Down and Dirty with Substrates

Customers often underestimate the importance of substrate, but it plays a critical role in keeping healthy fish and a thriving aquarium.


Given its placement at the very bottom of an aquarium tank, it is not surprising that substrate is often an afterthought. Still, every tank must have a substrate, for without it, the fish will always be stressed. People typically give little consideration to the substrate they use, but it has a profound effect on the fish’s behavior. It is a key element in a tank’s décor, while also playing a crucial role in the physical and mental health of the fish. Customers must be aware that selecting a substrate is not to be taken lightly. After all, buying a new rug for your living room is a big decision. Why shouldn’t a new aquarium substrate be given the same detailed consideration?

As simple a product as aquarium gravel may seem to be, it is surprisingly complicated to produce. Years ago, I was fortunate enough to visit two companies that produced their own lines of aquarium gravel. Their manufacturing processes were as different as night and day.

One of the manufacturers took me to a quarry where large boulders were being made smaller. Medium-sized chunks were fed into one end of a crusher and on the other end out came a material of whatever grain size the gauge was set for. The other company took me to a dock where a ship filled with marine rubble was being unloaded into large dump trucks. This rubble was transported back to a facility where it was crushed and tumbled to the correct size and shape (round).

During production of both products, workers were required to use air-filter masks. Breathing in too much of the fine dust-sized particles that escape the process will result in emphysema in short order.

Once the material had reached the desired grain size, it was thoroughly rinsed in water and then dried to remove the majority of the moisture content. Natural gravel was bagged immediately. If it was to be colored, it traveled through a painting tunnel where it was constantly rotated so all surfaces were covered and then baked to set the color.

The gravel continued on to storage bins to await bagging. For colored, tinted or coated gravels, the chemical composition of the original material is not critical. Natural gravel, however, may be toxic unless it is covered with a clear plastic coating. These complexities are why few companies are involved in the manufacturing of substrate materials.

Alive and Well
A very new and exciting category of aquarium products is “live substrate” sold for the marine and reef segments of the aquatics trade. These sands, gravels, rubbles and mixtures thereof are inoculated with live bacteria. In order for the bacteria to stay alive, the bag must contain a small amount of liquid. These products have sell-by dates, so they are a bit of a gamble to stock for retailers that don’t have a regular live-substrate clientele to depend on.

Whether or not live substrate is worth the time and effort it takes to keep in stock depends on the individual retailer. However, a lot of customers will come in looking for it, and if you don’t have it, they may go somewhere else. An alternative would be to stock live bacteria cultures, which also have a sell-by date but take up very little space. They do require refrigeration if they are not used shortly after they are shipped to the store. I stock just enough live substrate to set up a 300-gallon tank—or smaller aquariums—and order more when needed on a weekly basis. Don’t make customers wait for product any longer than a week. They can get better service than that from the Internet.

Competition from the Internet is minimal when it comes to gravel substrate, since it can be so expensive to ship due to its weight. Of course, some companies offer free shipping for premium customers or shoppers who spend a certain amount of money. Still, substrate is critical to a retailer’s bottom line because most people need it when they are setting up a new tank. This is an event retailers need to be a part of because it gives them the opportunity to sell many related products.

Due to the paucity of substrate producers, retailers compete head to head in this category. Retailers should do a little research and find out which brands of gravel and marine substrate are being sold in local stores and choose different ones if at all possible, as long as product is of comparable quality and pricing. This should be easily accomplished with marine substrate.

The grain size, color, texture and chemical composition can vary a good deal in this category. Customers may be perplexed and have difficulty selecting one over another. This is when a retailer’s expertise will be of great value.

Selecting a venue for gravel in a store is also a matter of priority. Nine out of 10 shops have their gravel near the rear of the shop—usually closer to service doors where the product is brought in. I prefer to stack it up in vertical floor bins under the display aquariums, near the front of the store. People must walk through this area to reach the livestock in the back. Décor rock is also stored in the same way, always well-marked as to type and price.

It is helpful to use signage to highlight promotions, as well. One idea is to post a large sign near the gravel selection that says, “Purchase 50 lbs. of gravel and receive 10 lbs. more free (of equal or lesser value).” Customers buying 100 lbs. of gravel will receive 20 additional pounds free. That’s a real deal that anyone setting up an aquarium will find hard to pass up.

Finally, retailers should be certain to sell customers the proper gravel for their set-ups. Rift Lake cichlids, brackish-water environments, and of course, marine fish and reef tanks must use gravel made from aragonite or similar organic-based materials such as coral rock or tufa. These materials will slowly dissolve and help maintain an appropriate pH and water hardness, which otherwise, might be difficult to achieve.

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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