on the way to main kitchen / living area). My main worry was the weight of the tank on the floorboards, having only ever lived in houses with concrete slabs. I found this excellent article online @ badmans which suggests anything up to 125 gallons 'should' be ok without structural reinforcement, providing no defects and a good site location. After inspecting under the house I concluded that the site I had in mind was against a load bearing wall and was running perpendicular to the joists. Also no termites or structural defects from what I could see. Good news! Not wanting to push the envelope too much, I figured a 4 foot tank was the way to go and have always liked the look of the 'tall' tanks for a display.

After searching around, I decided on a 90 gallon 48" (L) x 18" (W) x 24" (H) from Aquatic Creations in Highett, Melbourne. It's their deluxe freshwater with a custom stained pine cabinet and matching hood. I also looked at some of the Jewel bow front tanks, but was much happier with the wooden cabinet. I just reckon those packaged tanks with cabinets look cheap and an MDF cabinet for a 90 gallon aquarium just doesn't feel right to me!! After waiting for the cabinet to be built in Sydney and transported down to Melbourne, it arrived safely the other day in the back of a ute. Very happy with the quality of the worksmanship and the stain that we selected to match the floorboards and furniture.

The only other thing I was wary of in selecting the tank was the thickness of the glass. Some of the cheaper tanks from less reputable places were on the skinny side of the recommended thicknesses for the size and were best avoided.


Filtration: Eheim Classic 2215

I was in two minds initially about the required filtration for a planted dirt setup. Reading Walstad's book she typically doesn't use filtration in her setups (other than a quick filter) and relies on the plants doing the filtering, although this seemed to be inconsistent with most people's setups on the various planted tank forums. I noted that her tanks had lighter fish loads than I plan and having never attempted dirt before, I can always use a decent filter in the event it goes pear shaped and I need to strip the tank back at some point. I figured it came down to a trade-off between healthier plant growth (as a result of additional nutrients remaining in the tanks for the plants to feed on where no filtration was employed) and better water quality (as a result of a biological and mechanical filtration to supplement the plants as water purifiers). I settled on a filter.

With filtration being necessary, my next consideration was the type of filtration. Undergravel wasn't recommended for rooted plants so I ruled this out straight away. Internal power filters would have to be hidden and are messy to clean and were also ruled out. A sump or hang on back wet/dry or an external canister were the two options I gave serious consideration. I went for a canister on the basis that a wet/dry would lose too much CO2, was noisier and would be more weight and costly if I went for a sump (I saved for 12 months to purchase the aquarium!).

Once I decided on the external cannister, for me it was a choice between the Eheim and the Fluval. These were very hard to split. I went for the Eheim as I rarely found a bad review and the main differentiator seemed to be that it ran a little bit quiter. I wasn't keen on paying a premium for the fancier models and do not plan to inject C02 so I settled on the classic version. My tank is at the upper end of what's recommended for the 2215 model. Given Walstad's approach I figure this will be ok and if I need additional flow I can add an additional powerhead later on. I hope I made the right call!

Setting up the Eheim was harder than I thought due to the very limited instruction manual. I found this video to be very helpful. It's setup as per the instructions, but i'll remove the activated charcoal insert once I'm happy that all tannins from the soil have been leached.

Lighting: 2 x 54 watt T5HO

I reckon I researched lighting for over 2 weeks before settling on a dual T5HO fixture from Guppy's Aquariums Online, fitted with their default 10,000K fixtures. I read a couple of reviews that indicated there were fixtures around with better reflectors and 10,000K is more than ideal, but at the price these were too good to pass up.

I went with T5HO's as I needed to fit them in the existing hood and have something powerful enough for a tank that's 24" high. I explored a number of DIY options for T8, CFL or shoplights but these worked out almost as pricey as the above fixture. I looked at LEDs but they were too pricey and there's not as much literature out there on their success for freshwater aquatic plants.  I found this post really helpful on household CFL's and this post on PAR results for t5HO's was also really informative. Unfortunately I found this post after I'd ordered the lights!

The watts per gallon rule does not apply with T5HO's as they give off a much more intense light. My main concern at this point is that the dual T5HO's will give off too much light for a non-CO2 tank. My best estimate without taking a PAR reading is that the dual T5HO's will put me in a medium light category.  I'll commence them with a 6 hour photoperiod during establishment & plant growout to keep the algae at bay and see how I go after that.

Heating: Eheim Jager 200 watt

I didn't give this too much thought to be honest. Basically a choice between an in-line and submersible. I went with a submersible on the basis that I didn't think it would detract enough from the aquascape to warrant cutting and fitting more tubes to my filter outlet. I've never had a problem with this brand previously.

Price, Ordering and Delivery

I picked up the heater, filter and an API Freshwater Test kit from the Reef Shop. Prices were very competitive and orders arrived the next day. Unfortunately the packaging was badly damaged and I didn't hold much hope for what was inside. Luckily the heater is functional and the only damage was a broken plastic bit on the top of the Eheim cannister, which didn't effect its function. I didn't bother returning it given it's perfectly functional and I can't complain about the price after seeing the same thing on "special" at Coburg aquarium for $100 more than what I paid. Geez that place is pricey for equipment!

The T5HO fixture from Guppy's Aquarium Online arrived without a hitch and was packed solid! The confirmation email I received was a bit unclear and I didn't get a response to my 3 email enquiries so I suspect the customer service here is pretty bad. Coming in at about $115 including postage, this fixture was $200 cheaper than most of the other T5HO fixtures I had seen.

All in all the basic equipment for this setup set me back around $1950. Hope you enjoyed the wrap-up!

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Appreciate your feedback! I'd love to get some insight from other dirt enthusiasts out there.