We have reached the last of the three part series (Part 1, Part 2) I have written on aquarium controllers. In this last part I am going to discuss the five most important things I think the advanced aquarist will want to consider when deciding on an aquarium controller. I know this will undoubtedly produce some disagreement and controversy because as the more advanced you get in any subject matter, the more diverse and vocal the feedback will be. To help quell some of that I have intentionally tried to keep all of these articles away from the “Ford vs. Chevy vs. Mopar” type of discussions and instead talk about higher level needs. So, here are the five most important things to consider when purchasing an aquarium controller if you are an advanced marine aquarist:
#1 – It must be programmable
What is the point of having all that sweet goodness of electronics connected up to your tank if you cannot get creative with it? A controller must have a programming language of sorts if you want to squeeze the most potential out of it. And, the programming language should allow you to monitor incoming data like ports such as pH and ORP, but also monitor custom inputs from switches that might tell you when a water level reaches a certain point or drops below a safe level. This programming language must have the ability to create some sort of variables and perform basic conditional tests (IF/THEN). Another requirement is that the system should allow you to change the programming remotely over the internet. With a good programming language, complex things from LED effects (dimming, color, storms) to automatic water changes are possible.
#2 – It should have power failure handling
We all know that one of our biggest fears in this hobby is a major power outage for more than just a couple of minutes. Many of us have experienced coming home, opening the door, and getting smacked in the face with the smell of a wharf. Good controllers will have a built in way of dealing with these power failures. Simply make sure that both the controller as well as your cable/DSL modem and router are on a UPS (uninterruptible power supply) and you can do some pretty cool things. If equipped, it is not hard for a controller to sense the power outage, send you a text/email notification, and then go into power failure mode where it only supplies power to air-stones in your overflows and sump as well as one powerhead for circulation. All the power is supplied by the UPS and can buy you many hours of survival. Having this capability provides tremendous peace-of-mind.
In order to do some of the cool stuff above using the programming, you need a way to gather feedback by way of on-off conditions/states. This input could come from something like a float switch, flow switch, magnetic door switch, or leak detector. Additionally, you want to purchase a device that has interfaces to other popular marine aquarium products. For instance, both LED lights (DIY drivers) as well as Tunze powerheads can be controlled via 0-10V input. A controller should have this as an option if you want to take advantage of LED dimming or wavemaking via the controller. One more thing that is important to many people is the ability to control wireless devices such as Vortech Pumps and AquaIllumination and Radion LED lights so that also plays into the equation. A company that is continually moving along with the industry is important.
#4 – It should have an open data/interface standard (API/XML)
This capability enables anyone to develop 3rd party interfaces to the controller data. This is the feature that allows for cool things like forum banners with real time statistics or sites that collect your data for you to analyze. It also allows third parties to build cool apps for the iPhone, iPad, or Android devices. Think about all the accessories and connections that are out there for the iPhone that are not built and sold by the Apple and you’ll get the idea how important this can be.
#5 – It must have an active, progressive community helping each other
This is one of the most important things to consider if you are an advanced hobbyist. Depending on how tech savvy you are will determine how important this is – and which controller you will select (as some require much more technical expertise than others). I fall somewhere in the middle so I love to be able to go out to the “tech-experts” for my controller and see how they have tackled a problem or ask for advice. The best way to ascertain the size, activity and accessibility of the community is to visit the most popular forums for each controller manufacturer and feel it out. Are there already tons of answers out there? Are there a number of very active experts willing and able to give sound advice (as shown by their responses to others). The size and participation level of the community is key to really taking your aquarium controller experience to the next level.
I hope you have enjoyed this series of articles on aquarium controllers. Now clearly all of this is my opinion from my personal experience. I am sure that many other very experienced aquarium controller users will take issue with some of the above or have other things they think are important when in this purchase consideration phase. Nothing is wrong with that. Express your thoughts in the comments below and everyone will benefit I am sure.