More Than Meets the Eye

The complexities of aquarium water quality aren’t clear to the average fishkeeping hobbyist, so retailers need to be a reliable source of information and helpful products.


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I would say I understand water quality better than most, after earning a degree in chemistry, working in the commercial water treatment industry and finally, but most importantly, working with tropical and marine ornamental fishes for more than 50 years. All this experience has taught me a few things that you don’t learn casually.

 

As a perfect example, after recently arriving home from a three-day trip, I was feeding my fish when I noticed that one tank was not eating with gusto. It was a 75-gallon tank with about 300 juvenile jewel cichlids, a rare species from the Congo River. This many ravenous fry should have destroyed the food, but they let at least a third of it sink to the substrate. There was no way this should be happening. I immediately checked the pH and ammonia levels. Ouch! The pH was 6.1 and the ammonia was 2.0. I changed 75 percent of the water, cleaned both overflow filters and added plenty of marine buffer. By the next day, they were back to normal.

 

Unfortunately, most people don’t know enough about fish behavior to know how it is affected by water quality, as my example demonstrates. With this in mind, shop owners must be versed in both water quality chemistry and fish behavior, as both go hand-in-hand in maintaining healthy tanks and healthy fish. Water quality has to be explained in detail, and even then some customers may not initially grasp its importance.

 

Retailers should explain that if you take a healthy fish and put it in an unhealthy tank, it will quickly go downhill. Never add fish to a tank if you are uncertain of the water quality. New additions require testing of multiple parameters, both chemical and physical. First, the water temperature should be checked. If the tank is brackish or marine, always determine the specific gravity. Next, test the pH. If this is acceptable for the fish in question, you might stop there, but better to be safe than sorry—proceed to nitrate, nitrite and ammonia levels. I also check the GH for pure freshwater tanks and the KH for anything from Rift Lake cichlids to brackish to marine.

 

A customer may say, “Well, all the fish I want to buy from your store look healthy. My fish at home are healthy. Why do I need to check the water quality of my tank?” You need to be prepared to answer this question.

 

Since your customers are bound to have varying amounts of chemistry knowledge, start with the basics. Compare their home’s tap water to water from a stream near their house. Fish in the stream appear to be healthy, and fish in their home aquarium appear to be healthy, making it appear that the water in both locations must be generally safe. But it is not and, in fact, it’s more likely the tap water will kill their aquarium fish than water from the stream.

 

Around the United States, tap water varies dramatically in quality. In Florida, for example, all the water comes from the underground Florida Aquifer. It is hard and alkaline and almost undrinkable due to dissolved minerals. Most Florida residents prefer bottled water. Still, many tropicals are raised on Florida fish farms. These species either prefer such water or over a long period of time, the strains have adapted to it. What about a really big city like New York City, dirty and polluted and full of people? That water comes from upstate New York’s pristine lakes and rivers and has been voted some of the best drinking water in the country.

 

The moral of this story is you can’t judge the quality of municipal tap water by where it comes from. Additionally, water companies put chemicals in tap water that kill bacteria and some parasites that can infect humans, but these chemicals are toxic to fish. You should supply specifics to all customers on the chemical parameters of local tap water and offer suggestions on how your customers can deal with this information. In most cases, marine enthusiasts will prefer RO/DI treated water, which you should sell to them in both freshwater and saltwater forms—more money for you and less hassle for them.

 

Tell customers that if they are starting a new aquarium, they should seed the water with beneficial bacteria, which are helpful in starting the nitrogen cycle. Explain that fish produce waste, which is very heavy on the ammonia side. You need beneficial bacteria to break down the toxic ammonia into nitrite, which is still toxic, but not as much. Then the same bacteria break down the nitrite to nitrate, which is relatively non-toxic. But you can only let it build up so much, and then you must get rid of it as well. You accomplish this by changing 20 to 25 percent of the water in an aquarium every two weeks.

 

Everything depends on fish load, frequency of feeding, food being fed and individual fish’s tolerances for levels of pollutants in the water. The best thing in the world to ensure adequate water quality in an aquarium is restraint—don’t overload an aquarium and you are less likely to have water quality problems.

 

There is one more important thing you must teach almost every customer who walks through the door. Fish come from all over the world, and while their habitats may be similar, they are rarely identical. For example, there are around 22 to 25 species of fish in the genus Betta. We all know bettas as the Siamese fighting fish—Betta splendens—but what about all the other species? Do they all like the same water quality? The answer is a resounding no. Retailers need to understand these nuances when advising a customer on the conditions their aquarium should have.

 

Most stores do not sell nearly enough water quality products, despite the fact that there are typically shelves full of these items, simply because of a lack of information. There is no more valuable help you can give your customers than preparing a small pamphlet as a handout that explains the importance of water quality. Present a specific list of products a person should buy when setting up a new tank, and supply a different list for people maintaining a pre-existing aquarium.

 

Retailers should be selective in choosing which water quality products to have on their shelves. Many companies make products designed to enhance water quality, but a lot of these are unnecessary and a few are totally worthless. The worst thing you can do is tell your employees to push products on consumers when you know they are totally unnecessary for the success of the aquarium. The best thing you can do is make your customers feel comfortable by telling them the truth about these items and guiding them toward the products that will help them keep their aquarium healthy. PB

 

Edward C. Taylor has been in the pet industry for more than 40 years as a retailer, live fish importer and wholesaler, and fish-hatchery manager.

 

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