How to set up a MicroHabitat nano aquarium

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George Farmer sets up the new TMC AquaGro MicroHabitat 8 nano tank to see what can be achieved.

Nano aquariums show no sign of declining popularity. Set-up and maintenance costs are low and, with access to quality products developed around this trend, adding a slice of nature to your home has never been so easy.

With an internal volume of little more than 8 l/1.75 gal, the TMC AquaGro MicroHabitat 8 is the smallest off-the-shelf aquarium I’ve seen. Its tiny volume makes it unsuitable for fish, but don’t let that put you off.

Its generous filter media capacity should still ensure good water quality for a group of small shrimp or snails — providing appropriate maintenance is performed regularly.  

Plant it heavily to ensure water quality via nutrient removal and oxygen production. Plenty of nano-friendly plants are available and with LED lighting now more popular, most species can be grown, providing sufficient nutrients are present in the substrate and/or water column.

Another plus is the greater availability of complete nutrient-rich soils. Here I’ve used TMC’s new NutraSoil that leeches ammonia in the initial weeks after installation. This fishlessly cycles the tank after a few weeks, making it safe to add shrimps after test kits ensure ammonia and nitrite are undetectable.

CO2 injection is an option, but I’d consider sticking to a combination of a comprehensive micro- and macro-nutrient liquid fertiliser and liquid carbon additive. Ensure liquid carbon products are not overdosed as they can be toxic to livestock and plants.

Pruning techniques are important in a small aquarium and, depending on species, trimming may be frequently needed. Invest in a quality set of aquascaping scissors and tweezers to make the job easier, as your hands will be too big. In such a small tank some longer tools ensure you don’t even need to get wet!

Keep the acrylic clean to ensure an unspoiled view and buy an acrylic-safe cleaner to ensure the surface doesn’t scratch.

You can get a TMC AquaGro MicroHabitat 8 aquarium worth £59.99, when you subscribe to PFK. Here's how we set this one up.

Step-by-step

1. The empty tank is placed in a suitable position.  Due to its size and low weight it can be positioned in a wider variety of places than most conventional aquariums. Place away from direct sunlight and out of reach of small children.

2. Add a thick layer of TMC NutraSoil substrate, sloped slightly towards the back. This substrate releases nitrogen in the initial weeks after set-up, so test for ammonia and nitrite prior to adding livestock. It doesn’t need rinsing before use.

3. Next add wood. The wood is pre-soaked to prevent it from floating or staining the water. The selected piece protrudes from the water line and adds an extra dimension to the aquascape. If your wood is smaller, you can use the tank’s supplied clear cover.

4. Water is slowly added via an air line to minimise clouding. The water just covers the substrate as this allows easy planting using tweezers. The substrate grain size is ideal for all plants, even those with delicate root structures.

5. Cryptocoryne wendtii ‘green’ is added to the background with tweezers. This easy plant makes an ideal background in a small aquarium, usually growing no more than 15cm/6”.  A nutrient-rich substrate will ensure healthy growth, even in low light.

6. Staurogyne repens is added to the midground.  This new plant is ideal for small aquaria as it remains compact.  Regular pruning will encourage bushy growth and regular liquid fertilisation will ensure nutrient deficiencies are prevented.

7. Pogostemon helferi is planted in the foreground. You’ll definitely need tweezers for this. It’s fiddly. Regular pruning ensures it remains low to the substrate. If it turns yellow more nutrients are needed via a comprehensive liquid fertiliser.

8. A few more stems of Staurogyne repens are added between the Pogostemon and wood to create a better transition. Such transitions and space between elements are important in aquascaping to help attain a more pleasant and natural appearance.

9. The aquarium is topped up with water using an air line until half full. The remainder is filled slowly via a bucket into the rear filter chamber. Take care when filling to help prevent cloudy water and avoid plants being dislodged.

10. The light unit is installed via the clamp on the outer aquarium wall. The filter is switched on, ensuring the outlet nozzle is directed to ensure all-over circulation. Use a timer to turn the lights on for around eight hours a day.

Plant profiles

Cryptocoryne wendtii  ‘green’

Family: Araceae

Origin: Sri Lanka

Height: 5-15cm/2-6”

Width: 8-10cm/3-1-4”

Temperature: 20-30°C/68-86°F

pH: 5.5-8

When grown in an open space the leaves of Cryptocoryne wendtii ‘green’ will virtually lie on the bottom. Like most other Sri Lanka Cryptocoryne, it also grows well in hard water. It’s an ideal background plant for small tanks.

Staurogyne repens

Family: Acanthaceae

Origin: Brazil

Height: 3cm-10cm/1.2-4”

Width: 5cm-10cm/2-4”

Temperature: 20-28°C/68-82°F

pH: 6-8

Staurogyne repens is a freshly green, compact and hardy plant for the foreground of the aquarium and it was found in the Rio Cristalino in southern Amazonas. Its nearest relative is Hygrophila.

Pogostemon helferi

Family: Lamiaceae

Origin: Thailand

Height: 2-10cm/1.8-4”

Width: 5-10cm/2-4”

Temperature: 20-30°C/68-86°F

pH: 6-7.5

With good light conditions and nutrient-rich substrate Pogostemon helferi forms many side shoots which develop small roots and the plant rapidly forms an impressive carpet. It is unusual and distinctive and has bright foliage.

Popular livestock choices for nano tanks

Cherry shrimp

Scientific name: Neocaridina heteropoda

Origin: Taiwan.

Size: Up to 2.5cm/1”

Conditions: 16-28°C/60-82°F (ideally 22-26°C/72-78°F), pH 6.5-7.5.

Diet: Algae, quality small granular or flake foods, or a specialist shrimp diet.

Notes: Prolific breeder and one of the easiest shrimp to keep. Avoid overdosing liquid carbon fertilisers or using copper-based medications. Prices for Cherry shrimp start at about £1.50.

Crystal red shrimp

Scientific name: Caridina cf. cantonensis.

Origin: Japan (wild ancestors from China, CRS are a colour morph of Crystal black or Black bee shrimps).

Size: Up to 2.5cm/1”

Conditions: 16-28°F/60-82°F (ideally 22-26°C/72-78°F), pH 6.5-7.5.

Diet: Algae, quality small granular or flake foods, or a specialist shrimp diet.

Notes: Not as hardy as Cherry shrimp, but breeding is well documented in captivity. High-grade specimens can sell for hundreds of pounds. Prices start at around £7 each.

What maintenance is needed?

To ensure environmental stability at least one 50% change should be carried out weekly with dechlorinated and temperature-adjusted water. With such small volumes any change in water chemistry could impact on the livestock, so there’s always a risk when using tapwater.  

Consider re-mineralised RO. Buying a large container from your local retailer could be cost effective, especially in aquariums smaller than 10 l/2.2 gal.

What plant species are suitable?

Mosses and small Anubias varieties are great, as these remain small and grow slowly, making them ideal for long-term aquascapes. Riccia is popular but requires more maintenance. Small crypts and hairgrass are ideal, with crypts needing less maintenance. Most stems plants are fast growing so aren’t great unless you’re an avid gardener!

What does ‘sense of scale’ mean?

From an aesthetic perspective it’s important to use finer textures and smaller fish in smaller aquariums. A large fish and big-leaved plant in a nano or pico tank would make the aquascape look disproportionately small.

Conversely, small fish and plant species would make the layout appear larger, due to a more appropriate sense of scale. This concept is particular useful for photography.

Can I use an external filter?

Yes. Glassware filter outlets and inlets ensure minimal visual disturbance and some manufacturers have designed products specifically for the nano market. A small external filter with flow reduced is fine for all but the smallest aquariums.

Can I use CO2 injection on a nano?

Again, yes. There are now specific kits for the nano market. However, it can prove safer and more economical to use a liquid carbon product, providing you don’t overdose – overdosing can be toxic to livestock, especially shrimp.

However, with some pressurised CO2 kits the gas dosage rate can vary with ambient temperature. This is rarely an issue in larger aquariums, but when dealing with volumes less than 12 l/2.6 gal, the consequences can prove deadly.

How to prepare potted plants

1. Remove pot from plants with your fingers. Trim away with scissors any large rootstock entangling the pots.

2. Remove mineral wool from roots. If this proves difficult try the process with the plant under water.

3. Split any bunches into separate plants. This gives maximum coverage over the substrate.

4. Prune back roots to around 1-2cm/0.4-0.8” to promote new root growth and make planting easier.

5. If preparing lots of plants set them out on a tray and keep them wet with a spray mister. Prepare all plants in one go to make best use of your time and plan where they are to be positioned.

6. Plant using tweezers and bury to roots at least 2.5cm/1” down.

Why not watch the video?

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