When customers buy a tank or a tank set-up, their thoughts are usually focused on setting up the aquarium—they rarely consider the thorough cleaning that new habitat’s going to need in a few weeks. While the initial purchase isn’t the time to suggest maintenance products, you could include a coupon in a sales package that’s redeemable for cleaning products at a later date.
For example, if someone spends $300 for a set-up, you might give them a gift certificate for $30 that can be applied strictly to items of your choice to help clean the aquarium and change the water. As a professional, you know that frequent, partial water changes are two of the main keys to success.
In reality, virtually everything having to do with an aquarium—aside from livestock and décor—can be considered a maintenance product. The trade has embraced a narrower definition than this, but I believe it is a mistake to think small. If you lump everything together in one category, it’s going to confuse consumers who come in looking for specific items, such as water test kits, medications, water treatment products, filters, pumps, heaters, light fixtures, chemical additives, fish foods, etc.
While a filter certainly cleans a tank, it only cleans the water. To clean the inside of the glass, you need magnets, scrubbing wands or even metal sticks with a razor blade at the end. For the gravel, you need a siphon hose to "gravel wash" the substrate and get rid of the toxic materials that build up there. In fact, if a tank does not contain fish that enjoy digging, that’s the only way to remove this organic biomatter. I compare it to a time bomb, just waiting for the right moment to explode and turn the aquarium into a deathtrap.
Gravel-washing is an art form. There are several techniques you might employ, but I prefer the deep clean—it’s like using a shampooer on the rugs in your house. Get the substrate wet (Already taken care of in the case of a fish tank), plunge the gravel washer into the substrate and suck out the dirt, sludge and debris without sucking out the gravel. This requires a bit of finesse and not everyone will get it right the first time. You should have a siphon hose handy in case a customer comes in and asks for a demonstration.
Since this procedure can be rather traumatizing to your fish, be certain to observe their behavior as you work. Many fish will hide, but some will actually follow the gravel washer around hoping to catch a particle of food that has been uncovered.
Before you begin to gravel wash and remove water, be certain to run parameters on the water. Don’t forget, you are about to change out a lot of water. How much is too much? There are times when you only leave enough water for the fish to swim in.
It all depends on the chemical analysis of your water. I prefer a 50-75 percent water change, since it exposes the fish to a wide range of tank conditions. If you make smaller water changes, the variation in tank chemistry is less, and when fish get used to a fixed environment, they become less likely to survive an aquatic catastrophe. For example, if you change 25 percent of the water once a week on a regular basis, but then you miss several of them, the fish may not tolerate the neglect. They could become sick or go off their feed.
So, where does the removed water go? The answer should be down the drain, whether it flows through the hose to a sink, toilet, out a window or even into a holding container, such as a bucket or trash can. My suggestion is to get creative and sell water-changing kits. They could come in two sizes: one for tanks from 10 to 30 gal. and one for tanks 40 gal. and up. The smaller kit should contain two five-gallon buckets. As you fill these—or after they’re full—use a water pump to remove the water to a toilet or simply carry them to that location. In the larger kit, use two 30-gal. trash cans so you can take out more water without stopping your siphoning.
A large-bore siphon hose should be 3/4 in. in diameter, but for smaller tanks, you might modify it down to 1/2 in. You should stick your hand in the water in order to have better control of the gravel washer. For the fastidious, a pair of gloves could be included, but honestly, if you need a pair of gloves to clean a fish tank, perhaps you are not someone who should have a fish tank. The environment in an aquarium is meant to be dynamic, not static—don’t buy a tank if you can’t handle change.
Now, that last statement does not apply to reef tank enthusiasts, especially those that work in stony corals, specifically Acanthastrea species. These beautiful corals must be placed precisely due to their aggressive nature, their need for strong current, intense lighting and a perfect water chemistry. When selling water-changing equipment to coral enthusiasts, the trash cans are very important. One can be used as the repository of the water being removed while the other is used to mix the new water. If the tank is large, there may be a need for two trash cans for new water.
Perfecting the Kits
At this point, I should point out that both the buckets and the trash cans need to be certified food grade containers, especially if you intend to use them for holding new water. This will separate them from the run-of-the-mill containers that your customers could buy at a hardware store.
Water changing requires a chloramine remover, so include a bottle in each kit. For the small kit, I recommend a bottle that can neutralize at least 200 gallons of water. The large kit should have a bottle that can convert 1,000 gallons. As for the best source for water, most public water systems are satisfactory for freshwater environments and even non-coral marine tanks. Some of your customers will be using RO/DI water that you can sell or provide the material so they can make it themselves This will require a mixing vessel, and the trash cans will serve that purpose. The kits you sell should include a water pump, and I prefer a sump pump for the larger kit.
There are, of course, a variety of water-changing kits on the market that include only a sink attachment, hose and gravel washer on the far end. These employ water running into the sink to create a suction and pull water out of the aquarium and into the sink. How far away from the tank this sink is can make a real difference on how fast the water is drained from the tank, not to mention how much water is wasted in this process.
While some of my suggestions may seem a little unusual, you should remember I have been doing this since 1965 and I have only killed one tank of fish in my life. You need to make the experience of keeping a fish tank an enjoyable endeavor for your customers. If it feels like drudgery, people will quickly get over it. That’s why there are so many tanks for sale on local market websites.
Right now, the hobby is experiencing a Renaissance—this is the time to bring as many new customers into your shop as you can. You can do that by having a great and varied selection of aquatic livestock, employing knowledgeable salespeople, stocking a wide selection of hard goods at reasonable prices, maintaining a vibrant online presence and having a happy face to greet people as they come through the door. PB
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.