Beginner Topic Using Ground Probes in Aquariums

Why everyone with a reef tank should have a ground probe.

  1. Note from the Editor:
    Some time ago, our resident electrical guru, @Brew12, wrote a good article on the forum at the beginning of a discussion thread about using ground probes for your aquarium. As soon as I saw the article, I recognized that this deserved top billing. So, here, below, is our resident electrical guru's suggestions on ground probes in his own words. Hint: You need one.

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    Photo by rawpixel.com from Pexels

    Why is it that some people refuse to put a grounding probe in their aquarium? I've seen many arguments against using them, some of which are based on what I believe to be bad information.

    I want to make the case for why every aquarium should have a grounding probe installed.
    We have these beautiful aquariums full of salt water into which we place electrically operated equipment. Everyone has heard the phrase "Water and electricity don't mix" and it is especially true of salt water. Yet this doesn't have to be dangerous and a ground probe is key to making this safe.

    An electrical shock occurs when current flows through a person. There are three main factors that impact the severity of the shock. The amount of current flowing through the person, the length of time they are being shocked, and the path the current takes through the body.

    For a shock to occur, a person must be touching an energized conductor and a source to ground. The glass and acrylic most aquariums are made from are excellent insulators. If a pump or heater develops a fault in the salt water, it will raise all of the water in the aquarium to the same voltage as is available at the fault, typically close to 115V. If you are touching the metal housing of a light fixture or standing on wet concrete and touch the water, you become the best path for the current to take to get to ground. These shocks are most likely to take the most dangerous path, which is through our heart. It will go into the hand, through the heart, and either out the opposite hand or down through our legs.

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    This is one way the ground probe keeps us safe. Electricity always takes the lowest resistance path to ground. The human body does have some resistance, so a properly maintained ground plug will always offer a lower resistance path to ground.

    I would also make the argument that the use of a ground plug is important to the health of our marine fish, but not because of a risk of electrical shock. Scientists use electro-fishing techniques to collect or count fish populations by shocking fish. Electric eels hunt prey by shocking them with electricity. So why do I say marine fish are not at risk for being shocked? They live in salt water. Electric eels are a fresh water species and electro-fishing only works fresh water. In a fresh water environment the fish is more conductive than the water just like people are more conductive than air. You cannot shock a marine fish while it is in salt water since the water is more conductive than the fish. This doesn't mean that marine fish aren't affected by electricity.

    It is a generalization to say that all of the salt water is at the same voltage in our aquariums. In reality, small differences in potential can exist within the water. Eddy currents of water will cause a difference in voltage. There will be a difference in potential caused by any air bubbles that may touch a fish. While these may not cause shocks, it can cause a serious irritation across the surface of the fish.

    I would also point out that you do not need to have an electrical fault to have a harmful voltage in your aquarium. Any energized cord either running in the water or along the outside of the tank will create a voltage in the tank using a process called induction. This is why many people see a voltage in their aquariums without having a GFCI breaker trip. A ground probe will prevent any voltage from building up in the aquarium water, protecting our fish from these small voltage differences.

    Grounding probes also protect our tank from another problem that is much harder to see and correct. If you have an electrical fault in your tank, there is a high probability that you have exposed copper in your system. This copper will corrode in salt water and the corrosion is accelerated when impacted by electricity. Even if you use a GFCI, the circuit will not trip on a fault until you have a source to ground. A ground probe will immediately provide that path to ground. If you do not have a ground probe installed, you could be leaching copper into your system for days or longer until a path to ground from your water is established.

    The one argument against using ground probes I cannot counter is that it could provide a heat source during an electrical fault. If you have an electrical fault in a very narrow resistance range, and do not use GFCI protection, it can act like a heater. I know I wouldn't risk the safety of my family and friends in an effort to avoid this one scenario. I hope after reading this you won't either.

    Does your aquarium system control panel look like this? Then get a ground probe.
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    This is a royalty-free image from Pixabay.

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    Author Profile: @Brew 12

    Steven Frick has spent much more time under the ocean than keeping a small piece of it. He got his start in the electrical field in the US Navy Nuclear Power program as an electrician's mate. After 5 years of service on the submarine USS Henry M Jackson he finished his final 3+ years of service teaching electrical theory at the Knolls Atomic Power Laboratory.

    Currently, he runs the projects and maintenance for the power distribution system of one of largest electrical consuming heavy industrial companies in the Southeastern United States. He wrote his sites' electrical safety policies and routinely acts as a consultant to other industrial facilities looking to improve their electrical safety programs. As someone who loves to both learn and teach, he has focused his attention on his newest hobby, reefing.

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