RSS What is new and improved in the aquarium hobby?

MASA Admin

8 May 2007
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For as long as I have been watching television or reading magazines and newspapers, the phrase “New and Improved” has been employed for just about every product on the market at one time or another. Whether it touted how it was going to make my clothes smell fresher and cleaner, or make my teeth brighter, the gist of the reasoning was that it was going to make my life better somehow.

After watching the hobby expand and grow exponentially over the past couple of decades and especially the last few years, I have seen similar claims made for just about everything in the hobby. And while there is no doubt that we are more successful now than we have ever been, thanks to many of the advancements that have occurred, I think there are still some questions as to how much things really are “new and improved”.


Tom Walsh Using very limited technology Tom Walsh put together an amazing tank in 2003

Or more specifically, how do we measure whether something is significantly better than it used to be? I say that as for most of us there are different yardsticks for just about each and every item we use of place in our tanks. And the one thing that really stands out is how much more everything costs as a result of being new and improved.

everything costs more as a result of being new and improved.

The first example of this that comes to mind is the protein skimmer. Protein skimmers have been around for at least 50 years, Tunze had their 50th birthday last year. At their simplest, tiny air bubbles are run in a water column and due to the unique properties of saltwater much of the “dirt” in a tank adheres to them and is skimmed off.


Tunze’s 50 year old protein skimmer design is still effective today

For most of us, protein skimmers are the main mechanism for waste removal in our tanks. Over the years they have gone from tall tubes that used wooden airstones as the means to produce the skimming to today where relatively small DC motor powered devices that still effectively remove the brown gunk from our tanks.

While I admit that they are smaller and efficient are they significantly better? When I recently started pricing them for a relatively modest tank it soon became apparent that they are now priced the same as most of my kitchen appliances like my stove and dishwasher. So price wise they definitely aren’t better, so they must then be removing more of the bad things from the tank, right?


Bob Mankin built one of the first calcium reactors that helped make this tank thrive in the 1990’s

Well that’s where I see the rub, as they may be better at removing more of the bad stuff from my tank than the older skimmers were, but really who knows? The reason no one knows is no one ever ran a baseline assessment of exactly what and how much a certain skimmer removed from a tank as far as I know. And since we do not have a baseline, we do not really know if the new skimmers are “improved”.

We did not measure what was in the skimmate early on when we first started utilizing big protein skimmers, so the question remains are the new small efficient expensive ones really that much of a leap forward in terms of what they remove? Then as now, the only way that skimmers are compared is to place two on the same tank and see which one shuts down the other one.

But even doing this is not an effective way to compare skimmers and thus to show if one is better or even improved above an older model. And no manufacturer is going to run that head to head comparison, as their skimmer may be the one that fails. So we can only hope that the skimmers of today really are better.


The old standard metal halides in the then state of the art reflector

In the same way it is difficult to assess whether all of the changes in lighting really have resulted in a product that is markedly “new and improved”. Lighting has been one of the most controversial aspects of reefkeeping since virtually the beginning of the hobby. Over the years we went from fluorescent tubes, to low Kelvin metal halides, to high Kelvin metal halides in more efficient reflectors with tar ballasts.

Then came electronic ballasts, power compact bulbs, then t-5 bulbs and then LEDs and now hybrids of just about all of them. And while each change in lighting brought at least some perceived improvement, there have often been tradeoffs as well. Lighting and the enjoyment of a particular tank is such a subjective aspect of the hobby that to me it is impossible to say with absolute certainty that one method of lighting is so “new and improved” that everyone should get rid of their lights if they are not using it.


This green millepora was thriving even back before all of the current improvements in 2003

Even though I have shifted most of my tanks over to LEDs, I have done so as that is what I have found to be best for what my needs and goals are for lighting my tanks. Again, as far as I know there is no real baseline established for a perfect artificial light in that some want rapid growth, some want vibrant colors, some enjoy a “blue” tank and others need to look at energy efficiency and heat production.

So obviously a lot needs to be taken into account in choosing what type of lighting you like best, so for a manufacturer to say that their latest light is “ new and improved” my question is: based on what? To take this one step further, the initial measure we used to assess our lights was lux. This soon went away as it relied too much on light with green and yellow wavelengths.


Sanjay growing corals out of the tank back in 2003

Then we went to PAR, which we told was better, followed by PUR, which may or may not be useful. So if this was not confusing enough, we were then told that the PAR meter that most of us had been using was not precise when measuring the light from LEDs so the company that made this now has a “new and improved” version of this meter. So to my mind since there is not a standard baseline from which to work, the definitionof betterneeds to be defined.
New and improved is not just limited to the technology in our tanks however, it is also now even in the live rock we use as well as the fish. We have gone from using live rock that came from old coral skeletons collected on a reef to live rock that was terrestrial rock that was dumped in the ocean to cure to dry terrestrial rock.

I understand the possible environmental impact that the taking of live rock might have had, but I have also seen whole reefs dredged and removed to make cement for a road or to make way for a development, so I’m not sure if this change is much of an advancement. By the same token as I see more and more “designer” fish being bred, I really do not see this as an improvement either.


and him still doing it today

And while I applaud the efforts of breeders for spending the time and money to successfully breed more and more fish exclusively for the hobby so that they do not need to be taken from the reef, I am still more in awe when I see a pair of true Solomon Island Percula clowns playing in an anemone than any pair of Picasso clowns I have seen. I know this may be a personal view, but I still enjoy healthy common fish. And as I see more and more aberrant strains of fish, I really do not understand how these “new” fish are an improvement over wild colored specimens.


A pair of Percula clowns that to me still are more appealing than a designer pair

While I have been keeping reef tanks for a relatively long time, I am not a Luddite in that I have tried to keep up and use the latest technology on my tanks and so I use virtually all the monitors, apps, and electronics available in the hobby. However as with my phones, I have both an Iphone and a Droid, as well as my computers, the constant need to upgrade the software, change passwords, I now have over 30, or call customer support due to IT issues makes me question how much of an improvement much of this stuff really is.

Granted I can now monitor my tank 24/7 from my phone or even view it live via the camera that I have that allows constant viewing, but for the most part even when doing this I still can’t move a coral that has fallen into another or add buffer, etc., if the tank’s parameters are off. I still need to call my tank sitter and have him take care of it, which is really not much different than what I used to do. Now being able to monitor and view the tank constantly simply adds to my compulsion to make sure the tank is perfect while also adding to my stress level by now having to worry that one of these monitors will go down.


What else I find interesting about these improvements is how much they have shifted the focus of the hobby. A little over a decade ago most people in the hobby kept soft corals or lps and soft corals in their tanks, with sps corals mostly being relegated to “advanced” hobbyists. But now due to the improvements in the hobby, even beginners can now successfully keep sps corals.

Obviously this is due both to the improvements that have occurred as well as the knowledge of what is necessary to keep these corals alive. And while this is great news that just ab out anyone can be successful I can’t help but think that many newcomers to the hobby are missing out on the enjoyment that keeping a soft coral tank can bring.

In this regard, I recently set up a soft coral and lps tank after not having one for a while and I forgot how nice it is to have a tank where I am not constantly worrying about it the way I do with my sps tanks. The leather corals, Euphyllias and even the Xenia are in constant motion, there is a nice collection of fish and the only things I do with this tank is feed it, clean the skimmer and glass, do a 20% water change once a month and use kalkwasser to replace the water that evaporates. So there is not a lot on this tank that is new and improved, yet it now brings me as much enjoyment as my other tanks which are chock full of improvements.


The author’s new relatively simply designed soft coral tank

As I said at the start of this article we now enjoy success in this hobby that was never dreamt of when we started doing this over 30 years ago. And while much of the equipment has improved, as has the quality and variety of fish and corals, this has come with a price. The cost of getting into the hobby has increased exponentially especially over the last 5 or so years due to the rapid price increase of both livestock and equipment.

As a result I am worried that fewer kids and young adults will get into the hobby due to the cost. I also worry that some of the pioneer spirit that brought us to this point is reduced as few can afford to experiment like we used to in order to find best practices or try something off the wall as the cost of wiping out a tank is simply too high.

While I hope improvements continue to be made and we continue to see new things, I also hope the people giving us these new things also give us a baseline so that we can better evaluate when things really are better and not just more expensive.


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