Avoiding Troubled Waters

Water quality is a crucial aspect of maintaining an aquarium, and many hobbyists need a major assist from their local pet specialty retailers to get it right.



Water quality is often the last thing that many fishkeepers think about when setting up or maintaining their aquariums. In fact, a lack of knowledge among many hobbyists concerning the specific habitat requirements of the fish they keep is not uncommon. However, just like people, fish need good, healthy water that matches the individual requirements for the fish being kept—whether they are freshwater tropical, freshwater non-tropical, brackish-water tropical or marine tropical fish. It is, therefore, imperative that pet specialty retailers and their staff be well versed in fish husbandry and willing and able to share what they know with their customers.

Water quality has everything to do with meeting the habitat requirements of the fish being maintained. Many customers believe that tap water—with the addition of a few drops of some magical liquid—is perfectly safe for any freshwater fish they purchase. However, depending on where you are located in the country, water quality can be extremely variable. For example, in most of Florida, public water facilities deliver water that is very hard and alkaline, which is not ideal for a large number of tropical fish. 

In contrast, New York generally has water that is soft (low hardness) and, at best, neutral in pH. This water tastes great and blackwater fish will prosper, but it has few minerals to buffer the water chemistry and keep the pH from dropping into a dangerous range. Without frequent partial water changes, the pH can flip and plummet precipitously into the danger zone. So, since not all water is created equal, many people use water treated by reverse osmosis and deionization (RO/DI).

If you strip water of its extraneous compounds, you get down to pure water. This water is basically distilled, and it will kill virtually any fish placed in it if it is not reconstituted with the addition of chemicals that you wish to have present. Coral tanks almost exclusively use RO/DI water, which is brought to the desired levels with expensive reef salt mixes. Even the best of these must be supplemented, however, as both corals and fish extract vitamins and minerals from the water over a period of time.

Fish in the freshwater realm can also assimilate certain compounds that may not be available through their diets. A varied selection of foods is always preferable over a single-item regimen. Diets should be variable; water quality should not. When water chemistry is not right, fish can suffer, but it’s not always easy to tell. The only way to control water quality is to constantly monitor the physical and chemical parameters of the water. This is easier if you are running systems in your store. You will have fewer tests to make that way. Still, I am not a fan of extensive systems since there is too much of a chance for contamination due to parasites or disease, not to mention the obvious: water quality needs to vary to match the fish’s needs, not yours.

Every fish tank in your store should have certain critical water parameters checked on a weekly basis. The easiest thing to monitor is the temperature, so don’t neglect it for the other more sophisticated parameters. In the case of marine and brackish environments, that goes for the specific gravity as well. Anything that can be accomplished merely by taking a digital reading is a no-brainer.

If you spend a little money on the proper equipment, you can determine water chemistry quickly and accurately. Knowledge is power, and having this information will tell you when a water change is necessary. Just be certain that the person running the tests knows what he/she is doing. Once water is changed, it must be reconstituted to the proper values, and this is best accomplished by an experienced employee who is familiar with the fish in question. For example, hybrid discus versus wild-caught specimens will have widely different requirements.

Every store could probably easily double their sales of water quality products if they make the effort to show their customers just how important these items are. Success in fishkeeping is rarely a guessing game. It requires a dedication to proper care: don’t overcrowd, keep compatible fish together, feed a varied diet, maintain correct water quality, take the time to observe activities in the tank and run water quality tests on a regular basis.

Around the turn of the century—the twentieth century, that is—the relatively new hobby of aquarium keeping strived to create balanced habitats that were able to maintain perfect water chemistry through a delicate balance. Needless to say, this proved very difficult to actually accomplish. It was prior to the days of powered pumps, filters and lights, so it was almost like trying to imitate nature. It did not take long for some quick-thinking inventors to change all that. Water quality is a lot easier to control if you have the right tools to do it. Strangely enough, the most effective method was available even back then, just as it is today. Change the water regularly, and water quality problems will become a problem you no longer have to deal with. 

Most of your customers will have to come to grips with the fact that no matter how well they filter their tanks, water changes are going to be necessary. As far as helping customers with this task, retailers can put together kits that include buckets, drain and fill hoses and connectors to faucets. These items exist but not as a single complete kit. Throw in testing kits for water quality and the package is virtually complete. The only essential items that remain are water treatment chemicals. Retailers can also offer one kit for freshwater and another for marine. The sky is the limit, and a strong entrepreneurial spirit may just add significantly to your bottom line.

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


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