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Help - the aquarium heater cooked my fish

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Mark Peterson View Drop Down
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    Posted: August 09 2015 at 8:05am
This thread could have been placed in the ordinary discussion section, but since overheating is such an emergency, I placed it here. If the WMAS Presidency chooses to move it, I won't mind.

Hobbyists here are experiencing what many aquarium maintenance professionals also experienced in the last 15+ years of using automated electronic controllers (Neptune, Digital Aquatics, Ecotech, etc.) with external temperature sensors, that they are fallible. Click here to see a recent occurrence. Because a heater comes with it's own internal temperature control thermostat it's safer to plug it directly to 110 power, either the wall outlet or a power strip connected directly to the wall outlet. 

Over the 50 years that electric aquarium heaters have been used, the internal temperature thermostat has been highly perfected in some brands. Yes, they still fail. It's only natural, but as has been stated many times before by experienced hobbyists, the use of an under-size heater is safer than an oversize heater. Unfortunately, most manufacturer recommendations are for oversize heaters. As is true for many things in this hobby, my opinion is that bigger is not better. The under-size heater simply stays ON longer to maintain set temperature. When it does fail as is typical, in the ON position, it cannot cook the tank in a day.

In my experience, the Eheim Jager heater, developed by Eugen Jäger in the 1960's is one of the best. When it starts to fail it typically does so slowly. The design of the thermostat makes it stay ON longer so the temperature creeps up slowly.  Many hobbyists will notice that their tank is hotter by a few degrees so they turn the setting down on their Jager heater. This procedure may work for a month or two until the thermostat degrades further. This engineering is a good thing in that rather than sticking ON and cooking the tank in a day, as the Jager heater starts to slowly fail the tank warms up, telling us that it's time to buy a new heater.

Here are a few more tips I'll share. These are arguable points and I welcome the discussion:

- Place heater in an area of good flow and have the cord end of the heater, where the thermostat is located, in an upstream position. If the thermostat is downstream from the heating element, it turns on and off each time the water flowing past it is heated by the element. This shortens the life of the thermostat.

- Place a stick-on thermometer on the bottom corner of the tank in a position where it can be seen at a glance as you walk by. Get in the habit of checking this every day. Stick-ons are not all that accurate but they do show when the temperature changed, alerting you to danger.

- Last but not least, set the heater so that it heats only to the minimum acceptable temperature. The minimum acceptable temperature is not 78 degrees. Freshwater aquariums usually aim for 78, whereas that is actually nearing the top limit (80) for a reef aquarium. Set the heater so that it keeps the reef aquarium from falling below something like 70-74. Yes, that may seem low, but therein lies the problem with reefkeeping - misinformation. At lower temperature, water holds more dissolved Oxygen. This is a good thing for the reef. It helps the reef animals breathe easier. Why the range of 70-74? Because if a tank is set in a room that warms up in the late afternoon, we want to allow the tank to cool off overnight so it can start at a lower base temperature. Then it will not heat up to over the upper limit of 80 degrees.

- Lastly, unplug the aquarium heater when the weather starts to warm, from about June through August, when any kind of unforeseen problem can lead to overheating in the home which in turn heats up the aquarium. 

Hope this is helpful.
Aloha,
Mark  Hug
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dmw913 View Drop Down
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Post Options Post Options   Thanks (0) Thanks(0)   Quote dmw913 Quote  Post ReplyReply Direct Link To This Post Posted: August 09 2015 at 4:23pm
Mark -  I responded to the link thread and post my same question to you here for your opinion.  

I'm confused about something - I understand the Apex failed and that is terrible, but why didn't the internal sensor on the heater shut off when it reached the temp it was set at, i.e. Set your heater and your Apex both to 78 degrees and if Apex leaves the heater on - it's only leaving power on to that outlet and the internal heater sensor should have shut it down.  So, did the Apex fail AND the heater was stuck in the "on" position so the failsafes BOTH failed or am I missing something?  

My confusion is that the Apex is supposed to be the failsafe for the original temperature control so this situation looks like the heater failed and then the Apex failed so the solution discussed above (plugging into regular outlet) wouldn't have fixed the issue as the internal heater sensor still failed and would have had to fail before the Apex and then when the Apex failed, the failed heater cooked the tank.  

I want to make sure I don't have a misunderstanding in case I need to change my failsafes.  

Thanks for any insight.

Best,
Denise

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Post Options Post Options   Thanks (0) Thanks(0)   Quote Mark Peterson Quote  Post ReplyReply Direct Link To This Post Posted: August 09 2015 at 5:21pm
The dials on heaters are often inaccurate. I NEVER trust the numbers on the dial. This does not necessarily mean the heater is faulty. It's just a difficulty in manufacturing to make the thermostat exactly match the dial.

Was the heater new or old? 

An old heater can look okay but may have already stuck permanently ON and not been tossed into the garbage. An old heater may have a faulty light. While underwater, check by putting your hand loosely around the heating element. It won't burn because of being in the water, but there is no mistaking a hot element. Wink

If new or used, was it tested to see if the internal thermostat was working? 
To test a heater, turn the dial all the way down and let it sit in the tank for ~15 minutes to reach tank temperature. Then turn the dial up until the light comes ON. Watch and wait for the light to go off. Check the tank temperature and note how far off it is from the number on the dial. Turn the heater dial accordingly to reach the desired temperature and make a permanent note as to how far off the dial is from the real temperature. This is what is called "calibration".

Aloha,
Mark  Hug
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www.utahreefs.com/forum/forum_posts.asp?TID=9244
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Post Options Post Options   Thanks (0) Thanks(0)   Quote dmw913 Quote  Post ReplyReply Direct Link To This Post Posted: August 09 2015 at 5:37pm
So my contention was correct?  Failed heater and then failed Apex, right?
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Post Options Post Options   Thanks (0) Thanks(0)   Quote Mark Peterson Quote  Post ReplyReply Direct Link To This Post Posted: August 09 2015 at 9:37pm
Looks like it.
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