From my previous article you may now be convinced that you need an aquarium controller, but which one? For many, making a purchasing decision on a technology product is often done by comparing lists of features and then combining that with price to decide. This is most often not the best route and is exactly the case with an aquarium controller where it’s best to step back and look at bigger picture things. So, here are what I think are the five most important things to consider when making an aquarium controller purchase:
#1 – Internet Connectivity: While it might be somewhat helpful (and better than nothing) to have a controller without internet connectivity, the real benefit of today’s modern controllers is the ability to receive notifications, check in on your tank, and even reprogram your system right from anywhere in the world or just your kitchen table. This last point is important because NOT all internet connected controllers are created equal. One of the biggest pains of setup on a controller is doing it with a tiny interface with just a few input buttons. Having a controller that allows you to fully configure it from your PC or iPad is a huge deal and not all have this capability — even though many have “internet connectivity”. Also important is to note if this capability is delivered standard or requires a costly upgrade module.
#2 – Expandability: Choose a controller that lets you easily expand as your needs grow in the hobby. You may only have a 29 gallon nano tank now but, if you are like many in the hobby, sooner or later you will want a bigger tank, decide to grow SPS (and want to add a calcium reactor), or want to start monitoring the tank in the other room. You want to have the option to add new things to monitor like salinity, ORP, or Ph for instance. Expansion should also not be limited to just a few feet. For instance, I have a frag tank in my garage and my main system in my living room both on the same controller. And another important factor is choosing a controller where the manufacture is continually creating expansion modules that interact with the latest aquarium devices like flow pumps and LED lighting. It is not just you want to do today, but moreover that you don’t even know what you’ll want to do tomorrow.
#3 – Easy to set up and use: For this one, you will mostly be looking for the best of the worst. In my opinion there is not a single aquarium controller out there that would score above 6 out of 10 in this category. There is certainly a lot of room for improvement in this area by every manufacturer. That said, some controllers make it easier than others. If a controller allows you to configure it using your computer or iPad this is certainly preferable to using a tiny display and six button input. This is not only important for initial set up, but also for when you want to do simple things like change your lighting cycle or add a new module.
#4 – Must be rugged, built for saltwater environment: For this one I do not mean that everything has to be fully encapsulated in resin. However what is not advisable is to have components in flimsy cases, exposed wires, etc. If the product does not look like it has a rugged, professionally designed case made for the saltwater environment you will want to steer clear of it. Also, it is preferable to have pieces be modularized so that if and when something does fail, you do not not always need to send the entire unit in for repair.
#5 – Support: Now this one is by far the most important out of the five. And, by support I do not just mean technical support from the manufacturer. There are three areas to consider here:
- Technical support from the manufacturer. Before you decide to purchase a particular product, ask around (forums) and get a feel for how they do in this area. Do people get busy signals, do they get call backs when promised, do they answer emails promptly. Are the support people patient and actually solving issues to the satisfaction of most users. I also would give a call or an email yourself before buying and see the response time.
- Software updates and bug fixes. Let’s face it, we all want new features in our tech products and we all know there will be bugs. The key is knowing you have picked a company that consistently offers software updates that have been tested and provide the new features as well as the fixes we desire. If a company only releases a new version every 12-18 months, that is a problem.
- Installed base and user community. I have left this for last and it is by far THE MOST important thing in most tech purchases. First off, you never want to be such an early adopter that you are one of just a few hundred users. If you pick a controller with a large, generally happy user base, you have a group of people to go to when you have an issue. Some controllers have very popular and active dedicated user forums – seek those out. Again, this is probably THE most important deciding factor when purchasing. Although there may be some slick, very promising looking controller newcomers to the scene, do you really want to be their guinea pig and be out there all alone?
So, there you have my top 5 things that matter when deciding on a controller. Clearly the fish-tech-geeks out there like myself are probably thinking that I left a lot of important stuff out…and they would be correct. That info come in my next installment – The Top 5 things the really advanced Fish-Geek would want in an aquarium controller.