Low-Tech Excel based Planted Aquariums: A Guide

Non Co2 Low Tech Planted Tank

Before reading this article, I would highly recommend that you read the article on Low-tech, Non CO2 tanks. That article introduces the concept of low-tech tanks and explains in detail the science of low-tech, non CO2 tanks along with some guidelines for maintaining such tanks successfully. One of the drawbacks of this low-tech method is that plant growth can be fairly slow compared to growth rates seen in CO2 enriched tanks. On the other hand, tanks with pressurized CO2 require you to invest a fair bit of time and money to keep them in shape. The balance between lighting, nutrients and CO2 in these tanks is much more delicate and there is a lot less room for error. Any imbalances in the tank can quickly lead to a massive algae bloom. This article details a middle ground between these two methods wherein Seachem's Excel is used as a source of carbon in the tank.

Seachem Flourish Excel

Seachem Flourish Excel

What is Excel and what does it do?

The active ingredient in Seachem Excel is Polycycloglutaracetal. It is a clear liquid which is quite toxic. Be careful when handling it and make sure to avoid skin/eye contact. Essentially it is a Carbon compound which is assimilated by the plants and used by them during photosynthesis. In this manner it acts as a carbon source and a replacement for CO2 in planted tanks. However the uptake of Excel is not as much as dissolved CO2 in tank water. In lay mans terms, it takes "more work" for plants to use Excel as a carbon source than it does to use dissolved CO2 directly from the water. As a result, while Excel does boost plant growth in comparison to Non CO2/Non Excel methods, the growth rates will still be slower than in CO2 enriched tanks. Also note that Excel has a half life of 11-12 hours so it is not active in your tank beyond 24 hours. This is why daily doses are recommended. Also make sure to dose it before your light come on in the tank. Excel is light sensitive so make sure to store it in a dark bottle if you plan to pour it out of the regular bottle.

Advantages of using Excel:

1) Faster plant growth as compared to Non CO2, non Excel, low-tech tanks.
2) Excel is known to act as an algaecide. Many people dose excel in their tanks when they are battling algae and have had great success. What this means is that the daily dosing of Excel will act as a deterrent to algae. This is great news for anyone starting out with their first planted tank.
3) Much easier to use in comparison to setting up a CO2 system.

Disadvantages of using Excel:

1) Excel works great for smaller tanks but it can get pretty costly for larger tanks.
2) Some plants which do not have stomatas cannot be grown with Excel. This includes plants such as riccia, vallisneria, egeris densa, hydrilla and liverworts.
3) Excel is toxic. Be careful when handling!
4) Fertilizing is a must for a healthy tank.

What changes when you use Excel in your tank?

Here I'm going to talk about what you need to do differently in comparison to Low-tech, Non CO2, Non Excel tanks as described here. The main effect of adding Excel is that you boost plant growth rates. As a result it also causes a larger demand for nutrients by the plants. The availability of a carbon source allows us to increase the lighting levels by a bit in comparison to non excel tanks. I will list the changes that need to be made in comparison to the guidelines for non excel tanks.

Lighting: Lighting can be pushed upto 2.5 watts per gallon (wpg) at max. You probably don't want to go any higher than this. As before, in the case of spiral CFLs you could probably go up to 3 wpg due to their inherent inefficiency. With T5 tubes you should probably stick to 1.5-1.75 wpg. If at any point you see signs of algae (assuming you are dosing ferts normally), then you should immediately lower your light levels/lower the length of photoperiod or do both. Remember that playing it safe with slightly lower lighting is always a wise choice as you will have less trouble with algae on the whole. Also remember that for tanks smaller than 10 gallons, the wpg rule breaks down. You'd probably need 5-6 wpg for tanks that are 5 gallons or smaller.

Dosing fertilizers and Excel:
A 20 gallon tank using excel should get:

1/8 teaspoon of KNO3, 1-2x a week
1/16 teaspoon of KH2PO4, 1-2x a week
2mls of Seachem Flourish, 2x a week
SeaChem Equilibrium 1/8th once a week (Immediately after weekly water change)
50% weekly water change
Dose 1-1.5x the recommended dose for Excel (1 ml for every 10 gallons on a daily basis and 5ml for every 10 gallon after 40% or more water changes).

As you can see the fertilizer amounts are higher than in Non Excel tanks. Also now it is recommended to perform 50% weekly water changes. The reason for this is that over time the excess nutrients in the water will start to build up. As a result we need to use the weekly water change to "reset" the system and bring down the nutrient levels in the water. It also helps maintain the water quality in the tank. Once your tank is well established you can try doing water changes maybe once every two weeks. Also if you are dosing leaner than recommended (with no visible signs of nutrient deficiency in the plants) then you could even try doing water changes once every month. However make sure to atleast do them once a month if not more regularly.

1) Dosing ferts as recommended above
2) Occasional pruning to ensure good circulation in the tank
3) Gentle gravel vacuuming on occasion to get rid of excess detritus (never do a deep gravel vac)
4) Feed fish every day
5) Do a major (60-70%) water change after any major pruning/rearrangement which involves uprooting plants and moving the substrate around.

As you can see, we do not skip dosing ferts once a month as recommended with non excel tanks. This is because we are now doing weekly 50% water changes to keep the nutrient levels in check.
All the other things mentioned in the non Excel tank post regarding Fish, Substrate and Planting remains the same for Excel based tanks. That is pretty much it. So what are you waiting for? Get started on your aquascaping you planted tank fiend!  :mrgreen:

Acknowledgments: Most of this article is based on all the useful information I have gleaned from scouring through the forums at Tom Barr’s site, www.barrreport.com . He deserves credit for a lot of the content in this article. I’ve just put it all together in one place and added some more stuff to make this more accessible to the planted tank newbie. The original thread related to this technique can be found here : http://www.barrreport.com/estimative-index...o2-methods.html .

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68 thoughts on “Low-Tech Excel based Planted Aquariums: A Guide

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  5. I just wanted to express my gratitude for your articles. My story is far from unique, as a matter of fact it seems to be rather common. I started out with a 20 gallon tank with a few platies and a few black skirt tetras. I enjoyed my aquarium, however I never felt satisfied with any artificial plants that I could find. I was very reluctant to purchase any live plants, mostly due to all of the comments I read about the upkeep and serious maintenance involved. But last week I bought a few live plants to test my luck with them. I was disappointed in myself for not getting any sooner. There is no acceptable substitute for live plants. And now I’m about to setup my first 40 gallon acrylic tank, heavily planted, no CO2 , low tech excel method. I’ve found forums to be more confusing than enriching. When I found your works I was delighted. All of my questions were answered, so I’m less apprehensive now, and more excited about my future experience in the planted tank world. Thank you for your work and sharing your wealth of knowledge. Sincerely, Ross M.

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  9. Can you please elaborate how did you reached 1/16-tsp of KH2PO4. IMO this would dose a lot of PO4, enough to cause problems…If you could please provide some explanation….Thanks.

  10. Your (or Tom Barr’s) website has been main guidance and helped me lot in setting up my 100 gallon planted aquarium! Thank You very much! Thanks to You I can own beautiful aquarium today, which I am really proud of :)

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  12. Dear sudip,

    My tank is a 42 gallon!
    I have hygrophilla difformis, bacopa monnieri, corymbosa, star grass, anubias barteri, sagittaria subulata in my tank! u told in the article there must be 10-15% visibility when looking from the top of aquarium! what else can i plant inorder to make it dense! i need to breed tetras in the planted tank itself! I have a wavemaker and a eheim pickup 2012 for filtration! i daily dose fert (EI stock solution) , Flourish and 10 ml excel! my substrate is DIY (vermicompost, 3mm quartz sand, blocks of laterite plunged in the vermicompost, 2mm gravel at the top)! My lighting is 3×20 watt of philips tube! suggest me anything so as to improve the rate of growth of carpet plants! what more stem plants can i include?
    any other suggestion of dosing,planting!
    Fishes include: white cloud mountain minnow,pristella tetra, cardinal tetra, chineese algae eater,glowlight tetra and 2 sail fin mollies!

    All i need is to breed tetra!

  13. I don’t understand the recommendation of 1/16 teaspoon of KH2PO4. Even EI recommends about 25% as much KH2PO4 as KNO3.

  14. Thank you for your articles on planted tanks. They explain Barr’s concepts better than Barr does himself. I have reprinted both in the newsletter of the Missouri Aquarium Society, The Darter. I expect our readers will enjoy them as much as I did.

    1. Hi Mark, thanks for your flattering comment! I’m glad that these articles are still proving useful and I hope members of your aquarium society find it useful. Apologies for the late reply, for some reason, I’ve stopped receiving notifications for new comments.

  15. That is a fabulous breakdown. I wonder if you have an equipment list for starting an aquarium up? I would love to know which filters, heaters, etc., work best (and if I need some sort of bubble system, etc.).

    Thank you so very much for this info. It is beyond helpful.

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  17. This may seem like a silly question and thank you in advance for humoring me but why do the WPG go UP on a smaller tank? Say, for like a 5-gallon tank? Shouldn’t the light intensity be higher for a smaller tank with the same light? For example, If I have a T8, 15 watt, 6500K fluorescent light…wouldn’t that light intensity be weaker on a smaller tank?

  18. That article was exactly what I was looking for. Thank you so much for taking the time to write down your findings/experiences and share them with the rest of the world. I am just starting with a planted aquarium, and I look forward to trying your methods. I just bought a 500 ml bottle of Excel a couple days ago.

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