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Make the Hobby Easier With Controllers

Posted: May 31, 2012, 1:30 p.m. EDT

Helping fishkeepers keep track of aquarium conditions can ensure success for both hobbyists and retailers.


To be successful, aquarists have to monitor their setups. But peering through the glass isn’t enough, in many cases: customers are likely to need other types of monitoring equipment, especially with larger, more elaborate setups, and even with smaller, less stable tanks. That’s where store owners can help hobbyists and grab sales.

Equipment used to perform the task of tracking system parameters runs the gamut from thermometers, pH dip strips, simple timers and automatic feeders, to computer-based control systems that allow for precise monitoring and adjustment.

Controller Issues
Reef aquarists can’t get by without monitoring equipment, and demonstrating how to incorporate this into their maintenance routine can add business.
Clay Jackson/BowTie Inc.

Low Tech
The most basic form of control for an aquarium is a simple timer. Here, unfortunately, aquatic shops have a lot of competition.

“I get the cheap ones from Home Depot for $10,” said John Naoum, owner of Poseidon Aquariums, a large installation and maintenance firm in Marlborough, Mass.

However, it is still important to offer these products and most local fish stores reported carry simple timers for aquarium lights.

“We keep our timers in our lighting section,” said John Music, general manager of Pet Palace in Clarksville, Tenn. “Ninety percent of our timer sales are generated when we are diagnosing algae issues for our customers.”

“It’s amazing how often I hear ‘I leave my lights on all the time,’” Music added.

Simply controlling light levels throughout the day may escape some aquarists’ attention. This applies to other forms of monitoring, as well. Every tank should have its own thermometer, and most of these are really simple and inexpensive, industry participants reported. However, more sophisticated temperature monitoring and control systems are also available.

For example, the PinPoint Temperature Controller from Ridgefield, Conn.-based American Marine is designed to regulate temperature, especially in systems where a heater and a chiller are both used, said Lou Dell, owner the company. Products such as this allow aquarists to address technical issues and maintain stability.

“Without a controller, it is common for both a heater and a chiller to be on at the same time, wasting a lot of electricity,” Lou added.

Industry Voices
What monitors and controllers do you think a retail store should carry?

“We don’t have a very large market in my area for controllers, but we do sell a lot of timers. I think that it will be the market that we will expand on as the prices continue to come down on the equipment.”
—John Music, general manager of Pet Palace in Clarksville, Tenn.

“Having owned an aquarium maintenance company for six years, I know the convenience and in some cases importance of having a timer connected to the light fixture. Many of my maintenance customers were not home to turn the lights on and off on a consistent basis, and others just wanted the convenience of automatic lighting control.”
—Mike Elliott, co-owner of AquaticLife, in Commerce, Calif.

“There are new monitors and controllers that can be controlled by a smartphone. This is very good so hobbyists can monitor a tank when they are away, and catch any potential problems before they become big ones.”
—Todd Furmanec, manager of Absolutely Fish in Clifton, N.J.

“Definitely pH and temperature controllers, since these are the most commonly used and the most important.”
—Lou Dell, owner of American Marine, Inc. in Ridgefield, Conn.

“We sell pH controllers and monitors for freshwater planted tanks and calcium reactors on marine tanks. We also sell automatic feeders and top-off equipment. The main selling points are for maintaining tanks when the hobbyists are away from them often.”
—Steve Oberg, fish room manager for Preuss Pets in Lansing, Mich.

Keeping the aquarium environment on an even keel is important to ensure success, and retailers have many add-on sales options to help customers do just this. Though controlling the environment comes to mind first when thinking of monitoring and controller products, other types of regulation, such as that provided by an automatic fish feeder, can actually keep system parameters in optimal ranges by reducing nutrient loads, industry participants stated.

“Eheim Everyday Fish Feeders, and [the company’s] Twin Feeders, are easily the best I have used,” reported Don Grant, owner of Living Waters Aquarium in Peabody, Mass., a installation and maintenance company.

Price and durability play a role in retailers’ decisions as to what feeders they should offer.

“I use Hydor’s Ekomixo feeder on a lot of my aquariums,” Naoum stated. “I find it to be a useful, durable and inexpensive feeder.”

Local fish store operators also reported having favorite products to offer when it comes to automatic fish feeders.

“We mostly sell Eheim [automatic feeders], and we are looking into the new Lifegard feeders,” said Todd Furmanec, one of the managers at Absolutely Fish in Clifton, N.J.

High Tech
In the past year or two, several sophisticated monitors and controllers have entered the market, those in the industry stated.

These range from multi-setting light timers, to pH monitors and controllers for CO2 in planted tanks and calcium reactors for marine aquariums. In many cases, manufacturers are increasingly incorporating these products into other equipment.

“AquaticLife integrates a multi-channel digital timer into the majority of the fixtures we manufacture,” said Mike Elliott, co-owner of AquaticLife in Commerce, Calif. “This timer controls two channels of T5HO lights, as well as the 1W lunar LED lights.”

“Creating the circadian cycle for the fish and corals is important, as this is what they get in nature,” Elliott noted.

There are many relatively sophisticated monitors available, American Marine’s Dell pointed out, including pH controllers for use with carbon dioxide injection, and calcium or kalkwasser reactors. Also, hobbyists can find controllers for ozone gas control.

All-encompassing controllers exist that allow hobbyists to alter the functioning of several components attached to their aquariums, including pump and powerhead operations, timers, gauges and even dosing equipment. In some cases, these monitors and controllers can even be accessed and tweaked through the Internet and smartphone apps.

The Problem of Price
One of the largest considerations for retailers when it comes to high-end equipment has to do with pricing and competition.

“We like EcoTech’s product line,” said Jeff Champlin, co-owner of Critter Hut in Narragansett and North Kingstown, R.I. “The products are excellent, and [EcoTech] sticking to MAP [minimum advertised price] pricing will be a main consideration for our bringing it in.”

When it comes to some products, retailers reported feeling they are too expensive to easily offer to customers.

“As these products get more sophisticated, and prices come down, we will probably carry more [of them],” said Steve Oberg, fishroom manager for Preuss Pets in Lansing, Mich.

The major problem with monitors and controllers being sold in the hobby today is intense price competition between Internet-based retailers and brick-and-mortar local fish stores.

“We’re very hesitant to bring in high-end products, because of the competition from the Internet,” Critter Hut’s Champlin said. “You can go online and find stuff for less than we can buy it for.”
The cost of carrying some items may exceed the value of offering them, even with a small markup.

“There are margins, and then there are margins,” Preuss Pets’ Oberg said. “I don’t like the idea of having to sell any product for my cost plus only 10 percent.”

This may be troubling for retailers focusing on more technical aspects of the hobby, as these kinds of products are essential for hobbyist success. For example, some monitor and controller combinations are almost required for planted and reef tanks.

“We do use pH controllers for marine reactors,” said Absolutely Fish’s Furmanec. “But it is difficult for us to compete on price alone with the Internet.”

It doesn’t stop at prices, either. Other considerations make it difficult for retail stores to carry high-end monitors and controllers, including competition from the customers themselves.

“In addition to the price competition from the Internet, there are DIY instructions for carbon dioxide systems, calcium reactors,[and other equipment] all over the web,” said Sean Fitzgerald, general manager of The Fish Nook in Acton, Mass.

Sales tax is another problem for non-Internet based retailers when it comes to competing with online-based retailers.

“On high-priced items especially, we have to collect sales tax, which makes us that much more expensive out of the starting gate,” said Rich Toonen, owner of Forest Lake Pets in Forest Lake, Minn.

These problems are unlikely to go away, many in the industry reported. When it comes to sales tax, barring legislative intervention, it seems unlikely much will change. Meanwhile, to combat these issues, brick-and-mortar retailers reported focusing on maintaining the largest selection of the best fish to keep customers engaged and coming into—and back to—their shops. <HOME>

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