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One product is still discussed in the dark corridors of marine aquaria and mention of it is sure to bring disdain from anyone who flushed hundreds of dollars, believing they were getting something miraculous. The story of this product is filled with frivolous lawsuits, strange promises and advertising in some of the largest fish-keeping publications at the time. From the late nineties up until 2006, the Eco Aqualizer made its rounds throughout the world of both marine and freshwater aquaria. Hundreds of reef keepers fell under the Aqualizer’s spell; the promise of complete water filtration in one small, cylindrical device that was easy to install and even easier to conceal. Fish stores were ordering the Aqualizer by the case, promising their customers that it would revolutionize aquaria, potentially becoming the only filtration device an aquarist would need.
Today, the Aqualizer serves as the butt of jokes on social media and an important lesson to aquarists who easily buy into the claims of advertisers and product manufacturers. The Aqualizer isn’t the only product over the years to make audacious claims, but it might be the most notable. Many aquarists believed that the Eco Aqualizer would turn cloudy water crystal clear and somehow magically balance their ph and raise the Oxygenation Reduction Potential (ORP) of their aquarium water. It took several years before aquarists began dissecting the Aqualizer and the device was proven to be little more than a small piece of PVC piping housing some cheap magnets. While the Aqualizer has faded from memory, each year it seems as though products and practices pop-up that promise to simplify reef keeping, opening the door to a successful reef up for everyone, from beginner to expert. If we look back on the Eco Aqualizer a few points about its time in the marketplace can prove invaluable for spotting a reefing hustle (a company that places more effort into wild claims about a product, then it does in actually making a working product).
Lesson 1: They don’t tell you how it works:
The Eco Aqualizer was advertised as the world’s only “recirculating aquatic life support system.” It claimed to employ molecular ionization, a process that may very well not exist in marine aquaria. The company that produced the device then proceeded to make a whole host of claims. With this one small device an aquarist could reduce the need for water changes, restore water’s natural balance, clarify water, stabilize ph and increase dissolved oxygen, relieve stress and reduce fish loss, along with an additional laundry list of benefits. It’s almost as if the device’s creators simply researched every imaginable thing a marine aquarist could want and wrapped them all up in a neat little blue device.
One thing the Aqualizer’s ads were short on, was information about how the product worked. Most seasoned aquarists know that all these benefits typically take a host of different equipment. An ozone generator can clarify water and raise ORP, while a protein skimmer can raise dissolved oxygen and stabilize ph. The thought that one little device could do all of those things is almost ludicrous. You would think that somewhere in the host of advertising media that surrounded the Aqualizer’s release we would have gotten some information about how the product works.
It remains an important lesson for aquarists whom have stumbled upon a supposed miracle product. If it doesn’t provide details about how it achieves its goals, chances are, it doesn’t achieve them at all. Many product manufactures go out of their way to demonstrate exactly how their devices perform and offer detailed break-downs of performance measurements. Companies like Neptune Systems, EcoTech Marine, Red Sea and more have flooded the internet with how to videos and examples of systems maintained using their methodologies. There is a difference between protecting a trade secret (so that other vendors cannot copy it) and being open, honest and forthright with customers. In the case of the Eco Aqualizer, everything was a trade secret except for the laundry list of complex advantages the device could bring to aquarium water.
Lesson 2. The results are over the top:
Yes, a protein skimmer can eliminate solid organic waste and even raise and balance ph. Sure, a zeolite reactor may reduce phosphate and nitrate and upgraded lighting may provide better PAR (photosynthetic active radiation) to the entire aquarium. However, it’s unlikely any one product will offer a host of benefits that actually work in contradiction to each other. The Aqualizer promised aquarists it would both intensify the effect of trace elements, yet also raise water’s ORP and clarify the water. Certain trace elements discolor water and increase the nutrient load, thus reducing the ORP. It’s impossible that one device could intensify their effect (and thus side-effect) while also mitigating their negative attributes. Even though at face value it appears like a bogus claim, aquarists all over the country bought it. At the same time the Aqualizer promised to increase the intensity of light penetration in the aquarium, even though it had nothing to do with lighting.
Eco Aqualizer touted their results via full page advertisements in Freshwater and Marine Aquarist Magazine, Tropical Fish Hobbyist and various websites. At the time, these aquarium magazines represented one of the premiere ways aquarists got information and the fact that ads were appearing in publications of such caliber, made aquarists believe the device delivered on its laundry list of promises. The reality is that anyone who can write a check can also place a full-page ad on any aquatic media website. Today, there is more regulation about who can place advertisements in hobby media but back then the hobby was still growing and publications needed all the support they could get.
Many aquarists aren’t well versed in marine chemistry and they don’t understand the ins and outs of water quality. There are entire populations of aquarists who simply want a decent aquarium that can easily be kept healthy. They’ve never heard of Randy-Holmes Farely, nor do they even understand the basics of aquarium chemistry. These folks read about something like the Eco Aqualizer, strap it to their tank and think, “Wow that was easy” while abandoning water changes and frequent testing.
In fact, the Aqualizer was purchased over a period of almost 10 years and a re-vamped version of the product was released in 2005. Even though aquarium forums at the time were littered with discussion about how it appeared the Aqualizer did nothing, folks were still buying it. To compound the situation, the company that produced the device had a reputation of filing frivolous lawsuits against aquarium experts that denounced it. While it appears from following discussions from the time period that none of the lawsuits went anywhere, it was enough to discourage many aquarists from speaking out. This gave the Aqualizer time to remain embedded in the aquarium marketplace. This leads us to lesson three.
Lesson 3: A company doesn’t respond well to criticism:
20 years ago, having your voice heard on the internet required knowledge in HTML programming and intricate web design. I remember being a freshman in high school and being thrilled that I had taught myself to write a website with animation, images and text. Suddenly, I had a voice that could be broadcast across the internet. Today, in the social media age, having a loud voice to share your feelings is easy and typically requires a few clicks of the keyboard or some taps on your phone’s touch screen. Criticism is guaranteed, no matter what you’re doing. Just look at the comments section of any of my articles and it’s clear some of the general public thinks they know better, or at the very least have an opinion on the matter whether it’s warranted or not.
Good companies don’t react harshly to criticism, but defend their products with facts. Not long ago, a marine aquarist claimed a certain fish food was filled with high levels of mercury. The food’s producer didn’t file or threaten a lawsuit or demand the claim be revoked. They simply sent their product off to an impartial, licensed laboratory and had it tested for mercury. The test came back showing that the food had less mercury in it than most of the fish we buy from the grocery store. In fact, it contained far less mercury then the freshwater fish living in the small lake I live on.
The facts proved the initial claim to be inaccurate and the issue disappeared. A company that has done their homework and is transparent doesn’t have to get upset about unfounded criticism. They know what they produce lives up to the expectation they’ve set and they’re willing to prove it with facts.
In the case of the Eco Aqualizer, the company attacked the critics hoping to create an ecosystem where aquarists were afraid to question their device. It worked for a while, but in the end their over inflated claims caught up with them and their silly little blue device faded into the pages of obscurity.
Lesson 4: People endorse it, but you haven’t heard of them:
Master aquarist John Brexit says, “This device is a fish keeping revolution.” Okay, who is John Brexit and why when I google his name does nothing involving aquariums come up? The Eco Aqualizer claimed many prominent aquarists endorsed it and even claimed to have the seal of approval of various chemists. Yet, no one in the marine aquarium world had heard of them. For a while, google and uber-accurate internet searching didn’t exist, making it tough for people to prove these people weren’t who they Eco Aqualizer claimed they were. Eventually though, it became clear that these endorsements could have very-well been made by the companies’ owners or employees.
If a product gets an endorsement from the likes of Joe Yaillou, Bob Fenner, Richard Ross or a host of others, then it’s likely the product has been used, tested and has some real world implications. However, if a product gets an endorsement from someone who seems absent from the marine aquarium world, then more than likely the endorsement is mere fiction, not fact.
Some aquarists took the Eco Aqualizer’s claims at face value and believed there was an advanced marine aquarist standing behind the product. Others remained skeptical. We now know that no advanced aquarist was endorsing the product, nor did it meet any of the expectations set by the manufacturer.
Lesson 5: What was in that thing anyhow?
Since the Eco Aqualizer made its rounds in fish-keeping magazines and online, several aquarists have cut their old unit open. It’s been revealed that all that existed within that shiny blue tube was PVC piping, tape and magnets. The Aqualizer had no capability to maintain aquarium water chemistry whatsoever and existed as a mix of pseudoscience and outright lies.
The cost of the Eco Aqualizer to individual aquarists who trusted it extends well beyond the price of the device. The Aqualizer only retailed for around $ 35-150 dollars. The real cost lies in abandon aquarium management practices under the belief that the Aqualizer would pick up the slack. Some aquarists ended up with tanks that needed full-on attention in order to bring everything back into balance, after months of neglected maintenance.
The real lesson here is that companies will create a narrative to sell a product that does absolutely nothing and such products can put your aquarium at risk. Various aspects of the Eco Aqualizer’s advertising and promises can create a blueprint for aquarists to follow when attempting to spot an over-hyped, in-effective product. Due to the rise of the internet, it’s rare that a product gets far without heavy criticism from experienced aquarists. However, the internet also offers an avenue for unscrupulous vendors to market a sub-par device, in hopes of tricking aquarists into thinking they’ve stumbled onto something revolutionary. Inevitably someone falls for it, but eventually the truth rises to the surface.
It’s without a doubt that another Eco Aqualizer will appear, sooner or later. Many iterations of products that do near to nothing, but claim to do everything, exist right now and will continue to exist in the world of aquarium sales and marketing. My advice, stay skeptical and look for the facts. The lessons learned from the Eco Aqualizer are an important playbook when searching for the next big thing in aquaria.