to drip or not to drip

Drip acclimate or not

Albert B Ulrich III Saltwater Fish, Tips 2 Comments

To drip acclimate or not to drip? That is the question.

A few weeks back, I published an article about a small piece of equipment that I use to help make it easier to drip acclimate your new arrivals.

I was surprised when a loyal and helpful reader sent me a link to a thread on Reef Central that was suggesting that drip acclimation was doing more harm than good, in some cases.
I read through the thread and started to wonder: should we drip acclimate our fish, or not? Is this topic really still up for debate? I actually think Shakespeare was worried about this

When I looked up Billy Shakespeare’s original quote, I found it to be interesting inspiration for this article:

To be, or not to be {I assume he meant drip}, that is the question:
Whether ’tis Nobler in the mind to suffer
The Slings and Arrows of outrageous Fortune,
Or to take Arms against a Sea of troubles,
And by opposing end themWilliam Shakespeare

The thread that launched a thousand comments

The person who started the thread, not Billy Shakespeare, although truthfully, I’ve never seen the two of them in the same place at the same time, offered up the following advice:
  • After a long journey in a bag, the water becomes fouled, but the sealed bag is a relatively stable environment
  • Once the bag is opened, however, and upon exposure of the bag water to  the presence of the air, a chemical reaction takes place, and the water rapidly could deteriorate
  • Acclimation is all about salinity–find out what salinity is at the fish store the animal came from and match it prior to the arrival
Therefore, the recommendation and position of the post, is that fish should not be drip acclimated. Instead, they should be floated in the water for a short period (to match temperature) and then scooped out and placed immediately into quarantine.

My personal experience

Let me start by sharing my personal experience. I live in the suburbs of Philadelphia, which means I eat a lot of cheesesteaks. Not sure what that has to do with the story, but I figured I’d throw that out there. What is relevant to the story, is that I have access to several good local fish stores, all within driving distance (if you’re obsessed, like I am). Now the caveat here is that I don’t get a lot of livestock delivered to my door, but I have been acclimating my fish for years and have never noticed a problem caused by drip acclimation.

Some further research

My well-informed friend forwarded me a link to another article with some supporting information. In the following article on Advanced Aquarist, in 2006, Ted Bartelme provided the following advice:
  • Contact the fish store and find out what temperature and pH they keep their tanks
  • Match those water parameters in quarantine
  • Test the pH immediately when opening the bag (the pH will rise quickly once opened)
  • Don’t take your time getting the fish away from exposure to ammonia and other toxins
  • Place the fish in a hyposaline environment (low salinity) since marine fish easily adjust to this
  • Work quickly and without delay, move them to a holding tank with identical pH and temperature as the bag

Analysis

While not exactly making the same points as the Reef Central thread, the Bartelme paper held a similar position that speed certainly matters and advocated for moving quickly once the bag was opened.
This article and forum thread were challenging a fundamental belief of mine, which is why I knew I had to write some more about it. After all, this is the whole reason I started this blog. I was tired of the misinformation out there and contradictory views–and I wanted to help you, the reader, to keep you from making the same mistakes that I had made.
Have I been making a mistake this whole time? Is it bad to drip acclimate?  Sure acclimation is a more humane way of introducing a fish to life in my home. The the gradual blending of water from my tank with water from the bag should allow the fish the greatest chance of success, with the lowest stress, not that it would do more harm than good. Acclimation just seems to make sense. Doesn’t it?
Next, I did the obvious thing, I asked Siri for some help.
I confirmed that some of the most reputable online stores recommend drip acclimation for new arrivals. Not only do they recommend it, but they also put their money behind it, because their guarantees are VOID if their acclimation procedures are not strictly followed.

Live Aquaria

Live Aquaria is arguably the best brand in the business, when it comes to high quality livestock. They offer a 14 day arrive alive and stay alive guarantee on orders. Check out their acclimation guide.  
You’ve invested valuable time and money researching the habitat requirements of the fish and corals you wish to house. Naturally, you want to protect this investment by executing a proper acclimation process once the specimens arrive at your door.LiveAquaria
Other interesting statements about their acclimation procedure, and I quote (you can tell, because I’m using quotation marks):
“never rush the acclimation procedure. The total acclimation time for your new arrival should take no longer than one hour”
“Always follow the acclimation procedure even if your new arrival appears to be dead. Some fish and invertebrates can appear as though they are dead when they arrive and will usually revive when the above procedure is followed correctly.”

That Fish Place

Another online store I respect a lot is That Fish Place. Shameless plug for Pennsylvania. But they are a long drive away–too far away to get a good cheesteak. But check out what they say. Here is their acclimation guide and here is their guarantee
For this reason we offer all our customers a limited 14-Day Guarantee on all fish, invertebrates and live plant purchases made through our mail-order service…The guarantee is void unless That Fish Place Acclimation Procedures are strictly followed. That Fish Place

Asking the experts

I sent a note to LiveAquaria and to That Fish Place, asking them for a comment. Unfortunately, I don’t have any good contacts there, so I just got canned responses…but those responses (likely “approved” responses), referred me back to their websites and policies posted there. So while that doesn’t provide a juicy soundbite or literal word from an expert supporting or refuting the premise here…they did unanimously (two for two…big numbers…) reply in support of their content which is already posted online, which is also supportive of acclimation. Not exactly the most satisfying request I’ve ever received, disappointing, but also not unexpected.

screen-shot-2016-10-28-at-8-14-45-am

Reef Threads

I sent a note to Gary and Christine over at Reef Threads and asked them about what their thoughts were about the topic. You can listen to their responses directly on Reef Threads Podcast 297. It’s worth listening to, but while they each indicated they don’t drip acclimate anymore, they both advocated for, what sounded like, a fairly robust acclimation.

Conclusions

Why would two highly successful companies guarantee their livestock for 14 days ONLY if the drip acclimation process was strictly adhered to, if, in fact, the process itself was doing more harm than good?
Wouldn’t these suppliers lose tons of money if their acclimation processes caused more harm than good?
It just doesn’t make sense. I suppose Mom may have been right, “Just because everyone else is doing something doesn’t make it right,” but it still seems odd. But the answer seems pretty clear to me–if you’re ordering from an online vendor with an acclimation procedure and a guarantee, you better do what they say, or it will cost you, in the end.

the hedge

The Hedge

I do think there is room for both views of acclimation to be true…from a certain point of view.

A near death experience

If you know, or suspect the water in the bag is lethally polluted, or if the fish in the bag appears sluggish and near death (symptomatic of toxic water perhaps), it seems reasonable that quickly moving that fish to a stable environment (e.g. Your quarantine tank) is the best move, because keeping that animal in murderous conditions makes no sense. The trouble with this exception, of course, is how exactly do you know the water is that awful? Do you really plan to test the water  as soon as you open the bag?
I think it is also fair to point out that even if we could agree that is the objective “best move,” you will be voiding your guarantee and be taking on some financial risk…

Rapid changes in pH

It also seems very reasonable to agree with the premise that the pH can change rapidly in the transfer water and that rapid changes in pH (remember, it is a logarithmic scale, which means changes get really big, really fast) and therefore that you could cause harm if you change the pH rapidly.

To this, I say that the advice given earlier (matching your pH and salinity), if possible, seems prudent and safe…but I’m not sure it’s all that practical or approachable for the average aquarist, or especially for the lazy aquarist (I’m referring to myself).

Now the stubborn cells in my body are screaming to point out–that if I was to match the pH before hand–that would likely make my drip acclimation even more gentle…and appropriate. And I also know what you’re thinking…stubborn and lazy? what a catch I must be, eh?

30 minutes

30 minutes on the shot clock

The last thing on my mind is the assertion that the clock starts ticking…and you need to move your livestock into quarantine within 30 minutes of opening the bag (due to the carbon dioxide and pH issue).
It seems like an easy hedge for me to say that even if I still plan to drip acclimate–I could also agree to have it take no longer than absolutely necessary, and certainly be less than 30 minutes. Of course this contradicts with the earlier advice of not causing a dramatic pH shift (if the pH is far off), but it seems like 30 minutes (or less) is a reasonable acclimation time.
So I think I can do that.

But, for the most part, until I see some more data, and until the manufacturers start to change their policies on what to do when that shipment arrives, I’m incline to keep doing what I’ve always done, (and have had great success with), and acclimate my fish when I get them home-with one modification based on my review of this “controversy”.

What do you think?

I tried to represent the opinions here. I didn’t hide my own biases, but I hope you’re able to sort out mine in order to make your own judgement.  But I am curious. What do you think about all this?

Will you drip acclimate your next purchase? If so, for how long? Any hesitations there?
 drip acclimate
Albert B Ulrich IIIDrip acclimate or not

Comments 2

  1. Alex

    I do not subscribe to drip acclimation. Mostly because the process is fundamentally flawed. Matching temperature is one factor and there is zero probability that a small container sitting in a 68° room is going to reach 80° by dripping 80° water into it. One of the online vendors suggests never floating bags because it will cause the temperature to rise too quickly. Never say never. Yes, if the bags arrive at 60° you might let them warm to room temperature before floating.
    So I do the float to temperature, then open bags (secure to side of aquarium with magnets to avoid tipping) and add 1/2 c water, more or less depending on bag size, every five or ten minutes. When full, pour out at least half and do it again. I first check salinity and pH to see how far off they are. From the same vendor, I got bags some at 1.020 others at 1.025.
    Dripping is too hard to control the rate. Scooping, you can control exactly how much goes in when.

    Bob Fenner on WetWebMedia.com has some interesting things to say about it. (Author of “the Conscientious Marine Aquarist” and fountain of knowledge.) Be warned going to his site will lead to many hours of reading. The daily FAQs are addictive.

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