In Deep Water

Hobbyists need to understand how important water chemistry is to the health of their aquariums, and retailers should be prepared to help.


All water is wet, but other than that, it is the only thing you can be certain of when dealing with water. Every water source will yield water with varying characteristics—both physical and chemical. This means that every aquarium will have parameters unique to that environment.

Let’s get fancy and call it the “terroir” of the tank. Terroir is a French word that describes the ensemble of things that effect how grapes grow in a vineyard. Wineries speak of the terroir of certain types of grapes on their property. Obviously, the terroir affects the taste of the grapes, and ultimately, the taste of the wine. So it is with aquariums. The tank terroir affects everything living inside the aquarium. It is obvious that water is the biggest part of this terroir—the water that goes into the tank initially and the changes that are made to that water by conditions in the tank environment.

Water chemistry is an extremely complex subject that is rarely given the respect it deserves, but the category offers retailers the opportunity to profit from both sales and services. On one hand, retailers can provide services when customers need help diagnosing a problem, solving a problem, changing out the water or setting up a tank. On the other hand, of course, retailers should be able to supply tank owners all they need to address water chemistry issues and keep their tanks thriving.

One basic service retailers can provide is water testing. Most people with a tank do not concern themselves with something as mundane as the water—until, of course, something goes wrong, and then they rush to your store seeking solutions to their emergencies.

Customers that encounter a tank disaster should be encouraged to bring in water sample for analysis. They should be certain to collect at least a pint of water and place it in a container that has never been used. Pristine glass containers are the best choice. Customers also need to be advised to leave an inch or more of space between the water’s surface and the lid, and to not let the container sit in a hot car. Alternatively, tank owners can put the water inside a ziplock bag inside a container if they don’t have any unused containers.

Most tank emergencies can be rectified by simply changing the water, as much of it as possible. This usually means that filters must be turned off and heaters need to be unplugged. The tank owner also has to have a reasonable way to get the water out of the tanks—and back in. Water changes also requires some tools—a siphon hose with a gravel washer, several five-gallon buckets and a place to dump the water.

The next step requires water conditioner to remove chloramines, a thermometer, several buckets and a means of getting water directly into a five-gallon bucket. An outdoor water source does not work because the water is going to be too cold. You will need at least some hot water, unless it is the middle of the summer. Also, never use a garden hose that has been kept outside. Hoses like this are only safe if they are stored indoors and purged of any water residing in the hose by using hot water. This is known as “skinning” the hose, since it flushes out most of the material—bacteria included—that sticks to the internal lining of the hose.

Very few people with fish tanks have the equipment necessary to undertake major water changes. This is an opportunity for you to perform a service and make money in the process. I recommend creating kits that contain all the items necessary for water changes. Customers who buy will only have almost everything they need for a water change—the only other thing they will need is a little muscle.

Some tank owners, however, will need some convincing that water changes are sometimes necessary. Many customers believe that chemicals can eliminate the need for water changes. This is a fallacy that needs to be debunked. The time to add chemicals is when you set up a tank or do water changes—not when you have to correct a problem.

Raw water is rarely adequate by itself to deliver all the necessary chemicals to an established tank. Everything depends on the water’s source: where it comes from, what the characteristics of the storage basins are, how far is it transported and what chemicals are added to it to make it safe for human consumption. Safe for humans usually means very unsafe for fish. Water needs to be converted back to its natural state—minus all the pathogens, of course. Some people prefer to use water that has been run through DI and/or RO filters, since it is basically distilled, but not sterile. Then, of course, this water must be reconstituted so fish can live in it. That’s no problem if it’s going into a marine tank; the salt mix performs that function.

For freshwater aquariums, however, it is a bit more complicated because everything depends on what types of fish a person is planning to keep. Depending on the type of fish, tank owners might require soft water or hard water, acid water or alkaline water, or perhaps, they are merely setting up a community aquarium. If your store is located in an area with inadequate tap water, you should be able to profit handsomely by selling processed water, as well as the chemicals needed to reconstitute that water. Selling water is about as basic as you can get. It’s almost as good as selling oxygen to people who are forced to move their fish over long distances.

Another service that a retailer can provide is simply educating customers of the importance of routinely checking their water. Performing frequent tests on tank water is an essential part of proper aquarium maintenance. Think of it as a regular checkup for the fish.

Fish tank owners need to keep a close eye on the water chemistry in their aquariums, or the fish may become sick and die for no apparent reason. These mysteries could be solved if people would only check their water parameters on a regular basis. This type of preventative action is hard to sell to customers, but it is for their own good. Unfortunately, you will meet very few people who have even a basic knowledge of how biological cycles work in fish tanks. Devoid of this information, customers at least need to know how to use water-testing equipment.

The water treatment category offers retailers valuable opportunities to boost sales, but only if the products are marketed properly. Just letting chemicals—which is basically all that water treatment products are—sit on the shelves waiting for customers is going to do very little. Chemistry is probably the least understood science by the average consumer. Stores that leave it to customers to figure out when, why and which aquatic products to use, are likely to have flat sales in the category.

I recommend organizing water treatment products to better reflect their function. This will require separating items in product lines, rather than merchandising by manufacturer. Displaying products by function and then reinforcing that concept with signage should increase sales a great deal. In addition, eye-catching signs may inspire customers to take the time reading the information and become more product savvy. Since water testing is such an essential part of proper fish tank maintenance, I recommend placing special emphasis on testing equipment. People need to understand that testing water is not a luxury—it is a necessity. In fact, it is the key to success, along with proper feeding.

There is, of course, a shelf life on most chemicals used in test kits and as water-conditioning products. You need to be vigilant and remove out-dated merchandise from store shelves. Actually, it is better to put products on sale shortly before their sell-by date, to avoid losing the investment. Once a week should be often enough to check all the products associated with water treatment.

I guarantee you that if people walk into your store and come out with the information they need to successfully maintain their tanks, they will be repeat customers. Knowledge is power and this can be a major advantage over any big-box or chain competitors. Always remember, it is all about personal service.

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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