Facing our fears: Some stuff you simply can't afford to ignore...


As fish geeks, we have this incredible "intuition" about stuff, don't we? Not only that, we just know when something bad is going to happen in our aquariums. If you've been in this game long enough, you develop a sort of fishy "sixth sense", and can really tune in on things that affect your tank; your fishes.

You ever get that suspicion that something is just “not right” with your tank? You do a little investigation, and notice that the problem appears to be something minor: The reason your tank looked a bit darker is that the cover glass over your LED pendant was a bit dirty. Easy fix. You wipe it down and move on. 


Of course, for every easy, quickly-solved issue, there are other signs...things that you notice over time and know that you need to address...like, pronto!

Stuff that you kind of "know" could turn into a larger, more serious problem. Stuff you might keep "putting off" because the idea of dealing with it is just too painful, or at the very least- more than you feel like handling at the moment. We all do this. However, you KNOW better. It's time to face your fears directly. These things don't go away on their own...at least, not without extracting a great physical, emotional, and economic cost.

Deal with them now. Please.

Classic examples:

1) That small drip...means something. You regularly notice a bit of dried mineral or an occasional, yet consistent "dampness" near a plumbing connection. It’s obvious that the fit isn’t perfect, and that you have a very small leak. A lot of hobbyists will simply note it and accept this as a “self-curing” problem. It will mineralize and create a natural seal. But isn’t that near-constant leak bothering you? Could it be indicative of a greater problem, or simply an isolated instance of an ill-fitted connection? Who cares! Fix it now, by either re-fitting the section, or utilizing a material like "Rescue Tape" to create a more permanent seal. No time like the present. Over time, “small” leaks can often result in major water damage or other issues for your aquarium and the room in which it resides.

2)  That Sword Plant is declining steadily. It’s apparently the only one in your tank that’s doing poorly. Its started with a hint of algae on the tips...now it's like a "patina" all over, and some of the leaves are showing some "wear and tear." Time to finally roll up your sleeves and take a serious look. You need to take some action- either snipping off large portions of the affected plants, or simply removing it all together. Don't be like me: I tend to sit on this kind of stuff…like, indefinitely…until I have a plant with...no leaves…much to my dismay. Just yank an unhealthy plant out!

3) Getting a handle on your system’s water chemistry is important. Yeah, I know. I’ve went on and on about you not getting obsessive about shooting for specific"numbers" on your test kits. I still believe that firmly. However, I also believe that you need to get an initial “baseline” reading on your environmental parameters. It will make it easier to spot trends- both good and bad- in your aquarium. Test when your tank is looking awesome. This will establish what is “normal” for your system. Obviously, if the condition of your tank starts to decline, you’ve drifted away from what was "ideal" for your system. The same tests conducted at that time will no doubt confirm a few things. Use the differences as a means to determine an acceptable range. In a botanical style blackwater aquarium, there are a lot of moving parts, and you best get a handle on them, without being "handicapped" by "absolutes." Don’t obsess over your TDS being exactly  “X”, or your pH being exactly 6.3, or whatever. Understand that it may fall into a narrow range that is acceptable for your fishes, without disease or other serious consequences occurring. Stability within a range. Understand what the consequences are-both good and bad- for your system when parameters deviate from the "baseline." You can't guess at this stuff. It’s never bad to have information.

4) Is it time for backup? I've been astounded over the years at the sheer amount of money fish geeks will spend assembling a huge dream tank or fish room, and then not take the extra steps to ensure its survival in an emergency. With all of the storms, earthquakes, hurricanes, and other natural disasters, power interruption is more of a possibility than ever before, and lack of power for even a few hours can doom your expensive and precious collection in some instances. Why would you not protect the investment with a battery backup or backup generator? It may seem like a luxury, but when you take into account just how much time, energy and money you’ve invested into your tanks, spending a several hundred dollars/pounds/euro on a dedicated generator to keep the lights, heat, and circulation going after the power fails just makes sense, doesn’t it? In my opinion, it should be as important a part of your planning as developing the correct stocking program, or purchasing the right lighting system for your aquarium. Consider this from day one of the planning of your next dream tank/fish room. You will not regret it, trust me.

5) That __________ has become a real problem. You've taken a "calculated risk" by adding this guy to your aquarium when you knew- everyone knew- that you shouldn't.  But you nobly pressed on with your plan. It started out okay, but he's gotten a bit too "comfortable" and now considers the whole tank his territory. It's a real problem. Not only is he chasing all of your other fishes around the tank relentlessly, he's digging up your substrate! Removing this fish is going to be almost impossible without tearing apart your tank! It’s gonna suck. What to do? In my opinion, you can do one of two things: Continuously subject your other fishes to disease-causing stress, and watch your pricy fish collection shrink continuously, or you can suck it up, start breaking apart some of your beloved hardscape, and getting the offender out. Wow! That’s pretty radical! You could try fish traps, trying to get the fish out at night…whatever. But in the end, almost inevitably, you’ll end up tearing some or all of your hardscape out to get the fish out before it decimates the tank. It’s always an "ego blow", a disappointment, and a royal pain in the ass. Reality. Of course, the alternative is to watch your other animals suffer continuously. Trust me, after doing this, you’ll never take a “calculated risk” again quite so easily! Unfortunately, it’s a clear cut example of the "..needs of the many outweighing the needs of the few, or the one...” as Mr. Spock would say. Bite the bullet and get him out.


6) The heater seems to be having trouble holding a steady temp. The tank is drifting way more than you’d expect from day/night variations. Perhaps it’s running a bit warmer? If you have a controller, it’s really easy to spot this problem. Regardless, you need to have a backup for critical components like heaters and system pumps. These things don’t have infinite life spans, as you may have surmised. Even the best ones can fail. It's a simple reality. Build items like a backup main system pump and backup heaters into your overall budget when you build your system. Yeah, forgo that one extra crazy rare wild Discus pair and have these backups in your closet “just in case.” Usually, the “just in case” seems to come at night. On a holiday weekend. During a snowstorm. Right after you paid that huge roofing repair bill. ‘Nuff said.

7) You have a life. You travel a lot, work hard, and are simply not always around. On occasion, you’ll need to entrust your tank to someone else. Maybe that person is an experienced aquarist if you’re lucky. Maybe you have a controller that will at least tip you off to a failure. Maybe not. Maybe, you’ll have to talk that person through some sort of emergency procedure from thousands of miles away. You can make the process somewhat less dramatic and daunting by taking just a few steps. First, make sure that you label every plumbing connection, every power cord, every switch, and every piece of equipment. This may seem insanely time consuming, but it just might save your aquarium or entire fish room if you need a rapid response from someone who isn't  familiar with it. Trust me, there are few things more difficult than trying to simultaneously diagnose a problem from a distance, while telling the person taking care of your tank which valve to turn, or which cord to disconnect. It’s one of those projects that you can do as you set up your system that will pay potential dividends when you need it the most.

Okay, so I’ve given you my top seven things that I don’t think you can ignore. You must have dozens more, no doubt! It’s part of being an aquarium hobbyist- solving problems. Or in the case of some of these things- identifying them BEFORE they become serious problems!

Let’s hear some of your favorite aquarium-related things that you simply cannot afford to ignore. Please share, so that we can all add your experiences to ours! The tank you save might just be your own!

Until next time..

Stay vigilant. Stay observant. Stay confident. Stay prepared.


And Stay Wet.


Scott Fellman

Tannin Aquatics

Scott Fellman
Scott Fellman


2 Responses

Scott Fellman
Scott Fellman

April 20, 2017

As usual, spot on, sir! Sad but goo personal experience on the backup issue…Such a good investment!




April 20, 2017

As an expansion to #5… that ______ might be your hardscape! It’s fun, especially with blackwater tanks, to have caves and twisty branches and intricate interlocking bits that weave together perfectly… but when you need to catch that one guy or school of something, you can barely get your net in! Even vacuuming can become an exercise in pick-up-sticks! And then you inevitably have to tear down most of the tank. Design for beauty, but also for functionality!

I would second the backup systems too. For me thus far it’s only been a 100W heater, but years ago I had a friend with MTS… and most of them were reef tanks. One was an eight foot tank in the wall, four feet high, totally loaded with a fully functional ecosystem… then the “blizzard of the century” hit and power was down for over 12 hours. Everything died. Everything.

Finally, a tip from a ten-year-old friend. When you get the itch for a new fish, or gadget, or rescape, or whatever – write it down. Then, wait two weeks. If you still want it after that, then you really wanted it. If you change your mind at any point in those two weeks, then go back to the original idea – start the waiting period over again. It’s frustrating, but it’ll save your wallet and your aquarium from hasty decision-making!

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