Selling Reef Products

Retailers who cater to reef enthusiasts should must carry a good selection of items in the most popular reef product categories.


In the history of the aquarium hobby, there has never been a segment of the aquatics trade that changes more quickly than reef aquariums. Every year, there is a new crop of products that miraculously spring up to meet needs–both real and imagined. 

At Global Pet Expo this year, I had the opportunity to examine many old and new items in the reef aquarium arena. Most independent pet retailers would be overwhelmed if they tried to stock all the merchandise targeted at the reef hobby. This means it is a real challenge to select the products to carry. There are many things to take into consideration, but nothing is more important than the customers who frequent the store. Strive to carry items that meet their needs. These may or may not be the latest and greatest innovations in the reef field.

Food Items
Believe it or not, food is an important concern in the reef aquarium. While a few enthusiasts swear they never feed their corals, the majority of hobbyists offer a wide variety of products to the corals in their tanks. This is necessary since different types of corals feed on different items. A few species of coral can feed on the exact same food that is offered to the fish in the tank. These so-called “macro-feeders” can actually assimilate large pieces of food. Many corals cannot utilize these large bits, however, they require something much smaller. These corals are deemed “micro-feeders,” and they are quite common to reef aquariums. To feed these, one will need small, almost microscopic particles-phytoplankton, rotifers and micro-species of krill come to mind. Fortunately, the marine trade has risen to the challenge and these products are (or will soon be) available in live form. Customers will soon be able to choose from live or frozen micro-foods to nourish their corals. There are even combo-foods being offered that will feed both fish and corals.

Finally, the more delicate corals (at least in the aquarium) are the “solution-feeders,” and they can survive on nothing more than chemicals and light. Well, it’s not really that simple, but it would seem to be. All a reef keeper needs to do is add various reef-building chemicals on a regular basis. This will supply the coral with what it needs to thrive and grow. Of course, the light also has to be right. 

Light Fixtures & Bulbs
For the beginner, there is nothing more confusing than the spectrum of lighting options available. Very few people want to keep their corals outdoors where they can be exposed to the level of natural sunlight necessary to keep them healthy. Instead, years of research have gone into developing lighting systems for reef aquariums. 

There is no such thing as a perfect lighting system, and there will be drawbacks to any fixtures chosen. Many European hobbyists prefer strictly halogen lighting, which seems to do the job for them. The intense heat produced by bulbs ranging up to 1200-watts demands that chillers be used to prevent over-heating of the water. Likewise, massive fans are necessary to carry away as much warm air as possible. 

Most American aquarists are selecting fixtures with both halogen and actinic bulbs. These combos produce light with a full spectrum, without generating as much heat as halogens alone. Still, cooling fans must be used and close attention should be paid to the water temperature. Anything above 78?F is detrimental to many captive corals.

Chillers are not as much of a necessity as lights, so closely manage the number of chillers on the shelf at any given time. The bottom line is that chillers may sit around a long time before they are sold. Don’t tie up too much money in chillers, but encourage their use. Every marine system in the shop should have a chiller that customers can inspect to see how it works. 

There are two basic types of chillers– flow-through and drop-in. I am a fan of drop-ins since they require little or no plumbing. Both options will generate a lot of heat, and the hot air must be blown away from the tank. Since lights and chillers are both heat sources, try to keep them out of cabinets and canopies where heat can build up.

With all the light generated by the high-powered bulbs, it is sometimes difficult to control algae in a reef aquarium. This can be held in check with a few fish that are primarily vegetarians, such as tangs, rabbitfish and algae-blennies. Algae in the water column, however, must be dealt with by using a UV-sterilizer. UV devices will also greatly reduce the chance for parasitic infestations of the fish and decrease bacteria levels in the water. 

Recently, a new UV-sterilizer has come on the market. I like to call it “UV for dummies.” The kit includes everything needed to make the device work–the bulb, the chamber, a power head and a transformer. There is no need to go to the hardware store to look for fittings and/or hoses. The power head is matched perfectly to the UV-wattage, so the flow rate is optimal. When the bulb is outdated, an entirely new bulb ensemble replaces it.

Protein Skimmers
Most reef tank keepers are feeding both fish and coral, which can generate dangerous compounds that should be removed. This is why a protein skimmer is an essential part of every reef tank. Large protein skimmers will be needed for aquariums with heavy fish loads, but a small skimmer can handle a small biomass of fish. Also, don’t forget the impact that large quantities of live rock can have on a system.

Where should a skimmer be positioned to be most effective? Well, most people like to hide the skimmer since it is “unsightly,” but if you can’t see what the skimmer is doing, you are asking for trouble. A skimmer in a sump leaves little room for other equipment so I avoid this choice completely. Hanging it on the back is a really good choice. Never allow a skimmer cup to overflow, even if there is an overflow tube leading to a reservoir. That’s for emergencies, not for being lazy.

The single most important element in a reef aquarium is salt. There are cheap mixes, average brands and high-end products. Certainly a “reef” salt sounds better than a “non-reef” formula, but chemicals are going to be added to the tank no matter what. Worry more about the water being used to make the salt mixture than the salt itself. Encourage the use of only RO/DI water, which starts everything off on a level playing field.

The best investment a reef hobbyist can make is purchasing a refractometer and a master test kit specifically designed for reef tanks. Weekly readings should be taken and logged into a journal that details the life of the tank. This will be an invaluable tool when evaluating why a particular coral did (or did not) survive its introduction into a tank. 

Finally, every store should stock supplements. Not all supplements are created equal, and without a thorough understanding of reef chemistry, they may be being used improperly. If chemical parameters are off, consider switching supplements. 

Edward C. Taylor has been in the pet industry for over 30 years as a retailer, live fish importer & wholesaler, & fish-hatchery manager.

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