Despite our rather unconventional approach to our aquarium hobby, we tend to employ some rather conventional practices...with our little twists, of course.
One of the most important aspects of maintaining a blackwater, botanical-sty;e aquarium- or ANY aquarium, for that matter- is to keep the environmental parameters more or less consistent. Now, I'm not talking obsessively, insanely consistent- you know, not freaking out when the ph is .003 off from where it was yesterday...
No, I'm talking about stability within a range...
As we've discussed, fishes are remarkably resilient, tolerant animals if kept in a reasonably stable environment. And by "reasonably stable", I mean an environment in which the basic overall parameters (pH, alkalinity, nitrate, etc.) are not wildly fluctuating on a daily or even weekly basis (ok, you will see day/night pH fluctuations, of course). Rather, I'm referring to environmental conditions which stay within a rather narrow range, not in a constant drift towards one direction or another.
Fishes deal with changes in their environment on a continuous basis. Now, granted, the dissolution of materials and influx of new water by rain or whatever is mitigated by the sheer volumes of your typical wild rainforest streams and rivers, but the idea is that there are typically not sudden, radical environmental shifts that they contend with. Seasonal? Sure. But daily or weekly? Likely not typically.
One way we maintain a reasonably stable environment in our botanical-style, blackwater aquariums is to engage in...regular maintenance: You know, water exchanges, top-offs, etc. And of course, the usual centuries-old, tried-and-true techniques to keep our aquariums healthy: Careful stocking levels, conscientious feeding, and good old observation, and you're in a pretty good position! Nothing magic here.
The other is to do things which keep the unique blackwater environment stable and consistent. These practices consist of regularly adding and replacing botanicals as they break down, and engaging in some form of "pre-conditioning" or, as we love to call it- "pre-tinting" the makeup water that we use in water exchanges.
The idea of preparing makeup water for our aquariums is not new or earth-shattering, really. Planted tank enthusiasts, Discus breeders, and the reef community have been doing this for decades. I recall that I used to throw long-fiber peat moss into my water storage containers when I was a kid, back in my Killie days.
I called it "pre-tinting" of the water.
Basically, "pre-tinting" (our unique parlance) is utilizing some botanical materials to keep not only similar pH and alkalinity characteristics of the water consistent with those in your display tank- button keep the "visual tint" more or less consistent as well.
So I'll admit, as enamored with the idea of keeping consistent chemical parameters as I am, I'm probably equally as interested in the aesthetics. I know, that's super shallow of me..and sort of "immature", really, as it seems to be placing the looks over the chemical characteristics...
But here's the thing: I utilize RO/DI water. I know that my product water comes out of the unit at a consistent pH/alkalinity/TDS every time (provided I maintain/replace the membranes regularly, in accordance with manufacturer recommendations), and of course, confirmed with testing.
That being said, my approach is hardly "scientific"; shockingly more of an "art" than a "science" here.
Using RO/DO water gives me at least a fair amount of confidence about knowing what I'm working with, and at least what to expect, to a certain extent. I can more or less duplicate the conditions I want on a consistent . My 5 US-gallon plastic containers are "loaded" with 3 "medium-sized" Catappa leaves each week when I make the water. My water sits in the containers for one week before use. Some "tinters" use Alder Cones or Guava leaves, or if you're a "baller"- catalpa bark, or whatever...it's personal preference.
Now, again, it's not a perfectly scientific way, but it focuses on that main tenant of aquarium keeping that I treasure above almost all else: consistency. I do the same thing in the same way with the same stuff every single week. Yes, it's freakishly habitual, sort of inflexible, not exactly perfect- and undeniably geeky- but it works for me!
My aquariums - fresh, brackish, and reef- all rarely deviate to any real extent from a narrow range of water parameters that I choose to work with. In fact, they are almost rock-solid consistent. And I think that's made a big impact on the success I've enjoyed with my aquariums over the years. Not chasing "numbers"...Rather, pursuing consistency- and that starts with "pre-tinting" in our blackwater tanks.
Doing things like this the same way every time at least takes out one of the possible variables that can affect (in a negative way) your aquatic environment. When you're doing things exactly the same every week, it's easy to eliminate one of the possibilities if something does go wrong ("Well, I know one thing...It sure as hell ain't the water!"). Of course, you need to test your product water regularly to assure that parameters are not drifting out of your target range.
Oh, and by "target range"- I mean a range of a couple of points on the pH, etc. Like, I won't freak out if the tank is 6.4 and the water I'm adding is 6.5, although I would like to see it right on. It's not worth getting overly concerned about in my experience. look at the average over time. It's been the same with my brackish aquarium. The tank runs at a specific gravity of 1.010. I obviously target this in my makeup water, but occasionally, for wahtever reason, I might add a tiny bit more water to the container and the SG is 1.009 or so...I am not losing sleep over this.
Or fishes, for that matter!
IN the end, the idea of "pr-tinting" or "preconditioning your makeup water in some manner is just another practice to engage in in order to keep consistent environmental parameters in your aquariums. It's not revolutionary. It's not game-changing. And it's not an exact science, either. However, it IS a practice that I think many hobbyists could benefit from as they strive to maintain environmentally/aesthetically consistent, stable, aquariums.
Probably more than needs to be discussed on what is arguably a simple practice...but something worth thinking about, at least! A truly imperfect art...yet an impactful one, at that.
So, regardless of if you're keeping African rift lake cichlids, guppies, Discus, or fishes from the darkest blackwater swamps of Southeast Asia, the idea is the same: Do stuff that can get you there...even though it might be "boringly consistent."
Stay methodical. Stay consistent. Stay calm. Stay observant. Stay..."boring..."
And Stay Wet.