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/The Conscientious Marine Aquarist

About Electricity & Aquarium Systems

By Bob Fenner

Properly raised electrics

Remember back to a time when you were part of a black/brown out experience, or visited a foreign country where your electrical plugs didn't match their bizarre looking outlets? When the "juice" is out or unavailable, i.e. there's no power, it's no joke, no fun. Try running your tanks without air, light, heat, filters...

Like all modern marvels electrical power only seems to be appreciated when it's no longer available. Consider how easy it is to access, so powerful and clean; a ready slave to drive motors, make heat, light, move water, air, ourselves. Because we are so accustomed to electro-motive force being at our whim and will, there is a danger of complacency. But beware, all forms of energy are inter-transmissible, able to be converted to all other formats, including shocks and fire.

Electricity can be a real danger where our hobby is concerned. Lighting, heating, pumps, meters, ozonizers, ultraviolet sterilizers and their wiring/plug connections are potential sources of electrical leaking, shorts and shocks. Water and electricity do not mix.

Electrical Dangers

Leaks: Water can get around insulators through condensation and failures in insulators (wiring, plugs, fixtures). The degree of leaking is registered by you (and your livestock) as something from "tingling" to an alarming shock. The extent of negative effects by small loose voltages around aquaria is an area of large controversy. There are devices sold 'off the shelf' that purport to measure or effectively 'drain' off errant electrons. The furthest I'll go (so far) is to say that stray electricity is very likely not good for you or your marine life. See below for more on how to avoid it.

Shorts: Are the result of a loss of insulation. A short circuit fully energizes another unintended part. The full potential current is now available to have your body complete the circuit to ground; aka sever shock or electrocution.

How many ways can this happen? Chaffed wiring, grabbing after a light fixture fallen into a tank, a cracked socket, split U-V lamp, broken glass on the heater, saltwater dripping onto or creating a salt bridge into an extension or multiple outlet device. These happen several times a year.

Avoiding Electrical Hazards:

1) Examining cords, plugs and outlets is obviously something aquarists should do every time they work on their systems. Wearing insulating shoes and standing on a dry insulator when you have your hands in the water is a very good idea.

2) Looping wiring and flexible tubing that services the system goes a long way in keeping salts out of appliances and outlets. Just coil and tie off (with plastic or even sandwich bag fasteners) a loop or more from the system and dripping, splashing water will make a neat stalactite at the bottom of the coil instead of where you don't want; plugs and electrical cord insertions. This low-technology is simple, and it works.

3) Mount multiple electrical outlet "bars", and extension cords up off the floor, either on a vertical surface or upside down away from places saltwater can fall or splash into them. I was self-employed for eighteen years doing ornamental aquatic work. Our Service Division designed, built, installed and maintained live-holding systems; mainly large marine aquariums in commercial and wealthy residential settings. We were implicated as the source of fires; once in an expensive home, the other a securities trading business. Such conflagrations and P.I. (personal injury. Oh boy, am I "talking the talk now!") cases became so common, we developed a side forensic business investigating and testifying regrading aquarium electrical failures.

4) Pull the plug on heaters every time you're going to do anything with water levels. Heater manufacturers and distributors will probably put a hit-man out on me, but many more heaters are sold than aquaria (I've dusted dozens) from (Oops!) emersion/submersion memory loss.

5) Be aware that styrofoam and acrylic have low flash points; that is are relatively flammable. Store styrofoam boxes away from potentially over-heating electrical wiring, pumps, et al. and acrylic. Be especially wary of older, tar-type ballasts (wattage transformers) used with most fluorescent lighting and ultraviolet sterilizers. They get too hot (anything uncomfortable to touch) to store in closed spaces, on acrylic surfaces... Either get electronic ballasts or start a company making heat-resistant caches for the others.

6) Extension cords. What can I say/write? If you can avoid using these altogether. Never plug one into another... Learn what the A.W.G. symbols for wire gauge really mean in terms of rating, load and run (length). I may be wasting good paper by stating all this, but please at least use a G.F.I. (see below) with these kill-a-watt spider webs.

7) You can buy a 'neon' test lamp device that will allow you to grossly check for electrical leaks, on up to a fancy-shmancy beeping digital meter.

8) Install and maintain gear per the manufacturers specifications. I trust we don't have to wow and zow you with examples to emphasis this point.

9 through infinity) What absolutely every aquarist should do- Wire all one hundred ten volt circuits through a G.F.I. (Ground Fault Interrupter) device; in-line or circuit-breaker type. This science is so readily available, easy-to-use, and cheap (under $10) that even I believe it should be industry, (maybe, choke) governmentally mandated. This dictum is so important that I've dedicated a whole article to it. If you embrace nothing else by allowing me to share my thoughts with you, get and use G.F.I.s. About ninety-five percent of all home electrical injuries, including about a thousand electrocutions a year in the U.S. are caused by Ground Faults. Avoidable by, yes, you got it, G.F.I. protected circuits. Think your sub-panel is going to save you? The amount of electron loss to pop a breaker or fuse is much greater than that necessary to overheat, destroy insulation, to zap you, and start fires.

Electrical Efficiency:  

One of my favorite words because it has "fish" in it; efficiency is an important consideration in this world of high and getting higher electrical costs. Be aware that there is a huge variance in electrical consumption versus relative light produced, air and water moved in filters/circulation. Volts times amps equals watts and you pay by the kilo-watt-hour, the equivalent of one thousand watts used for a period of one hours time. Don't know what this means, or have concerns about the adequacy of your aquatic electrical menagerie? Good; call your local utility. By and large, they have folks that will come out for free and check out your arrangement, explain how to tell what's costing how much, and suggestions on how to reduce costs and prevent loss of life and property.

Bibliography/Further Reading:

Fenner, Bob. 1991. The case for ground fault interrupters. FAMA 8/91.

Fenner, Bob. Electricity and electrical use around water gardens. FAMA 12/93.

Goldstein, Robert J. 1997. Back-up power; What if there was no electricity for days? AFM 9/97.

Marsh, Robert. 1994. Practical Matters, Pt. II (deals with electrical matters). FAMA 3/94.

Mortensen, Jim. 1979, 1990. If I Had Only Known (on electrical safety). FAMA 10/79, 2/90.


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