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Could This Be Your Dream Job?
Aquarium (& more!) Install & Maintenance!


Robert Fenner  

            Coming back from Japan as a military dependent, many years ago, I ran into the labor restriction for “under age” youth in California… “How can this be?” I thought. I’d worked for aquarium-related businesses in both Japan and the Philippines.  Thankfully, these were the days (1960s) when in many places folks would hire young people “under the table” to do simple tasks for a few dollars or credit in trade goods. I found myself working for various retail fish stores starting as an “algae scrubber” initiate, working my way up waiting on customers, giving aquarium advice where and when I had it.

            This was a “golden age” for the hobby and aquatics industry; with introduction of new Gourami, African Cichlid and Rainbowfish species, proliferation of LFS outlets. By some estimates there were close to ten thousand retail fish stores toward the end of the 60’s, some three times as many independent shops as there are today.

Self-Employment; Serendipity:

            How did I, actually we (partner Mike Stempleski) end up in the aquarium maintenance field? As usual the simplest explanation suffices here. We both worked in fish shops as well as volunteering as “junior aquarists” at the T. Wayland Vaughan Aquarium (UCSD, Scripps Institute of Oceanography); now the fab Stephen Birch Aquarium under the same auspices, feeding livestock, gravel vacuuming, applying copper sulfate to some exhibits.

            In the course of activities in both locations Mike and I had occasions where customers and general public asked us if we could help them with setting up, moving aquariums, going on-site to homes and businesses to render our input regarding maintenance, health and other issues. Being poor students we quickly learned not to say no to such paying work; and getting the okay from the stores’ owner/managers, even the use of company gear for such work, we set out to augment our meager incomes. 

And Then There Was… ALS:

            What were we to do? Can you imagine, getting paid two-three times as much as “real work” to put up fish tanks, develop livestock selections, go visit wealthy peoples’ homes and businesses weekly to keep them up? Heaven! Mike and I formalized our business as an official partnership, applied for and secured a business license under the title Aquatic Life Services; thinking this was a good moniker for all we intended to do. Not drinking/potable water; not recreational (pool, spa), nor sewage treatment or such, we would fashion our business model about biological systems design, install and maintenance for ornamental purposes (not food).

            How successful were we? ALS paid a good deal of our way through under-graduate college; providing flexibility in hours, enjoyable work and an ever-expanding outlet for our aquatic hobby interests.

Out in recent times with pet fish industry friend Morgan Lidster of Inland Aquatics… in Terre Haute, Indiana. Here we are at one of Morg’s service accounts, he showing me a technique he calls “the algae shake”; brushing off loose algae and allowing it to settle prior to gravel vacuuming the system.


Then There Was Just One:

            Into each life it is said that some “rain must fall”; nineteen seventy three was a watershed. This was the year that Mike Stempleski was diagnosed with a type of blood flow blockage in his brain. His parents sponsored an around the world excursion for “Zinc Alloy from Spin City”, Mike’s self-appellation, borrowed from a David Bowie persona. Having gone through a shunt-surgery to divert blood from his third ventricle to his liver, extensive chemo-, then radiation treatments, Mike perished in 1975; he and I were twenty three years of age.

            Amongst other work in the petfish genre, college and scant personal life, I did keep ALS going and after a few years stint as a High School Sciences teacher, the scathing scaling back due to Proposition 13 in the West; I was fortunate to make the acquaintance of some like-minded life science student, aquarist-loving friends; an old roommate and fellow graduate student at SDSU, Jim Dorsey and an ex-Peace Corps volunteer and general able-to-do-all fellow by the name of Rick Aspray. We three made up the new partnership of Aquatic Life Services. We were now not only just one guy in a truck, but three with two to three working vehicles!

Back to Retail; This Time Personal:

            I was fortunate to live through a/the “boom time” of new fish stores (now LFS) in the 1960’s. In San Diego, CA at one time we had more than a hundred outlets, three livestock and one drygoods wholesaler locally. I worked for a few years with Don Wolfe (RIP) when he was an importer of marines and freshwater, as well as a retailer and builder of other shops. These were great times of innovation… folks getting out of having whole stores of individual tanks and going with centralized filtration, many new introductions to the hobby (e.g. African Cichlids, Rainbows…) and light-year improvements in holding and shipping techniques and success.

            As time went by, we (Nature Etc. Inc. by now) saw advantages in having our own retail outlets and started the Wet Pets (1981) outlets…  allowing us to buy, house/store more livestock (for our larger service division, Aquatic Life Services), recruit, train and standardize the behavior of our service technicians; and generate serious volume discounts with our drygoods suppliers.

            Originally, I had thought we’d name our stores “Aquatic Environments”; a good name, descriptive of the habitats, livestock we’d be offering. By some coincidence however, a bunch of us found ourselves at a local bar discussing this label and happened to ask a passing waitress what she thought: She considered the AE name too long, that it would be too expensive to have made into a lit sign, and that we might be responsible for driving accidents by motorists cruising by reading the name. Wet Pets was deemed much more fitting.

The original Wet Pets, Scripps Ranch, San Diego; opened in 1981.


Aquatic Life Services; and Beyond!

            Our maintenance work led us to doing fabrication of tanks in both glass and acrylic, having others build metal and wood stands, canopies and more exotic related carpentry. Necessity brought me to qualifying for Contractor’s and Pest Control licensing; the hiring of many sub-contracting specialists. We eventually bought buildings and became distributors of several product lines in the field as well as manufactured (Aqua-Chem Tech.) commercial lines for hobbyist to lake treatments.


            This series of articles will detail a first person (my) account of working in the petfish industry service side, with many glimpses of other folks in the trade’s endeavours. It is my hope to grant you a clear look at how we and others generate accounts, do the actual work, follow up and account for our actions; and the huge fun it is to share our aquatic experiences with others.

            I can recall having a conversation back in the early 1970’s with Tom McLaughlin who ran the then Western World Pet Supply Association (a pet industry trade organization with an annual show); asking him why the WWPSA didn’t allow service companies to attend their shows. He stated that they weren’t store front operations (the current brick and mortars) and as such presented an albeit minor threat to legitimate stores. I told him that many such operations WERE legit parts of the trade and that he would rue the day when they were a larger part. Today, by some estimates, the service side of the trade is more than forty percent of overall revenue; many LFS living basically on their service accounts. Perhaps you will do some aquarium installs and upkeep as a side job or more.            


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