Ways to avoid hating your transition to a more specialized aquarium!

Okay, let’s be honest…Creating an aquarium is supposed to be fun, but it can be a daunting task at times, especially if your expectations are greater than your experience level - or even if you have lots of experience and are looking for amazing results right out of the gate.

A common aquarium experience is to make the “jump” from a basic "community tank" system to a larger, more specialized setup  as part of a “fish career transition.” Maybe you're embarking on a new and exciting phase in your hobby journey after being "on the inside" for many years. You want something specialized and completely fascinating after years of simple, yet satisfying setups. Not uncommon. However, it seems to me that there are an increasing number of people who start their hobby journeys in more specialized aquariums right off the bat- like with biotope systems, dedicated Discus or African Cichlid systems, planted tanks, etc.

Lets call these people “nuts”, and lets love them for it! 

Regardless of how your journey begins, the following guidelines can help you start on the right foot and avoid some of the most common aquarium-keeping mistakes. These tips do not constitute "the gospel" on specialized aquarium keeping. However, they are time tested pieces of advice from a guy who's spilled a few hundred gallons of water on the floor during his career, so they might be useful to you...

1) Appreciate the advice you receive from fellow aquarists, but take a look at their aquarium! It’s not uncommon to receive many offers for help from other reefers when you’re just starting out. That guidance can come from a friend you know, a local fish store person, a hobbyist on a forum, or some kook writing a column (hmm..). It’s all part of the wonderful culture of aquarium keeping: Most hobbyists love to help! MY two cents is to just take any and all information on specialized aquarium keeping with a grain of salt, and do a little checking on your “mentor”, especially if their advice starts with the words “ You need to…” or “You should”. Worse, “I haven’t tried this, but you should…” Yikes. Personally, I’d like to see “This is what I do” or “I’ve always done this…” followed with a picture of their beautiful, successful tank that’s been running for a while. Unfortunately, the internet has created a lot of “false prophets” aquarists who can easily throw out “advice” to others with an air of undisputed authority. Before you take their advice, just see how their results have been.

2) Find a few LFS’s and online vendors and support them fervently if they meet your expectations for quality and service.There are tons of vendors for equipment, livestock, and other things related to the hobby, many of which are quite good, run by honest people who understand both the business and the needs of the hobbyist However, there are also quite a few who are not so good, and who will not honor “guarantees” without major hassles. These are not companies that you want to do business with. Look for vendors that are consistent, have great reviews online from fellow aquarists who you are familiar with (not “fake ones”, written in the same curiously crappy grammatical style of the vendors who post on forums as themselves..It will be obvious over time.). Sad, but true. Work with people and/or companies that have good stuff, good policies, and real reputations for service and communications-and support of the hobby community. You’ll get used to their practices and offerings, and what’s more- they’ll get used to your needs and interests to help serve you better.


3) Read the fine print: Like any other endeavor, specialized aquarium keeping is full of fads, trends, “new techniques”, etc. And that’s all good and fine. However, be sure to take a good hard look at what is being proffered out there. We see it in reef aquarium keeping circles all the time: Just because dosing vodka for nutrient reduction, or using lanthanum chloride to lower phoshates, for example, is super-effective for some reefers, it won’t necessarily be the right move for you. Same in freshwater- Your experience level, lifestyle, ecomonics- and interest- might necessitate a more basic, but equally effective approach to nutrient control, like water changes. I mean, just because “all of the cool kids are doing it” is not a valid reason for you to embrace some exotic, complicated practice. Keep things simple and do things that work for YOU and your animals. Don’t be a “joiner”…Think about why you would want to do it, and weight the benefits against the costs. See if what you are contemplating is a viable long-term solution for your aquarium, or just a “knee jerk” reaction to a short-term problem. Sometimes, the quick reaction is not the right one, right? Yes, adding such and such to a tank will take care of your algae problem, but wouldn’t just staying the course with regular water changes do the same thing, albeit more slowly? Think about it…


4) Make your aquarium your own. Come to the realization that, even if you use the same technique, equipment, and animals as “Joe from Cleveland”, you’ll get a different result. Your tank will not be exactly like the other aquarist’s tank. And that’s a good thing! It’s one thing to emulate good work from others, but always remember that there are an infinite number of unknown variables in the equation that will result in your tank bing different from his or hers. I mean, why would you want a carbon copy of someone else's aquarium anyways? Be your self, and let your display reflect who you are and what you do as an aquarist. That’s the fun part! There is no “one size fits all” way to run a tank, so don’t just mimic. You may see great results in someone else's build, but until you understand why they did it that way, and how they integrated it into their life, it may not make make as much sense to you. Rather, take elements out of various successful tanks that you have seen, and incorporate them into your own. You and your animals will be much happier, trust me!

5) Don’t let emotions get the best of you or your aquarium. I sometimes think that the number one problem most specialized hobbyists face at some point is the panic reaction, as alluded to in tip number 3 above. Don’t tear your whole Amazon biotope tank apart because you find a snail on a Swordplant. When you make bad decisions based on the “crisis of the day” instead of focusing on the bigger picture and long-term goals of your system, that’s when you get into trouble. Combat this panic instinct by creating a checklist of things to look at every day in your aquarium, parameters to measure, and have in place the things you need to deal with the most common emergencies, such as spare parts, extra cichlid salts, backup pumps, etc. As they say, “Be calm and carry on…!”


Okay, so there are five of my surefire ways to avoid rookie mistakes in specialized aquarium keeping..And you know what? You don’t have to be a rookie for them to apply to you. We all make mistakes…We need to learn from them, and to share our solutions with fellow hobbyists in an honest, open way that can add to the body of knowledge of this great hobby of ours.

I’m sure that there are dozens more mistakes to avoid….What are some of your thoughts? Let ‘em out, so that fellow aquarists can benefit!

Until next time…

Keep wet.

Scott Fellman
Tannin Aquatics

Scott Fellman
Scott Fellman


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