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Aquarium Controllers: The Good and the Bad

Apex Controller Screen

I am often asked about aquarium controllers, like the APEX, ReefKeeper, and other systems. Here’s what I tell people when they ask:

The Good:

The idea is that an aquarium controller monitors your aquarium and makes adjustments as necessary. For example, you can program it to turn the system’s chiller on when the water temperature reaches a high point, and to turn on a heater when the water is getting cold.

They are also able to be monitored from outside the home or office, so someone can check up on the parameters of their aquarium while they are at home or on vacation.


The Excellent:

Some controllers, such as the Apex, can be programmed to text and/or email you when the water’s parameters are falling out of standard, which usually means that something has failed and the aquarium needs attention!

In many instances, this feature, alone, makes the controller a worthwhile investment.

But… (and this is a big “but”…)


The Bad:

What happens when they fail?

In my experience, I have seen complete systems, parts of systems, control interfaces, and other parts stop working. This can become a bad problem very quickly.

The system stopped measuring temperature

Recently, the part of a customer’s aquarium controller which keeps track of the water temperature failed to restart after a power failure. Because the temperature was not being measured, the system didn’t know to start the chiller at a certain temperature, and the water started getting hot. It also didn’t know to trigger the alarm to let us and the owner know that there was a problem.

Fortunately, one of our technicians was on site adding livestock to the aquarium. They noticed that the temperature seemed high and discovered that the aquarium controller’s module had stopped working. We were able to troubleshoot it and get it working again, saving the owner’s investment in fish and corals.

We were lucky. Their aquarium controller had failed. Had we not physically been there, we may not have found out there was a problem, and they may have lost everything.

What happens when there is a power failure?

If an aquarium controller could tell the owner when a power failure occurs, that would be worth gold.

But when the power goes out, even if it is on a battery backup, communication is out, too. So it can’t even send a message (note: I’ve heard that a couple companies are working on a cellular solution to this).

Neptune Systems, the makers of the Apex controller, have something available to them called ReefTronics. This was set up by one of their technicians as an alternative way to monitor an aquarium through the internet. Its greatest value is that after an hour of no response from the controller, it emails the owner, telling them that there is a problem.

I give the guys at Neptune a lot of credit. Their team seems to know its stuff, and they care about what they are doing. It bodes well for them in the future.

If the aquarium controller can’t measure correctly, then it can’t perform correctly.

In general, the controllers do a lot of things really well. They have good technical support, and I put a high value to being able to tell it “if the pH goes below 8.0, then turn THIS on, and THAT on, and THE OTHER THING off.”

But if it cannot measure the pH (or another parameter) accurately all the time, then it’s an aquarium failure waiting to happen.

That is enough of a reason for me to discourage using them.

…at least for right now. If my experience with their tech support is any indication, they will develop and improve into a much more stable product in the near future. I’m looking forward to seeing what’s coming.

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