Water Treatments for Fish

Retailers can help hobbyists understand the different types of water treatment options.




What would you consider a water treatment product? Is it something that permanently or temporarily changes the water chemistry of an aquarium? For example, public water facilities in the U.S. routinely add chloramines to the water supply in order to kill unwanted and/or dangerous bacteria. Forty years ago, those same companies only added chlorine. I was living in Philadelphia when the water department made the switch, and I watched as disaster struck.


Days after the city switched over to chloramines, tropical fish keepers who had just cleaned their tanks or changed the water watched as their aquatic pets began dying mysteriously. See, the problem with chloramine is that it contains both chlorine (deadly to fish) and ammonia (also deadly to fish). Back in the 1960’s, there was only one product on the market that worked to deactivate ammonia and remove the chlorine.


It took almost two weeks for the city to issue a warning to pet shops and the fish-keeping public. In the meantime, everyone was scrambling to find a water treatment that could save their fish. A number of retailers banded together to sue the city for failure to warn customers of the danger to their fish. There was an immediate backlash from the public. Even people without aquariums started to worry for themselves, their families and their other pets. Was chloramine safe for human and animal consumption? That battle raged on for months.


The only people who were unaffected were well water users and, strangely enough, hobbyists with marine tanks. It turned out that converting tap water to salt water also deactivated the ammonia. It took over a year for the word to spread that a new type of deactivation was needed for water that was going into aquariums. Back then, there were no RO/DI devices for aquariums. They were used primarily in hospitals and/or dialysis clinics. These days, RO/DI technology is much easier to access.


Let’s say a customer walks into an aquatics store and buys 20 gallons of unsalted RO/DI water. He takes it back home and proceeds to do a water change in his freshwater 55-gallon aquarium. Since the water has basically zero ingredients, except for H2O, it is now unsafe for freshwater tanks. It’s fine for marine environments, however, since the added salt contains most chemicals necessary to sustain life. Raw or distilled water contains nothing but H2O, which is a problem because fish need to absorb the minerals in water through their skin and gills. All aquatic stores should issue a warning or post a sign that explains if a customer wants to use RO/DI water for a fresh or brackish environment, they will need to re-mineralize the water before use. Luckily, there are products on the market that will take care of that for you. You should most definitely carry and sell them. I would put a display of these next to the stations where customers fill their water jugs.


Let’s move on to the concept of marine salt being—or not being—a water treatment. Perhaps, if you live in Miami, where shops have sold marine water directly from the ocean for years, it’s debatable. And, by the way, that water is micron-filtered to remove everything but chemicals. Shops that specialize in reef sales make a high percentage of their income by selling RO/DI water, marine salt and marine supplements. Hard, stony or reef-building corals extract minerals and organics from the water that must be replenished. Without adding these “water treatments,” the coral stops growing and it would eventually perish. The question arises, are these products water treatment items or water supplement items?


The one thing I am certain of is the need to use a chloramine remover before putting freshwater fish in a new tank. Both RO/DI processes and chloramine removers are definitely forms of water treatment. In those cases, the water is having compounds or elements removed by a chemical or physical technique. Extrapolating this theory, the use of UV-sterilization and protein skimming are also forms of water treatment. Now, we are ranging far afield but as a savvy retailer, you can see the benefit in calling these devices water treatment facilitators.


Protein skimmers only work well in marine or brackish habitats, but UV-sterilizers can be employed in both freshwater and saltwater environments. In fact, aquatic garden set-ups benefit a great deal from UV use since it clarifies the water by killing algae spores. And, of course, we could take this one step further by suggesting that all types of filtration are forms of water treatment, but we’ll stop right there. A filter filters something out of the water, water treatments remove something from the water.


In your store, there are items that can, obviously, be called water treatment chemicals: marine supplements, chloramine removers, pH and hardness buffers, peat extracts for creating black-water habitats, aquatic plant fertilizers, activated charcoal, activated resins, etc. These can all be displayed together, but separate the strictly marine products from the freshwater, for many people are not knowledgeable enough to know the difference. How about this concept: “Aquarium Improvement Products.” Think of it as “Home Improvement Products,” but for aquatic hobbyists. This category opens up a wide range of things, such as aquarium cleaning kits and tools, water changing devices, aquarium magnets, etc.


Everyone wants their tank to look better and their fish to be healthy, but most people don’t know how to make that happen. With proper education from knowledgeable sales associates and a great selection of self-help products, every customer who walks through your door can be a successful aquarist. It requires a little work on their part and a lot of dedication on yours. If you own an aquatics store, it should be because you love the hobby. It’s a great way to make a living and an even better way to spread the gospel of the aquatic experience. Education is key, so offer self-help classes on a regular basis. Most people don’t understand water chemistry—that’s a good place to start.  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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