A complex discussion on simplicity, for the purpose of advancing the "art" of aquarium keeping.

It seems as though not a day goes by when you don’t hear about some new product, animal or technique that "will help change the hobby forever." Crazy, modern, new things that promise to simplify and improve our hobby experience. Some are great. Some add to the complications we already deal with in the hobby. Complication. Complexity. These are kind of "old school" philosophies, if you ask me. For some reason, many of us in the hobby seem mired in the past, with a “more complicated must be better” philosophy. (You've probably heard me rant on this before. In fact, I'm sure you have.)

To this end, we often equip our systems with tons of gadgetry with the intent of recreating the natural environment., and employ complex, militant protocols to keep the environment within a precise range. 

However, lately, I find myself turning to (and preaching) a more disciplined, yet simplified approach to aquarium keeping.

Do you ever wonder why we collectively seem to like to make things so complicated? I attribute this “complication syndrome” to a few possible factors:

1. We think that we ARE making things easy on ourselves. We have busy lives, so we’ve bought into the idea that more complex systems will help us spend less time working on our reefs, and more time enjoying them. The point of a hobby is enjoyment, right? Strange paradox here, though: If multi-stage zeolite reactors, complex additive dosing regimens, two-chambered calcium reactors, automatic top-off/water change systems, and eight-way water return devices make your “job” easier, that’s good, right? Well, don't you have to maintain all of that stuff? Where is the “savings?” Technologically complex systems and approaches seem to have become a necessity in our minds, yet they sometimes make things tougher, IMHO.

"OMG, this saves me 7 minutes a week scraping algae off the front glass. Ain't technology grand?"

2. We like to buy stuff and impress each other. Hey, who can argue with THAT? It feels good to show off that sexy, expensive canister filter or uber-high end LED lighting system…doesn’t it? In all seriousness, I’m sure few hobbyists really set up a system costing thousands of dollars simply to “one up” their buddies, but after reading some tank build threads on hobby forums, I just can’t help but wonder about this sometimes. I’m particularly entertained by the responses of other fish geeks on these build threads, seemingly impressed at the sheer bombastic nature of the builder as the builder brags about the thousands of dollars that he or she is spending on their tank, and the “Wow, I hope my tank is like yours one day!” responses from readers. Yuck! 

"Here are my latest pics of my 72 gallon build! Today, I tested the 96-way titanium actuated ball valve assembly for my internal flow..."

3. Because that’s how it has always been done! Okay, there is some merit to this one. We tend to follow the tried and true. As we’ve discussed in previous posts, discoveries of the past help influence the breakthroughs of the future. If something works for us, we tend to stick with it- complex though it may be-perhaps tweaking a few things here and there as we go. Yet, think of how heretical it was back in the day to get rid of our under gravel filters, or to actually feed our reef tanks! Paradigm shifts involve a certain degree of risk, and I wonder- perhaps we’ve become adverse to risk or criticism in this forum-based hobby area?

4. If something is more "complicated", it MUST be better and safer! Again, back to the infamous build threads: “This guy has 5 different reactors and two types of controllers running the show. All of these functions are automated! He MUST know what he’s doing!” Perhaps it’s because he DOESN’T know what he's doing…ever considered that? Complexity for complexity’s sake is NOT cool. Very “1990’s”, if you ask me.

Look, I am not trash-talking everyone with a complex aquarium system with tons of cool gadgets and exotic husbandry protocols. I’m not a technophobe. I’m not suggesting that we go back to the “good old days”- a simpler and more gentle time…NO!

What I am doing is questioning the need for such complexity in everything. Look, I love these advances. When I was co-owner of Unique Corals, we loved our Neptune Systems "Apex" controllers. They still use 'em there. They are fabulous, and they made monitoring and control of basic functions in our busy warehouse extremely easy. When you have  6-figure inventory of propagated and wild corals from around the world, you need checks and balances and redundancies, and a 24/7 controller, when properly set up, is invaluable! Amazing stuff. And they are perfect for fish rooms, complex aquariums, and for making busy lives less stressful. 

But guess what? These fantastic systems are not intended by their designers to replace the “art” of aquaristics, nor are they intended to be a technological “crutch” to make up for our shortcomings at aquarium management. They can never replace your judgement, "feel", or common sense. Rather, they are tools to help augment your efforts, make life easier and to monitor and automate some of the more mundane- yet necessary- functions of aquariums.

We loved our Apex...But it worked FOR us...We didn't work for IT!

Sure, I’ll be the first to tell you that water quality management is a key to success in aquarium keeping, yet I’ll also be the first guy to tell you that just picking up a siphon house weekly or more frequently is, in my opinion, the ultimate expression of water quality management. All of the technology in the world is not going to save your system if you don’t have the fundamentals down. The John Tullock gem, “More biology- less technology” is so applicable to us. With the "New Botanical"-style aquarium, we're sort of going back to a more natural approach, with a lot more reliance on natural processes.

Thank goodness we are collectively starting to rethink some long-held hobby beliefs and simplifying our approaches — to the benefit of both our animals and our pocketbooks! 

I think we have also make things pretty intimidating for newbies over the years. Advising the newbie to equip his or her small tank with every conceivable technological prop for success, and keep every water parameter at precise target numbers perpetuates the myth that aquariums are more complicated than any other hobby. Yes, there are some minimum equipment requirements that you have in order to outfit and maintain a tank, and we shouldn't oversimplify things to the point of teaching new hobbyists to overlook important stuff.

However, I occasionally wonder if giving the new hobbyist a bucket, a siphon hose, and the admonition to use both regularly and frequently would benefit him/her far more than any multi-stage filter system would.

Again, don’t get me wrong. All of the cool technology and equipment has its place, and there is a certain “barrier to entry” of skill acquisition that you need to hit in order to gain success in the hobby. However, in this new era of the hobby, I think that it’s important to step back once in a while and simply re-evaluate what we’re trying to accomplish, why we are doing what we’re doing, what we really need, and what really works. I’ll hazard a guess that we can simplify many things and still enjoy great success. 

Simple, yet focused approaches are used every day by the pioneering hobbyists that are breeding rare fishes and propagating plants, marine animals, and corals. Their systems, equipment choices, husbandry techniques, and approaches are based upon a specific need — and the results of this focused approach are being demonstrated regularly.

The bigger picture here is that the application of a more simplistic, focused approach can — and has been — leading to huge advancements in the hobby. I’m not encouraging you to eschew technology, nor to abandon the fun of the community tank, or even the complex system.

I am encouraging you to step back now and then to make things easier on yourself by focusing on the "art" a bit more than we have in recent years. A successful aquarium need not be a complicated technical endeavor; rather, it should rely on a balanced combination of knowledge, skill, technology, and good judgement. Take away any one of those pieces, and the whole thing teeters on failure.

Utilize all of these things to your advantage and enjoy your hobby more than ever!

That's the "postmodern" way.

Until next time…Stay focused. Stay in touch. Keep it simple.

And Stay Wet

Scott Fellman

Tannin Aquatics

Scott Fellman
Scott Fellman


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