Conditioners. I take a skeptical view of water "conditioners," aside from chlorine/chloramine neutralizer with or without an ammonia binder and specific chelating agents, notably EDTA. Those are all legit. But, what other "conditions" would you be "conditioning?" I always want to know what ingredients I'm adding to aquarium water, for a start. Almost anything you add to aquarium water is going to be taking part in some biological process or chemical reaction. Most truly inert end products will be accumulating and need to be diluted with water changes. If you know that your water lacks something essential, by all means do add that essential thing.
Reading the list of ingredients. Conditioners with unspecified ingredients just rub me the wrong way. No matter how sensible and wholesome the ingredients may be— "natural" and "bio-" are buzzwords recently joined by "eco-"— part of the definition of "snake oil" is "containing unspecified ingredients for which extravagant claims are made." Still, you can make some headway just by reading between the lines of a conditioner's advertised claims.
Back in 2002, to pick an example at random, I made some sound guesses about Tetra's AquaSafe, the original bottled water "conditioner" with a cocktail of ingredients, first introduced in 1970, and the market leader in sales volume. Tetra still offers no list of its ingredients, but Doctors Foster and Smith offer the principle ingredients of the reformulated AquaSafePlus: Sodium hydroxymethanesulfinate, Polyvinyl Pyrollidones, Organic Hydrocolloids, Organic Chelating Compounds.
So, then: sodium hydroxymethanesulfinate is the dechlorinater; it's used in other conditioners as well. Polyvinylpyrollidones are manmade polymers with many useful properties in addition to their use as binders. Tetra's former literature said of AquaSafe's "natural hydrocolloids" that they "form a protective barrier around the gills and sensitive membranes of fish, shielding them from attack by parasites," and I felt that you must decide whether a hydrocolloidal film that effectively barred parasites would inhibit gill functions, where the thickness of a healthy mucus coating averages one micron. Currently AquaSafePlus's hydrocolloid formula is stated to contain seaweed extracts (natural biopolymers), said to support the development of beneficial filter bacteria, a claim that's quite generic and couldn't be disputed. An improvement. Hydrocolloids are water-soluble vegetable gums and seaweed extracts, such as alginate and carageenan, which make even melted ice cream rich and creamy. And a conditioner that neutralizes heavy metals would have to be a chelator. Only in AquaSafe's German website are vitamins and minerals (like iodine) still mentioned: fishes obtain their vitamins from their diet, not from the water.
Searching out the ingredients in water "conditioners" isn't usually successful. Take "Proper pH7.0" made by Aquarium Pharmaceuticals for an example. When you go to the manufacturer's site, the product is listed among the buffers and pH adjusters, and makes this claim: Automatically sets and stabilizes pH at 7.0. Removes chlorine & detoxifies heavy metals. For community aquariums. Contains Aloe Vera and electrolytes. I'll get to Aloe Vera in a bit. Now, if you click the button "Product Tech Sheet" you get further compatibility notes: Proper pH 7.0 is a phosphate buffer and should not be used with live aquatic plants. If the aquarium water has a general hardness (GH) level above 200 ppm a haze can form in the water. This haze is the precipitation of some of the mineral salts. It is non-toxic and will be filtered out by most aquarium filters.
This is interesting, and I touch a little on the phenomenon of co-precipitation of phosphate with calcium as part of the phosphate cycle. Through the discreet clickable link 'View MSDS' you can download the required OSHA "Material Safety Data Sheet." It lists sodium thiosulfate ( the familiar dechlorinator), tetrasodium EDTA (that's the common chelator, which detoxifies heavy metals), and—formerly— "Trade Secret #1, Trade Secret #2," and "Trade Secret #3" which are currently represented as "non-hazardous ingredients, proprietary". What do you think of a corporation withholding this information on the official Material Safety Data Sheet, which is referred to by industrial workers in the event of a major spill or accident? Not unique to Aquarium Pharmaceuticals of course. Perfectly legal I'm sure. It seems pretty cheeky to me!
At least we know "Proper pH7.0" is partly phosphate, and the unspecified "electrolytes" it is adding are confirmed as partly sodium — as they virtually always are. If you think that these "trade" secrets are a secret within the trade, you must be imagining that Aquarium Pharmaceuticals' competitors support chemistry labs so incompetent that they are unable to analyze the ingredients of Proper pH7.0! The "trade secrets" are actually "consumer secrets" — secrets only from the consumer. Oh, whatever. I don't want to put anyone's "Trade Secret #1," "Trade Secret #2," or "Trade Secret #3" in my aquarium.
When it came onto the market, Tetra's Aqua EasyBalance offered claims astonishing enough to provoke some skepticism: that it promised to reduce the need for water changes for six months particularly provoked some water-change addicts on the forums. The ingredients are again a jealously guarded trade secret. Promotional literature claims "a continuous buffer that stabilizes pH, prevents pH decline", "a phosphate reducer" and vitamins, minerals and trace elements that "turn the aquarium into a natural bio-reactor that biodegrades organic pollutants and provides nutrients required by heterotrophic bacteris including nitrifiers." The hitch to achieving this easy balance is that you are asked to keep re-balancing the aquarium, at a rate of one teaspoon per five gallons, weekly.
Chemist Anton Gabriel tested EasyBalance and reported his findings at the German mailing-list www.de.rec.tiere, 22 April 2000: though the bottle distributed in Germany has no list of ingredients either, he reported ferric chloride (FeCl3) and sodium bicarbonate. Just as you'd have guessed: the bicarbonate would represent the buffer and the iron would be responsible for the phosphate coprecipitation. The US Material Safety Data Sheet (2008) notes additional ingredients: citric acid (sufficient to reduce the liquid's pH to 2.8, thus keeping the carbonates in solution), formaldehyde, (CH2O), cobalt dinitrate (a salt of nitric acid, contributing to the acidity), iron (in the Fe+++ form) and sodium chloride (NaCl, comprising 1% of the total). A pro- and con article in D.A.T.Z., April 2001, took a very cautious editorial stance in reporting on a product from this very important advertiser, the conglomersate Warner-Lambert, that had bought Tetra from its original developer, Baensch and, coincidentally, a month later sold it to Pfizer. D.A.T.Z. reported EasyBalance as "organic... completely biodegradable to CO2 and H2O."
Slime coat "conditioners." If you're thinking of supplementing your fishes' natural slimecoat with a natural gel or polyvinyl "protective" coating, you ought to be aware of the varied biochemistry that makes fish mucus an active part of the animal's defenses against bacteria, fungi and even some unicellular parasites. Not so easily substituted.
At one of its product description pages Seachem warns that "some slimecoat products may permanently foul Seachem's synthetic beadform adsorbent 'HyperSorb' and impede its regeneration". Think about what that warning implies. Since this is a physical fouling rather than a chemical reaction, the adsorbent action of activated carbon is likely to be affected in a comparable way. You could make a controlled test yourself: you'd take equal dry weights of fresh carbon in equal amounts of distilled water in capped test vials. You'd add a few drops of your favored slimecoat conditioner to one sample and shake both equally. Now you'd add a drop of bromthymol blue (your pH indicator) to each sample and shake again equally. Fresh activated carbon should adsorb any dye. Is there a difference in color, viewed against a white backdrop? When you repeat the experiment twice, do you keep getting similar results? Or does more of the dye persist? Do you think there's any relevance to the surfaces of gill lamellae?
"Slime coat" enhancers need not be refined from organic sources. One of the stock polymer "slime coat replacements" in conditioners is polyvinyl pyrrolidone (PVP-30) which is also used as a stabilizer that adds "mouth feel" to beer.
Aloe vera. Back in the 1980s, gel derived from the subtropical succulent Aloe vera experienced a faddish popularity phase, where it started to appear in some of the unlikeliest consumer products. Aloe vera gel has a numbing effect on the nerve endings in human skin, so it's genuinely welcome in the kitchen to soothe minor burns. Its gel keeps damaged tissues from drying, and to that extent Aloe vera "promotes healing." It has never had any legitimate use in aquariums, where drying of tissues is scarcely an issue. None whatsoever. Pure marketing.
In 2011 I began noticing that compounds derived from Echinacea were touted in ads for a water "conditioner" that also contains vitamin B12 for good measure. With the popularity of echinacea infusions among the self-medicating sector of the public, it was only a matter of time, I suppose.
Clove oil to trank your fish? The July 2001 issue of the British magazine Practical Fishkeeping carried an "advertisement feature" under a staff byline. I had read through most of the ostensible "editorial" columns on the left-hand side of the page, before I realized it was all about Corporation X's "AquaStuff" (let's call it), the "water conditioner" product advertised on the right-hand side of the page. It appeared to me I'd been caught reading the print equivalent of an "infotainment" on late-night tv. Now, normally I skim over the claims of water "conditioners" without analyzing them, but since this cheap visual ploy had already claimed several minutes of my time, I decided to read more closely. The "advertisement feature" was headlined "Why has [AquaStuff] been patented in the US?" and part of the text claimed that the U.S. Patent Office was "impressed with the method and composition [AquaStuff] adopts for reducing the level of stress in fish. This method involves applying an effective amount of stress relieving additives based upon herbal, other plant and root extracts. Plant extracts are commonly used in humans for their therapeutic and medicinal properties and many of these same compounds have been found to be similarly effective in reducing stress in fish." I knew that the usually blasé U.S. Patent Office isn't easily "impressed." (You probably know that U.S.Pat.Off. awards patents for processes and inventions that are merely new, not because they are necessarily better, and that no one in the Patent Office needs to be "impressed".) So my curiosity was piqued. I noticed in the "reportage" that Prof. Richard D. Moccia, Director of the Aquaculture Centre, which is associated with the University of Guelph, Ontario, Canada, had "confirmed that an experiment conducted at the University [of Guelph] demonstrated that [AquaStuff] significantly reduced the visible systems (sic: "symptoms" likely intended) of stress compared to similar aquarium conditioners without these plant extracts." So I went to the Alma Aquaculture Research Station's webpage, and sure enough, in the area of culture methodology, Prof. Moccia and his co-workers do report in three articles on the effects of clove oil as a fish anesthetic, on clove oil's effects on hormone levels in fish plasma, and on its effect on hormone levels in rainbow trout. I was intrigued. I mean, if clove oil dulls a toothache, well it might be quite terrific in the aquarium! Since I'd already invested time in this, I was curious enough to google "clove-oil fish hormone" (note the hyphen in "clove-oil") . There, ignoring aromatherapy links, I learned that a scientific study finds "clove oil may be a safe and cost-effective alternative to tricaine [that's tricaine methenesulphonate, or "MS222"] without significantly affecting study results." The two anesthetics— with a control group of course— were tested on juvenile chinook salmon, using 200 ppm clove oil to anesthetize fish. Researchers found no significant differences on effects on fish blood sugar and several hormones. Hey, great! So, why would you tranquillize your mbuna, besides the obvious "okay! that's a time-out for all of you aggressive little mothers?" Because other peer-reviewed research (in 2002, the same Google word search turned up all this stuff for me: ymmv) finds that anesthetized fish have better market appeal: improved muscle texture, color and appearance, less bruising and blood-spotting. In other words, fish are tranked out just before they're eviscerated for sale at the fish market, not to minimize aggression in your 55-gallon Lake Malawi.
Clove Oil? Is there really clove oil in AquaStuff, then? Am I spending my time reading about a way to zonk out my tetras with a little clove oil? ... That's Infotainment!
Blackwater, peat and yeast extracts. There are various peat and yeast extracts on the market. These "Amazon" or "blackwater" extracts are a shade more convenient than peat filtration. You always pay for convenience.
Tetra's Blackwater Extract contains, according to Tetra, peat extract plus vitamins B2, panthenol (B5), B6, B12, nicotinic amide (niacin) and biotin, all of which would be available from yeast extracts, but which, as I've said, fish absorb through their diet rather than across their gills from the water.
Azoo's Double Blackwater Extract produced in Taiwan contains "natural peat extracts, trace elements, tannin, multivitamins and colloid, etc".
Aquarium Pharmaceuticals isn't more precise for their Amazon Extract than to say that it contains a "concentrated solution of natural organic compounds." You could say the same of bull manure. Rival products claim only that "tropical root, bark and wood" are used to make an extract. Whether the humic substances derive from tropical roots or from Canadian peat is immaterial, I think you'll agree.
Green tea bags. Many of the desirable ingredients in a blackwater extract, though not tannin, I was surprised to discover, will leach from a used bag of green tea in your filter; you'll find the ingredients in green tea under my discussion of polyphenols, which form another component of green tea.
Links. An annotated table of dechlorinaters and water conditioners can be found at The Tropical Tank. Since that table was drawn up Kordon has released its Rid-Metals.