Looking Into Water Treatments

When it comes to water treatments, fish hobbyists who can position themselves as experts in the field will see the most success.




Recently, I had a phone call from someone I didn’t know with a question I couldn’t answer. It took some time and conversation to get to the heart of the matter, which was what the caller could use to raise the ammonia level in their aquarium. My reply was (hopefully) thoughtful and not judgmental.

I explained that ammonia in aquariums is best kept as low as possible, as it’s dangerous to the fish if it gets too high, so the caller likely meant another water parameter. The caller explained that another pet shop told him his ammonia was too low and he should consider adding chemicals. I explained that they likely meant alkalinity and asked if the aquarium was recently set up. It wasn’t, and had actually been in operation for several years. Now, I was as stumped as the caller. I asked them to come in but, of course, I have no idea if they ever did.

It’s impossible to offer good advice about a customer’s tank over the phone if you don’t have a water sample and a good photo of the water the setup looks like. Virtual doctor visits may work for humans, but virtual advice for fish tanks is highly suspect. The moral of the story is to never take for granted the level of knowledge present in anyone working in a pet/fish store or any customer.

I strongly encourage every customer to purchase a full spectrum test kit so they can keep close tables on their aquarium’s water chemistry. Even if they take this step, self-medication is rarely a good idea. You should have signage in your store right at the front that reads, “The Fish Doctor and Water Chemist is (IN/OUT). They are here to answer your questions and solve your aquatic problems.” If they’re out, list the time and day that the expert will return.

This sort of system is something the big box and chain stores don’t offer, and it will bond you with customers in a way you never dreamed possible. Of course, the person or personnel that provides this service must wear a badge or another identifiable device so customers know who to look for. If you don’t have a fish expert in stores—besides yourself, of course—shame on you.

Professionals are highly welcomed in the retail phase of this business. In fact, you can’t really have a great shop unless your employees are well-trained and have personal experience in the fish hobby.

Concerns About Price
When it comes to recommending the equipment and materials needed to set up and maintain a healthy aquarium, the cost varies greatly depending upon quality. Most customers will select items in the middle range because they believe these will be perfectly sufficient to get the job done. Where this philosophy fails most frequently is in the water treatment category. Trust me when I tell you that all water testing chemicals and kits are not created equal.

My degree in chemistry is a major asset when it comes to judging the efficacy of this category. For retailers, I highly recommend water testing kits produced by well-known firms for industrial and educational institutions. If you can afford it, buy your store an assortment of light-weight, portable digital meters, colorimeters and photometers for water testing. This will be much more cost efficient than using consumable testing chemicals.

In the marine department, I have successfully sold a variety of high-end water testing kits accompanied by equally effective, lab-certified chemicals. Reef hobbyists are frequently willing to spend whatever it takes to maintain their coral in pristine condition. Using professional-grade chemicals and measuring devices is definitely the way to go if you are a “destination” reef shop. Otherwise, for freshwater habitats or casual marine fish enthusiasts, you can fall back to the less expensive spectrum of products.

Please allow me to bemoan the sad state of affairs when it comes to the selection of products available to treat so-called “diseases” of fish. It would seem the FDA has continued to erode the list of chemicals and medications that can be sold to the public. It continues to amaze me how they do this in the name of “protecting” the public while pet fish suffer from maladies that could easily be cured if the proper medications were available.

Perhaps the solution to this is to visit a veterinarian and obtain a prescription. Unfortunately, few vets are willing to prescribe drugs without seeing the patient. This is when virtual doctor visits work for fish hobbyists.

And let’s not forget the hydroxychloroquine fiasco. Anyone lacking the common sense not to take a drug meant for fishes is definitely not qualified to own an aquarium. Drugs are nothing to be messed with and their administration to an aquarium should be carried out strictly according to the instructions on the packages.

Steps to Change
Join me in my time machine and let’s travel back to the past. The late 20’s after WWI should be far enough. Back then, public water systems were adding chlorine to the water to kill bacteria and possibly other pathogens, and very few localities started using chloramines as early as 1929.

Widespread use of this chemical did not occur until well into the mid-60’s. It was then that hobbyists started losing fish every time they did a water change. Thankfully, the transition was not a total debacle and our industry adjusted fairly rapidly. Today, practically everyone who uses water from metropolitan water systems must add chemicals to tap water or they will lose fish whenever they change water. Even the use of these water treatment products is a trade-off, for they only remove the chlorine (it escapes as a gas).

The ammonia remains bound up chemically in complex molecules. This ammonia might be converted to pure NH3 if the water chemistry in a tank flips. The best way for the average fish keeper to remove ammonia is to use activated carbon and water softening resins. Unfortunately, this reduces the alkalinity and pH to a level lower than most fish can tolerate.

When water is changed in an aquarium, it’s usually a good idea to add some marine salt to maintain a proper level of water harness or alkalinity. Everything really depends on what fish are being kept. Wild-caught fish from black-water rivers will not appreciate the addition of marine salt. Rift Lake cichlids from Lake Tanganyika and Lake Malawi can easily handle a teaspoon of marine salt per gallon. You will undoubtedly be familiar with Rift Lake salts and other similar water treatment products for specific types of environments.

Perhaps you will choose to sell so-called Betta Water or the latest and greatest Shrimp Water. If you can sell these products, I suppose you would be foolish not to carry them. If you opt for this route, please do some research to make certain you explain the benefits to your customers.

Now, many of you may not realize that selling RO/DI water is just another way to sell water treatments. In this case, you treat the water, not the consumer. How brilliant is it to make money by selling what I like to call RAW water. Even the marine segment of the trade is starting to produce “ready-made” sea water. There’s more profit for you if you do it yourself.

While we are on the subject of saltwater, do not forget that marine salt is without a doubt your best moneymaker in the water treatment category. I recommend you carry a minimum of three levels of marine salt. The basic salt will be fine, for fish-only aquariums. Of course, you can throw in members of the common clean-up crew—snails and crabs. Your second or mid-level salt should be sold for mixed fish and coral tanks in which there are few, if any, demanding soft or stony corals. Finally, for the real coral-heads, offer a premium salt that gives you all the bells and whistles necessary to maintain and grow stony corals such as Acropora, Goniopora and elegance. On the other hand, Dendronephthya species will need more than a premium salt to keep them alive and growing.

You must add a “green soup” of plankton to the water, if you wish to be successful. This is an area into which few aquatic shops dare to go. Yes, it’s possible to sell start-up cultures of live plankton to your customers. It will then be their responsibility, however, to keep these cultures active and constantly producing more plankton. This requires some level of sophistication including the use of a microscope, so you can keep track of the concentration of plankton in the water.

Well, as you see, water treatments vary greatly depending on the needs of each individual customer. For this reason, your sales associates should obtain as much information as possible from people before they make suggestions or recommendations  as to what products may be beneficial.  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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