Wednesday, October 08, 2014

Redundancies and Backups: 8 Ways to Prevent your Reef Tank from Crashing

If you have been in this hobby long enough, you or someone you know has probably experienced some sort of major aquarium disaster.

Whether it is a loss of livestock, failed equipment or damage to your home (hardwood floors and water don’t mix), many of these unfortunate events can be prevented by setting up redundant or backup systems and having spare equipment available.

Although we hope for the best, today we are going to share some of the lessons we have learned—sometimes the hard way—about how to prepare for the worst.

We help customers plan and upgrade their aquarium systems to be more fail-safe all the time. Plus, since we have been through the wringer a time or two ourselves, we felt a responsibility to pass along this knowledge to hopefully help you prevent your tank from crashing some day.


A stable temperature is KEY to a successful reef tank. Fluctuations up or down may cause devastation to your aquarium. Some species are more tolerant to change, but delicate fish and corals need a very stable temperature.

A reef aquarium can be wiped out quickly if the temperature rises too high. Outbreaks of disease may occur and spread quickly when dramatic temperature changes take place. It is, therefore, essential to keep the temperature steady in your tank at all times.

To be mindful of your aquarium temperature, you can focus on three areas: your thermometer (to measure the temperature), your heater and ways to help cool the tank down.
  • Using a controller to monitor and control your tank’s temperature is just one safeguard, but even a controller can fail. Using multiple thermometers in conjunction with a controller can help monitor your aquarium water temperature more effectively. Using a digital thermometer with an audible alarm is even better!
  • Instead of using a single heater (for medium to larger aquariums), using multiple smaller heaters can help prevent overheating or no heating if one fails. For example, if your tank requires 300 watts of heating, using three 100 watt or two 150 watt heaters instead of a single 300 watt heater is generally a better choice. Another option that is more along the lines of redundancy is to have two sets of heaters for the tank with different set points for turning on and off. The “second” set can swing in to action if the first set fails keeping the tanks temperature from falling too low. It is also a good idea to keep a couple of spare heaters on hand, just in case.
  • Having backup fans for evaporative cooling in case your chiller goes down (or if you don’t own a chiller) can help in a bind to keep your tank’s temperature in a safe zone. Another trick is to have your aquarium controller shut off your lights if/when your tank temperature gets too high.


Aquarium lights are one of the most important pieces of equipment for a reef tank. Many reef inhabitants depend on the light you provide for survival. Although corals can survive without light for a couple of days without trouble, any longer and they may begin to feel the effects. Don’t leave your corals in the dark: stock up on backup bulbs and ballasts so you can turn the lights back on quickly in case of equipment failure.
  • Bulbs: Keeping extra aquarium light bulbs on hand in case one goes out is a must. Having backups allows you to exchange burnt out bulbs without having to wait for replacements to arrive. If you have old bulbs that still work, hang on to them until the next cycle of bulb swaps. You may be able to use one in a pinch. Metal halide and fluorescent bulbs contain mercury, so please recycle your used bulbs to ensure they do not end up in landfills.
  • Ballasts: If you use a single source of light for your aquarium (like a single metal halide bulb, for example) having a backup ballast in case yours fails can definitely help to save the day.


Using aquarium monitoring devices to keep a close eye on key water parameters like pH, nitrate and salinity is a wonderful way to help keep your aquarium water chemistry stable. They give you a glimpse into the overall health of your system and can help identify a rising problem before it becomes disastrous.

A dramatic overnight swing in pH, for example, can indicate a dropping alkalinity level in the aquarium; a change in average temperature can indicate a heater or chiller failure.

To ensure these devices are recording accurately, just use good old-fashioned aquarium water test kits once per month to verify the results. While using a monitor may seem redundant enough, it is always a good idea to ensure the equipment is working properly and is calibrated correctly in order to protect your precious reef. Not to mention a variety of parameters cannot be monitored electronically. Water testing usually becomes routine for any successful reefer.


You might consider your return pump the heart of your aquarium system. If circulation shuts down, oxygen levels can drop fairly quickly. Should the oxygen level get too low, livestock may begin to suffocate. Witnessing your fish gasp for air at the water surface is heartbreaking.

There are many reasons a return pump can fail, from a broken impeller to simple burn out. Regardless of the cause, the important thing to be aware of is an aquarium can crash quite rapidly without any water circulation. It may be outside the budget of some hobbyists, yet depending on how much you have invested in your reef, purchasing a spare return pump can literally be a lifesaver and save you a fortune in the long run.

If your return pump is rather pricey and a backup of the same make/model isn’t feasible at the moment, you might consider less expensive alternatives for your backup pump. Providing a temporary fix while you get your main return pump serviced or replaced offers great peace of mind. Pumps like the MagDrive or Rio are perfect to keep on the shelf for these types of emergency situations.

On the same note, having extra circulation pumps/powerheads to keep the water moving within the tank in the event of an emergency is highly recommended. Our staff uses Hydor Koralia, Cobalt Aquatics MJ or Marineland Maxi-Jet pumps for backup and utility purposes. They are reliable, affordable and can keep your fish and corals content while you repair your main system.


Raise your hand if your ATO system has caused a flood in your home or office. Don’t feel bad: you are not alone!

Sadly, auto top-off systems can and do fail. Whether you are filling your aquarium directly from a RO/DI filter, topping off from a reservoir or simply filling a portable container to mix saltwater, no system is completely foolproof.

Using an ATO system with a redundant float valve or sensor (or picking up a second to add to your existing system) can help prevent flooding. If you are dosing kalkwasser from your top-off water, I highly—and can’t stress this enough—recommend having a redundant float valve running. I have seen some absolutely beautiful reef tanks destroyed by an overdose of kalkwasser because of a failed sensor or valve. Don’t let it happen to you!


I lived in Southern California for nearly a decade and currently reside in the Northeastern United States. Needless to say, power outages are something I have grown accustomed to. From earthquakes and hurricanes to tropical, snow, wind and/or lightning storms, I have faced off with Mother Nature in just about every way possible except for a typhoon (knock on wood).

Power outages caused by these sorts of events generally last only an hour or two. However in 2012, Hurricane Sandy left my home without power for nearly 10 days. Fortunately, I was prepared. My backup generator kicked on and literally saved my fish tank. I did not suffer a single loss during that stressful period.

Even if you don’t have the space or means for a backup generator, there are other more affordable backup devices available that you can use to keep key pieces of equipment running in the event of a power outage.

EcoTech Marine’s Battery Backup can keep your VorTech pump going for up to 60 hours after the power goes out (30 hours for two pumps). You can even add a second Battery Backup to double the run time.

An uninterruptible power supply (UPS) is another way to protect your aquarium in the event the power goes out. Although typically marketed toward computer users and businesses, large UPS devices can keep a small water pump or air pump running for hours.

Another inexpensive and popular backup device is a battery-operated air pump. Like the aforementioned devices, a battery air pump can help keep the oxygen level in your tank in the safe zone while your main system pumps are inoperable, just be sure to have plenty of batteries!


Storing fresh top-off water and having extra saltwater prepared for emergency water changes are among the best decisions you can make as a reef aquarium owner. You don’t necessarily need to experience an equipment failure or suffer through a power outage for your reserve water supply to save the day. You may simply be returning home from a long day at the office or a weekend away with the family to discover a problem in your tank; such as the untimely death of an anemone or accidental over dose. Giving yourself the tools to rescue your tank at a moment’s notice can truly be the difference between life and death.


Aquarium controllers have come along way in terms of how they can help prevent a disaster in your aquarium. The benefits of monitoring your water parameters and controlling your equipment from a single device saves you time and energy. Integrating leak detectors and float switches to prevent floods or burning out pumps can easily prevent an expensive mistake.

The real lifesaving features of a controller comes into play when you have remote access and alerts set up. Advanced controller systems offer the ability to access your controller via the web and set up alerts to notify you by email or text when changes occur in your aquarium. You can even turn your equipment on and off from a remote location and view all of your water parameters to give you peace of mind that your tank is running smoothly no matter where you are.

With all of the time, money and effort we dedicate to becoming excellent stewards of aquatic life, investing in redundancies, backup equipment and power supplies to prevent and resolve aquarium emergencies should really be a no-brainer.

RELATED READING: 7 ways to be prepared for an aquarium emergency

Thursday, October 02, 2014

How to Set Up a Dosing Pump

In a reef aquarium, elements and nutrients corals and invertebrates use to survive must be replenished by the aquarium owner.

The rate these elements and nutrients are depleted varies from tank to tank based on the organisms inside the aquarium. If a reef aquarium is fully stocked, they may need to be replenished daily.

Setting up an automatic dosing system to administer the proper amount of elements and nutrients for your reef tank can be an enormous benefit. Not only to your sanity, but to the animals that call your tank home.

One of the most reliable ways to automatically dose your aquarium is by using a peristaltic dosing pump.

Peristaltic dosing pumps are perfect for dosing fluids into aquariums because they deliver them at a safe, precise and controlled rate. They are also self-priming and can draw fluids/supplements out of a dosing container, into the pump and then into your aquarium without any harm to the pump itself.

If you have been kicking around the idea of setting up an automatic dosing system for your reef tank, this article is for you. We provide step-by-step instructions and reveal how to set up a dosing pump to free you from maintenance with the larger goal of creating a thriving coral reef in your home or office.

STEP 1: Choose Your Pump

There are a variety of dosing pumps available. All perform the same basic duty of adding fluid to your aquarium at a safe, slow rate. The major differences between them are the number of supplements you can dose and whether or not the pump can be programmed.

Some dosing pumps are continuous duty. They can only dose a single supplement and do not include a built-in controller. These pumps require a standard timer or aquarium controller to turn the pump on and off as necessary based on your dosing needs. The amount of time the pump operates will control the amount of fluid being dosed.

Higher-end dosing pumps often include built-in controllers and multiple pumps to dose several different liquids. These pumps are ideal because no additional equipment is required to control them and you can set up a comprehensive dosing system to cover everything from feeding corals to maintaining calcium and alkalinity. Other cool features like controllable flow rates, aquarium controller compatibility and the ability to integrate float switches or water sensors may also be included.

The programming capabilities of the controller should not be overlooked. Specs vary from pump to pump, so it is important to ensure the dosing pump you are considering is capable of delivering the amount of fluid you need at the correct rate. If you have questions, please don’t hesitate to ask our experts.

STEP #2: Get the Equipment

Even after you select a dosing pump, there may be some additional equipment required to get the system up and running.

Most include enough tubing to run to and from the pump. However, if you have a tall aquarium, you may need to acquire additional tubing that is long enough to accommodate your specific needs.

A tube holder of some sort is almost always necessary because it keeps your tubing in place on the edge of your aquarium or sump. A tube holder not only keeps your tubing organized, it also helps prevent back siphoning water out of your aquarium since it is highly unlikely the tubes will ever accidentally fall into your tank.

Dosing containers are another great accessory. They offer the ability to store supplements for dosing and be emptied without losing prime. Most dosing containers are tapped at the bottom or feature a long downstem to draw fluid from the bottom. This ensures the pump stays primed until the container is empty. Another benefit of dosing containers is they look professional, save space (often stackable) and may even feature a graduated metric scale for easy measuring.

STEP #3: Mount the Pump and Attach Tubing

A dosing pump can usually be mounted discreetly inside your aquarium stand. Since dosing pumps are not submersible and can be damaged by heavy moisture or salt creep, it is important that the unit be secured in some form.

Bubble Magus has a beautiful (sold separately) bracket that works for their BM-T01 dosing pump and BM-T02 extension; others keep it simple and have slots for screws in the back. Your dosing pump should be placed within close proximity of the supplements you are dosing and your tank or sump so you do not have to run long lengths of tubing.

I have observed two types of tubing connections on dosing pumps: standard barb-style fittings and heavy-duty compression fittings. Compression fittings are preferred because they ensure a secure, leakproof connection with your tubing.

Your tubing will need to be cut to length, but be careful not to cut it too short. Allowing a little excess may help you maneuver the tubing in and out of sight, if necessary. Attach tubing to both the suction and pressure sides of the pump, then to your dosing containers. Next, secure the tubing to your aquarium or sump. Be sure the ends of the dosing tubes are ABOVE the water line. This ensures water will not be back siphoned out of your aquarium.

You can actually place tubing directly into your supplement bottles if you prefer. The biggest problem with this approach is the tubing may not pull out all the supplement fluid before losing prime. This can leave you with 1-2” of usable fluid left in the supplement bottle. A good way to combat this problem is to attach a ¼” piece of rigid airline tubing to the end of the dosing tube to reach deeper into the bottle (or just use the nice dosing containers mentioned earlier).

STEP #4: Set the Dosing Schedule

When you first set up your automatic dosing system, expect some trial and error. Basically you will need to dose, test your water parameters and then readjust the dosing schedule so that it fit your aquarium’s needs.

For dosing pumps with fixed flow rates, you can use a simple calculation to estimate the length of time to run the pump. For example:
Let’s say your pump is rated to deliver three liters per hour and you need to dose 100mL per day. You can deduce the pump delivers approximately 50mL per minute. You can then set the pump to run for two minutes once every 24 hours. You can use our handy conversion calculator to help you here.

Keeping with this example, if you wanted to split the dosage in two to avoid larger fluctuations in water chemistry, you could set the pump to run for one minute every 12 hours.
The way the controller works varies from pump to pump, although most work based off a simple program: how long the pump should run and how many times it should run within a period of time. If your dosing pump does not have a built-in controller, the concept remains the same. Set your timer to run the pump for however long you need based on the pump’s flow rate.

Sophisticated high-end dosing pumps, like the new Neptune Systems DŌS or Innovative Aquatics Sentry, offer the ability to adjust the rate at which the pump turns to control the flow rate. This type of precise control may not be necessary for all aquarium owners, but it is certainly nice for those of us who need to micro-dose or create complex dosing schedules consisting of several supplements.

STEP #5: Test and Monitor Water Parameters

Once you have your schedule set up, do trial runs before applying the system to your tank.

The easiest way to do this is by using a couple of inert glass or plastic cups to collect the dosed fluids rather than simply allowing the unit to dose your aquarium. After the first cycle has completed, measure the amount of fluid to ensure you are dosing the intended amount, or close to it. This way you can be sure your program is correct.

You are now ready to allow the unit to dose your aquarium.

I recommend testing the affected water parameters and adjust accordingly. If you are using the dosing pump to feed your aquarium inhabitants, schedule it so you are able to view the tank during the first couple of feedings to ensure the proper amount is being dispensed. Make sure your protein skimmer does not overflow due to the supplements being dosed. If it does, you might consider putting the skimmer on a timer so it shuts off during the times when your aquarium is being dosed.

RELATED READING: Aquarium Dosing Systems: What's the Difference?