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Fighting the Algae Menace

New products and innovations are helping retailers keep aquarists ahead of their tanks’ algae-related issues.
By Steven Bitter

Algae fighters come in two basic forms: tank additives and glass cleaners.
One of the most unpleasant tasks in aquarium keeping is managing, treating and removing nuisance algae from aquaria. For hobbyists, algae ruin the perfect aesthetic so many strive for. For retailers, algae can create difficulty with customer interactions and may harm the appearance of store merchandise.

“If someone has algae, they think a chemical will get rid of it,” said Robert Christensen, buying manager for A World of Fish in Minneapolis. “In certain instances, that’s true, but it’s a pretty broad problem. With fish-only tanks, you can use an algaecide. In a planted or reef tank, we use fish or invertebrates [to control algae].”

With customers demanding quick answers and quick solutions, it is not surprising that such a wide variety of algae control and prevention products exists.

“I see a trend developing toward more high-tech efficient products that deal with tank cleaning and algae control as the future in aquarium maintenance,” said Milan Rafailovich, president and CEO of San Diego-based AquaGenesis International, maker of the Robo Snail, a soon-to-be-released aquarium glass-cleaning robot. 

“Automated devices that deal with algae control will give the user more time to enjoy their hobby and deal with other pressing issues of daily life,” he added.

Starting with Good Water

Many retailers like to coach customers on avoiding severe algae that might necessitate the use of a chemical additive.

“Generally, we try to take a biological approach rather than chemicals,” said Alex Weismehl, saltwater manager of Trop Aquarium & Pet Center in Santa Cruz, Calif. “It depends on how bad the situation is. If it’s just starting, you can do a few snails or fish. In saltwater, we might introduce different invertebrates. If it’s a nutrient issue, chemical filtration might be the way to go.

But a majority of customers wait until it’s bad, and that’s when you want to use chemicals, and then put in the appropriate fish to keep it clean,” he said.

Christensen agreed that algaecidal chemicals are best avoided if possible.

“We want to make sure the problem isn’t with the water,” he said. “We like to start with RO water, and that’s a better place to start than tap. We sell RO/DI water, and we sell premixed saltwater at the store. Most customers buy it from us, but we do have customers that make their own at home.”

Lindsey Kayal, sales support and education supervisor for Seachem in Madison, Ga., is familiar with the desire to start with pure water. Seachem makes the Pinnacle + RO/DI unit.

“Our DI units are most commonly used in the saltwater side of aquarium keeping, but they’re making their way quite a bit into freshwater tanks,” she said. “Uncertainty from municipalities and their water quality means you’ll see more avid hobbyists using more filtered water for their aquariums. The benefits are removal of things like metals, chloramines, and hobbyists are wanting to start from scratch. For saltwater we then use salt, and for freshwater we sell buffers and mineral replacements to add back the nutrients that plants might need.” —SB

Technology has undoubtedly changed the aquarium hobby over the last several years, and as more advanced aquarium maintenance solutions become available, aquarists seek to maintain more sophisticated and specialized setups. And as aquariums grow more specialized, so do the solutions brought to market to keep aquaria clean and interesting.

“I think the biggest expectation for a majority of our customers is that a solution is going to work fast,” said Ryan Smith, general manager for Hidden Reef in Levittown, Pa. “They aren’t looking to change the phosphate. They just want an algae killer, whether freshwater or saltwater.”

He noted that for many customers, long-term maintenance often takes second place to using products that quickly impact algae.

“Generally, it comes down to doing water changes and controlling how much food is being fed,” Smith said. “But in the short-term, additives that kill algae are important.”

Algaecides have long been popular with hobbyists, but in recent years they have been evolving from traditional copper-based treatment formulations to products made with complex polymers or natural enzymatic formulations. One such polymer is Microbe-lift Algaway 5.4. from Ecological Laboratories of Malverne, N.Y.

“A lot of algae control products still have copper in them,” said Mark Krupka, vice president of the company. “Our algaecide is a high-molecular-weight polymer that wraps itself around an algal cell and interferes with the cell’s ability to transport nutrients in and out of the cell. It eventually breaks down so it doesn’t continue to accumulate.”

For United Pet Group of Blacksburg, Va., user-friendly instructions and safe ingredients are important features for an algae-killing product.
“Tetra AlgaeControl is safe for fish and plants, [which] allows for minor measuring errors by the consumer without harming the fish and plant life,” said United Pet Group senior product manager Tim Plafcan, who noted that a fully integrated product line could ultimately be better for retailers.

“We have found less than 50 percent of aquarium owners use any water care at all,” he stated. “By easing the consumer’s frustration, retailers position themselves as the experts and develop lasting relationships, resulting in a healthy bottom line.”

Another concern retailers and their customers should be aware of is the issue of avoiding algaecide toxicity in the aquarium. Matthew Brodsky, principal of the Marc Weiss Company in Ft. Lauderdale, Fla., emphasized the importance of natural ingredients in his company’s Algae Magic, part of the Weiss Organics line.

“We manipulate the oxygen molecules in the water,” he said. “It stimulates oxygen in the water, and nuisance algae dissipate just like they would in a sea environment. The downside is it’s not an immediate quick fix. It takes a few days to work, but up to 30 days to fully show results.”

INDUSTRY VOICES

What are customers looking for most in an algae control product?

“They often want something that does everything for them, like an all-in-one product. Our job is to try to hook them up with the right stuff, so we try to use everything we carry in the store here. That way we can sell from experience and earn their trust.”
—Alex Weismehl, saltwater manager for Trop Aquarium & Pet Center in Santa Cruz, Calif.

“Rather than longer acting, customers want speed. I’ll definitely suggest a stronger product to someone with that preference. We have a wide array of choices, though, depending on the customer’s needs.”
—Ryan Smith, general manager of the Hidden Reef in Levittown, Pa.

“If someone has algae, they want a solution to the problem, but they also want answers. It’s hard to narrow it down sometimes though, and if someone has algae, I usually ask for a water sample to help figure it out.”
—Robert Christensen, buying manager for A World of Fish in Minneapolis

Derived from a proprietary fermentation process of certified organic products, Algae Magic is formulated with enzymes that may do much less damage after the end user disposes of them, the company reports.

“People change their water, and dump out their old water, which has every additive they’ve added,” Brodsky stated.

Preventing the growth of algae  is as important as treating it, and one solution is to limit nutrients such as phosphate levels with chemical-absorbing media. One increasingly popular method is to install a reactor to hold such media. Two Little Fishies Inc. of Miami Gardens, Fla., produces such a reactor product, along with Phosban and Hydrocarbon 2 activated carbon, both phosphate-removing media.

“The PhosBan reactors are available in two sizes, models 150 and 550,” said Julian Sprung, president of Two Little Fishies Inc. “They work by upflow of water through the media, which is loose instead of being retained in a media bag.”

Innovations are occurring within even the most traditional chemical media, as evidenced by Ecological Laboratories’ Microbe-lift activated carbon and zeolite. This media line comes pre-colonized with bacteria.

“You can extend the life of your carbon and zeolite by having bacteria there to break down the materials that they adsorb,” Krupka said. “It increases its capacity because it is self-cleaning. It’s a living regeneration system for the media.”

Seachem Laboratories of Madison, Ga. is also setting itself apart in the chemical media arena. Lindsey Kayal, sales support and education supervisor for the company, stated that Matrix Carbon and Phosguard are two media specifically manufactured for aquarium use.

The spherical shape of these media increases hydrodynamics and allows for better water flow-through, she stated. Matrix and Phosguard are also available in combination under the product name Seagel.

Seachem released a new line of saltwater conditioners, salt and additives this year, and has plans to turn its attention toward freshwater products, Seagel added.

Even aquariums with excellent water quality have some need for glass cleaning, and the various magnetic aquarium glass cleaners on the market are evolving to meet these needs. Marcel Kon, president of Gulfstream Tropical Aquarium in Dania Beach, Fla., noted that his company has been receiving requests for new sizes of its Mag-Float cleaner.

“Over the years, by consumer demand, we’re going to reach the point of covering the entire spectrum of fish tanks,” he said. “We are currently working on a Mag-Float for three-quarter inch and eventually the two-and-a-half-inch [glass].”

Gulfstream has launched the Mag-Flip, a magnetic cleaner with a reversible inner panel for scraping hard algae, as well as a line of Mag-Float water conditioners.

“We sell the Mag-Float really well,” said Christensen of A World of Fish. “The downside is that they don’t get into the corners very well. The best thing is that it floats when it comes off, and you don’t have to worry about getting a bunch of sand in the magnet.”

Rafailovich’s forthcoming product, the Robo Snail, a robotic glass-cleaning device, is designed to take the chore of cleaning aquarium glass out of human hands.

“The product activates once a day, 365 days a year, to simply dust the user’s aquarium glass,” he said. “If we as aquarists did this job every day religiously our algae problems would be greatly reduced.”

The product charges at a central docking station and performs cleaning functions on a regular basis.

Other new products are making algae removal easier in a wide variety of aquaria, including those smaller than the average-sized and larger aquaria. The continued popularity of nano-sized aquariums prompted Two Little Fishies to develop the NanoMag, and the forthcoming and even smaller MagFox for cleaning tight spaces. <HOME>


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