I think we've all seen an alarming number of threads talking about electrical fires. Some the power-cords have caught on fire, others a power-strip was at the heart of the issue, and others the wall outlet shorted and flared up. While some of these seemingly had no major or catastrophic issues, outside of a burned cord or power-strip, others have actually ignited part of the stand. The worse cases have actually caught their home on fire.
Instructions that ship with most electrical components in this hobby note the use of a “drip-loop”. The sole purpose is to keep water from making its way down the cord and in to the power plug or strip itself. Common sense for the most part, right? You also have the issue of salt creep (created by the mist in normal evaporation) that some never take in to consideration which can be detrimental.
The limiting factor in all of this is space, and how much we have to use. Some tend to stuff everything they can in the stand under the tank, exposing the electrical components. Others build beautiful and elaborate attached cabinets for their equipment. Yes, it sections off the electrical components and adds a level of safety, but again, it’s attached to the stand, so effectively still the potential to be labeled as being under the display tank.
When an issue arises, the first indicator is often smoke, which we all can agree smoke inhalation can be deadly, if not toxic in the case of burning plastics. Plastic such as PVC (polyvinylchloride) is common in such things as bottles, jugs, packaging, blister packs, power-strips, etc. When these are burned in the house, carbon monoxide, dioxins and furans are released in to your air. While carbon monoxide is a pretty well-known poison, dioxins and furans are not. Studies have linked dioxins and furans to cancer and respiratory disease.
Most (and I realize not all) systems have a skimmer running under the stand, pulling in air from its surrounding area, injecting that air in to the skimmers water column. In the case of an electrical fire in a closed environment like a stand, assuming the skimmer is still running, that polluted air is now being drawn in to the skimmer and making its way to your tank inhabitants. While a person has the ability to escape the smoke/fire, your inhabitants do not, and have no choice but to live with whatever toxins that have been introduced.
I, like many, have had my fair share of water coming in contact with electrical components. I have lost a controller and two power modules early on in this hobby. Outside the cost to replace (which was obviously no fun), what was worse, was running ragged to keep everything up and running after it happened. Luckily, and knock on wood, it didn’t cause a fire.
It’s for these very reasons that I’m not a fan of placing any electrical components under the tank anymore and have moved everything to an adjacent closet. I know what you’re going to say – “Well that’s great for you but I don’t have that luxury, so what can I do?” A good option, if you can finagle it, is a cabinet or enclosure away from the display, keeping a “fire wall” so to speak, between the display and the electrical components. This is the best way to avoid the mixing and water and electric, and avoiding a major catastrophic failure. This is by no means a 100% fool proof solution, but is a great step to lessen the potential fire risk due to water and/or salt creep.
So at a minimum, and the point of this article, is we need to be aware of the risks we run while maintaining an aquarium in our homes. The bare minimum is having drip-loops on all of the power cords. If the installation of an area away from the tank is not an option, we should be mounting our electrical components/connections as high in the stand as possible. If at all possible, construct some type of enclosure/divider under the stand to help eliminate the dreaded salt creep from easily making its way to the components. And by all means, we should be using drip-loops with all cords, just like the instructions tell us to.
The objective here is to do anything and everything we can to protect your home, your homes inhabitants (you and your family) and the inhabitants inside your display. The old adage that electric and water do not mix will never change. Please take whatever precautions you can to protect yourself from potential electrical issues. Safety should be your number one priority in this wonderful hobby!
In closing I would like to give special thanks to dbl for his excellent contributions to this post!