Note from the editor: Mark's story is a classic one that is not limited to reefkeeping. Recently, my wife and I upgraded our bikes. On our first ride out my wife said to me "I thought getting this nicer bike would make riding a bit easier." When purchasing new equipment make sure that you understand its limits and temper your expectations appropriately. Controllers can be a fantastic tool when used properly, but as Mark (and my wife) learned, things may not always be what you expect.
My worst aquarium hobby purchase was an aquarium controller. Contrary to its promise, it made my tank more unreliable, less stable, and led to several near disasters.I started out in marine aquaria about a year and a half ago. I purchased a running 26 gallon FOWLR from craigslist. Nothing complicated; everything was HOB. It was easy to take care of. The previous owner gave me a test kit I used for pH and nitrate without any issues. I topped off the water the old fashioned way and ran my tests weekly. Everything was five by five.I met a fellow enthusiast through my daughter's scout troop and he mentioned aquarium controllers. My eyes became wide with talk of instant notifications and automation galore. I admit I am a gadget freak and have been DIY'ing since I was a kid. All of a sudden my sweet, innocent, low maintenance aquarium had the potential of a RadioShack 300-in-one project box. I picked up the next controller I could find on WAMAS and then the great decline began.Automate top off? No problem.Automate lights? Same deal!Feed cycles? Who wouldn't?But wait, my pH is not as "good" as I had hoped. No big deal, I'll just control the pH by dosing kalk... dissolves in RO... that will fix my pH "problem."Well. I think we all see where this is heading. In a few days I ended up with a near salinity crash , but wow, was my pH spot on. This was followed by another near miss when I mis-calibrated the probe. I got so wrapped up in the parameters that I neglected basic principles. Mainly, if the tank looks healthy, don't mess with it. Controllers give you data but you are not legally compelled to act on it. Also, your best time to add a controller is when your tank is doing well so you know the data it is generating reflects a healthy tank. Then you can observe the trends rather than absolute values. Finally, if you go with a Neptune Systems product, make sure and read the "Best Practices" thread on reef central and have someone check your program before you start.Have I learned my lesson? Kind of. I still tinker way too much with the tank, but for the most part I let the controller do its thing and I err on the side of less is more. I feel controllers are a valuable tool for the novice but just remember to resist the tendency to over-intervene.I leave for Afghanistan in a few weeks and my wife will be taking over the tank with some help for the next six months. I will not be surprised to return to a flourishing tank that was happy to have some relief from my constant attempts at "improvements."