Aquarium Controllers: 7 Systems to Control, Monitor and Test Your Tank

Aquarium automation is the hot trend that uses electronic devices to monitor and control key functions in the aquarium.

In the past, the best you could do is turn your aquarium light on and off with a timer. Now most LED aquarium lights have built-in timers. Today aquarium controllers are far more advanced than a simple light timer.

My recommended modular controller is the Neptune APEX, keep reading for more alternatives!

The idea behind aquarium automation is to make keeping an aquarium easier by continuously monitoring and controlling important functions and parameters. Automation helps maintain a consistent aquatic environment for fish, aquatic plants, corals and other invertebrates.

Best Rated Aquarium Controller Reviews

There are different types and levels of automation based on the kind of controller. The control device can be a simple temperate controller that monitors and controls one or more aquarium heaters.

Modular aquarium control systems use a main “brain” unit that stores the programs, sending commands to assorted add-on modules that perform specialized control functions.

The level of complexity and automation can be very sophisticated and involve pH, ORP, water level, lighting control, water pumps and more. Some aquarium controllers even use apps and cloud-based devices to automate and monitor just about everything that happens in the aquarium.

Types of functions incorporated into an aquarium controller

How to choose an aquarium controller


Aquarium Controllers Reviews

Inkbird Aquarium Dual Stage Temperature Controller + NTC Sensor

The Inkbird Dual-Stage Temperature Controller is designed to monitor the water temperature with a high-quality probe and maintain a stable water temperature.

The Inkbird is more than a remote aquarium heater thermostat.

The device works by automatically controlling a heater and cooling device, depending on the need.

If the aquarium water temperature starts to climb above the pre-set level, the Inkbird will turn on power to the cooling power outlet. Typically a cooling fan is plugged into this outlet.

The cooling fan blows air across the surface of the aquarium, carrying heat from the aquarium light away from the aquarium.

The Inkbird specifications show that a compressor-based chiller can be plugged into the outlet due to the 1200 watt capacity of the unit.

Pros

  • The temperature sensor is stainless steel and rated “waterproof IP68”.
  • Has high and low temperature alarms.
  • Digital high and low temperature set point readout.

Cons

  • Requires hanging on a wall or under the aquarium to view the read-out.

Hydor Smart Level Controller, Automatic Top Off (ATO)

Water evaporation can be quite substantial, especially in reef aquariums using bright lighting.

In some cases, water has to be added every day to compensate for evaporation.

This is especially important for reef aquariums that use a filter sump.

Evaporation causes the water level to drop dramatically in the sump due to its relatively small size compared to the aquarium.

Add in evaporation caused by intense lighting and circulation pumps and you’ll understand why water needs to be added daily.

The Hydor Smart Level Controller has a sensor that detects low and high water levels. The sensor attaches to the sump or inside the aquarium (in case you don’t use a sump).

When the water level drops the controller switches on a power outlet.

Connect a small power head to the power outlet to pump water into the aquarium. You’ll have to provide the small power head and container of water from which to draw water.

If for some reason the water level is too high, an alarm will sound. This is helpful in you happen to be filling the aquarium from a hose connected to a sink.

Pros

  • Simple plug and play operation.
  • Small size.
  • Works with any size aquarium.

Cons

  • Sensor is slow to respond when filling the aquarium.
  • Occasional false alarms when a fast water pump is used.

American Marine PINPOINT pH Controller

The Pinpoint pH Controller uses a high-quality pH probe to continuously monitor pH in freshwater and marine aquariums.

You select the high and low set points. When either set point is reached the corresponding power outlet is switched on.

This is ideal for controlling a carbon dioxide system. When the pH is high the controller turns on the carbon dioxide system.

It turns off the CO2 system when the pH is in the desired range. If the pH is too acidic from excess CO2, the second outlet is turned on, typically powering an air pump to drive off carbon dioxide gas.

The Pinpoint pH Controller can also be used to control the addition of “Kalkwasser” based on pH level.

The Pinpoint controller is easy to set up and use. The controller uses high-quality materials for the case, buttons, and power outlets.

Pros

  • Easy to use.
  • Quality build.
  • Small size.

Cons

  • Does not record pH levels.
  • Does not have an alarm.

Milwaukee Instruments MC122 pH Controller

Milwaukee Instruments is known for their industrial-quality monitoring and control equipment.

The MC122 pH Controller is a rugged wall-mounted controller.

It has two pH set points. When the pH level drifts to either set point, the controller turns on a single power outlet.

When setting up the controller you select if the power outlet power is triggered by the high or low set point. The outlet will power a small dosing pump or solenoid valve.

The Milwaukee Instruments MC122 pH Controller has a visual LED alarm that indicates when either set point is exceeded. The calibration process is simple. Instructions are straight-forward and easy to follow.

Pros

  • Industrial quality.
  • Simple calibration.
  • Reliable operation.

Cons

  • Lacks audible alarm.
  • Must be visible to see the LED alarm.
  • Has only one power outlet.

Digital Aquatics Reefkeeper Lite

The Digital Aquatics Reefkeeper Lite system uses a main programmable “head unit” that controls up to four control modules.

The main unit is small and easily concealed.

The interface consists of membrane buttons and a digital display.

The programming control modules can be added.

  • AP1 Module is designed to monitor and report ambient temperature and relative humidity.
  • ALC is designed to control LED light fixtures and can be used to simulate Sunrise and Sunset.
  • PC1 is designed for controlling high current devices like chillers and large water pumps.
  • NET module sends real-time aquarium conditions to your computer or smart device.
  • SW5 module for water level switches, leak detectors, ATO systems, and much more.
  • SL2v2 module links pH, temperature and salinity probes to the control system.

Digital Aquatics Reefkeeper Lite system is a scaled down version of the Reefkeeper Elite, which controls up to 12 modules. The head unit can also be programmed through your computer with a USB adapter.

Either system can be programmed to monitor and control an almost limitless set of functions that are carried out by the control modules.

DA also supplies dosing pumps, float switches, and Lunar Pods that simulate moonlight for night viewing.

Pros

  • Expandable system.
  • Large number of control modules available.
  • Software allows remote control of the aquarium.

Cons

  • Steep learning curve.
  • Poor instructions.

Seneye Home Aquarium Monitor

The Seneye Home Aquarium Monitor take a different approach to aquarium automation.

The Seneye module is designed to be submerged into the aquarium.

The module monitors water temperature, pH and ammonia (NH3) levels.

The Seneye system uses replaceable slides that measure pH and ammonia.

The slides work like conventional test kits but are embedded in a solid slide that is read by the Seneye module.

The slides must be replaced every 30 days.

The Seneye needs to be connected to a power source in order to monitor the water and record the readings. Normally the Seneye is connected to your PC for power and data logging.

You can access the monitoring information from the cloud with your mobile device.

If you cannot connect the module to a PC you’ll have to use the power adapter to keep the Seneye working.

Data will be recorded and stored every hour for up to 35 days.

You’ll be able to download the data later and see the results on the Seneye software.

There is also a reef version of the Seneye monitor. The reef version incorporates a light meter that monitors the light quantity and quality over time.

Pros

  • Simple drop-in system.
  • Works in freshwater and saltwater aquariums.

Cons

  • Does not control any devices.
  • Expensive “slides” need to be replaced monthly.
  • Poor customer service.

Neptune Systems APEX Controller

The Apex system combines purpose-built hardware coupled with Apex Fusion.

Apex Fusion is a cloud-based software that communicates with the hardware.

Apex Fusion monitors and controls the most important parameters in a reef aquarium.

The Apex system can be as simple or advanced as you want it to be. You tell Apex what to do through the wired keypad, your computer, or smart device.

Apex obeys and will report back how your aquarium is doing. If the aquarium is getting too warm Apex Fusion will send a text message alert. The Apex Fusion software Apex Fusion will record the pH levels and create a graph illustrating the pH level over time.

You can program the water pump to shut off while the automatic feeder adds food to the aquarium.

The Apex system is capable of customizable monitoring and control tasks.

Below is an overview of the basic tasks. Many of these specialized functions can be added to an Apex system as needed.

Different modules are simply plugged into the main Apex controller to add more features.

  • Automatic water changes.
  • Automatic feeding of liquid and dry foods.
  • Wireless control of compatible LED lighting.
  • Pump and lighting control.
  • Wireless control of select pumps.
  • Automatic monitoring of the light level at the coral surface.
  • Automatic leak detection and notification.
  • pH/ORP monitoring and logging.
  • Salinity testing.
  • Dissolved oxygen monitoring.
  • LED lunar cycle simulation.
  • Control of WAV powerheads.

The base system comes with an Apex base unit, Apex display, Energy Bar 8 power strip, temperature probe and lab grade pH probe. An upgraded Apex system with built-in Wi-Fi is also available.

Pros

  • Expandable monitoring and control system.
  • Many APEX pumps, probes, feeding and dosing equipment available.
  • Programming and control via computer or keypad.
  • Compatible with a variety of LED lights and water pumps.
  • Wi-Fi capability.

Cons

  • Wi-Fi system is expensive.
  • Must be tech-savvy to program advanced features.
  • Designed primarily for reef aquariums but can be used in freshwater tanks.

Aquarium Controller Recommendations

As our review demonstrates, aquarium controllers range from a single function device to Wi-Fi-enabled remote control capabilities. Like any tech device, the more you spend the more features you’ll have at your command.

The most important consideration is determining what level of control is really needed.

The Inkbird temperature controller works as described but aquarium heaters and chillers have their own sensors, thermostats and automatic on/off functions. It seems to be redundant to add another temperature controller on top of what is already available on heating and cooling equipment.

If you’re using a cooling fan however, the Inkbird may be the right choice for you.

Likewise, simple fluorescent aquarium lights can be controlled by the most basic automatic timer or by the light fixture’s own timer. Fluorescent lights cannot be programmed to simulate sunrise or sunset like LED lighting. Linking continuous pH measurement with a pH-dependent dosing system makes sense.

The American Marine Pinpoint pH Controller is the ideal aquarium control device for regulating carbon dioxide fertilization in freshwater planted aquariums. Certain reef calcium additives can potentially raise the pH above recommended levels and can easily be regulated by the Pinpoint controller.

The Milwaukee Instruments MC122 pH Controller is also a dependable pH-based controller. The main difference is the Pinpoint provides two powered outlets while the Milwaukee only has one.

If you want to have complete control over water pumps, feeding, pH, dosing of additives and customized LED lighting, you’ll have to use a complex modular aquarium control system.

This is an all-in proposition because automation requires certain logic skills to lay out what device turns off, when and for how long while another device is turning on, for how long, etc. You’ll also have to calibrate the pH probe periodically to ensure accuracy.

There are only a few companies in this area of automated aquarium control.

Seneye has made their basic monitoring device fool-proof but it does not actually provide any control functions. This eliminates the Seneye from consideration as an aquarium controller.

Digital Aquatics and Neptune Systems both offer fully automated aquarium monitoring and control. Side-by-side comparisons give Neptune System APEX controllers the upper hand.

  • Apex has ongoing upgrades and improvements.
  • Apex has a comprehensive growing range of compatible probes, dosing pumps, wave makers and other add-ons.
  • Control of major brands of LED light fixtures and wave-making pumps.
  • Ethernet and Wi-Fi capabilities.
  • Easy to navigate website and customer support system.

The capabilities of these aquarium controllers goes far beyond this review. We suggest investigating each brand’s features in order to understand what functions can be programmed and monitored at home or on a smart device.

If you have any questions or comments, post them below!

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