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Q10510 - INFO: Considerations When Choosing Water Test Kits by Mike Paletta
Elos Aqua Test Kits One of the first pieces of equipment most will purchase for their aquariums will be test kits. Test kits are an integral part in any marine aquarium keeper’s tools in trying to properly maintain a thriving aquarium. The responsibility of maintaining proper conditions for the animals we choose to raise begins with two simple principles: patience and stability. When used from the beginning, quality test kits will provide us with vital information for stocking and maintaining a stable aquarium. Given the importance of quality test kits, there are some critical points to consider when choosing test kits. For the sake of this discussion I will focus on marine aquariums but many of the same points will apply when choosing test kits for a freshwater aquarium.

The first thing to consider is which kits you need and why. There are numerous articles and books that outline this topic and your choice will depend on how you decide to stock your aquarium (fish only, reef aquarium, most soft corals/ hard corals, new/well established setup etc). For the marine hobbyist the standard test kits that should be on every hobbyist’s shelf should include alkalinity, pH, Calcium, magnesium, nitrate, nitrite, phosphate, and ammonia.

After deciding which kits you will need to purchase you are now faced with the many different brands, prices and types. For the most part there are two types: colorimetric and titrimetric tests.
  • Colorimetric test kits are quite simply a test that forms a color. Generally you will add a reagent or reagents to the water you are testing and match the color with a color chart that will determine the amount of the substance in the water you are testing for.
  • Titrimetric test kits again use a reagent or reagents of a known strength to the test water until a reaction occurs, usually a color change. Unlike the colorimetric test, the titration test will usually have you count the drops of the reagent or refer to a chart that corresponds to the amount of reagent used, which will give you the concentration of the substance you are testing for.
A common misconception about different brands of test kits is that they all use different methods for testing a given substance. In general most test kits are using the same or very similar methods for testing a given substance. This is an important point if you are color blind or have difficulty seeing small changes in color, as a colorimetric test kit may not be a good choice and you may want to consider an aquarium controller or a monitor if one is available to replace a certain test.
Salifert Test Kits
Seachem Test Kits So if all test kits are using similar, if not the same methods, than what makes one brand a better choice than others? The answer is simple. ALL test kit companies must make compromises in order best serve their intended audience. For some price is the main factor in which the compromise will come in the form of lower quality reagents, less expensive testing materials (plastic vials, droppers, syringes, instructions) and inconsistent handling procedures. These test kits are usually very simple to use, however they are also usually inconsistent from kit to kit.

On the other end of the spectrum you have test kits that do not compromise on price but make their compromises on ease of use. With these test kits you may get quality testing components (glass vials, lab droppers, latex free syringes, clear instructions) and quality reagents. However, these kits may also require a few more steps in order to get very high sensitivity that for some is unnecessary and generally be designed with a chemist in mind instead of a hobbyist. With this and our initial goal of keeping stability in our aquarium in mind, you must decide what compromises you are willing to accept when purchasing a test kit. Here are a few key points to consider when evaluating test kits prior to purchase.
  • Accuracy and Consistency
    For most of us, there is really no way of testing how accurate a test kit is without finding a lab that is willing to do this and is setup for marine water. With some of the higher end test kits, they will offer independent validation of their test kits but you will have to check with each manufacturer to see what process they use to ensure accuracy. When looking at a kit be cautious of kits that do not have quality parts as this is usually a good indicator of the quality of the reagents as well. It is a good idea to purchase new kits a little before you use up prior kits so you at least know that the kits are testing consistently. Another good thing to do is to always store test kits in a cool dry area. ALL test kits are heat sensitive and all test kits should have a clearly marked expiration date and keeping test kits stored properly is key to keeping kits in proper working condition.
  • Sensitivity
    This is a bit tricky. As with accuracy, Sensitivity is something that is difficult to quantify without the help of a lab. In some cases a test kit may offer very high sensitivity but may not be very accurate or consistent from batch to batch, so the high sensitivity is not useful. When testing certain parameters (i.e. Phosphate, Nitrate, Ammonia) very high sensitivity is useful and should be a priority, while in other parameters (i.e. Carbonate hardness, Magnesium, Calcium) accuracy is much more important and high sensitivity should be less of a priority.

  • Ease of use
    This is often an overlooked point when initially purchasing a test kit. It is important to have quality test kits but if the tests are difficult or tedious to perform the likelihood of staying consistent with testing decreases. When purchasing a test kit, we must be realistic about how much time we want to spend testing different parameters and find a kit that meets your individual needs. Also seeing differences when the color changes, should be readily apparent. Otherwise if it is difficult to ascertain that the color has changed, despite a kit being accurate it is relatively useless.
Hagen Test Kits
  • Safety
    Another important and often overlooked point is safety. Many of us have children around our aquariums and even households without children should be aware of the danger that some of these chemicals pose. Proper labeling, childproof locks and non or less toxic reagents are all a very good sign that the test kit company has not made compromises in this area. While these test kits usually cost more it is something to consider as some of these chemicals can be VERY dangerous if misused.

  • Manufacturing and handling
    This is something that you will likely need to contact the manufacturer and ask about but is a crucial part of how your kits arrive to you. As with anything there are many different ways in which test kits can be manufactured and handled before getting to you. Ideally you are looking for a kit that is manufactured in a laboratory and shipped properly and stored in cool conditions. If you are purchasing online ask your sales person how the test kits are stored.

  • Customer service
    With even the best procedures and quality test kits, problems and damage can occur, so it is wise to purchase from a retailer and a company that properly supports their products. In the case of questions about test kits you will also want to purchase from a retailer that has technical staff that has been trained on these kits or can direct you to the manufacturer that can help answer questions and offer suggestions.
In closing, testing equipment is a very important part of our system. With a little research and keeping in mind the points mentioned in this small article you will be able to find a test kit that suits your needs. In the best case this will be a test kit that is well-made, accurate and easy to use. Price should be a secondary consideration as even with the most expensive kit the cost per test is usually only pennies more than a cheaper less accurate kit.
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Approved Comments...
Tip top stuff. Ill epxect more now. Approved: 8/1/2011
It didnt include the pros and cons of actual test kits, just types. I would prefer that each test kit/manufacturer is discussed. Obviously, all cant, but some ratings would be helpful. Approved: 1/24/2010
Not much info for selection.... Approved: 12/9/2009
No actionable information. Nice discussion on generalities, but no content to inform a decision. Approved: 9/30/2009
This article only speaks in generalities, not specifics of what actual product would be a good one to buy. After all, thats why I read the article in the first place so I can pick out a test kit to order, now I am going to call the tech support people at Marine Depot and see what their recomendation is. TTFN Approved: 2/26/2009
Not much help. I already knew the cheapest test kits are least reliable you but how about some opinins on which is best in certain price ranges or for specific families of tests. I would love a follow-up articl with more helpful advice as this is a great topic to cover. Approved: 1/27/2008
I thought the article would talk a little about testing for fish or corals. I am a novice hobbyist with a few fish and soft corals. I test regularly for I guess normal stuff,ammonia, nitrates, nitrites, PH, and alkalinity which are always fine but I wondered if I should be testing something for my corals. Approved: 1/13/2008
This article doesnt give us any understanding of which ones are which. For instance, which test kits have safer reagents? Which test kits have the best consistency batch-to-batch? Which ones are the most accurate? Do you seriously think the material the vial is made of is indicative of the quality of the reagent? maybe the manufacturer spent more money on the reagent and method than on a disposable test tube? Approved: 1/12/2008
It was helpful but I wish it would be specific on what you believe is the best to purchase. Approved: 1/12/2008
made some valid points i never concidered Approved: 1/12/2008
I scanned it and didnt see any easily deducible recommendations. I want the best, and probably most expensive, full range kit. I didnt see anything aobut that. Cheers! Kenny Approved: 1/12/2008
Mike Paletta has described well the considerations in selecting test kits. If he had rated the manufacturers accordingly, I would heve scored him a perfect 10. Cheers, Tone :) Approved: 1/11/2008
Useful information, of course, but I still have no advice on which test kits to purchase. Perhaps you could use your own advice to rate the test kits you sell under the categories of "Accuracy", "Sensitivity", "Ease of Use" and "Cost". Now that would be really useful. Approved: 1/11/2008
I dont know why you would use the picture of a Salifert item in your article especially since at the present time, no one can get any customer service or response from this company. Clearly there are serious problems regarding Salifert as a company. Salifert was onced viewed as an excellent company for test products but searching the reef forums, many in the hobby are having difficulties with the accuracies of these test. I personally ordered a Salifert Magesium test kit and received a Copper test kit box with a plain white sticker showing it was a Mg test. I thought this to be quite "cheap" looking and wasnt quite sure whether to trust the results. If a company cannot afford to get good packaging for a product that they, in my opinion, charge too much for to begin with, that is an indication to me of big problems. I will no longer be a Salifert customer. Im sure that Marine Depot must have some inside information on what is going on at Salifert and would appreciate it if you Approved: 1/11/2008
Usually I like Mike Palettas material, however, this article is almost useless. Its a very basic introduction. So basic that if you dont know this material, you have no business keeping fish. In addition, there are no recommendations, even for the test kits you sell. A major disappointment. Approved: 1/11/2008
Article Details
Created on 1/9/2008.
Last Modified on 1/11/2008.
Last Modified by Dot Yuson.
Article has been viewed 13682 times.
Rated 6 out of 10 based on 55 votes.
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