Pump Up the Volume

Although pumps and filters aren't the most thrilling products in the aquatics department, clever merchandising and an informed sales staff can propel sales skyward.


Sometimes livestock sells itself—it can be new, intriguing, beautiful and rare. This almost never happens with utilitarian equipment such as pumps and filters. With the right assortment of products, strong merchandising and a little ingenuity, however, retailers can make the category pop.

Pumps and filters may not be the most exciting merchandise, but they are essential to the hobby. Still, retailers may need to generate some excitement in the category to draw in potential customers. The best way to do this is with displays that showcase new products. Many companies provide promotional setups in order to introduce their latest and greatest concepts. When these are not available, retailers can get creative and design their own eye-catching exhibits. Exhibits that incorporate livestock in some way will be the most effective. Everyone likes to look at a pretty face—even if it is on a fish.

Consider this strategy when you want to highlight a filter on the market that you feel is under-appreciated by your customers. From personal experience, I offer the following example. For four years I have maintained a 125-gallon Rift Lake community tank as a display using only two large overflow power filters. I also employ a UV-sterilizer to keep the water crystal clear and two air stones to increase the dissolved oxygen level. The tank has numerous large predatory haplochromines, including trout cichlids and hawkbills. Until recently, it never occurred to me that this tank is a testimonial to the efficiency of these filters. So, I created new signage to call attention to the display and ran an in-store special on the filters for four weeks. Customers bought four times the number of units usually sold. This approach to sales requires a bit of work and creativity, but it is almost always successful.

Retailers will also have to flex that creative muscle to sell “internal” power filters. Many stores don’t even stock them at all, primarily because they are difficult to merchandise effectively. It takes inventive displays to show these filters at their best. In situations where it is critical that no elements be extraneous to the aquarium, these filters are the only choices. They are fully contained and can be easily hidden behind décor items. Just like box and sponge filters, they take up space in tanks, but they provide an option where external space is a limiting factor.

A trend that is indeed taking off in aquatics and that retailers should factor into the equation is miniaturization. Nano-environments are self-contained units with lights, filters, pumps, heaters and everything else stuffed into a tight space. The pumps in these units are proprietary, and you should carry a few of each type, just in case your customers experience emergencies. I would display them prominently behind glass to ensure they don’t wander off in customer’s pockets. If you have a display of nano-tanks, be certain to note with signage that you carry a full line of replacement parts.

Getting Them Pumped

Many customers seem to be confused about the use of pumps in and around the aquarium. It’s really fairly simple, as long as people can understand that some pumps are used to circulate water inside tanks and others are best employed to move water outside the tanks. I prefer to classify water pumps into three categories: power heads, internal recirculating and external recirculating.

Power heads can be used in three ways: to provide a directional water current inside a tank; as water pumps that sit on the uplift tubes of undergravel filters; and as pumps that return water from an external source back to the tank (examples: wet/dry filters, UV-sterilizers and external canister filters without internal pumps). Unfortunately, two of these tasks are better accomplished by pumps with more modern design and/or higher output. The original function of the power head was to run undergravel filters instead of using aeration. Since these UG-filters are all but extinct, the point is moot. My evaluation of power heads is that they do a good job on small UV-units and in providing unidirectional non-pulsing water flow in a tank.

Internal recirculating pumps are primarily employed in reef tanks to promote water flow that mimics that on a coral reef. This requires them to start and stop many times a day. Some of these devices actually rotate to change the direction of the water flow. The newer versions of these pumps are dedicated to electronic controllers that program their functions. All of this technology comes at a price that many “reefers” are quite willing to pay.

The most versatile category of pumps is external recirculating pumps. These are used in wet/dry filters to return water back to the tanks. They will also drive external UV-units as well as unpowered canister filters. Furthermore, many of these external pumps can be used either in water or out of water. Wet/dry sumps with a bulkhead on the pump chamber are designed to run the pump outside the sump. In this case, pump vibrations must be carefully reduced so the bulkhead does not loosen up over time. Also, a pump that is located outside the aquatic environment does not add heat to the water. This is an important consideration when you take into account the amount of heat generated by many reef lights.

There is yet another area to look at when it comes to water pumps. In the marine environment, protein skimmers are a necessity, and they are run by water pumps. I am not certain, however, that I could say that protein skimmer pumps fall into any of the three categories I have mentioned.

First of all, the skimmer principle requires the generation of massive quantities of small air bubbles. In the old days, wooden air stones were used in a typical skimmer assemblage. These worked okay, but they were hard to control and the wooden stones would clog up rather quickly. Segue to the modern skimmers of today, and we are taking about a vortex skimmer that works by sucking water and air through a restricted space. This is called the Venturi principle and it works really well—except when it doesn’t work.

There are many companies making protein skimmers, and they either come with a pump or they don’t. Either way, the pump that ends up on a protein skimmer has to be right for that particular brand, size or design. I have found that some pumps supplied with skimmers do not work that well. This could be the fault of the skimmer manufacturer for simply not selecting the correct pump. Then again, it might be the fact that the design of the protein skimmer leaves something to be desired.

There are protein skimmers that hang on an aquarium, skimmers that are located in the sump and even remote skimmers that have their own tank. In this case, water flows out of the reef tank into the holding tank, where it is then processed by the dedicated skimmer pump and then returned to the main tank by another water pump. All of this requires some very careful tweaking or the skimmer will stop working and the holding tank water level can be compromised. Probably the safest technique is to use a Berlin sump where the center section is strictly reserved for a protein skimmer. Any way you look at it, a device to keep the water level in the wet/dry from going too low is extremely important. This means you need an auto-refill kit.

Water pumps for protein skimmers usually have a needle impeller that generates large quantities of bubbles. These are notorious for hanging up if the power blinks or goes out briefly. The design of the pump is critical in this case if integrity of flow is to be maintained. My recommendation is to find a brand of skimmer with the most reliable pump and sell it to the exclusion of others.

So, there is more to pumps and filters than meets the eye. In order to make money on these very important items, you should understand how they function and which ones are used to best advantage in varying applications.

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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