These tanks used filters, substrates and air. Nitrates and ammonias would rise weekly, and water changes were absolutely necessary. The substrate would need replacing after about 1 year due to fouling with detritus and rotten plant roots. The filter would become clogged with detritus and nitrifying bacteria every month. I no longer have these problems, and can go for weeks without water change as long as I have an abundance of healthy floating plants. They clean the water beautifully.
Some of my 10g tanks before I went all NFSA on them: