Damn I hate that term, "hack!"
To many, it implies a sort of inside way of doing stuff...a "work-around" of sorts. A term brought about by the internet age to justify doing things quickly and to eliminate impatience because we're all so busy. I think it's a sort of sad commentary on the prevailing mindset of many people. We all need stuff quickly...We want a "shortcut. "Personally, I call it "cheating."
Yes. With what we do, a "hack" is trying to cheat nature. Speed stuff up. Make nature work on OUR schedules.
Bad idea, if you ask me.
In our game of aquariums, the idea of "hacks" seems sort of contrary to all that we proffer here: Patience, time, embracing the process, etc. Yet, curiously, a fair amount of questions trickle in about how to achieve certain things quickly in our blackwater/botanical-style aquariums. And you know what the most common "hack" question we receive is?
"How do I get my tank to tint up faster?"
I swear, I'm totally serious. This is how cool stuff is getting. We went from an aquarium culture that was practically horrified at the prospect of a tank with brown water, to one that is now expecting dark water and all of its collateral benefits...quickly, I might add!
Interesting paradigm shift of sorts, huh?
Now, in all fairness, most of us understand that there are real no true "shortcuts" in any part of the aquarium game, but I do understand that there is a certain degree of impatience with this. The typical newbie to the "tint" world sees all of these cool tanks, of natural habitats that they've always dreamed of replicating, and even though he or she totally understands that it's a natural process that takes time, wants to "get in the game" as quickly as possible! Think about it: Many of you have probably been a bit nervous and excited about doing blackwater; it's a totally new look, new approach, and new mindset, and you've deployed some "mental energy" to embracing it. You might have even been on the receiving end of some criticism from your "clearwater" friends! So, yeah, you're eager to see that water turn color!
Now, here's the deal.
Certain botanicals do seem to impart color to the water more quickly than others. I honestly don't know if it's because they have more tannins in their surface tissues that leach out quickly upon immersion, or if there is some other specific reason. With botanicals like leaves, it's understandable, because most of the popular ones that we use (with the exception of say, Magnolia) have very thin tissues that start to break down quickly after immersion and begin imparting tannins to the water quickly. And of course, cones tend to break down quickly, making them a favorite of "tint hackers" everywhere!
One observation that I have made- besides the fact that pretty much every botanical I've worked with seems to impart some tint to the water it's submerged in, is that some of the palm-derived products, like "Coco Curls", "Rio Fruta", "Terra Sorrindo", etc. seem to impart a lot of color really quickly. In fact, "Rio Fruta" seem to really pack a wallop, delivering a pretty dark tint immediately after preparation. Oh, and on at least a few occasions, when dealing with a frustrated hobbyist who's tank just didn't seem to "tint" up after repeated additions of botanicals, we discovered that they were using rather substantial amounts of activated carbon in their filters! Bye, bye, tint!
Now, to be clear once again, this is really a piece on the aesthetics of tinted water and the patience which needs to be deployed by the aquarist to get there safely; we're not really getting into the chemistry behind this within the scope of this blog. However, it's important, as a "general rule", to understand once again that ANYTHING-botanicals, rocks, substrate- whatever, will have some impact on the aquatic environment. Not necessarily "chemical" ( in the case of say, "inert" materials such as plastics and maybe some substrates), but definitely a "physical impact" of some sort.
And yes, then there is "the pH thing..." We all know by now that you typically can't take water that has a pH of 8.2 and a hardness of 10dKH or whatever, and expect it to rapidly drop to 6.2 with a dKH of like 2 simply by tossing in some Catappa leaves. If the water in your aquarium is just plain old HARD, you're not likely to see the pH decrease in any meaningful measure with the addition of a typical load of botanical material to your tank. You need to have "softer" water (i.e. water with less carbonate hardness) to more easily affect pH levels using botanicals. And you'll need to read up on managing pH in low carbonate hardness environments. Education is important.
So, yeah- you can't expect "miracles." On the other hand, you CAN expect changes. You can and should monitor basic water chemistry parameters during your entire "tint process", and you should be extra slow and careful when attempting to add botanicals to existing aquariums with fish populations. We say it over and over, but it would simply be recklessly irresponsible for us to tout all of these "benefits" of adding stuff without counseling you on the potential dangers. We've done crazy stuff repeatedly with botanicals in our own test aquariums- stuff you'd NEVER do to your own tanks- in the interest of finding out what could go wrong. And stuff can go wrong.
In almost every case, the worst thing you can do is to add a large quantity of materials to an existing, populated aquarium all at once, or in a very short time span. By "very short", I mean like 2 or three days. It's just flat-out bad practice. Rapid environmental changes of all sorts are extremely stressful to fishes, if not fatal. Even if the materials being introduced are properly prepared, you're still putting fishes at risk by rushing things. Under certain circumstances, pH CAN drop quickly. Biofilters CAN be overwhelmed. Dissolved oxygen levels COULD drop quickly. Some animals may display extraordinary sensitivity to change, as well. These are rare events, but they do happen. If you roll the dice by rushing things, you might dodge the bullet once or twice, but eventually, gambling with the lives of your fishes WILL come back and bite you on the ass. It's just that simple.
Don't rush the process.
We don't. You shouldn't, either.
All of the beautiful tanks you see featured here and in our social media feeds didn't get that way quickly. And the aquarists who manage these beauties didn't rush the process to get there. They were patient. Perhaps they WERE impatient at some point, but through the "school of hard knocks" and the acceptance of the realities of "hacking" things, they became VERY patient. You will become patient, too.
Again, if you want to get a "tint" more quickly, we suggest that you incorporate some of the materials discussed above into your "initial load" of botanicals- but go slowly. Enjoy watching the tint "turn on" and seeing your microcosm evolve. There is an old (LOL) expression in reef keeping that "Nothing good happens quickly in a reef tank", and I think you could definitely take out the "reef" part and apply this logic to ANY aquarium type.
So, "hacking" in the context of a botanical aquarium is a potentially detrimental, even lethal thing. Remember that part of the fun is creating your little aquatic world, and seeing the reactions of the animals and the overall aesthetics of your aquarium change regularly are extremely enjoyable. You should make it a habit of taking pics of your aquarium from the start to see for yourself (and to share with others) the amazing and very distinct changes that occur as your system matures and evolves over time. And you'll be surprised how dark the water can get in a relatively brief span of time.
So don't look for "hacks."
No shortcuts. No rushing the process. Simply embracing and enjoying the journey at every phase.
It's totally worth it.
Today's simple, but important reminder...
Stay patient. Stay observant. Stay engaged. Stay in control.
And Stay Wet.