to drip or not to drip

To Drip Acclimate or Not Drip? That is the Question

Everyone wants their new fish to enter a tank safe and sound, and many hobbyists will drip acclimate the arrivals to accomplish a smooth introduction. The process has been around for – well, forever. It’s simple, you’ll find plenty of guides to teach you the method, and the creatures respond well. That’s canon – or so I thought. As it turns out, there’s more to drip acclimation than I originally thought, and it’s time to explore the ins and outs of this introduction custom to keep your newly-purchased fish happy and healthy.

Table of Contents: To Drip Acclimate or Not?

If you want, feel free to drop straight to the link regarding this heated debate. But if you want to completely understand why we’re discussing whether you should drip acclimate your fish or not, you’ll probably want to read the entire article. After all, an informed aquarist is an accomplished aquarist. (Not to mention it’ll arm you with plenty of firepower if you decide to dive into an aquarium thread on the topic)

You can drip acclimate fish, corals, and invertebrates

The Beginning of the Drip Acclimate Debate

Before this stunning debate came to light, I published an article about a small piece of equipment I use to make it easier to drip acclimate your new arrivals. Pats on the back, applause for the assistance, and job well done; I felt accomplished with my work. So imagine my surprise when a loyal and helpful reader sent me a link to a thread on Reef Central suggesting that drip acclimation did more harm than good, in some cases. (Insert “mind blown” emoji here)

I read through the thread and started to wonder: Should we drip acclimate our fish or not? Is this topic still up for debate? Did Shakespeare worry about this when he wrote Hamlet? And that led to my inspiration for this article:

To be, or not to be {I assume he meant to add drip acclimating}, 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 them -William Shakespeare, Hamlet

Boom! I felt compelled to examine the mystery of the “to drip acclimate, to not drip acclimate” debate. Because I want to make sure I present the most concise, current, and helpful information for you. (Not to mention, I need to do the best for my fish)

The Thread That Launched a Thousand Comments

(Okay, so I’m switching over to Homer and The Iliad here – Classics are classics). The person who originated the thread on Reef Center (not Billy Shakespeare. Although truthfully, I’ve never seen the two of them in the same place at the same time, so there’s another mystery for you) went on to offer the following advice on why you SHOULDN’T drip acclimate your fish:

  • After a long journey in a bag, the water becomes foul (we all know that). But the sealed bag is also a relatively stable environment.
  • Once the bag gets opened, however, and exposed to the air, a chemical reaction occurs. This means the water conditions can rapidly deteriorate.
  • Acclimation revolves around salinity. If you find out what salinity is at the fish store the animal came from and match it before the arrival, there’s no need for drip acclimation.

You can’t argue with the logic (well, the comments on the thread say otherwise, but hang in with me here). And, instead of performing a drip acclimate method, the poster recommended you float new fish in the tank for a short period (to match temperature) and then scoop them out of the bag and place them immediately into quarantine. No special equipment or long investments of time are required; all you need to do is perform the same basic steps you would in a freshwater tank.

And the debate began.

Certain species do better when you drip acclimate them

My Personal Experience With the Drip Acclimate Method

Let me start weeding through the ins and outs of this debate by sharing my personal experience with the drip acclimate method. You can then decide if I’m showing any personal bias as we move forward.

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 it out there) What IS relevant is that I have access to several good local fish stores, all within driving distance (if you’re obsessed, like I am – which you already guessed). I head to the store and pick up my arrivals, then chauffeur them back home. And I’ve been acclimating my fish for years, without a problem, with drip acclimation.

The caveat for you to consider is that I DON’T get much livestock delivered to my door. And that can make a HUGE difference when you look at the water quality within a transport bag. Rather than spending hours and hours (or LONGER) in a plane, train, or automobile (okay, maybe it’s a van), my fish and invertebrates don’t need to make a trip of more than an hour – TOPS. That doesn’t give them  THAT much time to breathe and generate waste in their confined environment. This makes drip acclimation a reasonable process.

As you’ll see as we dive into the debate, though, that not everyone experiences the same results.
Innovative Marine Accudrip Acclimator

Researching Drip Acclimation

My well-informed friend from Reef Central forwarded me a link to another article with supporting information explaining their perspective. And when you receive your new arrivals through the mail from online sellers, this side of the drip acclimate debate starts to make sense. A lengthy transport time in a confined space equals STRESS. (You’d feel the same if someone confined you to a restricted space and threw you into the back of an airplane) And stress leads to a cascade of problems for any animal, affecting everything from their immune function to energy levels. You DON’T want to wait through a drip acclimation process to get your fish into a tank in that kind of situation.

So that article on Advanced Aquarist, even as far back in 2006 (yes, another decade but still sound today), from Terry Bartelme, provided the following advice:

  • Contact the fish store you purchased your fish from and determine the temperature and pH they keep their tanks at.
  • Match those water parameters in your quarantine tank.
  • Test the pH IMMEDIATELY when opening the bag (the pH will rise quickly once opened through natural air exchange).
  • DON’T take your time getting the fish away from exposure to ammonia and other toxins by using a drip acclimate process – allow them to temperature adjust and shift them.
  • Place the fish in a hyposaline environment (low salinity) since marine fish easily adjust to those conditions.
  • Work quickly and without delay to move your fish to a holding tank with identical pH and temperature conditions to those found in the bag. This will prevent further shock conditions from occurring.

And Terry Bartelme backed up his recommendations with a hefty list of references focusing on the health of fish in the stressful conditions they find in those transport bags. Suddenly, drip acclimation didn’t sound as positive. And that’s where many of those comments on the thread came in. Waiting to drip acclimate a fish exhausted from swimming in confined quarters, without food, and spiking natural steroids doesn’t make sense.

At least, not for THOSE cases. (Stick with me here, I promise I’m leading to a point)

Analyzing Brand Recommendations

While not making the same points as the Reef Central thread, the Bartelme paper held a similar position of “speed matters” and advocated for moving quickly once you open your fish bag. And the article and forum thread challenged a fundamental belief of mine. I’d always held firm to the concept of using the drip acclimate method when you bring new fish home. But now, I saw a different side of the issue. I needed to open my eyes a little wider and make sure I WASN’T advocating the wrong information to you (all of my devoted readers). Seeing the opposition got me thinking:

Had I been making a mistake this whole time? Was it bad to drip acclimate?  I knew acclimation was a more humane way of introducing a fish to life in my home, of course. The gradual blending of water from my tank with water in the bag allowed the fish the greatest chance of success, with lower stress. It wouldn’t do more harm than good, would it? I wasn’t completely convinced, even as I wavered on my little soapbox.

So I did the next obvious thing. I asked Siri for some help. I confirmed some of the most reputable online stores recommended drip acclimation for new arrivals purchased through their site. Not only did they recommend it, but they also put their money behind that recommendation. Their guarantees end up VOID if you don’t follow the acclimation procedures to the letter.

And that’s something to analyze a little further.

When you purchase from online sellers, follow the acclimation methods they tell you

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 their orders. They provide an easy-to-read acclimation guide for new arrivals.

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:

  • “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.”

They offer the best guarantee in the business (their words, not mine, so let’s try not to start a debate on THAT). They suggest you drip acclimate the fish (it’s on there as an advanced technique, but their instructions on adding tank water to the bag is a brute way of accomplishing the same task). Of course, they’re also asking you to watch the clock. So that suggests they recognize the stress the fish go through as they travel from their store to you. (And, as a business, they’re probably not keen on needing to cash out on that guarantee)

It falls in the middle of the debate.

That Fish Place

Another online store I respect a lot is That Fish Place. (Shameless plug for Pennsylvania. They’re a long drive away for me, though – too far away to get a good cheesesteak). They offer a similar 14-day guarantee, with a few exceptions and limits (so make sure you read it thoroughly before purchase). And look what they have to say regarding their fish purchases.

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

So what ARE those acclimation procedures? As you might guess, they’re the same as you saw for LiveAquaria. That means you get the same instructions for a drip acclimate method (or, you know, that cup option) – without the handy pictures this time. You’ll also see that time window come into play – this time, it’s 45 minutes, though. Again, a reputable brand that understands the need to address the stress of the fish they’re shipping out.

Asking the Experts

As both LiveAquaria and That Fish Place mentioned a drip acclimate suggestion on their sites, I sent them a note asking them for an official comment. I wanted to see if they’d offer an official stance on how they felt about this debate – particularly with their guarantees in place.

Unfortunately, I don’t have solid contacts at either location, so I only received canned responses. But the replies (likely “approved” responses) referred me back to their websites and the policies posted there. That doesn’t provide a juicy soundbite or literal word from an expert supporting or refuting the premise here (always a bummer). Still, they DID unanimously (two for two counts as unanimous) reply supporting their content.

And that translates to votes in favor of using a drip acclimate method for your fish. It wasn’t the most satisfying request I’ve ever received, and it doesn’t count for much in the way of statistics, but it also wasn’t completely unexpected. And it means there’s no rush to throw out your equipment just yet.

Reef Threads

At the same time I decided to send those notes, I sent a note to Gary and Christine at Reef Threads. I asked them what their thoughts were on the drip acclimate topic. They were kind enough to weigh in on the subject during one of their podcast discussions (proving you never know when a request for information might pan out).

The discussion’s available in Reef Threads Podcast #297. It’s worth listening to their entire conversation, but I’ll offer a quick summary for you here: They each indicated they don’t drip acclimate anymore, but they both advocated for what sounded like a fairly robust acclimation. (How’s that for coming down on the ambiguous middle of things?)

Hedging your bets on whether or not to drip acclimate

Hedging Your Bets

Okay, so how to round out this debate on whether you should drip acclimate – once and for all? Well, I think there’s room for BOTH sides of acclimation to hold true, from a certain point of view.

"So what I told you was true...from a certain point of view"

You’ve probably already come to that conclusion yourself, but let’s look into things a little closer and see why this debate – well, doesn’t NEED to be a debate.

Near-Death Experiences

To drip acclimate your fish takes time. Time you may not have. (For instance, if your fish took a cross-country trip to arrive on your doorstep in the late afternoon or early evening) If you know or suspect the water in that bag is lethally polluted, or if the fish appears sluggish and near-death (symptomatic of toxic water perhaps?), i’s reasonable to quickly move the poor fish to a stable environment (e.g., your quarantine tank). Keeping a stressed creature in murderous conditions makes NO sense.

The trouble with this exception is how to know the water is that awful? Do you want to plan to test the water as soon as you open the bag? Is that reasonable? And does it make sense to stress the dish by dunking it into its temporary home to get your results? Unless you can clearly see dangerous water conditions through the plastic, you may not want to run an additional risk of taking extra time to confirm (or refute) poor numbers.

I think it’s also fair to point out that, even if you agree this is the “best move,” you WILL end up voiding your guarantee and take on some financial risk. The choice is yours. (Put that way, you may want to consider taking some time to drip acclimate your fish)

Rapid Changes in pH

If you choose to skip a drip acclimate method and go forward with a simple temperature adjustment, then you only need to fret about the water’s pH.

Everyone can agree that pH can change rapidly in the transport bag’s water. After all, it’s a contained system without the benefits of nitrifying bacteria, plants, or any other way to convert wastes. Rapid changes in pH (remember, it is a logarithmic scale, which means changes get really big, really fast) cause harm. And if you change the pH rapidly in the OTHER direction, you’re complicating problems. (This is why drip acclimation works)

So the advice given earlier (matching your pH and salinity) seems prudent and safe. But I’m not sure it’s all practical or approachable for the average aquarist, or especially for the lazy aquarist (I’m referring to myself with that bit). You’re going to need to put in some work (MORE than with drip acclimation) to match numbers before you release your fish from the bag. And since time’s of the essence, you can run into problems.

Now the stubborn cells in my body are screaming to point out that if I was to match the pH BEFOREHAND (because I called the fish store and requested that information), I could make my drip acclimation even more gentle and appropriate. (I also know what you’re thinking: Stubborn and lazy? What a catch I must be, eh?)

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 carbon dioxide and pH). It seems like an easy hedge for me to say that, even if I still plan to drip acclimate, I could agree to take no longer than absolutely necessary – certainly less than 30 minutes.

Of course, this contradicts 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.

For the most part – or at least until I see some more data or until the manufacturers start to change their policies – I’m inclined to keep doing what I’ve always done (and had great success with) and drip acclimate my fish when I get them home. I’ll just make one modification based on my review of this “controversy” and start floating my bags in the tank before I start to drip acclimate.

For More Information

Clearly, the debate on whether or not to drip acclimate doesn’t have a clear winner. You’ll need to decide what makes the most sense for you. And a little more information? It can’t hurt, right? Of course not.

This YouTube video compares the float method versus drip acclimation – providing both options for you:

 

Or you can stick to this one, which walks you through the usual drip acclimation process:

Conclusions

Would two highly successful companies guarantee their livestock for 14 days ONLY if the drip acclimation process was strictly adhered to if the process did more harm than good? Wouldn’t those suppliers lose tons of money if their acclimation processes caused more harm than good?

That doesn’t make sense. This tells me Mom may have been right: “Just because everyone else is doing something doesn’t make it right.” But it still seems odd. The answer seems 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. However, if you’re not worried about potential loss (financial or livestock), then choose the acclimation method that works best for YOU. Maybe it’s using the drip method, the way I do. Or maybe it’s the alternative.

I don’t think anyone’s right OR wrong in this situation. Everyone seems to have what works best for them. (That’s what makes debates like this work!)

Where Do YOU Fall on the Drip Acclimate Debate?

I tried to represent both sides of the opinions here. I didn’t hide my own biases, but I hope you’re able to sort mine from the overall picture to make your own judgment. I’m curious, though. What do you think about all this? Will you drip acclimate your next purchase? If so, for how long? Any hesitations there? Let me know in the comments!

To drip acclimate or not?

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