Don't hate on the basics...

If you were like me- a kid growing up in the hobby, one of the things you remember being literally "drummed into your head" over and over was that you need to perform water exchanges in your aquarium. It was like fastening your seat belt in the car, closing the door behind you, or brushing your teeth...Just something you did to have a nice aquarium. It's a good habit that I keep to this day-like many of you do-and it's always paid off nicely for me.

Yet, as I've grown up and experienced more in this hobby and industry, I can't tell you how many times this "instinctive" practice of water exchanges was not only forgotten, but even sort of vilified by hobbyist over the years. A lot of hobbyists just hate doing water exchanges in their aquariums! Like really hate them. They'd rather do almost anything else. Entire aquarium product lines, schemes, and philosophies have been invented over the years to help limit- or even "eliminate"- having to do water exchanges. Hobbyists go to great lengths and expense to avoid doing them. I've seen guys literally flood their homes- like, major "insurance-claim floods", by desigining and building complex automated water exchnaging systems for their tanks that failed. Expensive, complicated, semi-reliable stuff- all to avoid picking up a siphon hose.


It's crazy! I never got this...I still don't get it- probably because it was ingrained into me at a young age and I simply accepted it as part of the game. I mean, it wasn't that bad. It was fun-is fun- to interact with my tanks on this level regularly. Sure, laying down towels, lugging buckets, etc. sucked, but in the grand scheme of things, was it really that bad? Even in my 300 gallon reef tank, it was just part of the whole package, IMHO. How friggin' bad a thing is it to do a water exchange in your aquarium once a week or so? Apparently, quite bad to some! Amazing. I think it's our own fault. We've MADE them seem like such a difficult, complex, onerous thing...

For a long time, I gave a talk at a hobby clubs, called  Nutrient Control and Export”.

Despite its clinical-sounding title, I was frequently surprised by how much hobbyists liked it. Like, people would come up to me afterwards and tell me they were blown away-they got so much value out of it. And in my head, I was thinking, "Damn, all I did was talk about the most basic, common-sense stuff in aquarium husbandry..."

On the surface, you’d think that it was gonna be a dull affair about the virtues of water changes, etc., but we did go a bit deeper, so I suppose it is a bit of a revelation to those who have been  "acculturated" to hating stuff like water exchanges to hear that they're no big deal. We make them seem nasty. The talk (and ensuing dynamic discussions) pretty much always made me once again realize that there is a definite “philosophy” to aquarium husbandry that seems to be shared among the most successful hobbyists that I know:

“Good things done in small measures, with frequency.”

Simple words, but what do they mean to the successful aquarist? A whole lot, actually.

The key to ultimate long term success in the hobby is not just having the ultimate system and the hottest equipment, as we've less-than subtly discussed many times- it’s the effort-the work- that you put in as a hobbyist to provide your animals with the best possible care. And the common thread seems to be that most of the successful hobbyists that I know share that basic philosophy.

Instead of "knee-jerk" reactions to problems, like fishes or plants dying or water quality declining without any immediately evident cause, the most successful hobbyists proactively avoid many of these issues by following a regular husbandry regimen. Typically, this consists of modest (like 5%-10%) weekly or slightly larger (20%) monthly water exchanges, daily observation of major life support systems, frequent cleaning/exchanges of chemical and mechanical filtration media, and regular, but not obsessive water chemistry tests. This is especially important as we explore newer or more exotic ways of keeping aquariums.

This stuff is really basic, but I am frequently surprised, when brought in to troubleshoot an “anomalous” tank “crash” or other issue, of the seemingly complete lack of regular husbandry procedures that exist in a number of these situations. As the sayings goes, “Nothing good happens fast in an aquarium”. More often than not, in my experience- neither do bad things! They happen (in a lot of cases) over time, and the cumulative effect is what causes the ultimate decline in many cases.

Algae problems, for example, often have their roots in something simple, like lazy feeding habits (just dumping cubes of food, packing juices and all) right into the tank in large quantities, nitrogen cycle mis-management (like, OVERSTOCKING your tank!) failure to execute water changes with any degree of frequency, allowing filter media to become saturated with detritus or organics, or even the hobbyist forgetting to change the membranes and cartridges on his/her RO/DI unit, allowing lots of impurities in (I can’t tell you how many times this has been the cause of gradual declines in water quality- I saw ths a LOT in reef tanks with problems, in particular). If your source water sucks, well- you get the picture. Can’t build a solid house with a shaky foundation, right? Yeah.

Sure, sometimes there is a rare case of a ‘toxic batch of salt" (one of my favorite reefer explanations for almost any "anomalous problem" with their tanks) or an outright poisoning (housekeeper sprayed what on the aquarium?). However, typically, most water quality (and therefore environmental quality) issues result from lack of consistency in our husbandry practices.  Totally true. My point of this rant is not to beat you over the head with the basics (well, some of you, maybe a little), but it is to point out that a simple, consistent effort on your part will lead to greater system stability, animal health, and ultimately greater success as a hobbyist. I mean, a lot of you-most of you- know this already...

Like I said, I'm stunned at the number of pretty experienced hobbyists who simply aren't even close to consistent in performing water exchanges, and complain about "problems" with their aquariums. It seems strange to even write a blog like this, but it's a theme that has played out in a huge percentage of the tank-decline nightmares I've been called upon to troubleshoot over the past 10 years or so. Some hobbyists just don't want to do this, make excuses for not doing this, or just don't care...until the "shit hits the fan..."


The mind boggles.

Force yourself to adopt good practices if you have to-most of you already do, but apply them in manageable tasks (avoid, for example the “big 4 month water change” or the annual “spring cleaning” of the tank because it wasn't done throughout the year). And do them often! Easy! Even a 2% twice-weekly, or 5% weekly water change can make a huge difference in long term stability of your system. If you don’t believe me, give it a shot for a month and see if you notice a difference in your system…I’ll bet that you will.

So get up, look yourself in the mirror, and then look at your aquarium. Ask yourself if you are making the hobby easier for yourself by following a sporadic husbandry program, or making it harder. Oh, sure, the time involved is different. You'll have to re-allocate time, which can be tricky for many. However, in the "bigger picture", the payoff is truly significant. I’ll bet that, after adopting a more regular, frequent maintenance schedule, you’ll be asking yourself more “unusual” questions, like “Why did my Apistos spawn twice this month?”, or “Damn, I have to prune that Buce AGAIN?”

Good “problems” to have, huh? Think about it.

Stay on the basics. Stay focused. Stay consistent.

And Stay Wet.

Scott Fellman

Tannin Aquatics 

Scott Fellman
Scott Fellman


3 Responses

Scott Fellman
Scott Fellman

December 11, 2016

Thanks for the kind words, guys…Yeah, Brian, if only they weren’t jumpers! Now Andrea Freel, who took the pics of the Hatchets in the tank in the article, doesn’t have the tank covered and has not experienced any “jumpers”- hmm… Protim, I am inclined to agree that the 25%-50% is a better way to go (I’m a 25% guy, myself), but just GETTING people to even DO ANY water changes can be a challenge, so it’s a good, less painless start! However, woudln’t it be cool if people DID those larger changes? Yeah!


Brian Byers
Brian Byers

December 09, 2016

I agree wholeheartedly about partial water changes on a regular basis. Speaking of which, I’ve been slacking. ? BTW, I love marbled hatchetfish ?

Protim Sarkar
Protim Sarkar

December 09, 2016

Good read. But but I think 25-50% weekly would be better. 5-10% still allows for nitrates to build up.

Leave a comment