Untroubled Waters
by Ed Taylor
August 1, 2012
Retailers that understand the ins and outs of water treatment can boost sales while helping customers to maintain healthy, balanced aquariums.



Remember the good old days when water was actually safe for fish? Well, those times are history. Today, virtually everyone needs to add chemicals to their water if they don’t want their livestock to die. Back in the mid-1960s, when I lived in Philadelphia, the water treatment facility introduced chloramines to the public water supply. It neglected to tell anyone that the chemical would kill tropical fish. In fact, it did not even tell the general public that it had switched from chlorine to chloramines. When everyone’s fish started dying, there was widespread panic in the commercial and hobby communities. It took two weeks to straighten out the problem and get the word out about the change. Lots of fish were killed, but fortunately, similar actions in other cities were always accompanied by plenty of notification and publicity.

At the time, to the best of my memory, there was only one product sold by the trade that would deactivate chloramines. Today, there are so many that you can’t count them all. Water treatment products, in general, have exploded in use. There are new items coming out constantly, and each trade show brings more diversity—albeit, along with some overlap. Still, these products are not going to jump off the shelves like fish food. People need a reason to buy them, and retailers need a strategy if they want to increase sales in this department. Every employee needs to be committed to the concept that water treatments are essential to the success of all fish tanks—and everyone needs to be able to market that philosophy. First, however, you must understand all the options. Start with the basics: chloramine removers, pH and hardness buffers, water clarifiers (filter media) and beneficial bacteria. No tank is complete without these items.


Breaking it Down
Let’s start with chloramines removers. They come in a wide range of concentrations and with multiple uses. I have some reservations about promoting a product with numerous functions. For one thing, I think it can be confusing for many consumers. Also, where do you place the multiple-use products on store shelves? Putting them with other chloramine products may greatly restrict their sales. This is a merchandising dilemma that retailers must figure out for themselves. A product that can do two things instead of one has value for the customer, but how much value is there for the retailer, which may be better off selling two items instead of one?

The best decision is always to select products that you have tested for efficacy. You can recommend these personally, as well as employ point-of-purchase signage to grab customers’ attention. The real mistake to avoid is stocking too many brands of the same type of product. They can’t all be equal in value, but if they are, push the one that gives you the best profit margin. When possible, I like to go with product lines that are more specific and less diversified. These are frequently geared to more advanced hobbyists who appreciate attention to detail.

Next, let’s look at media for filters. The most common product is charcoal. Years ago, some companies actually sold raw coal chunks to filter water—bituminous and anthracite. Next, came bone charcoal, which I consider to be a really good water clarifier. It also removes noxious metal ions and serves as a site for live bacteria. Finally, today there is activated carbon, which has a greater capacity to address problems, from water discoloration to residual medications in aquariums.

But let’s not think just chemically, some water treatment products work mechanically. There is plenty of gross, inert matter that can only be removed by materials such as pads, mats, cartridges, sleeves, bags, sponges, etc. You may not think of these as water treatment products, but they certainly are, since their only function is to clean the water. Many of these are used as pre-filters so that the water entering biomaterials and pumps is as free of debris as possible. Still, these dirt magnets quickly lose their ability to clean up as they clog up. While they play a minor role in biological filtration, their main value is to prep water for additional use. These alpha-filtration elements will sell quite well, no matter what you do as a retailer. I suggest you offer substantial discounts to customers willing to stock up and purchase value packs.

A relatively new area in the water treatment field is sludge removal. This comes in handy when a tank needs to be gravel-washed. Simply add the appropriate quantity of product, depending on the size of the tank, give the product time to work and begin to gravel-wash. Results can vary, but most of the time, the tank gravel will end up looking brand new. Removing substrate debris in this fashion can easily extend the life of the gravel in a tank. It’s sort of like shampoo for rugs that removes the ground-in material that builds up over time.


Marine Matters
In the marine field, the number of water treatment products is staggering. Most of these are additives that must be continuously dosed into the environment, as they are used up by the corals. Calcium, magnesium, potassium, strontium, molybdenum, iodine and even iron are important for coral growth. Customers will need these in a variety of sizes, depending on the volumes of their aquariums. It is always cost effective for people to purchase larger sizes, and you should stock more of these than the smaller ones. Alkalinity control is essential, since it dictates the availability of calcium and magnesium for consumption by the coral. When alkalinity is out of whack, the coral cannot utilize these elements. Maintain a healthy supply of alkalinity buffer, since many people will ask for it.

No one with a reef tank should be without a reef test kit, but you will be surprised how many people try to wing it when it comes to water chemistry. A solution to this dilemma would be to offer a service for testing reef parameters—but at a price. These tests are expensive, so you will need to charge for them. If a customer ends up buying product due to the test results, you can refund some or all of his test charges by giving a discount on what he buys. This will reduce people’s reluctance to pay for tests.

Finally, perhaps the most important water-conditioning product, next to chloramine remover, is marine salt. This is an essential item that, unfortunately, has become a bit of a loss leader in the past few years. Stores seem to be falling over one another in an effort to sell cheap marine salt mixes. If this is the case where you are located, I say get out of the game. On the surface, selling cheap salt seems like a good way to get people through the front door—people who will also hopefully buy other items. This just does not seem to work very well. Find a good salt that no one else carries, and stick with it as your main salt mix. If people like the mix—and the price—they will buy it. Run a salt sale once a month, but restrict sales to a certain weight/volume or number of bags or buckets of salt.


Finding Balance
Among the most common issues customers face are problems with the pH in their tanks, for which, people are always looking for a quick fix. They often rush in and exclaim, ‘My pH dropped to 6.2, and I need to buffer it up. What should I use?’  Well, the first thing to do is determine why the pH has dropped, and then to keep in mind that sometimes it’s not as simple as recommending a particular product. You can use all the buffer in the world, but if the water is bad, it needs to be changed before any water treatments are added.

If a tank has low hardness, it is not going to have much buffering capacity. In a freshwater environment, pH and general hardness go hand in hand; they are interdependent on one another. Let’s say the pH is 6.2 with a general hardness of six to eight. Assuming you are looking to keep the pH around 7.4, you will need to bump up the GH (general hardness) to at least 10 to 12. The best way to do this is to change 50 to 75 percent of the water and buffer the new mix with a strong buffer- in increments. Raising the pH and GH gradually over a period of days will be safest for the fish.

When tank conditions have reached a point of extreme danger, it is always best to move the livestock into holding facilities with proper water chemistry and perform a complete water change on the tank. This means you should come as close as is feasibly possible to a 100-percent change. To many people, changing water is a dreaded task—perhaps on par with going to the dentist. Unfortunately, a lot of tank owners change their water with the same frequency they visit the dentist—twice a year. This is fine for dental work but not sufficient at all for aquarium livestock.


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.