"Points of Failure"- and how to counter them...

One of the nice things about being in the aquatics industry on a full-time basis is the exposure you have to lots of different people, ideas, and information in "real time." And sometimes, it's nice to reflect on what you see and ferret out a few nuggets of wisdom from it all. And sometimes, you can learn about what NOT to do as you observe and interact with people in the hobby and industry.

Okay, at the bit of sounding just a bit negative today, I'm pondering on a few things that have been on my mind lately about the aquarium hobby. This usually leads to either a good discussion, or a sound thrashing of me by readers...so this should be fun!  It's an ugly f---ing dose of reality, courtesy of me, "Mr. Sunshine", to brighten up your Friday!

Now, there are a lot of articles, blogs, and tips on how to succeed at this-or-that aspect of the hobby, which is awesome. I've written a bunch, myself. They have their place, for sure!

But those of us who have been in the hobby and industry for a while have seen a lot of- for want of a better term- the "dark side" of the aquarium hobby and industry. We've seen all kinds of hobbyists, businesses, and ideas come and go. And after a while, you get a distinct feeling that you know what works and what doesn't. You can see when the proverbial "train is headed for the washed-out bridge", or "the ship is steering into the rocks", if you will. 

We need to talk about ways you can fail.


Today, in the hope that we can all learn about what does NOT work, I give you some examples of ways to fail in the aquarium hobby. (This is really less geared towards YOU- the more advanced aquarist, or the LFS person- more towards creating a" discussion track" for you to run with when dealing with someone who is completely new to the hobby, or perhaps a more experienced hobbyist who is...a bit misled.)

It's kind of our responsibility, as advanced hobbyists, industry types, and good stewards of the aquarium world to look at the absurdity of some of this stuff, so that we can prevent others from making these horrible mistakes, costing the lives of precious fish.

Here are my top 5.

No doubt you have more, but it's a start!

1) Jump in without doing research. Yeah, seriously. The aquarium hobby as we know it has only been around for like 100 years or so. The tenants of basic aquarium husbandry are still wide open for the foolhardy to dismiss. Examples? Well, don't worry about mixing fishes from different environmental conditions together! Calling your an aquarium a "community tank" somehow negates all of the potential downsides of mixing incompatible fishes! We've all seen this hundreds of times, and the many sad outcomes which arise as a result end the hobby experience for many...

Or, how  about this one: The idea that fishes will somehow "grow to the size of their aquarium" and "adapt'' just fine to smaller tanks! "I'll get a larger tank down the line." (If I had a dollar for every time I heard THAT one...). This justification has lead to the cruel demise of many fishes over the decades...

2) Believing that this or that product will relieve you of the need to obey basic aquarium husbandry principles. Yeah, really! If you use this additive or employ this filter media, there is no need for water changes. Ever! Feeding this food will prevent fish disease. Botanicals will lower your pH, soften your water, and give you "Instant Orinoco" conditions effortlessly!

Or, using this electronic controller means you'll never have to monitor water chemistry again! Just spending the money on ____________ automatically grants you a special exemption from the "aquarium gods",  and gives you special status whereby you can dismiss all of the "rules" and achieve success with minimal attention and effort. "I read on internet about this guy who..." 


Seriously. I see and hear this one a lot on both sides of the "salinity line."We saw this a LOT in the reef aquarium world, and I'm seeing it more and more in the specialized niche we operate in now. Some people just want the "end product" of a fantastic aquarium without the work... Thank goodness there are tons of great aquarium maintenance services out there! 


3) Accelerating the timeline when establishing a new aquarium. Hey, the kids want to see fish in the tank by tonight for the party! "I'll start with just a few fish: Like, a dozen Neons, six Tiger Barbs, a few "Algae Eaters" (gotta have those)..." We've all seen and heard the various claims out there: Todays modern filters, additives, and gadgets will help you succeed despite having any knowledge of what you're doing! The nitrogen cycle is "instantly established" and your aquarium "...can achieve biological balance in a day with this stuff!"

Regrettably, marketing hyperbole, when taken out of context can give a newbie the completely wrong impression of the capabilities and applications for a product. Much like certain reality TV shows which fail to highlight all of the underlying steps that went into the project to get it to "point C", right? 

4) Continuing at full speed even when stuff is going wrong and animals are dying. I've seen this a lot on the "reef" side of the trade: A customer will buy a bunch of livestock, experience horrific losses (generally due to a complete disregard-intentional or otherwise- of a properly-established nitrogen cycle), conclude without real research that the losses were due to "bad fish", and then continue to the next LFS, online vendor, breeder, etc. and grab another bunch of animals to replace the ones that died!

After the second inevitable disaster ensues, some call "uncle" and either quit or maybe- just maybe-they make the effort to figure out why. Those who persist, continue to kill fish, buy and misapply products and equipment to solve the "problem", and typically leave the hobby soon after, concluding that "quality control" in the industry makes it impossible to succeed. Those who take a time out and study and talk- and listen to experienced hobbyists generally succeed!

5) Don't share your experiences. Really.  Nope. There is nothing anyone else can learn from you. Or, you've figured out this information after years of triumph and tragedy, so you're not just gonna give it away! It's "proprietary" in nature, and others should learn the way you did. Be grumpy, and lock yourself and your secrets in your fish room, away from the "unworthy" denizens of the larger aquarium world. 'Cause that's helpful, right?

Don't be a jerk. 

Okay, I've literally just scratched the surface here. There are probably thousands of ways to fail in the aquarium hobby, and I've touched on just a few. I know there are hundreds of ways to fail just using botanicals alone!

The real important takeaway of the semi-sarcastic "romp" we took here is for those of us in a position to help to see the signs, and know what to do.

And of course, I have advice for those of us on "the other side of the counter", or monitor, as the case may be...

I think it's imperative that we encourage anyone who enters this hobby to do the research before they leap into things. Honestly, even someone coming into your shop completely "green", but eager to drop money, should leave with little more than information, or a book at least, before they purchase anything.

Really.  I know it seems insane, quaint, and perhaps a bit unrealistic...but is it really that bad to slow people down?

A half hour of indoctrination session in the LFS is just that- a half hour of indoctrination. It takes much more for the beginner to grasp what's really going on, but it's a start, right? And yeah, it seems "fantasy land" to take on this attitude when the internet beckons and competition is fierce, but I ask you: Wouldn't you rather send someone home with information first, and gain a long-term customer, than to just grab the quick and easy sale? Don't you think that they will come back to purchase stuff from you- because you took the time? And, won't someone who is successful in the hobby because you took the time to work with them refer their friends to you?

Don't ya' think?

I do.

I know many successful fish stores and online vendors who have used this "education/indoctrination" approach and have achieved great success...

I've literally told people who've reached out to me to hold off trying to use botanicals until they've familiarized themselves with the whole game. I can typically detect these people pretty easily, because they'll ask the most basic of questions that are certain "tell"s that reveal: a) They are new to the aquarium hobby, and b) They haven't even bothered to read any of the information we have on our website about the product and processes. 

"Red flags", IMHO.

I mean, I love enthusiasm, and you have to pull the trigger and jump at some point, but there is an ethical responsibility I feel to tell them to hit the brakes. And I admit,  it doesn't always go well.  Some don't like it. Not one bit. 

Such is life, right? You can't please everyone! 

Another one for us:

Don't always solve problems with "products."

I think that many aquarium problems are created by very basic mistakes, and that simply throwing money on the problem isn't really a solution. Rather, it's a "band aid." Take the time to explain to the newbie just what it was that caused the issue in the first place, and how to prevent it. Knowing the cause, effects, and preventative/corrective measures to take is far better than simply buying this-or-that product as a "solution." Over the years, you'll sell far more products to a successful hobbyist than you will with some temporary fix.

You know that. And of course, there are situations where the need for a quick fix is warranted. Just think it though. 

Preach patience to any new hobbyist. It's the single most important factor in their success, IMHO.

Get them to understand just how things work in an aquarium, and why things are done a certain way. Explain to them that aquariums, being natural systems, are affected by the same laws of nature as occur in the wild, and that grasping stuff like the nitrogen cycle, fish compatibility, environmental requirements, etc. will give them a greater understanding of what's going on, and how to recognize for themselves in the future when something is going wrong- or right! It's a better long term strategy, IMHO.

Above all, encourage sharing of information at all levels in the hobby. With the internet, there has never been a better time to learn about the hobby. To keep information that can help others accomplish things and solve problems in the hobby isn't just uncool- it's a tragedy that can have far-reaching consequences, especially in this era where the hobby and industry face mounting external pressures from ill-informed "environmentalists" and other "nature advocates", who would just assume lump aquarists in with loggers, oil producers, and blast fishermen.

The hobby is ours to share, protect, preserve, and to pass on to our children.

So in conclusion, we should all learn to recognize the signs of a hobbyist who's headed in the wrong direction- not just because it's the honorable thing to do for them, but because of the greater good in the hobby-and the environment- that is served when we take the time to prevent them from failing.

Until next time, I leave you with that thought.

Stay focused. Stay concerned.

And stay wet!

Scott Fellman

Tannin Aquatics

Scott Fellman
Scott Fellman


2 Responses

Scott Fellman
Scott Fellman

August 31, 2019

Outstanding points! Thanks so much for sharing!



August 30, 2019

I’m glad in this day and age we have the Internet; when I was a kid, there was so much misinformation floating around (just like today, it persists) with little way of verifying facts from fiction without the right books. I kept a goldfish in an uncycled unfiltered 1 gallon and didn’t know any better. Neither did my mother, who would help me clean it by completely dumping the tank out and refilling it straight from the tap (with no dechlorinator).

These days we are all connected in a way that allows us to share our experiences and learn more. There is no need to hold onto secondhand information or myths. If you are serious about entering a hobby, be responsible enough to do your research first. Join an educated forum, ask questions to anything you can’t already find online.

Some things I learned:
1. You’re going to get wet. Your floor is going to get wet. Your socks are going to get wet. Be okay with getting wet.

2. Never go too small in tank size. It’s false what they say about bettas, they don’t live in puddles. They live in bodies of water that are quite large. They have plenty of room to swim. These bodies of water are shallow but this is okay, because bettas are special fish that a labyrinth organ that lets them take oxygen from the air, so don’t fill the water all the way to the top (or they’ll drown). Bettas hate puddles and have in fact are skilled jumpers; they’ll puddle-jump until they get to a larger body of water. If your betta keeps trying to jump out of your tank, something is wrong.

3. Cycle your tank before you put in anything alive (though most plants are okay to put in). Research the nitrogen cycle. It may take up to a month before the tank is cycled. Basically you are making the ecosystem habitable for its occupants. You can really hurt/stress/kill livestock by adding them to a tank before it’s cycled.

4. Research what your specific tank needs. If you have a fish that needs a hotter temperature than what your room tempature is, get a heater for your tank. You wouldn’t want to sit outside in winter; nor does your fish want to be too hot/cold.

The same goes for plants; once you know what temperature your tank is going to be, look at plants that prefer that range of temperature. Also consider plants that do not require additional CO2 if you plan on keeping a low tech (no CO2 infused) tank.

Don’t mix saltwater and freshwater fish. It’s just a slow and horrible way to die.

5. FILTER! Get a filter! Unless you like doing daily water changes, your fish will thank you.

6. Go easy on the chemicals—know what you’re dosing. Once my tank was cycled, I was daily and weekly dosing all kinds of chemicals, but it turns out a lot of those were unneeded. When something went wrong, it was hard to identify what because I had so many things going on. Now I just dose the dechlorinator when I add water (chlorine is often present in tap water and is not safe for fish), and anything else that is essential to my tank and its parameters.

7. Prepare to test your water often. Test strips are wildly inaccurate, so a master test kit with liquid and vials is best. Just because the water looks clear doesn’t mean it’s clean or has good parameters. Also test your tap water, so that you can see what you need to add/change to make parameters acceptable.

8. Be descriptive. If you run into a problem, you can write about it on a hobbyist forum and ask for help, but you must be descriptive. Include everything you can, including information about your setup and the parameters of the water as well.

9. Keep a log. I never realized I had an ongoing problem with my parameters until I looked back through my log. Everytime I tested the water, I wrote the parameters down, as well as the date. Doing this helped me realize my KH and GH were too low, and that my pH was fluctuating. From that, I was able to work on and fix the problem.

10. Don’t leave the light on all day (or for too long). Algae loves long photo periods, but your plants and fish will not. Let your tank have a period of darkness. I keep my tanks’ lights on for 6 hours, and to help me not forget, I have the lights set up on a timer so that it’s automatic.

11. Don’t cut corners. If sources say a fish needs a certain tank size, or a certain number of its own kind with it to shoal/school/socialize, listen.

12. Be prepared for unexpected costs—stuff happens! Equipment can break. Fish can get sick. Be prepared to research and buy what you have to, to be that responsible pet owner. Sometimes this means setting up a quarantine tank when a fish is sick, buying medicines, etc.

13. Goldfish need huge tanks. They’ll just keep growing. Besides, if you were planning on stunting an animal and giving it bone deformaties and a short lifespan, that’s pretty cruel. You wouldn’t do that to your cat or dog…

14. Never listen to the person who says “I kept this and this in horrible conditions for YEARS and they were FINE” while the majority of the community advocates for more comfortable conditions. Just because what one person says is convenient for what you want doesn’t mean it’s convenient for your tank.

Some websites that have really helped me are plantedtank(dot)net and advancedplantedtank(dot)com. You can learn a lot about different styles of aquascaping once you grasp the basics of fishkeeping. I’m really glad for Tannin Aquatics; when I looked into doing a biotope years ago, there was no way to really do one without visiting the area itself. Thanks to them, I was able to do a really great looking blackwater tank of a certain area using their botanicals. Thank you, Tannin Aquatics, for being awesome!

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