Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Hydor Smart Level Control ATO System: Simple, Inexpensive and Effective



As aquarium automation marches toward being the norm rather than a luxury enjoyed by few, more and more products have been made available to make maintaining your reef aquarium easier than ever before.


Numerous new automatic top-off systems have been introduced recently to meet the demands of the modern aquarium hobbyist. Not only do ATOs save you the trouble of topping off your aquarium daily, it also helps to maintain a stable salinity level that is better for your aquarium inhabitants.


Among these new ATOs is the Hydor Smart Level Control ATO System. This new ATO from Hydor is just about as easy-to-use as can be!

It uses an advanced thermal sensor to accurately maintain the water level in your sump. With no moving parts, you do not have to worry about mechanical floats getting stuck or issues caused by calcium deposits, bacterial film, wave action or snails climbing on to the sensor.

Green LED indicating low water level

The compact sensor easily mounts in your sump with magnets. The three-prong sensor has sensors for minimum water level, maximum water level and alarm. A 6-foot cord connects the sensor to the main control unit and there is another 6-foot power cord that plugs into the wall, so you have plenty of cabling to work with.

Red 'Alarm' LED and an audible alarm indicating water level raising to high

A two-prong plug is provided for you to attach any pump of your choice for top off (up to 50W). An ideal pump should slowly top off your aquarium and take 25 seconds to 10 minutes to go from the minimum to maximum level, which spans 8mm-12mm (1/3” – ½”) from minimum to maximum. The Cobalt MJ-Series or Eheim Compact powerheads work nicely for most applications.

Updated polarized plug

When the Smart Level was initially released, Hydor had included a non-polarized socket, which made pumps with polarized plugs incompatible. Customers were limited to using Hydor pumps or would have to get an adapter. Fortunately, this has since been corrected and now a polarized socket is included so you can use just about any pump up to 50W.

On/Off switch with a thoughtful water-resistant cover

If the water level reaches the “Alarm” level, the Smart Level will illuminate all LEDs, cut off power to the pump and trigger an audible alarm. Operation goes back to normal once the water level drops below the “Alarm” level.

The alarm will also trigger if top-off takes longer than 10 minutes, which can occur if the top-off reservoir runs dry or the top-off pump fails. In this scenario, the system will shutdown to protect the pump and will need to be restarted by pressing the on/off button.


Another great aspect of the Hydor Smart Level Control is its price. At less than $100, it is the only ATO in this price range that does not rely on a mechanical float. With its practical design, great safety features and affordable price tag, the Hydor Smart Level ATO makes a great case for itself.

If you have been waiting for an economical and easy-to-use top-off system, the Hydor Smart Level Control may be just what you are looking for.

Friday, April 11, 2014

Can’t We All Just Get Along?

Every fish has its own personality and will often behave differently than what we expect.  Sometimes it is a good thing, like a typically-aggressive clown tang that is the most peaceful fish in the aquarium.


Other times it is a bad thing, as in my case here where an ocellaris clownfish recently transferred from a different tank decided that he needed to beat up a new Wyoming White clownfish. I did anticipate some aggression, but definitely not to this degree.


This is where a quarantine tank, fish trap or specimen container comes in extremely handy. I was able catch the trouble-maker and isolate him in the new CPR CITR PRO In-Tank Refugium.


The new CITR PRO looks much more robust than the standard model. Instead of the small round drilled holes, it has nicely-machined slots to allow for better water flow.


The small suctions cups are also replaced by a versatile bracket that can be mounted to either a horizontal or vertical surface. This bracket is very thoughtfully designed and accommodates different aquarium rim widths (for standard aquariums, rimless aquariums or euro-braced aquariums) as well as allowing adjustment of the height of the container.


The CITR PRO is offered in two sizes. The small version is 7.5" x 4.25" x 7.25" and the large model measures 12" x 6" x 8". They are also offered with and without pumps. Shown here is the smaller of the two models.


With the aggressive clownfish in the ‘time-out box’, the new clownfish now has a chance to get established without being harassed.  In a week or so, the troublemaker will be released back to the aquarium and will hopefully get along with the now-established Wyoming White clownfish. If not, the trouble-maker will be relocated to a different aquarium.

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Fed up with carrying buckets? Try an auto top-off system!


Keeping your salinity level stable is one of the most important things you can do as a saltwater aquarium owner.

To keep your tank water quality and chemistry appropriate for marine life, you'll need to replace the water that evaporates each day with new, fresh water (that has ideally been filtered through a reverse osmosis system).

The question is: how, exactly, are you going add that fresh water?

New hobbyists generally replace evaporated water (called "topping off") manually by simply pouring the fresh water into their aquarium whenever they get home from work or play.

Of course, this gets pretty old after a while. Who wants another daily chore? Plus, what if you're going to be gone for a few days and don't have any reefkeeping buds nearby to tank-sit?

Well, we are here today to tell you that your aquarium does not have to be a ball and chain that prevents you from getting away for a weekend at the beach or a holiday stay with your folks.

Yup, that's right: you can set up an inexpensive system to automatically top off your tank AS NEEDED, not just when it's convenient for you.

The Elos Osmocontroller Digital Water Level Controller

There are several different auto top-off (often abbreviated as ATO) systems available for aquarium keepers, with some more reliable than others (we'll explain later). And, although each ATO system utilizes different technology to achieve the same result—topping off your tank—there are some basic components most of them share. Namely the sensor(s), pump and a fresh water reservoir.

We will briefly explain what role each of these parts plays so you will have a basic understanding of how these systems work. Afterward, you should be armed with enough info to start shopping for your first (or next) ATO, although space, price and product reviews will all likely influence your final decision.


The Sensor

The sensor is the heart of your auto top-off system. Over the years, manufacturers have devised a few different methods to “sense” the water level and when it drops inside your aquarium or sump.

The JBJ Automatic Top-Off System.
Click here to watch a video demo.
Float switch 
The original sensor in auto top-off systems. It's also the least expensive and the only option with moving parts. They are very simple and effective, using a buoyant magnet that opens and closes a circuit as the magnet moves up and down with the changing water level. 
The downside is float switches are prone to getting stuck. Snails and other animals may get on to the float and prevent it from reading your water level correctly. Calcium and algae buildup can also cause failure by preventing the float from moving freely. Since these systems utilize a magnet, other magnets nearby can cause interference with the circuit. 
The good news is most manufacturers have already come up with creative solutions to these commons problems, like using plastic shields and/or back-up float switches to prevent failure. The JBJ Automatic Top-Off and Tunze Nano Osmolator 3152 are two examples of popular ATO systems that utilize float sensors. 
The Tunze Osmolator Universal 3155. Click here to watch video demo.
Optical Sensor 
A prism-shaped water level sensor with no moving parts, which makes it less prone to false readings or failure. The optical sensor utilizes an infrared LED light that shines through a prism and is directed into a light receiver. If no liquid is present, then the light will be directed into the light receiver and the pump will be activated. When the water level rises, light is refracted through the water leaving little light to reach the receiver and the pump is then deactivated. You can find this method used on the Tunze Osmolator 3155 and AutoAqua Smart ATO
When Tunze incorporated this type of sensor into the Osmolator 3155, they created one of the most foolproof ATO systems to date. It uses both an optical sensor and a backup float switch to avoid the failures associated with other ATO systems on the market. As the water level drops, the optical sensor will turn on the pump. If it fails to turn off when water levels rises, the float switch is then used as a fail-safe.
The Hydor Smart Level ATO System.
Click here to watch a video demo.
Temperature Sensor 
These ATO systems feature a heating element and temperature sensor in an impressively small package. When the probe is submerged in liquid, it causes heat to dissipate quickly and the temperature sensor to cool. When the water level drops below the probe, it heats quickly, making the temperature sensor warm thereby activating the pump. 
With no moving parts, this is a very reliable option that rivals even the Tunze Osmolator 3155. The Hydor Smart Level and the Elos Osmocontroller both utilize variations of a temperature-based sensor.
The Innovative Marine AUQA Gadget HydroFill ATO System.
Click here to watch a video demo.
Conductivity Sensor
This method utilizes two probes that, when immersed in liquid, complete a mild electrical circuit path through each probe to deactivate the pump. Once the water level drops below the probes, the electrical circuit is broken and the pump is activated. This system features no moving parts and are one of the more reliable sensor options. The recently released Innovative Marine HydroFill utilizes a conductivity sensor system.
No matter which system you choose, the most important factor in keeping your ATO system operational is keeping the sensor clean and free of obstructions. All of the aforementioned sensors should be cleaned and checked monthly to ensure proper operation.

The 7.1 gallon Tunze Osmolator Storage Container 5002.25

The Reservoir

As the name implies, a reservoir stores fresh water used for topping off your system. The most commonly used types of reservoirs are 5 gallon buckets or plastic jugs. These are cheap, easy and get the job done. Just be sure that your pump fits into the container!

Another option is to use a custom glass or acrylic container. Old aquariums and sumps make great ATO reservoirs. Using them may require a little more planning, but the end result is generally a cleaner, more compact-looking setup. Most reservoirs can be concealed inside your aquarium stand or hidden behind a piece of furniture.

If you have a large aquarium, a 5-gallon reservoir is not going to cut it. A bigger tank requires a bigger reservoir since you'll be losing a lot more water from evaporation.

A Rubbermaid Brute Trash Can or large polyethylene plastic tank can fill this void. Top-off water containers for bigger tanks usually reside next to the tank, in a nearby closet, inside the garage or, if you're lucky enough to have space, a "fish room" (your basement, perhaps?). It is quite simple to run ¼” plumbing and small wires through a wall or door!

The main things to be concerned about here are choosing a water-safe container large enough to accommodate your tank to make automation worthwhile. Ideally, you want a container large enough to store 5-7 days worth of fresh top-off water—but not so large that the water will become  stagnant and harbor bacteria.

The Tom Aquatics Aqua-Lifter Dosing Pump.
Click here to watch a video demo.

The Pump

A pump is a crucial part of your ATO system because it transfers water from your fresh water reservoir into your aquarium. Some ATO systems come with the pump included, such as the Elos Osmocontroller, Tunze Osmolator and AutoAqua Smart ATO.

Fortunately, it is easy to select, purchase and connect a pump to an ATO system for a custom setup if the model you're interested in does not include the pump.

The best and most reliable option is a dosing pump. They do not run the risk of dry-run and pump water at a slow rate. This makes for a safe-operating ATO system that will not quickly overflow your aquarium in the event of failure. These pumps are not submersible and will require external mounting above your reservoir.

The Tom Aquatics Aqua-Lifter is a vacuum-style dosing pump and one of the most popular (and affordable) top-off pumps available. I prefer peristaltic dosing pumps, such as the Aqua Medic SP 3000, because they provide a consistent flow, resist ware and will last much longer when properly maintained. They produce less vibration which equals quieter operation. If your container has a small opening, a dosing pump is optimal since it's external and will use tubing with a small diameter to pull the water out of your container.

The second option is a submersible pump, such as the ever-popular Cobalt MJ Series and Taam Rio pumps. Submersible pumps are easy-to-use, provide an inexpensive alternative to peristaltic dosing pumps and quickly deliver water to your aquarium. Most ATO systems that do not include a pump have a US standard 3-prong female plug to accept a submersible pump.

The downside to submersible pumps is they pump water quickly and are susceptible to dry-run. You have much less time before the tank overflows in the event of failure when compared to dosing pumps. If you forget to fill up your fresh water reservoir and the pump is activated, it will run dry, heat-up and, quite possibly, damage the pump beyond repair.

If you are tired of carrying buckets and pouring in cups of fresh water everyday... try an auto-top off system!

You will reduce daily tank maintenance, gain peace of mind that your water chemistry is stable and free up time to better enjoy your peace of the reef.


Additional Resources

Wednesday, April 09, 2014

Win a Tunze Nano DOC Protein Skimmer 9002 (a $133.99 value!)


Protein skimmers improve aquarium water quality by forcing protein, waste and other materials into a collection cup for easy removal.

This week we are giving away one of our best-selling nano protein skimmers of all-time, the Tunze Nano DOC Protein Skimmer 9002.

If you're ready to take your nano reef from ordinary to extraordinary, ENTER NOW.

Registration ENDS at 11:59 PM PST on 4/16/14.

Details: Open to U.S. residents 18 years or older. Void where prohibited or restricted by law. Winner will be contacted via email.

The Tunze Nano DOC Protein Skimmer 9002 received "Best Protein Skimmer" honors in the 2011 Marine Depot Best of Awards.

Cobalt Aquatics Neo-Therm Heaters: A uniquely different and better heater!

With the huge number of heaters available for aquariums, it is often difficult to distinguish the better heaters from the herd. Fancy packaging or a gimmicky design does not always translate to a better product.

Fortunately for the Cobalt Aquatics Neo-Therm Heater, the departure from standard heater design is not gimmicky at all—and its great features make it one of the best heaters you can buy.


Out of the box, the first thing you notice is how thin and sleek this heater is. At about 0.8” thick, this heater is one of the thinnest and best-looking heaters on the market. The slim design makes installation easier and makes the heater less visually and physically obtrusive.

While most heaters utilize delicate glass outer casings, the heating element of the Neo-Therm is encased in a shatter-proof casing that is just about indestructible. This definitely gives hobbyists one less issue to worry about.


The outer casing also has a built-in LED display that ingeniously shows both the set temperature as well as the aquarium temperature. A solid LED light indicates the aquarium temperature is the same as the set temperature. A slow blinking LED indicates the aquarium temperature is lower than the set temperature. A fast blinking LED indicates the aquarium temperature is higher than the set temperature. A single button at the top of the heater allows you easily adjust the set temperature.


While most heaters rely on a mechanical bi-metal thermostats and have an accuracy of ± 1 to 2 degrees, Neo-Therm heaters use an advanced electronic thermostat that has an impressive accuracy of just ±0.5 degrees.

A more constant water temperature creates a stable environment and reduces stress for your fish and corals. Additional safety feature includes a thermal protection circuitry that will shut down the heater before it overheats.


Even with all of these great features, Cobalt Aquatics is able to keep the prices of these heaters very reasonable. With prices ranging from about $50-$80, they are more expensive than most glass/mechanically-controlled heaters but are much cheaper than many digitally-controlled titanium heaters. A long 3-year manufacturer warranty also helps protect your investment.

These heaters offer great features, accuracy and reliability. That's why they earned ‘Best Aquarium Heater’ honors in our Best of 2013 Awards.

If you are looking for a ‘better’ heater, here it is!