The Aquarium Hobby "Book of Answers!"- Spoiler Alert: There isn't one.

I have a bad feeling that today's piece is going to get me into trouble with a few people out there, but hey- has that ever stopped me before?


Of course, like most of my rants, this is a circuitous romp around a few issues, attempting to make a point that may or may not be obvious...

Isn't it sort of amazing that the aquarium hobby contains so many practices, processes, and procedures that we not only take for granted- we simply "learn as we go" in many cases. I mean, there's some stuff in the hobby that we don't really have a set of "instructions"for, if you will- it's merely a matter of following the lead of others, rolling up your sleeves, and jumping in.

Now, there's nothing at all wrong with that, conceptually, of course. Yet I do find it a bit odd that we, as aquarium hobbyists, dance the fine line between art and science, and often do it without the benefit of "instructions" in the traditional sense...

There is no specific book of "answers" regarding hobby practices, when you think about it. Sure, there are some books on how to do a few things, but not a ton of material out there explaining what to expect, how to proceed, and specifically, "what wheels to turn and switches to throw" when performing certain hobby tasks.

In my 4-plus decades of keeping tropical fish, I've come to the realization that I'm...well, "semi-competent", from a "Do It Yourself" perspective.

Of course, there is another extreme- a by-product of our modern online culture...hobbyists who posses a certain "laziness" or lack of initiative to do some research on basic stuff, that often surprises me. If the answer is not literally right in their faces, some people just not going to search.

Yeah, I admit that I am occasionally annoyed when I receive a DM on Instagram or wherever, when a fellow hobbyist, upon seeing one of our posts, asks something like, "I see you're using Guava leaves in that tank. How do you prepare them for use?" 


"I have a f---ing website with all of this stuff right there. You see the name of our feed? Tannin Aquatics? Click on the damn link!"

(Face palm moment). *$%^**%#

And maybe my attitude is a bit bad, but...

Lack of initiative sucks. 

Now, with YouTube and social media showing lots of people doing things like taking apart an Eheim for cleaning, setting up a CO2 system, and building an aquarium stand, there is a tremendous amount of reference material out there for those willing to do a simple search for it. We need to kill the culture of laziness that permeates the hobby nowadays.  There is really no excuse for this in the Google/Alexa/Bing/Wikipedia world we're in.

So much good stuff available to us all. Nearly instantly in many cases.

I am truly awed by the skills of some of the hobbyists who produce this stuff, too.  Mad skills. And, I can at least vicariously feel like I've done some of the cool stuff they can. Yeah, skilled hobbyists him make it look so effortless...And make you feel like YOU can actually do it. Their infectious child-like enthusiasm makes me least for a few minutes- like I've GOT skills! I dutifully watch these videos, awe at the skills...and then I get scared. Sure, that's a whole different phenomenon, tangentially related.

"Yeah, you can do this stuff...!"

Well, maybe YOU can, but not me...

Yup. Reality.

Look, I am one of those aquarists that has the "Quasi-DIY Gene", and I know it. I can scheme out and plumb my reef aquarium, set up a canister filter, coordinate a flow pattern with off-the-shelf electronic pumps, dial in a CO2 regulator, etc. I can almost program a controller without throwing it at the wall, so I suppose that's "progress."

I mean, points to me or you for at least looking up how some of this stuff works for ourselves.

In serious corners of the aquarium hobby, this is considered fairly "basic" stuff. Not everyone is up to the task, however. Nothing wrong with self-awareness. When it comes to the really hardcore stuff, like building a reliable and safe auto top off system, contracting a custom stand, or assembling my own LED lighting array, that's where I beg off and seek the guidance of fellow fish geeks, like my friend Dave, who loves that kind of stuff.

My head spins at the very thought of some of these things.


Self-awareness is huge. Know your limits.

Classic example: Any of you who have suffered through my miserable "videos" and photos understand why I decided to work with a guy who I consider the best of the best- Uber-talented photographer/creative director Johnny Ciotti- for all of Tannin's main image work.

I know what I personally suck at, and when it's time to bring in the pros!

Of course, there are those skills we get through effort.

Like most of you, I've acquired a fairly extensive set of rather obscure skills, like understanding the nuances of ball valves, the value of waterproofing an aquarium stand interior, and adjusting an electronic heater controller. These are skills you sort of accumulate by either observing other fish geeks, or just by jumping in and doing.

And surprisingly, more often than not, stuff just works! 

A lot of it is likely just "luck", but hey...

When I co-owned a large coral propagation facility, this sort of "luck" served me 70% of the time...


Yeah, occasionally would figure out how to get something like a calcium reactor or dosing pump going on the first try, be it through luck or just having the right set of obscure skills required to make it work. Often, I'd defer the actual task to an employee that actually knew what he/she were doing, after suggesting some sort of semi-coherent set of instructions (usually a shallow regurgitation of something I heard elsewhere): "Yeah, it's just matter of replacing the _____ and making sure that it's on real tight..."

I mean, I think I actually fooled myself many times into believing I was showing some "leadership", when the reality was, I'm virtually certain that my employees were probably thinking, "This guy doesn't have a clue, either..."

Much of the stuff we do, we simply have to jump in and try.

Not bad, right?

And here's the thing:

There there is really no master "book of answers" for aquarium projects, or even for many of the pieces of equipment that we use? I mean, books will talk in sweeping generalities about the need for a multistage canister filter in an Mbuna tank, or a kalk stirrer or reactor for a reef, and maybe even have a computer-generated diagram showing where it is located in the setup scheme.

However, you never see things like, "In order to make the reactor work, you'll need a ______ pump, two feet of 1/2" vinyl tubing, two ball valves, and enough room in your equipment area to accomodate a 4" x 20" reactor body. The assembled unit should be placed approximately 4 inches to the side of the sump, with enough clearance to____________."

Ok, you get my drift. 

In defense of those who do ask questions about what seems super obvious to some of us...There are some surprisingly glaring omissions by us as industry people that perhaps continue to foster a "disconnect" that leaves some scratching their heads.

Many sophisticated aquarium products do come with a diagram, maybe some basic introductory stuff about why it's good to have the piece of equipment (C'mon, you KNOW that already, or you wouldn't have purchased it, right? You STILL need to be sold on why a GFO reactor is a good thing for your reef aquarium after you bought it?), and if you’'re lucky, at least a couple of assembly "pointers." Really rudimentary stuff.

Not helpful for some of us who are not masters of the obvious!  

I'd go so far to say that when the "instructions" with the piece of equipment consist of a diagram and "bullet points", I'm scared shitless...! The manufacturers would be far better off providing detailed assembly and placement information for the purchaser, IMHO. Oh, sure, there are some manufacturers of complex equipment who do this, but they appear to be few and far in between. It's almost like it's expected that, as a fish geek, you have this "hidden knowledge database" programmed in your head to figure out how to assemble and operate everything. 

However, what you don't have "programmed", you can always find by tapping into the vast body of hobby knowledge that is "out there"- Have you noticed that? It's like you must acquire the arcane knowledge that you need by internet search, haunting the LFS, or hanging with your fish-keeping buddies and visiting their setups, right?

Fun, yes, but often frustrating. And you have to be willing to look for it.

People often ask me how and why I can write blogs about some of our rather arcane topic in our little section of the hobby pretty much daily. And I can tell you what my motivation for this behavior is:

Yes, there is really no formal "aquarium book of answers" out there. None. 

Yes, lots of books talk about the theoretical and broad implementation of this gadget or another- lots of articles about some of the concepts...but no one has really written a concise treatise with turnkey information about how to construct a properly equipped "high tech planted" or reef aquarium system.  

( I can hear it now- "It's called the internet, Fellman!"

Well, yeah...exactly.

You have to do some digging.

And we can all do our part to help.

If you have some knowledge about some subject in the hobby- no matter how obscure or insignificant it might seem to you- put it in writing/video/rant/tweet/whatever your preferred method of communication is. Someone out there will likely be looking for an answer to a similar conundrum you've faced at some point.

Yeah- contribute to the body of knowledge that our "tribe" needs. And even more important- encourage fellow hobbyists who have a question to take a few minutes to at least try to look up some of this stuff for themselves. Sure, be helpful, answer some simple questions...but point out that it's also available out there with a few keystrokes in most instances...Stop the madness of the lazy DM asking the obvious! "Teach a man to fish..."


That would upset the entire balance of the aquarium universe, because suddenly, hobbyists would have no excuse but to acknowledge that there is a legitimate resource to turn to for reference on how to do_______, how to fix ________, or what not. You'd no longer have to go though excruciating trial and error while building what you feel is a properly-equipped aquarium, or breeding your Taeniacara candidi or whatever.

Oh sure, there are some of you who would scoff at the idea of sharing the obscure, saying that the painful accumulation of this knowledge and the skills to pull off these projects SHOULD be gained through blood, sweat, and tears- you've gotta pay your "dues" by searching for obscure information by failing a few times on the way.

Blah, blah, blah...

Okay, wierdos, think about THIS: How would you feel the next time you fly from say, L.A. to New York, if the two guys up front were "paying their dues" during YOUR flight? You know, "kind of figuring it out as they go?" Or, if the guy in the surgical scrubs patting your arm as you fall asleep on the operating table is "sort of perfecting your procedure" as he goes?

Yeah, not so good, huh?


So my request is that EVERYONE out there in this big aquarium-keeping hobby world, creates an article or articles, or launch online discussions on exactly how to incorporate some of the "fundemental" concepts and ideas we discuss into our systems. Not only would it be good for the hobby, it would be awesome for the animals we keep, and manufacturers of aquarium equipment would realize the value, too- and possibly increase sales, because hobbyists would actually have a good guide as to how to incorporate said piece of equipment or practice into their systems.

Win-win, right?


Now, this is funny, coming from a guy who has written hundreds of arcane and obscure blog posts on how to throw in sticks and nuts and stuff into your tank, attempting to provide answers, but often resorting to vague answers such as, "There are so many variables..."

Sigh. Yeah, there are still tons of things for which we don't have concise answers.

Ok, enough of this nonsense for now. I'm off to figure out how to incorporate a carbon reactor into a nano system I'm working on...Isn't there a way to do it. I'm not going to look it up, because I don't have the time. I'll just ask someone...


So, I say to you: Take some initiative. Search for knowledge. Share said acquired knowledge. Complain more. (I mean, it can't hurt to do that, right?)

Stay educated. Stay fascinated. Stay un-confused!

And Stay Wet.

Scott Fellman

Tannin Aquatics

Scott Fellman
Scott Fellman


Leave a comment