Smart Aquarium is Coming
“Then I will choose to quit reefing first.”
Not too long ago I asked a senior reef hobbyist how he deals with long vacations and his answer shocked me.
His words inspired me to create a “smart aquarium.” What I need is a hobby to enjoy and to unwind from work. Yet, does so without pressuring other family members (Yes, I always tell my wife I bought something at an unbelievably discounted price), and still allows me to be free long (3~4 weeks) vacations.
These days, ULM (Ultra Low Maintenance) tanks have become a popular topic. Many reefers and vendors try to define what constitutes ULM. This includes the amount of effort to put in, what kind of coral (e.g. NPS) to avoid, etc. ULM and smart aquariums definitely have some overlap due to similar technological limitations; however, smart aquariums lean more towards automation and managing tank routines, not simply avoiding effort.
The result of my smart aquarium can be found HERE in article format or HERE in video.
Technology vs fish room
More and more often these days, reef hobbyists share their neat tank systems which are equipped with compact light systems and a well-organized sump integrated with a reef controller and dosing system. Having a medium to large (300 gallons in my opinion) reef tank no longer requires a fish room running loud and heavy duty equipment to be successful. Since Apex and GHL controllers have become available to the saltwater market at a relatively affordable price range, the goal of smart aquariums is half way done. In fact, these systems may even be better than many so called “smart homes” from my view. Many probes (e.g. temperature, PH, ORP, etc.) and sensors (e.g. water level, leaking, voltage, etc.) help tank owners pre-define and program tank behaviors in a manageable way. Their warning and alert functionality, and cloud service push the smart aquarium boundary in a big way.
Challenges: coral survival rate
But still, coral is a finicky animal and family safety is priceless. We often hear how temperature and alkalinity can cause tank failures. Temperature is easy to measure and adjust with a cooler and a heater, especially with temperature probes connected to the reef controller. Alkalinity has been a totally different story for decades. Luckily, since 2017, Alkalinity monitors became available from companies like Dr. Bridge and GHL. When combined with a remote controllable dosing system, we again push the boundary of smart aquariums.
Challenges: home safety
Tanks bring water and electricity together in one environment and that entails risk. Preventing bad things from happening is one thing and owning high quality devices help, knowing about it when it happens is another. Spending 50% more for top quality equipment and doubling the effort for tank robustness are gradually become acceptable concepts. Preventing pump failure does not simply mean replacing the pump when you are not around; there could be bigger problems than the couple hundred dollars you save for buying a cheap pump.
You love your tank, every day you meticulously maintain, feed, test and correct, and fix small things before it becomes chaos. But you also want a break and tanks obviously can’t take breaks. Feeding and providing nutrition are low hanging fruits if you have programmable dosing pumps and feeders. Latest generation dosing pumps such as GHL and Apex, all provide cloud services which allow you to control them via mobile phone even from thousands of miles away. Some may say maintenance is not needed for short periods of time, but with extended vacation, some obstacles start to show up. Algae growth on glass, top-off, element consumption ratio change, etc. There are robot algae scrapers available today that may help with algae cleaning, but it did not bother most of us much anyway when nobody is at home. For OTA, some reefers are very successful connecting a RO/DI source to the tank OTA system directly, while others choose a bigger RD/DI container isolated from RO/DI system to avoid equipment failure. Either way has pros and cons, but both are easy enough. I chose to minimize maintenance and to monitor tank condition in real time via IPCams, in case I need to shut off the entire tank’s power, abandoning the tank but keeping the house safe. True experience, after hearing about an earthquake that hit a local town in Taiwan during my vacation, I was able to check these IPCams to comfort myself.
Room to improve
Saying that, there is always room for improvement from a commercial solution. I chose an Apex controller equipped with an AFS feeder, WaV wave makers, DoS dosing pumps. However, alone they are not enough to reach my “smart aquarium” goal. Apex so far has no Alkalinity probe, so as I said earlier, I choose Dr. Bridge’s KHG to auto test Alkalinity (fig. 1) and link to Apex Fusion for daily access and alert trigger; AFS is a good little toy, but it won’t tell you when a feeder box is empty, so my friends made a weight sensor to read AFS weight daily and text me when it is empty (fig. 2); In general, dosing pump quickly replace calcium reactor position in many reefers’ heart, and Apex DoS is capable to calculate supplement left in container. But no way to count drop in real time, nor to know if tube clog and the supplement does not reach tank, but your floor. Here is a prototype drop counter (fig. 3), detect each drop at the last distance from tube to tank water. Of course, due to quality and robustness concern, my DIY items are limited to non-invasive, data reading only type of devices or tools.
Future and conclusion
I believe we can expect even more smart aquarium concepts, devices, and solutions to come to the market in the near future instead of DIY projects like mine. I won’t be surprised at all if a company like Neptune Apex, who now has access to millions of users’ data (I guess all tanks using Apex Fusion will have their tank data streamed to the Apex server), will announce a killer application to change our way of reefing. Companies like Zeovit, AquaForest will further provide best coral color improvement recipes. Traditional saltwater test kit providers such as Hanna and Salifert will quickly answer to the threat from newcomers like Neptune, GHL, and Dr. Bridge who try to redefine our daily test experience. Let’s expect these days in the future.
Joseph Chi a.k.a @shih87