Putting Water to the Test
by Edward C. Taylor
August 1, 2013
Water testing is a fantastic service to offer—but first, retailers need to consider all the ins and outs of performing accurate and cost-effective analysis for customers.

Many pet specialty stores perform tests on customers’ water samples—it is, after all, a great service to offer. As with everything else in life, however, there are multiple levels of products available with which to execute the service. For example, cars may range in price from $12,000 to well over $100,000, but pricing is affected by numerous factors—performance is definitely a major one. The same holds true for water-testing products; there are expensive, mid-range and cheap options, offering varying degrees of accuracy—yet, for customers, it often boils down to price.

If you test peoples’ water samples with the best products available, they are going to be outside the price range of most pocketbooks. It is a tradeoff, a compromise and a gamble that cheaper testing products are going to be sufficiently accurate. To at least alleviate the ethical dilemma that would be created by using one type of water testing product but selling another, I spent the money to buy a low-end spectrophotometer that could check water samples for all types of things—measurements as simple as pH and ammonia, and as detailed as levels of iodine, strontium and molybdenum. These, of course, are important in the maintenance of reef aquariums.

I give customers a choice of free tests for freshwater parameters and some marine tests or more accurate reef tests at a cost. Very few people take advantage of the “pay-for-play” tests. Usually, reefers advanced enough to need these tests purchase their testing equipment online and do their own testing at home, but I digress. After running the electronic tests, I checked the results for the same tests with products from different aquatic industry companies. The products that yielded the most accurate results are the ones I use to test customers’ water samples. Reef parameter tests are never free; they are too expensive to perform for no fee.  

Testing water samples does present other challenges for retailers. And if retailers want the results from these tests to be accurate, some of the responsibility falls on them—not solely on the products used or the customer’s ability to effectively secure a water sample. My perspective may be different from most retailers because I have a degree in chemistry. Unfortunately, I believe that few employees are up to the task of performing and interpreting water tests in a reasonably accurate way. They are just not trained well enough. They may have memorized the ammonia cycle, but do they really understand it? Probably not, and that is why the value of water testing is frequently compromised.

A Good Sample

 Another major issue concerns the water samples that customers bring in. These need to be obtained in a structured way, using specific collection containers. If a customer is willing to come in on a regular basis to have his water tested, I will give him a free specimen bottle. When I do this, I give directions on how to collect a water sample and how to store it before it is brought in for testing.

First and foremost, before taking a water sample, a person’s hands must be clean, and free from odors, food grease and any other contaminants, including hand sanitizers. Yes, of course, it is better not to touch the water at all, but that brings up a litany of other issues.

Sufficient water must be obtained, and that is usually at least eight ounces. There must be plenty of air space left between the water’s surface and the top of the bottle. This permits the exchange of gases between the water and the air. If the water quality has been compromised by anything such as fish deaths, items thrown in the tank or chemicals in the air that penetrate the water column, the outcome of the tests is going to be greatly affected.

Water samples should only be taken the day they are going to be tested. The shorter the duration between obtaining the sample and testing the sample, the better. Never leave a water sample in a car for longer than you are in the car. If you need to store the water sample, a refrigerator is a good choice. Keep the sample as dark as possible—even though this might change the parameters, it’s better than the alternative.

Once the water sample reaches your store, it is important that an employee who knows how to accurately perform water testing is given the job. If possible, this testing is best performed off the retail floor to prevent any interruptions that might comprise the test results.

Finally, and most importantly, the client must be given accurate feedback that will explain the test results and any actions that might need to be taken to alleviate a problem. I suggest a small pre-printed form on which the results can be written. This will remind customers should they forget. If products are in order, the employee performing the water tests should help the customer select them.

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.