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Re: Newbie Design Challenge

The challenge is that I have about a $1000 approved startup budget. $400 of
that is being spent procuring good (?) lights.

You can get excellent lighting for that size tank with $400. Even a pair of MH pendents can be had for that if you're careful. A pair of MH pendents will do an excellent job lighting a standard 120g tank, assuming the usual 2x4 foot footprint.

2x 192w dual bulb Jalli Deluxe power compact (w/ 4x 7100K 96W)

Are these your initial fixtures or the fixtures you've purchased using that $400 allotment you mentioned earlier? If these are your current fixtures you don't need to worry -- you'll have enough light to grow just about anything.

I am hoping with the $600 remaining budget I can take care of all the above
needs in a long-term way, so that I can eventually get a CO2 system going
and grow just about anything.

Invest a lot in the substrate. The substrate is a one-time cost, and it has to be done right the first time since you can't easily change it later. Plants, and fish (and those algae eaters are fish too :-) can be added as you go and don't have to be purchased all at once. If you have to spend $300 on Flourite I think that would be a very wise investment. CO2 should be one of your initial purchases. A basic system doesn't need to cost more than maybe $100-150 if you're careful and DIY some of it.

I have found plenty of info on what kind of fish and algae eaters to get
(except I still don't know where to find true SAEs), but I am still unclear
on the plants and substrate.

I've bought SAEs on several occasions from http://www.aquariumfish.net. They are small (1.5" or so), and they upped the price a bit recently, but they are the true SAEs. The same place also has otos, but those little guys don't seem to ship very well so you'd be better off trying to find otos (otocinclus) locally. Otos are a good fish to keep in a planted tank as well as SAEs.

In an ideal world, it seems like I would want 100% flourite, but by my
calculations, covering 1450 sq in, 3 in. deep will cost around $250-350. I
have read that 50/50 with sandblasting sand is good, but that is still
pretty expensive. I've read about TexBlast mixed with laterite which sounds
affordable. I am still a little unclear on how to use laterite. How much
would I need? What maintenance is required for laterite?

The investment in flourite will last for many, many years, and is probably one of the best investments you could make in your planted tank setup. Laterite has it's own section on the Krib at http://www.thekrib.com. There is a lot of detail there. Basically you mix the laterite in with the lower 1/3 or so of the gravel (the laterite itself is a powder). It should last years, but can need to be replenished in a long-term setup.

So I guess my main question is, given no plated tank experience, what would
you do given the available budget?
Read the archives on the Krib to get a feel for what you're going to need to buy and what you'll need to do over time to keep your tank running. Then post questions here when you start running your tank. As for the equipment you mention, it sounds like CO2 and a good substrate are the only things you need to buy before you start running your tank.

What substrate/combo gives the most bang for the buck?

100% Flourite is well worth the money IMHO. Several others on this list that are well respected here will most likely tell you the same thing.

Where can I order SAEs?
http://www.aquariumfish.net has had them. Not sure if they still do, but they have a search tool (type in "SAE") that will show you quickly if they have them or not. They used to get something around $1.50 to $2.50 per fish. Uncle Ned's Fish Factory has also had SAEs before.

What kind of plants will grow with the above lighting, and won't die without
injected CO2?

Amazon Swords, the easier Cabomba species, hornwort, most crypts should be OK. Java moss is easy too. Without CO2 you're going to have a difficult time with any of the more difficult plants.

Where can I get a large assortment of such plants to fill a 120g tank? How
many of what types do I need?

Take a day and travel to all your LFSes and see what they have. Lots of people on this list occasionally offer cuttings free to good homes. In a month or two I'll probably have 100+ small Amazon swords from one of mine that has grown about 8 runners out of it's tank at the moment. Some of those will probably go to list members here after the plantlets are large enough to live independently from the parent plant. There are numerous listings on Ebay for live plants, and many local aquarium clubs have auctions where plants are for sale.

You probably want to start with easy fast growing plants when you first set up your tank. Later, when your tank is established, you can start adding more difficult species. CO2 is going to allow you better success with a wider variety of plants too.

How many of which scavengers do I need? Is there a science to getting X
amount of X type per gallon or something?

Depends on your tank and how you run it :-) I'd probably put in 15-20 otos, maybe 6-10 SAEs, and a few small catfish to help with food leftovers that fall to the substrate. There is a lot of flexibility here. And remember that it's easy to add a few more later if you don't think you have enough.




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