Celebrity tank makeover

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TV presenter and motoring journalist Jonny Smith gets a complete aquarium makeover from George Farmer. Read on to see how it was done!

Would I be interested in making over a tank for Jonny Smith — he of TV’s Fifth Gear fame? I’m a car geek, regularly watching him presenting on screenand following him on Twitter. We arranged a meeting, discussed ideas and here’s the outcome…

The old…

Jonny’s existing set-up was commendable. The aquarium was on a granite plinth between his kitchen and dining area, and viewable from three sides.

The ten-year-old Clearseal tank was well maintained with a community of thriving fish and a modern T5 overtank luminaire, fitted with 2,700K tubes, gave it a warm colour.  

The huge Anubias attached to large clumps of Mopani wood was growing partially emerged, covered in thread algae but otherwise quite healthy. The small selection of stem plants had seen better days though, probably a result of lots of light, sporadic liquid fertiliser dosing and no CO2 injection or liquid carbon.  

The eclectic mix of fish was interesting, some being many years old but all in great health.

Jonny is clearly a passionate fishkeeper who puts the needs of the fish above anything else.

The new…

Although the old tank was in good condition, it bore a few scratches and that 38cm/15” wide plinth offered room for a slightly larger aquarium.

Jonny was suitably impressed by the examples of Optiwhite braceless, rimless tanks I took along with me and we decided on the dimensions we wanted — Coral Aquarium Cabinets agreeing to supply the tank.  

The old Eheim Ecco filter had performed well over the years, but I felt something more powerful and modern was now necessary.

This also gave me the opportunity to tidy up the pipework and space underneath the tank.

Glass filter inlet and outlet lily pipes, inline external heater and CO2 diffuser ensured there was minimal impact from equipment on the aquascape.

A pressurised CO2 system with solenoid and 2kg fire extinguisher would ensure reliable carbon supplementation to help keep the plants healthy. A comprehensive liquid fertiliser meant the plants would never go hungry, their healthy growth helping to keep algae at bay.   

The old T5 tubes needed replacing, as they were too yellow.  Hagen Life-Glo T5 lamps now give a crisp, natural-looking white light that’s especially effective at enhancing the greens of the plants.     

The aquascape

Aquascaping with three viewable sides presented a challenge. An island design was the logical option and I had some appropriate plants and wood maturing in one of my own larger tanks.

Jonny is busy, spending lots of time away from his home, so slow growing plants would have to be the order of the day. Java fern, Anubias and Bolbitis ready attached to large pieces of Sumatra wood would provide an instant effect that would be low maintenance.

A naturally pale substrate contrasts really well with the greens and browns of the plants and wood. Smooth pebbles give the realistic appearance of a riverbed or stream.

The floating Amazon frogbit plants not only help the fish feel safe but provide shade from the glare of the new lights, helping to minimise any early algae issues common in newer set-ups.

In addition, fish rarely jump from open-topped tanks which have plenty of floating plants.

The final touch of Hygrophila pinnatifida among the pebbles add more interest in the lower levels of the aquascape.

Easy maintenance

Because the aquarium is just inches from the kitchen sink, water changes are a doddle.

The floating plants need thinning out weekly to prevent them blocking too much light, simply by scooping them out with a hand or net.  The other plants would need pruning just once a month due to their slow growth rate.

The filter can be maintained in minutes and doesn’t even need to be turned off, and 10ml of liquid fertiliser is added daily — a simple task that can be done by anyone at home in Jonny’s absence.

Nervous times

Jonny was understandably quite nervous about tearing down his old set-up. However, once the Mopani wood and plants were removed there was no turning back and he effortlessly netted his fish — testimony to his days when working at an aquatic reatailer.

We set up a temporary home for them — a large fish-safe plastic box, filtered by the old Eheim canister and a new but previously matured Fluval G. I placed lots of floating plants in there to add a sense of security and we also fitted a heater.  

Being new to CO2 injection raised a few concerns for our man, but a thorough demonstration on how to safely set up and monitor the gas via a glass drop checker put any anxieties to bed.

What changes were actually made?

Old aquarium: Clearseal 120 x 37.5 x 45cm

Changed to: Coral Aquarium Cabinets 120 x 45 x 45cm Optiwhite

Old filter: Eheim Ecco    

Changed to: Fluval G6 + lily pipes

Old lighting: Four T5 lamps (2,700K)    

Changed to: Four Hagen Life-Glo T5

Old substrate: Pea gravel    

Changed to: Unipac Maui sand

Old fertilisation method: None    

Changed to: TMC NutraFeed

Old CO2 method: None    

Changed to: TMC V2 Pro 2kg pressurised

Old décor: Mopani wood    

Changed to: Sumatra wood and pebbles

Making over Jonny's tank

1. The old aquarium is emptied and equipment removed. The fish are temporarily re-homed in a 100 l/22 gal plastic container complete with old tank water, mature filter and heater.  The remaining old water is saved to re-use in the new set-up.

2. The new aquarium is positioned on a black foam base to replace the white polystyrene version. The superior clarity of the Optiwhite glass is immediately apparent, even though it is thicker at 10mm.  The new tank is 240 l/ 53 gal, giving it considerably more volume.

3. A total of 15kg of pre-rinsed Unipac Maui sand is added. It’s quite a thin layer with no added nutrients, as there won’t be many rooted plants. It’s an attractive off-white quartz that’s inert and has 1-3mm grains with no sharp edges, so is suitable for Jonny’s various catfish.

4. The first piece of Sumatra wood is added and I’ve been growing Java fern, Anubias and Bolbitis on it for the previous three months. This helps give the tank an immediate mature appearance and the plants are fully established and adapted to submersed conditions.

5. More Sumatra wood is positioned. The aquarium is viewable from three sides, so the wood is positioned accordingly. Some protrudes from the top, with an unidentified moss growing on it, adding further interest. The plants are sprayed regularly to keep them wet.

6. Large river pebbles are then placed strategically around the base of the wood. The colours and textures complement the substrate and each other. They are also inert, so won’t increase the hardness or pH of the water — unlike many other rock types.

7. Various smaller pebbles are dotted around the larger ones. They are also inert and their colours are eminently suitable for the set-up. Using different sizes of pebbles adds natural textures to the aquascape, giving the appearance of a genuine riverbed.

8. The aquarium is partially filled with water straight from a hose, then dechlorinated. Jonny’s tapwater is similar to my own, so I know the plants will have no trouble adapting to their new home. The substrate has been pre-rinsed to ensure there’s no clouding.

9. The aquarium is topped up with saved old aquarium water, so helping the fish quickly acclimatise. Hygrophila pinnatifida is planted around pebbles with tweezers. It’s a great plant, new to the hobby, and in this set-up will be relatively slow growing and low maintenance.

10. Equipment is fitted. The filter has been matured in my planted tank for a couple of months. A TMC CO2 system with 2kg fire extinguisher is fitted and inline heater switched on. Once the water is up to temperature the fish are acclimatised and added.

Meet the celebrity: Jonny Smith

Where may PFK readers have seen you before?

If I drive past an aquarium shop I have to stop and visit it — and I drive a lot. I’ve been a motoring journalist on various car magazines and newspapers for 12-odd years, but people probably know me best from presenting items on Fifth Gear on Channel 5.

What’s your fishkeeping background?

I think my interest began when I fell in a river, then a big pond, trying to look closer at the fish. Since very young I was fascinated by TV nature programmes about life under the sea, or marine life reference books.

Realising you could keep fish at home I started saving my pocket money and persuaded dad to place a ‘wanted’ ad in the local paper. I quickly became the proud owner of a wrought iron framed aquarium with puttied-in glass.

I was so chuffed with it, even if the air pump was as loud as a Land Rover!

The tank was set up for about four years until mum got fed with it being in the lounge. I sold it, with all the fish, and began saving for a set-up for my tiny bedroom.

When I was 11 I had a mate whose dad liked fish. He had a neat 1.2m/4’ tropical tank with lots of plants and a massive Eheim external filter. This was in the late 1980s and I remember being deeply impressed by it all.

After this I so badly wanted a marine system and I worked all hours at weekends to save up. I predominantly liked fish-only set-ups, so my sights were set on a marine project.

I saved up for a basic 60 x 46 x 46cm/24 x 18 x 18” marine tank with undergravel filtration and I successfully kept hardy species like Domino damsels and a pair of Tomato clowns.

As time went on I realised the set-up was too small and labour intensive. I couldn’t afford a skimmer or UV or anything like that.

Red blanket algae was common too. Remember, this was at a time when aquarium equipment was expensive and I was earning £16 a week!

I sold that aquarium and started saving to go bigger, something more stable and advanced.

This was about 1993-4 and I got a Saturday job at a big aquarium store in Taunton, Somerset called Watermarque. I remember the manager one day bringing in a book about planted aquascapes and it blew me away!

I bought a Clearseal 122 x 46 x 38cm/48 x 18 x 15” tank, a Sander protein skimmer and four light tubes and dad had to convert my built-in bedroom wardrobes to accommodate the heavy tank. Bless him. He really encouraged me in my hobby and I still have the tank!

With maturation all complete I went down the road of tufa rock and tons of living rock. I had a cowrie, a Mandarin fish, two big Sailfin tangs and a Jewel puffer. At one point I kept a 25cm/10” Porcupine puffer which was hand fed on cockles!

The tank was still a major challenge, especially on my budget. I had passed my driving test and was running a car to college and maintaining the marine tank — all on £35 a week!

I was so proud of my set-up and used to read every issue of PFK from cover to cover. I even got a letter published once, which made me mighty proud. Yeah, I was quite geeky.

Fast forward about five years and I started my job as a motoring journalist at 19, and lived in Chester, then London then Lincolnshire. As I rented places I didn’t want to set up an aquarium anywhere only to move it a year later.

I then got married, bought our house and suddenly had a good-sized space for a tank. I realised I could rehome all of the fish, Mopani bogwood and plants in my trusty old 48 x 15 x 18” aquarium. So that’s exactly what

I did.

Do you have a favourite fish?

I’ve always been fascinated with the boxfish/trunkfish/cowfish family. My favourite is a Longhorn cowfish. In fact, my dream marine set-up would be a huge tank with living rock and just a pair of Cowfish hovering.

Puffers are my favourite freshwater creatures. They have a fantastic charisma — thanks to those sculling fins and independent moving eyes.

Up until a year ago I had no idea that you could buy true freshwater puffers, always presuming they were brackish or marine. When I found out about Pygmy puffers I went and bought six and haven’t looked back.

What have you learned from this makeover?

I’ve learned to not be scared of CO2. Until now I had always steered clear, purely because it felt daunting to go down that road. I knew it would move on my planted game, but there never seemed enough time to do the conversion.

The other thing I’ve learned is how to train plants to stay where you put them! I didn’t know superglue and cotton thread would be so useful.  

Who looks after the tank when you’re away?

Usually my long-suffering wife or my brother. I am rarely away longer than a week, so often it’s a matter of defrosting the shrimp food and feeding the fish in short bursts a few times a day.

My brother has grown up with this little brother obsessed with fish so, although he tolerates it he still doesn’t quite understand. Mind you, his son loves the aquarium.

If I’m going to be away for a week I will always do the water change before I go. The filter gets cleaned probably every month.

What do visitors think?

Because this is the first tank I have displayed with three sides visible, it’s almost the divider between our kitchen and dining room. You can’t help but notice it.

People comment and children love to see me feeding the fish. I mounted it high up, though, to prevent toddlers sticking in any Lego or washing-up liquid.

It seems that the fishkeeping hobby is far cooler than when I was a kid. Being geeky now seems acceptable, probably helped by Internet access. It means I can chat algae or filter media without people thinking I’m a weirdo.

Do you know any other celebrity fishkeepers?

I was shocked to discover Tiff Needell, my co-presenter on Fifth Gear, is a big tropical fish nerd. He’s kept them for years, so there we were going sideways on a race track at 120mph, chatting about breeding pairs and pump

flow rates.

And he isn’t a celeb as such, but I do know that the designer of the latest Mercedes Supercar – the SLS AMG –  also has a tank.

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