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Air and Water Moving Pumps; Selection & Sales

Bob Fenner  

Pumps and related accessories are a key category in aquarium sales. These tools are medium-to-large ticket sales items on their own, but can do so much more for your store. They should be functioning to distinguish you as a premier Specialty Outlet and Service Supplier in your area; a cut "much above" the mass-merchandisers, Department Stores and "also-ran" independents.

Every retailer seems to think they "already know" this; but few do much to capitalize on these key sales and means of developing long-term customers. Here are my ideas on how to optimize your presentation and sales of air and fluid-moving pumps and their related items.


Used to be, we'd use the "rule of thumb" of telling customers to turn over their freshwater systems maybe twice an hour and double that for marines. To promote gas exchange, eliminate "dead" spaces, give the livestock some excitement'¦ and run the filters. Nowadays the customer base is a lot more sophisticated; they want to know "why" and be presented options'¦and practically speaking, you can't have too much circulation.

Most folks are awed by high-technology science; even if they profess to not really understand it directly. I like to introduce the notion of redundant or "back-up" systems using the Space Shuttle, submarines, nuclear reactors as examples in describing the "why" of what might seem unnecessary gear to hobbyists.

Many new aquarists have just one outside or inside power or canister-type filter doing triple duty on their systems: circulation, aeration and filtration. Look at the tanks you have in your shop and those you set-up for others. Do you rely on just a single mechanism for all of these critical functions? No; and neither should your customers.

Everyone agrees with the logic of having fail-safe environmental control in their work and home settings, and appreciates the same for their aquatic charges when this is pointed out. How to provide adequate back-up for aeration, circulation and filtering? Auxiliary and/or secondary air and water-moving pumps!

What: Air and Water Pumps

Airpumps are the tried and true workhorses of the aquarium interest; as such there are many manufacturers over a wide spread of price and performance. Per my advice below, secure a "cheapy" import in the way of small vibrator-types in the smaller sizes, and a good/better/best selection in brands you trust. There are excellent armature/diaphragm and piston pumps (noisy but powerful) out there. Don't be afraid to offer a high end line, even one accommodating dozens of outlets. We used to keep a spare regenerative blower at each location of the same size as we used for the store. After stocking it out in the open we sold it on more than one occasion.

And don't forget battery-operated pumps. Though you might not have a big fisher-person population or use them yourself, many hobbyists like to have battery-operated air pumps for moving livestock, emergency back-up and collecting their own fishes. Some modern models are actually quite good.

Powerheads are almost "unsung heroes" of the trade, and a real source of income for retailers who know how to demo., stock, and sell them. You should have your #1 best brand and an alternate for each size/application, mini's to hundreds of gallons per hour, regular and "reverse-flow" attachment.

Accessories and add-ons are also tremendous sellers and profit makers. The smallest store will benefit from carrying fittings, valves, and flexible tubing to fit all the sizes of pumps it carries.

Miniature pumps, magnetic drive and direct-drive utility pumps 

Should be on your shelves, and your staff should be well-versed in their use and sale. Is there an established market in your area for sump-type aquarium filtration? If so, do you stock the replacement pumps? How do your customers do water changes? Change all their water out? Mix up synthetic seawater? Dump their pond or fountain?

Reefs and large systems

Big aquariums of all types and marine systems in particular call for vigorous and complete circulation. For reef systems this water motion is best described as "chaotic and non-linear". How to generate this activity? Multiple powerheads arranged at corners are a good idea, with or without reciprocating attachments, or coupled with on/off "wave-makers". Single large (fractional horsepower) direct and magnetic centrifugal pumps are another.

The really advanced store will have designs and gear for surge and dump-tank arrangements; ideally with one or more set up on their own tanks as demonstrations. These water-movers are great attention-getters, never failing to impress even the most advanced aquarists. Once again, a few photographs illustrating other folks applications, the specifications and graphics from leading manufacturers, and your "Special Order" process can mean the difference between an "anchor" customer, or lost opportunity.

Ponds and other large water features: 

Do you exhibit ponds and outdoor supplies in your store? Even just outdoor foods, water treatments and medications? You should have pumps and accessories as well. For instance, the Tetra Luft pumps are fabulous products for indoors and out; providing sufficient pressure and volume for many tasks, big and small. Partial or fractional horsepower water pumps are used by pond enthusiasts for driving fountain-heads, filters, aerators and venturi jets. You should have some "cross-over" displays or signage indicating that the magnetic drive pumps in the "large-aquarium" case are suitable for pond use as well.

Some of the newer model 1/10-1/4 HP direct drive centrifugal pumps are so quiet and efficient that they're employed in large indoor systems as well as outdoors. I would stock these ready-wired with a 3-prong plug, and pre-plumbed with true-unions for easy install and removal for service.

Stocking & Not Going Broke:

What to carry and how much are real challenges for the retailer. On the one hand you cannot possibly afford the space, inventory cost, nor lack of turns that stocking everything entails; neither will your customers need all the makes and models available to the industry. My strong recommendation is to do what we did that worked out so well for our stores in Southern California. Start with small, basic units; with one to show, one to go of the stock sizes, and one only of the type that's likely only to sell twice a year (but add excitement and legitimacy to the rest of the store), and develop a "Special Order" Book and ordering process for the rest. Here's how we did this:

A three-ring binder is labeled "Special Orders" and plastic covered sheets inserted with the specifications and graphics of what products are available (derived from contacting manufacturers and distributors through industry shows, Buyers Guides, contacts'¦) with a listing of current retail pricing.

And Ordering Forms: These have the name, address, numbers of who is ordering, what at the stated price; the manufacturer and other identifying information about the products ordered; a credit area stating the deposit made (we got 50% up front) and a disclaimer REGARDING CURRENT PRICING AND ESTIMATED DATE OF ARRIVAL.

This is all very obvious but all too often overlooked by the uninitiated. A (NCR) copy is given to the customer and the store copy put in the ordering cycle. We used clipboards by Vendor, but there are many variations on this theme.

"If you don't see it, please ask; If it exists, we'll get it for you". Something of this nature should be prominently posted behind the register area and/or dead-center in your high-technology (including pumps) area.

The important elements here are 1) To bring it to your customers attention via signage that you have special order capabilities. 2) To pre-prepare for your staff and customers a catalog of what's available at what price. 3) To have in place order-taking, and fulfillment processes.

On Stocking:

I advise you, if you don't already, to keep air and water pumps behind your counters, in cases, high up on shelves; wherever it becomes necessary to have you and your staff service the customer with these products. For two very important reasons. One, the inevitable loss of accompanying paperwork, parts, whole product even if the boxes are tape-sealed. And secondly, and just as important, to give the customer the what they've come to you for, service . You know what you have and how it might serve their needs, as well as alternatives. Take a look at Nordstrom's and other fine retailers. They likewise utilize such barriers to promote their customer services. You should too.

Regarding Pump Makes and Models and Mass Merchandisers:

This is one important area where you can and should distance yourself from the "big box" stores. Considering that they receive lower prices, better terms and conditions'¦ plus co-op money to promote their wares, you don't want to go "toe to toe" with them in offering the same lines at a decidedly higher, fair price. Instead, look around for different and better brands that they don't offer. One "down and dirty" brand in the low, entry level sizes/applications to offer the "price" buyer segment something competitive; the other, a high-end service-oriented line that the customer in the know will appreciate.

The Service Edge:

This is THE biggest chance you have to edge out the competition, especially the mass merchandisers and department store chains. What do their people know about repair and maintenance of pumps? Do they even stock replacement diaphragms, o-rings, air-filters, impellers, seals and the like? Probably not; and there's your chance. With a minimum of tools and materials you ARE the expert. Think about this. As a comparison, think of your purchase of a car, and the cost and times you visit for ongoing service. You may well not go to "the dealer" for the latter; but I bet they wish you would.

Small air and water pumps can be serviced literally "by hand"; larger units call for a small work bench, vise and a few hand tools. Simple, but great investments. Of course you'll want a sign proclaiming, "We Service What We Sell".


The most profitable, easiest run stores I have ever seen were not the largest or fanciest. For these outlets, sales and core-customer base was built on a foundation of SERVICE. In the field of aquarium accessories, we have one of the grandest opportunities to show our excellent service side. Don't miss this chance. Advertise, inform, stock and sell an assortment of reliable air and water pumps; and follow up with repair, parts and related gear.

Bibliography/Further Reading:

Albarado, Rondel. 1990. Water current and the reef aquarium. FAMA 11/90.

Anderson, Frank G. 1996. Multi-use powerheads. TFH 1/96.

Cassidy, Edward J. 1989. Dissolved gases in aquarium waters. FAMA 6/89.

Dow, Steve. 1990. Aeration and shop tanks'¦ tiny bubbles. Pet Dealer 5/90.

Escobal, P.R. 1995. Venturi! FAMA 6/95.

Fenner, Bob. 1992. Aquarium equipment basics. FAMA 5/92.

Ford, David. 1986. Why aerate? FAMA 12/86.

Goldstein, Robert J. 1994. All about powerheads; How to choose'm, how to use'm. AFM 8/94.

Goldstein, Robert J. Air pumps; Here's a technology that really has improved. AFM 11/95.

Goldstein, Robert J. 1996. Water pumps; Is the aquarium hobby really about moving water? AFM 5/96.

Hamel, Jean-Francois & Annie Mercier. 1997. Gas supersaturation in water

Hanby, David S. Circulation in marine reef aquaria. FAMA 7/94.

Hunt, Philip. 1997. Making waves. TFH 9/97.

Riddle, Dana. 1996. Water motion in the reef aquarium. Aquarium Frontiers. 3:4(96).


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