Tearing down to build up? Or...just another way to evolve?

Maybe it's a sign of Spring...that time when we review plans, practices, ideas, and things that we have been doing for a while, to sort of re-evaluate to see if we are on the right path. Sometimes, in order to get to where we want to be, we have to take rather dramatic steps- even ones which seem like a short-term setback. I personally do these evaluation all the time- with my tanks, my aquarium ideas, and with my business.

It makes a lot of sense!

Case in point:

I was talking with a customer the other day who was just…well- not enjoying the hobby anymore. Nothing was fun; problems with her once-stable aquarium were mounting, fishes were dying for no readily apparent reason…It was becoming more of a pain than a pleasure. 

She was wondering what to do from here. And it’s funny, because I have been in a similar mind space during the course of my several decades in the hobby, and it got me thinking about what I did when stuff like that got to be just too much.

What’s the strategy? 

When is it time to "go nuclear"- to tear down your tank and start over?

If you’ve been in the hobby long enough, chances are, you’ll eventually reach that day where you look at your aquarium and think, “I just don’t think it’s working for me anymore…” Your system has some problems, "issues", or even major design flaws that are simply overriding any enjoyment that you are deriving from the tank. Maybe you realize that it's not playing to your strengths or core interests as a hobbyist. You contemplate a major overhaul, or tearing the tank down altogether…You’ve tried to work with it, but you can’t anymore…You’re ready to consider the “nuclear option.”

What are the "signs" that it’s time to do a major overhaul, or break the tank down and start over?

Algae is growing faster than your plants. Yup, we’ve all been there. Despite our best efforts, we simply cannot overcome an algae issue. Even though almost every algae issue is solvable, based often on some nutrient-export-related deficiency, there is a often a point when the recovery procedures become just too much, and you’re better off breaking down the system, giving it a thorough cleaning, and rebuilding aspects of the system with greater attention to nutrient export mechanisms (like a larger mechanical/biological filter, more efficient flow, media, etc.).

Continued "anomalous" livestock deaths. Okay, this is a tough one, but maybe you’re noticing a complete decline in your ability to keep animals alive. You introduce new plants or fish, and they flat out die shortly afterwards. Now, I realize that, in many instances, frequent deaths of newly introduced livestock can be a result of everything from incompetence to aggression, to a resident disease or other killer, and may not be the result of the system itself. However, if after a top-to-bottom review of everything from source water to acclimation procedures to photoperiod, you’re still at a loss to find out why, it simply may be time to re-assess your setup itself…radical, but possibly the best alternative. A “re-boot” can work well in this instance.

Dissatisfaction with your overall design. Who doesn’t buy a car and have remorse, perform a home remodel and wish that they added more closet space, or order the pasta when they should have ordered the fish? It’s human nature. If your just miserable with your aquarium system, and it’s not living up to your expectations, of course you should rework it. Take into account the little things that annoy you about your present system: It’s too big, too small, has difficult access or maintenance issues, is hard to take care of when you travel, etc. However, if “retrofitting” is not going to get you the desired result, a complete rehab is a viable option. (Of course, provision should always be made for the  resident animals during the process- that’s a given.)

Your aquascaping is not doing it for you. I take this one very personally, as I am an aquascaping fanatic and lover of a good design. If you’re still mired in the 1970’s and have a big old chunk of petrified wood/plastic plant combo that is both functionally and aesthetically obsolete, it’s time to “tear down the walls” and rebuild a more open, creative and functionally appropriate aquascape. Often, you can simply use the rock that you already have. this can be a very pleasant weekend task! You may find that you simply need to remove some rock or plants to create more “negative space”, better circulation, or a totally different look. Maybe you’re trying to create a biotope, replicating a specific section of a stream, lake, etc. Maybe you are interested in creating a more minimalist approach..The possibilities are endless, and since you already have the “infrastructure” (ie; pumps, lights, etc.) in place, why not just rework what you already have?



You're nursing outdated, damaged, or otherwise inappropriate equipment. If that canister filter from the 1990’s is turning into a liability for you (of course it is!), and that small crack in the bottom of the tank is starting to weep mineral stalactites, or the drywall behind the tank is starting to get soft and mildewy, it may be time to start fresh. In fact, this is a good time to re-assess your hobby goals, and start accumulating more appropriate, more modern equipment. Sure, this is the most expensive option- total replacement, but it’s also potentially the most beneficial. Why? Well, first of all, you can create a system with wonderful technology that meets all of your new hobby news and tastes. Second, it gives you an added measure of safety, replacing potentially dangerous equipment that has fallen into disrepair, and finally, it enables you to take a deep breath, with a completely new, re-engaging approach to your hobby. Its never a bad thing to start over if the reasoning is right!


Your system is becoming an economic drain or other social liability. Look, I love aquariums more than almost anything, but sometimes we bite off more than we can chew. Your financial situation can change, you may have a growing family or career commitment that requires more time and money, you have a health issue, or you might simply need a smaller, more manageable tank in order to stay in the hobby long-term. These are never bad reasons to make changes. Downsizing to a system that better fits your life enables you to enjoy a hobby- not be a tank slave to a system that is taxing you financially, physically, and socially. Your hobby should be a pleasant diversion, not a source of tension between you and your family. Needs and interests change over time. If you're a REAL hobbyist- and I suspect that you are- you will return, better and more engaged than ever. Sometimes, taking a “sabbatical” from the hobby is not a bad thing, either. When you return, it will be for all of the right reasons, and free from the tensions caused by not having the time, money, or physical resources to fully enjoy your hobby.

 In the end, a hobby is meant to be enjoyable, and the aquarium hobby is also a lifestyle- a way of looking at the world, and an educational resource for your family. When it becomes not-so-fun anymore, that’s when you need to step back, re-assess, and regroup. Just like in life, it’s never a bad thing to make the occasional change. As long as you are not doing it for the wrong reasons (you HAVE to have the very latest gear all the time to impress everyone, your ego tells you that you need a huge tank to be cooler than anyone else’s in your aquarium club, or you feel that you're not a “real” aquarist unless you constantly re-work your system), it’s never bad to evolve, experiment, change.

In fact, tweaking your system is not only a pleasant part of the hobby, it’s what the hobby is all about- experimenting, playing, and constantly finding new ways to enjoy this engaging, obsessive game we call aquarium keeping.


Until next time…


Stay true to yourself. Stay engaged. Stay enthusiastic. Stay curious. Stay patient...

And Stay wet.


Scott Fellman

Tannin Aquatics



Scott Fellman
Scott Fellman


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