The only "hacks" worth doing...

If you know one thing about me personally, it's that I just abhor shortcuts, "hacks", or "cheats" in the hobby.

Now I know, it's sort of an aggressive stance, but the idea of such practices really goes against my larger philosophical orientation of aquarium keeping. Trying to skirt the necessary practices which require time, patience, observation, and discipline in favor of "quick and easy" is often (not always) a recipe for problems down the line- particularly when dealing with live animal ecosystems.

We've talked a lot about the practice of adding botanical materials slowly to the aquarium, and things that impact how quickly, and how long the water retains its tint.

It's kind of a big deal for us- I get it! Many hobbyists who have perhaps added some catappa leaves, "blackwater extracts", or rooibos tea to their water contact me asking why the water doesn't stay tinted for more than a few days. Now, I'm flattered to be a sort of "clearing house" for this stuff, but I must confess, I don't have all the answers.

Obviously, I'm not saying that the botanical-style aquarium approach should be all drudgery and ceaseless devotion to a series of steps and guidelines issued by...someone. NO! That's even more frightening to me than the idea of "shortcuts" and "hacks!" Dogma sucks. And guess what? Ideas and practices evolve over time as we learn more about what we're doing and accumulate more experience. And that often makes me re-visit ideas which I might have formerly looked at in a more negative way.

Yeah, imagine that? Even crochety old me re-visiting ideas I've formerly "poo-pooed."

One of the questions we receive a lot is, "Can I use the water which I prepare botanicals as a sort of 'blackwater extract' or 'tea' to add to my aquarium?"  My answer has been, and still is the same: I don't recommend it, because in addition to the tannins and humic substances which are exuded during the prep process, you are also releasing a lot of dirt, dust, and organic pollutants which are bound up in the surface tissues of your botanicals.

My feeling is that the addition of a concentrated "brew" of the very stuff you're trying to eliminate via preparation into your aquarium is counter-productive at least, and downright detrimental to water quality at worst! Hardly worth the trade-off of losing ga small amount of the treasured tannins and humic substances, IMHO.

Yet, the questions continued. And the idea of utilizing the "tea" produced during the prep process persisted. And people asked about other stuff.

Hobbyists have for years played with other alternatives, such as Rooibos tea, which, in addition to bing kind of tasty, has been a favored "tint hack" of many hobbyists for years. Without getting into all of the boring details, Rooibos tea is derived from the Aspalathus linearis plant, also known as "Red Bush" in South Africa and other parts of the world. 

(Rooibos, Aspalathus linearis.  Image by R.Dahlgr- used under CC-BY S.A. 2.5)

It's been used by fish people for a long time as a sort of instant "blackwater extract", and has a lot going for it for this purpose, I suppose. Rooibos tea does not contain caffeine, and and has low levels of tannin compared to black or green tea. And, like catappa leaves and other botanicals, it contains polyphenols, like flavones, flavanols, aspalathin, etc. 

Hobbyists will simply steep it in their aquariums and get the color that they want, and impart some of these substances into their tank water."Cold extraction." I mean, it's an easy process. Of course, like any other thing you add to your aquarium, it's never a bad idea to know the impact of what you're adding. 

Like using botanicals, utilizing tea bags in your aquarium requires some thinking, that's all. 

And of course, it got me thinking. I mean, tea is essentially defined as, "...a hot drink made by infusing the dried crushed leaves of the tea plant in boiling water."

I suppose that, by definition, it doesn't really differ substantially from what we are producing when we utilize botanicals in our aquariums- with the notable exceptions that we are: a) not drinking our tank water and b) allowing the botanicals themselves to impart the tannins and humic substances at their own "speed" over time (after preparation) into the water. More like a slow infusion, right? Oh, and of course, using the botanicals themselves in our tanks allows fishes and other aquatic animals to interact with them and use them for shelter and foraging, just like they do in the wild...

And yeah, I admit, I was openly critical of the idea of using Rooibos and many "extracts." 

The things that I personally dislike about using tea or so-called "blackwater extracts" are that you are simply going for an effect, without getting to embrace the functional aesthetics imparted by adding leaves, seed pods, etc. to your aquarium as part of its physical structure, and that there is no real way to determine how much you need to add to achieve______.

Obviously, the same could be said of botanicals, but we're not utilizing botanicals simply to create brown water or specific pH parameters, etc.

Yet, with tea or extracts, you sort of miss out on replicating a little slice of Nature in your aquarium. And that's a different sort of thing. And getting my head around this sort of changed my thinking just a bit.

Of course, it's fine if your goal is just to color the water, I suppose. And I understand that some people, like fish breeders who need bare bottom tanks or whatever- like to condition water without all of the "leaves and twigs and nuts" we love.

THAT suddenly registered in me!

There is ( I know, because I listen to you guys!) an entire population of aquarists who love the tint of the water, the benefits of humic substances and tannins, but simply don't like all of the decomposing materials, biofilms, etc. which accompany the addition of botanicals in aquairums.

I get it.

On the other hand, if you're trying to replicate the look and function (and maybe some of the parameters) of THIS:

You won't achieve it by using THIS:

It's not "wrong" or "lazy"- it's simply a different route....for a different purpose!

And look, I understand that we are all looking for the occasional "shortcuts" and easier ways to do stuff. Life is busy. This hobby is supposed to be fun. And I realize that none of what we proffer here at Tannin is an absolute "science." It's an art at this point. There is no current way available to the hobby to test for "x" types or amounts of tannins (of which there are many hundreds) in aquariums.

 I have not even found a study thus far which analyzed wild habitats (say, Amazonia) for tannin concentrations and specific types, so we have no real model to go on.

The best we can do is create a reasonable facsimile of Nature using whatever means are at our disposal. And for some people, the "reasonable facsimile" is just tinted water.

So, we introduced "Shade"- the closest thing you'll ever see to a superficial  "hack" from Tannin Aquatics, I promise.

These sachets were created specifically to easily apply the influence of botanicals to aquariums for a wide variety of hobbyists.

Now, by "influence", I'm primarily referring to the color. Sure, these sachets can also impact pH of the water if you use reverse osmosis/deionized water to operate your aquariums. If not, they'll simply impart some color (and likely tannins and humic substances) into the water...Not a bad thing, but don't fool yourself. You need to test the impact of "Shade" on your water chemistry to know for sure.

Although "Shade" is a carefully formulated  well-tested alternative to "dumb old tea bags", it's not a "miracle" product.  It just isn't. "Shade" won't guarantee that you'll get your wild Cardinal Tetras to spontaneously spawn on command. It won't cure fungal diseases.

It WILL help you achieve the color effects you are looking for. Because it's comprised of the botanicals we offer, it WILL offer many of the same potential health benefits to your aquatic animals that using our botanicals in your aquariums in their "natural" form will.

Of course, even those benefits are STILL not fully understood, 100% predictable, or really all that well-defined! (C'mon, you didn't think I could guarantee THAT kind of stuff, did ya?)

It's a cool product, regardless, INHO! 

Way better than what's out there now, if we say so ourselves!😆

Yes, it's not super-duper cheap like products which consist of just crushed catappa leaves are- becuase more botanical materials, more thought, and more "R&D" went into this product! Some of you won't like it, or simply dismiss it as bullshit or whatever. I get it.

The most important thing is to understand the "capabilities" of botanical materials to impact the environment of our aquaria.

We have to understand that there are limitations to the impacts of botanicals, tea, wood, etc. on water chemistry.  Expectations are important- and we need to consider exactly what it is we're trying to accomplish. 

Adding liter upon liter of "extract" to your aquarium will have minimal pH impact if your water is super hard. When you're serious about trying to create more natural blackwater conditions, you really need an RO/DI unit to achieve "base water" with no carbonate hardness that's more "malleable" to environmental manipulation. Tea, twigs, leaves, extracts, "Shade"- none will do much unless you understand that.

So, "Why doesn't my water stay tinted, Scott?"

Well, I admit I don't know. Well, not for certain, anyways!

I do, however, have some information, observations, and a bunch of ideas about this- any of which might be litter rely shot to pieces by someone with the proper scientific background. However, I can toss some of these seemingly uncoordinated facts out there to give us all some stuff to "chew on" as I offer my ideas up.

Now, perhaps it starts with the way we "administer" the color-producing tannins. 

Like, I personally think that utilizing leaves, bark, and seed pods is perhaps the best way to do this. I'm sure that you're hardly surprised, right? Well, it's NOT just because I sell these material for a living...It's because they are releasing tannins, humic substances, and other compounds into the water "full time" during their presence in the aquarium as they break down. A sort of "on-board" producer of these materials, with their own "half life" (for want of a better term!).

The continuous release of tint-producing compounds keeps things more-or-less constant. And, if you're part of the "school" which leaves your botanicals in your aquarium to completely break down, you're certainly getting maximum value out of them! And if you are continuously adding/replacing them with new ones as they completely or partially break down, you're actively replenishing and adding additional "tint-producing" capabilities to your system, right?

So why doesn't your water stay dark?

One interesting possibility here: More alkaline solutions tend to draw out tannic acid from wood than pH neutral or acidic water does.if you have more alkaline water, those tannins are more quickly pulled out. So you might get an initial burst, but the color won't last all that long... 


There is another way to "keep the tint" going in your tanks, and it's pretty easy. When you prepare your water for water changes, it's typically down a few days to a week in advance, so why not use this time to your advantage and "pre-tint" the water by steeping some leaves in it? Not only will it keep the "aesthetics" of your water ( can you believe we're even talking about "the aesthetics of water?") consistent (i.e.; tinted), it will already have humic substances and tannins dissolved into it, helping you, in theory, to keep a more stable environment within your system.

Obviously, you'd still have to check your pH and other parameters, but the addition of leaves to your replacement water is a great little "hack" that you should take advantage of.

Damn, I hate that word!

I admit, it's also a really good way to get the "look" and some of the benefits of blackwater for your system from the outset, especially for those of you heathens that like the color of blackwater and despise all of the decomposing leaves and seed pods and stuff!

So, if you're just setting up a brand new aquarium, and have some water set aside for the tank, why not use the time while it's aging to "pre-tint" it a bit, so you can have a nice dark look from day one? It's also great if you're setting up a tank for an aquascaping contest or  other same-day club event, or even an Instagram Live session (how shallow of you..!) that would make it advantageous to have a tinted tank immediately!

I must confess that yet another one of the more common questions we receive here from hobbyists is, "How can I get the tint in my tank more quickly?"- and this is definitely one way!

How many botanicals to use?

Well, that's the million dollar question.

Who knows?

It all gets back to the (IMHO) absurd "recommendations" that have been proffered by vendors over the years recommending using "x" number of leaves, for example, per gallon/liter of water. There are simply far, far too many variables- ranging from starting water chem to pH to alkalinity, and dozens of others- which can affect the "equation" and make specific numbers unreliable at best. 

No "hacks" there.

Technique is so important. Discovering what works for you. As is understanding what's happening in your aquarium. And really, at the end of the day, the greatest "hack" you can apply to the aquarium hobby- the only one worth doing- is gaining the advantage that knowledge gives you.

So, my recommendation is to DO stuff. Educate yourself, and apply what you've learned. Share with others. Rinse and repeat.

Stay resourceful. Stay curious. Stay observant. Stay creative. Stay motivated...

And Stay Wet.


Scott Fellman

Tannin Aquatics

Scott Fellman
Scott Fellman


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