This post is for all of the planted aquarium newbies who are just getting started with CO2 and the planted aquarium, or for those more experienced hobbyists looking for a review. Setting up a complete CO2 system for the first time can be a little intimidating, we hope that this post will help answer some questions and alleviate a little of the mystery involved before you dive in and set up your very own CO2 system.
Our last post was all about the CO2 regulator, the backbone of the CO2 system; so make sure to read our previous article on the regulator.
The CO2 Pressure Regulator – The purpose of the CO2 regulator is to reduce the high pressure inside of a CO2 cylinder to a lower, usable pressure that can be dispensed into the planted aquarium. The pressure reducing regulator takes a pressure of 800 – 1000 PSI (pounds per square inch) from the CO2 cylinder, and regulates it to provide a controlled, reduced pressure output in the range of 1 – 40 PSI. The solenoid valve of the CO2 regulator is the powerhouse of the regulator. It is an electromechanical ON / OFF valve that controls the output of carbon dioxide gas into the aquarium.
The CO2 Cylinder – The CO2 Cylinder is a high pressure storage cylinder for the carbon dioxide (CO2) that you will be introducing into the planted aquarium. This is where the complete system starts, inside of the cylinder. Carbon dioxide in a cylinder exists primarily in the form of liquid CO2, only the head space of the cylinder contains gas. The liquid allows the cylinder to maintain a constant high pressure. Because the cylinder contains liquid gas, it must always remain in the upright position.
There are several sizes of CO2 cylinders. The most standard size used for the planted aquarium tends to be the 5 lb cylinder, however, a larger 10, 15, or 20 lb cylinder or a smaller 2.5 lb cylinder can also be used, based on your needs. If your aquarium has space restrictions, then the 2.5 lb cylinder may be ideal for you. On the other hand, with a larger cylinder, you have the potential of saving time and money. The increased storage capacity of a larger cylinder allows you to refill less often and potentially save money on refills. In general, the average cost of refilling a 10 lb cylinder is not much more than that of a 5 lb cylinder, and you get twice the amount of CO2.
pH Controller – The pH controller provides a full-time, automatic pH monitoring system for the planted tank. It regulates the release of carbon dioxide, which is directly related to pH. The controller is designed to connect to the solenoid of your CO2 regulator. It is set to a desired pH level to be maintained in the aquarium; it then signals the solenoid valve which then prompts the regulator to release or to stop releasing CO2 in order to maintain the set pH.
The controller enables you to maintain consistent and proper CO2 levels. It is an extremely valuable tool in creating a healthy and stable aquatic ecosystem. It will help your plants flourish and can decrease the level of stress to your fish by eliminating fluctuation in pH.
Automatic Timer – The automatic timer provides a more basic approach to CO2 regulation. It allows you to control your regulator and aquarium lights simultaneously and effectively. The solenoid of your regulator can be plugged into one side of a dual outlet timer and the aquarium lights can be plugged into the other side. The timer is then set to turn the regulator and the lights on in the morning at the desired time; promoting an ideal environment for plant photosynthesis. Set the timer to turn off the lights and CO2 in the evening. It’s simple, easy to use, and very useful.
Which to use, a pH Controller or Timer?When using a timer, it is your responsibility to monitor and adjust co2 levels in the aquarium. CO2 levels are monitored through the use of a drop checker, and through observation of the health of your fish and plants. Fine tuned adjustments to CO2 levels are made with the regulator’s needle valve, by adjusting the bubble rate, or the number of bubbles per second entering the aquarium.
Which to use, a pH Controller or Timer?
Using a timer, rather than a pH controller, can be considered a basic and inexpensive method of automating a CO2 system. On the other hand, a pH controller provides a full-time monitoring system of pH levels in the aquarium. It will regulate the release of CO2 in order to maintain a set desired pH, day and night. In comparison, using a timer versus a pH controller may save you a little CO2, because a timer shuts off the flow of CO2 gas at night when CO2 is not necessary.
The Drop Checker – Regardless of whether you decide to use a pH Controller or a timer, it’s always a good idea to use a drop checker to monitor and fine tune CO2 levels. The drop checker is a glass reservoir designed to contain an indicator solution with a known KH (Carbonate Hardness). When submerged, carbon dioxide in the aquarium is absorbed into the indicator solution, until a point of equilibrium is reached between the aquarium water and the solution. As CO2 gas is absorbed into the indicator solution, it lowers the pH of the solution, which in turn changes the solution color. This color, when compared against a pH color chart, allows you to gain an accurate perspective of the concentration of CO2 in the aquarium.
If you use a timer to automate your system, the drop checker is integral; it will be your primary measure of carbon dioxide. If you decide to use a pH controller, the drop checker is an excellent tool in helping you to determine and fine-tune the set point of your controller.
If you are introducing carbon dioxide into the aquarium via a pressurized CO2 system, it is recommended to have a drop checker. It is a good idea to always have an at-a-glance measurement of the CO2 in your aquarium.
The Check Valve – The check valve is simple and essential. It attaches in-line within your CO2 tubing and permits flow in one direction only… into the aquarium. It keeps water from back-siphoning from the aquarium into your vital components, the CO2 regulator. A complete CO2 system is not complete without it.
CO2 Resistant Tubing – The pathway through which CO2 travels to the aquarium; it completes the CO2 system, bringing it together. For this reason, it is one of the most important components of the system. It is the job of the tubing to safely deliver your precious CO2 to the aquarium. This is why it is important to invest in CO2 resistant tubing, through which CO2 is not able to escape. Silicone tubing should not be used in the planted aquarium CO2 system; carbon dioxide gas is able to permeate through the walls of silicone tubing, and is wasted. So make sure to use a CO2 resistant tubing so that your aquarium gets what it requires, efficiently, and so money is not wasted on lost CO2.
The tubing connects to the output line cap of the bubble counter, on the regulator, and travels up and into the aquarium. The check valve needs to be placed in-line, within the tubing line, between the regulator and aquarium. For those regulators without a built in bubble counter, an in-line bubble counter can be secured in-line within the tubing line so that you can accurately count the number of CO2 bubbles per second entering the aquarium. One advantage to having an in-line bubble counter is that you can place it above the aquarium stand so the bubble rate can be monitored at a quick glance.
The ‘In-Tank’ CO2 Diffuser - Finally, we have reached the end of the complete CO2 system, the end journey of the CO2 before it is dispersed into the aquarium water. Placed inside the aquarium, at the bottom of the aquarium, the diffuser exists at the end of the tubing line. It is another very important part of the complete system as it transforms and optimizes the CO2 gas entering the aquarium into a usable form of CO2. As CO2 bubbles pass through the porous ceramic of the diffuser, they are diffused into streams of tiny bubbles. With an increased surface area, these tiny bubbles can be readily dissolved into the water, increasing the overall saturation of CO2 in the aquarium ecosystem for efficient plant absorption and less waste.
It is important when selecting a CO2 diffuser to invest in one that will meet the size requirements of your aquarium. Be aware of this when selecting a diffuser for your aquarium, and consider using two diffusers, one on each side of the tank, for those larger tank setups.