Thiel Book - Chapter 4
Albert J. Thiel


Lately, much has been said and written about instrumentation to equip the reef tank and control the environment in which our fish and invertebrates live, in an automated fashion. Articles have appeared in magazines such as FAMA, TFH and Marine Reef. Hobbyists talk about them at aquarium society meetings, and advertisements for such equipment now abound. Prices are finally starting to come down somewhat, making the acquisition of such instruments within the reach and means of a far greater number of hobbyists than was the case only 2 years ago.

Meters and controllers that determine pH, redox potential, temperature, conductivity and oxygen levels - to name the 5 popular ones - are now being offered for sale at somewhat more affordable prices. Ion specific meters, controllers and electrodes, for example to measure ammonia, nitrate, etc. are now also being made available, but are difficult to use in reef tank water, because of the many interfering ions present in salt water. By this we mean other compounds, present in the water being tested , that hinder and distort the reading we are trying to make for one specific compound. To give just a few examples: carbonates, bi-carbonates and sulfates all interfere with an ion selective nitrate electrode's accuracy; sodium, potassium and iron interfere with an ion selective electrode for hardness reading.

Besides meters, which just read a specific water quality feature that the hobbyist is interested in, and controllers, which allow the hobbyist to initiate a reaction to such a measurement by powering up a device that can influence that particular water quality parameter, hobbyists now resort, more and more, to the use of so-called reactors. These are usually nothing more than a large cylinder made out of acrylic material, configured in a specific fashion allowing it to perform in a certain way. For example, an oxygen reactor is a device inside of which air and water are mixed under a small amount of over pressure, thus forcing the oxygen contained in the air into the water, and raising the dissolved oxygen level of that water in the process. Other reactors are used to increase the carbonate hardness, or to inject carbon dioxide into the water, or lately even ozone.

Although the technology underlying these reactors is fairly straight forward and easy to understand, the hobbyist is not yet, anyway, accustomed to have to involve himself or herself in special piping arrangements to install this equipment. Traditionally, everything used around an aquarium did not require sophisticated installation procedures. More often than not, all that was necessary was plugging the device into a wall outlet, and that was that as far as the installation went. Such is no longer the case. Some of the devices and equipment now used can be fairly complex to install, often requiring piping, gluing, bonding, using PVC fittings and valves, and understanding more than just a little about fluid mechanics, and how they are and can be controlled safely.

Whether new technology or not, easy to install or difficult, inexpensive or pricey, all these new "tools" are now at the disposal of the hobbyist, making for a much higher level of professionalism in the hobby, and in the manner aquariums are, and will be, kept from now on. We have to thank our German fellow hobbyists for having pioneered a majority of this equipment, and a few Europeans for having brought this technology to the United States, or better, to North America.

George Smit (1986) described a system that was so new to North American hobbyists, that many that I have an opportunity to deal with would stare in disbelief at his articles. Many store owners in those days needed more than a little arm twisting to stock this merchandise. Selling them on this new technology was difficult and very protracted, especially since the prices asked for such merchandise were far above what they had been accustomed to pay.

Thiel (mid-1985) started importing a full line of advanced German aquarium products and equipment, mostly for freshwater plant aquariums, and exposed North American hobbyists to instruments such as pH controllers, CO2 diffusion systems, multiple types of fertilizers for freshwater plants, mercury vapor and metal halide lighting, float switches, dosing pumps, and so on, for the first time. Byerly's Aquarium of Columbus, Ohio, was the first store to fully equip itself with several very large trickle filters, each holding several hundred gallons worth of plastic filtering media. Thiel and Shearer (1985) built and installed these systems on the premises, because they were too large to be moved easily and economically. Two show tanks, fully equipped with advanced instruments, controllers, CO2 diffusion, and high intensity discharge lighting were also installed in that store, and were up and running by mid-1985. A first in the United States.

That was the start. It took more than 2 years for hobbyists to really begin to look at these new methods seriously, accept the fact that they worked and greatly improved both freshwater and marine tank water quality, and start installing them on their own systems. For months on end, the only ads for this type of equipment were run by just one company, in FAMA and MFM, until finally a few American manufacturers picked up on it and decided to get in on the act as well.

Around the same time, Scott Dyer, President of the Marine Aquarium Society of Toronto, contacted me, and asked me to come up and speak at their annual meeting. This resulted in Albert Thiel and Peter Schachtschneider (1986) setting up large display tanks, featuring this technology, at Aquarium Toronto, in Woodbine Center by the Airport.

George Smit's articles had now run for nearly 8 months in a row in FAMA, and had stimulated a great deal of interest in sophisticated systems. The rest is history.

The technology is nowadays fully accepted, and is here to stay, to the point where large American manufacturers are now even offering molded trickle filters, a choice of metal halide lighting fixtures in just about any configuration you can think of, and a choice of instruments and reactors that is beyond what one would have expected just a few years back. Trickle filters are being advertised so widely now that confusion reigns, and that the hobbyist has a hard time differentiating between the professionals and another group of small time go-along-for-the-ride-type outfits, that produce look-alike equipment that may not really be what the hobbyist wants and needs. We have already touched on that earlier in this book. Hopefully, by the time you are through with reading _The Marine Fish and Invert Reef Aquarium_, you will be in a position to make that distinction, because you will know what features and qualities to look for in filters and other equipment.

Some readers will already be familiar with the equipment described in this section. Others will not, or will want to learn more about them than what they already know. This chapter is intended for the latter group. Often too, hobbyists would like to acquire one of these instruments, but are afraid that they will not know how to use it, install it, interpret its results, and maintain it. Those readers will, I hope, find the answers that they need here.

Do not let the technical aspect of this part of the book refrain you from reading on. Rest assured that by the time you have read this chapter once, or perhaps twice, you will be a far better educated hobbyist than you were before. And that is what it is all about. The more educated you are about the equipment, the less likely you are to buy something you do not need, and the greater your chances of using the technology to its fullest, which is only what you should since you probably paid real good money for the products discussed in this section.

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