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Aquatic Marketplace: Tank Monitors and Controllers Get Faster, Smarter, Better

Posted: June 10, 2013, 6 p.m. EST

High-tech monitors and controllers go automatic and cover more parameters.
By David A. Lass

The aquarium industry definitely has entered the 21st century, and many experts are trying to catch up.

"I’ve been keeping fish for many years, and I run hundreds of tanks,” said David Hale, owner of Something Fishy in Cleveland. "I don’t use any central filtration system, and the best monitoring system I have for the health of the fish is my eyes and my brain.”

Aquarium Controllers Get Faster, Smarter, Better
The aquarium industry has taken advantage of technological advancements and have made tank monitoring and controlling easier and more automated than ever before.
However, for marine tanks, especially reef aquariums, controlling water movement is important, and aquatic manufacturers offer several products designed to simplify automatic replication of a reef environment, with its constant alternating or random strong-water movement.

"We are big fans of EcoTech Marine,” said Adam Heroux, co-owner of Critter Hut in North Kingstown, R.I. "In addition to the VorTech wavemaker controlling the VorTec powerheads, we are in the process of setting up its Radion LED lighting on another tank.”

The miniaturization of computers allows manufacturers to put a lot of control into a very small package and control many pieces of equipment. EcoTech Marine and Neptune Systems already offer several aquatic applications using these new technologies, such as the ability to control powerheads in one tank and the lighting in another, industry insiders report.

"In addition to running Hydor powerheads and wavemakers in some tanks, with the new wireless connections from EcoTech we are running LED Radions in one tank and VorTech powerheads in another,” said Thomas Wooldridge, the marine and reef curator for Fintastic in Charlotte, N.C.

While many hobbyists continue to primarily use inexpensive, simple light timers, industry professionals report that newer lighting controllers, both independent and those built into lighting systems, are growing in popularity.

"When we started developing the XS LED fixture series, we went with built-in controllers that use firmware to control multiple channels of the LED lights,” said Mike Elliott, co-owner with Dave Troop of Aquatic Life in Burbank, Calif. "The controllers give the user the flexibility to custom-program the light intensity over a 24-hour period.”

Smartphone Shortcuts

As people spend more time away from home and their aquariums, technology allows hobbyists to key into the entire world from a smartphone.

"It’s not just monitoring; you need the insurance of being able not only to find out that there is a problem, but also to be able to solve the problem,” said Terence Fugazzi, vice president of sales and marketing for Neptune Systems in San Jose, Calif.

At Lebanon Pet and Aquarium Center in Lebanon, N.H., fish room manager Marshal Huneven said, "I could have up to 1,920 switched outlets all running off the Apex in 8-bar control modules.”

For the 400-gallon display reef and a smaller corals tank, Huneven can control, from his cellphone or laptop:

  • Multiple LED units on different schedules;
  • Return feed to the tanks;
  • Temperatures in tanks, sumps and air;
  • Auto top-off, reverse-osmosis production and other storage tanks;
  • Dosage of required additives;
  • Eight different pH monitors; and
  • Eight different salinity monitors.
Many of these new lighting controllers allow users to program the tank for complicated light patterns over the course of the day.

"We are using Radions controlled via laptops for our large display tanks,” Wooldridge said. "We get awesome effects, including sunrise and sunset, a 3- to 4-hour full-light period and even some cloud patterns.”

While the new timers cost more than a simple lamp timer, manufacturers reported that most serious hobbyists and retailers find the value worth it.

"The biggest advantage of using a controller over an integrated timer is the level of customization of lighting,” Elliott said.

A new group of monitoring products coming from England are from Seneye and include monitors for home aquariums, ponds and reefs.

"[The technology] is unique in the world of domestic aquarium monitoring, as it measures water chemistry using a beam of light,” said Matt Stevenson, managing director. "This makes it simpler and more robust than traditional ISE probes that use electrical current in glass, gel-filled tubes. We also are able to measure chemicals that many people traditionally struggle to measure, even with test kits, such as NH3 (ammonia).

Especially important for aquariums is pH monitoring and control, and American Marine Inc. offers a wide range of products for this job, said Lou Dell, president of the Ridgefield, Conn., company.

"The Pinpoint pH Controller for planted freshwater tanks and saltwater calcium reactors doubles as a continuous-read pH monitor and a computer interface that will energize each of the two 110 VAC outlets in the rear of the controller when the pH is above or below your selected set point,” he said. "When the outlet is energized, attach it to another device like a Pinpoint CO3 regulator or drip pump, which slowly will direct the pH in the proper direction to keep it in the optimum range for your purpose."

The high-tech controller mentioned most by retailers was the Apex from Neptune Systems.

"I can’t imagine not having a controller like the Apex,” said Marshal Huneven, fish room manager for Lebanon Pet and Aquarium Center in Lebanon, N.H. "Hooked up to a wireless router in the fish room, I can control it all from my laptop or my phone.”

Terence Fugazzi, vice president of sales and marketing for Neptune Systems in San Jose, Calif., described the controller as "the insurance you buy so you don’t have a disaster, [such as] a flood on your carpet or the parameters of your aquarium going wrong.

"The No. 1 one cause of problems is temperature control,” Fugazzi continued. "Usually the heater sticks on, or the AC in the house fails. In either case, the tank cooks.”

While Fintastic uses Apex controllers, Greg Sowers, the owner, said he is waiting for a new controller he saw at the Marine Aquarium Conference in North America in Texas.

"It will monitor all reef variables and can control each of them,” he said. <HOME>

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