Getting out of our own way...

We all work pretty hard to make our aquariums look like the ones in our dreams, don't we?

You know- with amazing fish, a killer hardscape, and that special “something” that makes it look like a real “slice of the bottom” in our own home! We pour our hearts and souls into these things...We invest small fortunes (or in some cases, LARGE ones!), and tons of time, in the hope that our tanks meet our lofty ambitions.

Then, why do we still do stuff that totally sabotages our dream tank?

Huh? "You being negative again, Fellman? Stirring up another hornet’s nest, aren’t ya’?"

Well, probably.

But I can’t tell you how many potentially amazing tanks that I’ve seen literally stymied by some bad habits that can easily be broken once the fish geek identifies, owns, and changes them. So, really- this calling out of our bad habits is actually a positive... Let's make this constructive!

Here are just a few of the most obvious examples of this kind of stuff, in no particular order:

Moving stuff around needlessly-

“The Madagascar Lace Plant is just did not ‘look right’, so I moved it from the middle of the main rock structure to the top of the driftwood area on the other side. It still looked a bit off, so a few days later, I relocated it to the area on the other side of the tank where there is more flow. It still wasn’t looking good, so I decided it would be best to place it closer to the front to get more light. Yesterday, the plant started losing tissue. I knew there was something wrong with it…”

Sound familiar?

This happens so often you can’t believe it. I’ve seen hobbyists with even the best intentions kill plants, corals, and even fishes despite making every effort to attempt to make them "happy…" The sad reality is that most plants, corals, and fishes will do better if you don’t mess with them once they’re situated in their new home. We all know this. Obviously, there are situations (like a "bullied" fish) where a move is imperative...However, for the most part, sometimes the best thing is to do...nothing. I mean, think about the last time YOU moved? It pretty much totally sucks, right? And your plants, corals, and fishes don't have much say in the matter in this case, do they?

Now, I’m all for placing a plant or coral or sessile invertebrate in the most optimum location, perhaps a bit hidden or partially shaded, and then moving it gradually to acclimate to light- but wholesale moving of a plant on a semi-regular basis is just not a happy thing. For one thing, handling a plant, coral, or invert- no matter how careful we are- always increases the risk of damaging it, or stressing it out to the point where it is left vulnerable to diseases, etc. And, of course, every time you move a plant, coral, or invertebrate- no matter how subtle- you are forcing it to adapt to a slightly different environmental situation. Remember, corals- and to a great extent, plants- come from reefs, streams and lakes- some of the more stable environments on earth- and aren’t super evolved to deal with frequent change all that well. Sure, they’re not fragile flowers, but, when you consider what they go through from the dealer’s tank (or propagation facility) to home aquarium, It’s a miracle that they even survive, let alone thrive and grow. So why add to the stress that they endure by constantly messing with them? Let's vow to leave them least for a while!


“Tweaking” just because 'everyone' is doing it- “XYZ is dosing __________, and his tank looks awesome, so I’m going to start dosing it, too.”

 Don't be a joiner...this is a killer, IMHO. Sure, on the surface, this seems innocuous enough- you see a hobbyist who you admire, and who’s tank looks great. You hear that he uses __________, so it makes sense, at least at first glance-that you’d want to use it , too. The problem is, you don’t know the circumstances under which he’s dosing the stuff, the parameters before and after he started dosing it, and dozens of other factors that contributed to his success with the product. In fact, you don’t really know for sure if the stuff in question was a contributing factor to his success! The important thing is to not add anything that you don’t have a demonstrated need for. As the great aquatic author John Tullock wrote, “Test- then tweak.”

Here’s one we see in the reef side of the hobby all the time- I am sure that there is a freshwater analog here: Constantly switching salt brands because one is on sale- “Salt is salt, more or less…And this one is 20% off this week!”

Another one of those seemingly innocent moves that every reefer makes from time to time. I get it. The hobby is expensive, and we need to look for ways to save. In my opinion, “saving” money by constantly switching the brand of salt that you use for your reef is not one of them. The reality is, every salt is NOT the same. Many are based on natural sea water, but have proprietary “enhancements” and such to give them an extra edge of their competitors. The reality is that there is no generally accepted “industry standard” for synthetic sea salt mixes. Many actually vary in formulation from batch to batch. Some don’t even have the very trace elements that they claim to contain! (Another story for another time...)

High quality synthetic sea salt is really difficult to make in general, and making it absolutely the same on a consistent basis is incredibly difficult! When you switch from brand to brand, you're exposing your corals and fishes to variations (some subtle, some not so subtle) in the chemical composition of their water every time you use the stuff. Variations require the corals and fishes to adapt to them. Adaptable as they may be, forcing corals to accept this on a regular basis is really subjecting them to undue stress, IMHO. And I suspect that the same may hold true for freshwater plant foods, etc...Do yourself, your tank, and the manufacturers a favor- show some “brand loyalty!” 

Adding new fishes and plants to your tank without quarantining them- “My LFS holds his livestock for two weeks before he sells it. I’m good…etc., etc., etc."

Along with the time-honored tradition of water changes, this practice seems to encounter tremendous resistance from many hobbyists. Man, I know I sound like the proverbial “broken record”, but if I had a dollar (or even a Euro!) for every time I heard about a hobbyist wiping out his entire tank because he or she introduced a disease to an otherwise healthy aquarium, I wouldn’t be slinging botanicals for a living, for sure! It’s pretty much a fact that hobbyists are, by and large, good natured, trusting people. It’s also a sad truth that this trust, coupled with typical human laziness, can get us into big trouble. In this day and age, you simply can’t expect everyone else to do your quarantine for you. The LFS or online vendor deals with hundreds of specimens a month, maybe even thousands- and despite the desire to do so- generally cannot possibly provide an effective quarantine for every animal that comes out of his or her tanks, even with the best of intentions. It’s just not economically feasible.

It’s a process that is best done by the hobbyist, in his/her own home, under conditions that can be monitored. It goes with the territory of being a fish geek. And this is not a difficult process, as outlined here and elsewhere dozens of times before. However, inspection and quarantine of every animal that goes into your aquarium is not only your responsibility- it’s your obligation. Really. So if you get nothing else out of this piece, just embrace some form of quarantine for your newly-acquired animals. You won’t regret it.

Pandering to the masses- “I’m gonna do a 300 gal, with the full on “Hyperdose 2000” CO2 system, “UltraPar 4000” lights, “Astrotek 1000” controller, and I’m only gonna stock my tank with L264’s from”

Okay, I get it. You want to build a tank with the best of the best. One for the ages. A system that will be the envy of everyone on the forums. You want to impress everyone with your skill, budget, and financial savvy. Look, there is nothing wrong with building the very best tank that you can afford. Nothing. The problem is that you need to ask yourself if you’re building this mega tank for yourself- for the love of the hobby- or to impress everyone on the forums. Really, this sounds like I’m being kind of a jerk, but think about it for a minute. We spend hundreds of hours and thousands of dollars/euro on this hobby, right? So we need to be very sure at all times that we are approaching it from a healthy mental perspective. 

Build that dream tank because it makes you happy- gives you the best possible experience…Not because it will make a great “build thread” and gain you accolades from the hobby masses. Trust me, I’ve seen dozens of really well-intentioned hobbyists buy into the “groupthink” mentality and build expensive mega-tanks just to “buy into” some perceived “cool” group on the forums- only to have their tank fail, and to mentally “flame out” ultimately, because they really didn’t have the skill, experience, and let’s be honest- desire- to see the mega-tank to completion. Some of the best tanks I’ve ever seen were small, simple projects, conceived and run with passion, love, and commitment to the craft- not for the purpose of gaining acceptance form the cool kids. Please- be you!

Well, there you have a rundown of some of the most common pitfalls that I’ve seen fellow hobbyists put themselves into. Remember, running an aquarium is a difficult enough endeavor without us making things harder on ourselves. We are all quite capable of creating and managing fantastic aquariums. Although caring for animals is a very serious responsibility, we need to stay focused on the fact that this is a hobby- and to not take the whole thing it too seriously. Do what’s right for the animals and plants that you keep, and go with your instincts, and don’t fall for the easy way, or the way that "everyone else is doing it."

Be yourself, share with others, and stay engaged in the art and science of the aquarium hobby. And be sure to "get out of your own way" if you need to! 

Today’s cautionary tale of bad habits, dangerous thinking, and unsustainable practices- and how to break them. I know you have some more examples to discuss...let's here them, so everyone may benefit!

Stay bold. Stay thoughtful. Stay cautious. Stay fiercely independent...

And Stay Wet

Scott Fellman

Tannin Aquatics

Scott Fellman
Scott Fellman


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