Disaster Narrowly Averted - Dangerous Temp Spike and What I Learned
When I installed the Apex, I thought it was cool to have a pH probe along with the temp probe, ORP (oxygen in water) and salinity. I figured since I was switching from 2-part dosing to Kalkwasser it was also handy to monitor pH spikes which can happen if Kalk isn't dosed properly or dosed too quickly. I set up the probe and kept the standard alerts for high and low range and called it a day. I never imagined the pH probe would literally save my tank. I've never really given much thought to pH since it's one of those parameters that I fully believe if you chase numbers, you're in for a world of hurt and will actually do more damage to your reef trying to buffer for or hit a certain number. So, I've always run some form of oxygenation at night (fuge, air stone, etc.) to combat the pH drop we see when the lights go off. The ONLY time I've tested pH since my first two weeks in the hobby was when I had an issue adding one of my wrasses to a new tank. He was struggling and my friend Mike Judd (my go-to resident wrasse expert) indicated that they are super sensitive to swings in pH. He was right by the way, the wrasse was struggling with a pH swing and I didn't acclimate long enough to account for it - but that's a story for another day.
So back to my situation at hand - I promise I'll get to how the pH probe saved my tank. My phone is on silent 100% of the time. I absolutely detest the sounds of cell phones so my phone is always on silent/vibrate. A side benefit is I never forget to turn it to silent in situations like movie theaters or meetings where it is totally inappropriate to be interrupted by a beeping phone telling me there's a hot deal going on over at Urban Decay (of course I NEVER lose my phone, so it is just a theory that the downside is it is very difficult to find your phone when it is on silent). This morning at about 4:30 AM, I was woken up by my cell phone vibrating on my nightstand with text message notifications. I looked and noticed the messages were from my Apex alerting me to a problem. The alarm for the pH level had been alerting me for an HOUR to the fact that my pH had dropped to 6. That's right, folks. 6. For you non-reefing readers, normal range is between 8.0 and 8.4. 6 is most definitely death/tank crash range. I honestly thought it was an error with the Apex as I couldn't figure out what would cause my pH to bottom out like that so I actually laid in bed for a few minutes thinking about, figuring if it really was 6, everything was probably dead and it most likely WASN'T 6 because it just didn't seem actually possible. The messages kept coming and finally I got out of bed and went downstairs to check on the tank and at least fix whatever it was that was causing the alert or at least unplug the pH probe if it had gone bad.
I get down to the tank and I see the fish in their normal sleeping areas and at first glance, everything seems fine. So I open the cabinet and look at the probe area and notice the problem: The water level in the return chamber is BELOW the probes which are held in place with a probe holder and are supposed to be submerged under the water. The pH probe was in the air, causing the low pH reading. I then remember that the prior morning, I was cleaning out the top off water reservoir and turned of my auto top off system off and never turned it back on. Yikes! I figure no harm, the return pump wasn't sucking air and nothing seemed damaged. So I take some top off water from the reservoir and put it in the return chamber to bring the water level back up.
As the water level rises back over the temp probe, I start getting more text messages. I ignore them figuring it's the pH still stabilizing but as I am getting things situated, I feel like it's really hot in the sump. It always feels humid in there, but it felt excessively warm. I look at the alert and holy $%@# the alert says the temp is at 87!!!!! I look over to the fuge and notice bristle worms - tons of bristle worms - are attempting to crawl out of the water and think holy crap. This is NOT good. I jump up, look at the thermometer I have in the DT and it reads 85. Yup, it's hot. The Sump is at 87 and the DT is at 85. I usually run my tank at 78 so I know this isn't good and I know swift action is needed. I ran into the kitchen, got some ziplock bags and filled them with ice packs from the freezer. I then put the bags in the sump hoping to help the water cool down before the heat could do more damage and I turned off the fuge light that runs overnight, not wanting anything to add to the heat while I get this cooled down.
Basically what happened is this: when the water level fell below the probes, the temp probe was telling the heater that the water temp was 74, when in actuality it was higher since the probe was fully exposed in air. Our house is an old house so it typically gets down to 60 at night in the winter and with this cold snap, we have been struggling to keep the temp above 58 at night. Luckily the probe was close enough to the water that I think it had taken a bit for it to register the drop. Anyway, the heater was working in overtime trying to get the temp of the water up. The heater is solely controlled by the Apex temp probe. It turns on when the temp drops below 78 and off when the temp hits 79. There is no failsafe. The water kept heating and heating, all the way up to 87. I am really thankful I noticed when I did as if the temp had climbed even a couple degrees higher, I am fairly certain widespread disaster would've been the result.
It was still dark out, so I couldn't really tell if everything looked ok, but I knew the fish at least looked fine. By this point, it was about 5:30 and I was awake so I figured I would grab some coffee , get some work done and monitor the temp drop. Once the sun started coming up, I could see the tank better. I noticed my smaller maxima, the bright blue one, was dead. Both my maxima clams have been struggling with pinched mantel the past couple weeks. Being weak already, I'm sure the temp spike just put it over the edge. It had been actually looking better yesterday evening. A lot of the corals looked angry and closed up, but I hoped for the best as I knew that coral issues may take a bit before I truly see the extent of the damage.
Later in the morning, I did notice that my purple stylo started peeling and after talking with my friend, Kat, I shut off the tank lights and turned down the flow hoping to give the inhabitants some time to recover from such a large temperature spike. By 10 AM, the temperature was back to normal. Since this morning, I did notice a few acros are not doing well and my stylo continues to decline. Over all, I still feel totally fortunate that this wasn't the disaster it could've been. I consider myself lucky that 1. I noticed my phone texts when I did 2. I didn't wait any longer thinking the pH probe was bad and 3. I acted swiftly with the ice packs and last but not least, 4. that I bought an Apex.
When I set about researching what I wanted for this new build, a controller was at the top of the list. I ran an Apex Jr. on my Red Sea Reefer 250 reef tank (not the macro tank though) and really liked the ability to control outlets, the temperature control as well as other features. I also liked that I could access it from my phone. I never really explored further features and kept it pretty simple.
With this tank, I knew I wanted the ability to control as much as possible and to be able to monitor as much as possible remotely. I researched what I wanted, what I didn't find important and went to marinedepot.com and placed my order. They do an amazing job with everything from shipping and packing all the way to customer service so I felt confident with my purchase, especially since it wasn't a small investment. Marine Depot also has a lot of information available for hobbyists so I started there with my research as to what I should look into.
I'm not going to sugarcoat this. When I first received the Apex, I was totally overwhelmed with the setup. I decided to take it one step at a time and felt pretty proud that I was able to set it up, program some of the items I found important like the Apex Wav circulation pumps, the ATK and the like. I got familiar with the Fusion interface and have been happy with everything since setting it up. It wasn't until today that I realized how important that investment is. The Apex saved me thousands of dollars and a whole lot of heartache by preventing a total crash and meltdown of my tank. While it was a roundabout way to notify me of the temp spike, ultimately the monitoring I have in place with the Apex helped notify me by way of a pH drop. If it didn't, I honestly would've lost everything probably within another hour or less.
I also realized that swift action with impending disaster is so important with our reef tanks. If I hadn't reacted quickly and gotten those ice packs in the sump when I did, my losses would've been much worse.
I have learned that I need to reposition the temp probe to an area that can't run dry in my tank: the first chamber. I also learned that I need a second temp probe after talking to my good friend, Kevin Vinal. He's going to help me figure out how I set up a second probe on my Apex to help me monitor temp and help prevent this from happening again.
There are many things that can cause tank crashes. Chemicals from paint fumes, essential oils, pH spikes, alk spikes, overdosing, under dosing, ammonia spikes, the release of toxins, the list can go on and on. But the one I find is most prevalent is a temperature spike. I've heard more horror stories with faulty heaters cooking tanks than anything else. Coral and fish can deal much better with a temp drop than a temp spike and a failing heater is one of the primary reasons I got a controller in the first place. Equipment can go south and we need to be prepared for it. I have a spare heater in the event mine dies and I also have a spare return pump. The more we can prepare, the better and faster we can react if something bad happens.
Here's my advice: Invest in a controller. Go check out marinedepot.com, look up the Apex. You may need to forego buying some coral for your tank, but it will be worth the investment and peace of mind. We invest so much in our tanks, a controller is the first step in protecting that investment and the aquatic lives we watch over.
Ok, that's it for tonight! Thanks for reading. Post a comment below about what you feel the most important lesson you've learned in the hobby is! Have you avoided any near disasters?