One of the first things that new members of the forum will learn is that we generally advise new aquarists not to rely solely on what their LFS* tells them.

Note: LFS is a reef acronym for "local fish store" or the store where you can buy aquarium supplies for your saltwater tank. Sometimes these stores carry more than just aquarium supplies, but that's what LFS refers to.

The reason we say this is because there is such a wide range in the expertise of those working in these stores. And not just a wide range of expertise, but also a wide range in integrity and honesty. And I'm not singling out LFS; I believe the exact same thing applies to those in any profession, like doctors, lawyers, plumbers, or electricians.

Some really know their stuff and really care about the customer. Some...not so much. Remember, the LFS is running a business, and the business won't last long if they don't sell things. So, the naive shopper/aquarist can often wind up buying equipment that's not appropriate or more than they need or more expensive than they need.

So, if you're new to this saltwater aquarium world, we always recommend that you try to learn as much as you can before you start buying equipment, and especially livestock.

For inspiration, a wild and woolly anemone taking over the world.

Photo is from the Reef2Reef archives courtesy of @Leadfooted ©2019, All Rights Reserved.

And how pray tell can you learn before going to an LFS?

1. You join this forum and start asking questions. Lots of questions. All questions are welcome and you won't get any snarky replies. We don't allow it here.

2. You read as much as you can. That might mean going to the library or reading articles online. Read things like Reefkeeping Magazine or WetWebMedia both found online. Read books, like the ones that I review for Reef2Reef, like this one by Martin Moe, a famous name in saltwater aquarium circles.

3. Go to the LFS and don't buy anything. Leave your wallet at home. Take a notebook and take notes. Later in the article, I'll tell you what to look for. You will see things that you can later research.

4. Join a local aquarium club--yes, even if you don't have an aquarium--and start going to meetings. You will learn an enormous amount even if you don't understand everything.

When you first start learning about saltwater aquariums, even if you have some freshwater aquarium experience, you'll feel like you've walked into the middle of movie in a foreign language. There is a lot that you won't understand. And that's okay. It's to be expected.

The more you read and ask questions, the more you will begin to understand. We recommend that you don't start buying equipment until two things are true: 1) you have at least the beginnings of an understanding of how the saltwater aquarium works, and 2) you have some idea what you would to have in your tank.

This is because different types of livestock can require very different conditions and very different equipment. Certain types of coral need very high light. Some types of coral need very high flow rates around the tank. Some fish need a much bigger tank than others.

So, let's say, for the sake of discussion, you now have an idea how this thing works and an idea what you want in your tank.

For inspiration, a clownfish hanging out in an anemone.

Photo is from the Reef2Reef archives courtesy of @Eagle_Steve ©2019, All Rights Reserved.

Then how do you choose the LFS you want to deal with?

Well, if you live in or near a big city, you may have the luxury of several to choose from. That's the ideal. If you live in a small town, you may have nothing close by to choose from, and you may end up doing most or all of your purchases online.

1. Look around. And take in a first impression. Sometimes our first impressions can be misleading, but I like to go with my gut. Does the place look clean? Is it well lit? Are there any "show" tanks or healthy mature reef tanks for you to OOH and AAH over?

2. Ask a question, in person or by email. Are they responsive? Emails should be answered within 24 hours. That's Marketing 101. If they don't answer their emails, they may be disorganized or understaffed or maybe the customer doesn't come first. If you ask a question in the store, do you get an intelligent answer? or a blank look and a "I dunno." An answer like, "I'm not sure, but let me find out for you" sounds much better.

3. I'd also recommend asking a question that has an open-ended answer just to see what they say. For example, ask, "how much flow do you think I will need in a tank with only soft corals?" Then you take note of what they said, and verify by asking some of your more experienced aquarists, like on here in the forum. I would probably do this a few times before actually relying on what the LFS tells me.

4. Look closely at the tanks and their inhabitants. Do the tanks look clean? How about the fish? Do they look healthy? Are they alive? I'm not kidding. I've seen dead fish in tanks. Do the fish appear to swim normally? Do they have any telltale spots or injuries or frayed fins which indicate sickness or trauma?

Now it's possible that an LFS received fish in that condition, and it's not their fault. But if that's the case, the fish should be in a hospital tank receiving medication, not mixed with a bunch of other healthy fish.

Also, check (or ask) and see if the tanks are all plumbed together. The reason why this is important is that sick fish or fish that just arrived should be isolated from other fish. If everyone's water is circulating together, then there's a good chance that any diseases affecting one or more fish will soon be affecting all of them.

5. See what they have on the shelves. Do they have a big selection of food, for example, at different price points? Are they willing to order something for you if they don't carry what you want? What you're trying to get a feel for is what the people working at this LFS will be like to deal with. If you feel like they're talking down to you or treating you like you have L-O-S-E-R painted on your forehead, then it's time to move on to the next LFS.

6. Ask people in your local aquarium club which LFS they like and trust. If you scroll down under "Forums" we have a section where you can connect with some folks from your area. There's a big section for the US, and then a Global section for those outside of the US. See the screenshot below.

Screen Shot 2019-07-07 at 12.43.55 PM.png

Screenshot courtesy of @Seawitch ©2019, All Rights Reserved.

If you are lucky enough to have several LFS in your area, then I would visit them one by one and take notes. Some LFS's are great and have great people working there. And after talking to several and comparing notes with other aquarists in your area, you may find a good match.

But remember, you're not married to your LFS. If you do business with them for a while and aren't satisfied, you can always change to a different one later on. Also, as you become more experienced and discerning, you may notice things that you didn't notice earlier on. For example, one LFS might have a great selection of coral frags, but very few fish. Another might have pristine fish but very little coral.

These are some points that you will be in a better position to judge after you get your tank up and running. As you start on your reefkeeping journey, I offer a couple of closing bits of advice.

1. Don't be afraid to ask questions here. Any questions.

2. And don't be in a hurry. As the old adage goes, "nothing good happens in a hurry in reefkeeping."


We encourage all our readers to join the Reef2Reef forum. It’s easy to register, free, and reefkeeping is much easier and more fun in a community of fellow aquarists. We pride ourselves on a warm and family-friendly forum where everyone is welcome. You will also find lots of contests and giveaways with our sponsors.


Author Profile: Cynthia White

Cynthia received her BA in English from NYU a long long time ago. She has been a freelance writer and editor for over 20 years. Now she is a writer and editor on staff at R2R, where her forum nickname is @Seawitch. She lives in a small town, and the good LFS are a day's travel away from her.