In a reef aquarium, elements and nutrients corals and invertebrates use to survive must be replenished by the aquarium owner.

The rate these elements and nutrients are depleted varies from tank to tank based on the organisms inside the aquarium. If a reef aquarium is fully stocked, they may need to be replenished daily.

Setting up an automatic dosing system to administer the proper amount of elements and nutrients for your reef tank can be an enormous benefit. Not only to your sanity, but to the animals that call your tank home.

One of the most reliable ways to automatically dose your aquarium is by using a peristaltic dosing pump.

Peristaltic dosing pumps are perfect for dosing fluids into aquariums because they deliver them at a safe, precise and controlled rate. They are also self-priming and can draw fluids/supplements out of a dosing container, into the pump and then into your aquarium without any harm to the pump itself.

If you have been kicking around the idea of setting up an automatic dosing system for your reef tank, this article is for you. We provide step-by-step instructions and reveal how to set up a dosing pump to free you from maintenance with the larger goal of creating a thriving coral reef in your home or office.

STEP 1: Choose Your Pump

There are a variety of dosing pumps available. All perform the same basic duty of adding fluid to your aquarium at a safe, slow rate. The major differences between them are the number of supplements you can dose and whether or not the pump can be programmed.

Some dosing pumps are continuous duty. They can only dose a single supplement and do not include a built-in controller. These pumps require a standard timer or aquarium controller to turn the pump on and off as necessary based on your dosing needs. The amount of time the pump operates will control the amount of fluid being dosed.

Higher-end dosing pumps often include built-in controllers and multiple pumps to dose several different liquids. These pumps are ideal because no additional equipment is required to control them and you can set up a comprehensive dosing system to cover everything from feeding corals to maintaining calcium and alkalinity. Other cool features like controllable flow rates, aquarium controller compatibility and the ability to integrate float switches or water sensors may also be included.

The programming capabilities of the controller should not be overlooked. Specs vary from pump to pump, so it is important to ensure the dosing pump you are considering is capable of delivering the amount of fluid you need at the correct rate. If you have questions, please don’t hesitate to ask our experts.

STEP #2: Get the Equipment

Even after you select a dosing pump, there may be some additional equipment required to get the system up and running.

Most include enough tubing to run to and from the pump. However, if you have a tall aquarium, you may need to acquire additional tubing that is long enough to accommodate your specific needs.

A tube holder of some sort is almost always necessary because it keeps your tubing in place on the edge of your aquarium or sump. A tube holder not only keeps your tubing organized, it also helps prevent back siphoning water out of your aquarium since it is highly unlikely the tubes will ever accidentally fall into your tank.

Dosing containers are another great accessory. They offer the ability to store supplements for dosing and be emptied without losing prime. Most dosing containers are tapped at the bottom or feature a long downstem to draw fluid from the bottom. This ensures the pump stays primed until the container is empty. Another benefit of dosing containers is they look professional, save space (often stackable) and may even feature a graduated metric scale for easy measuring.

STEP #3: Mount the Pump and Attach Tubing

A dosing pump can usually be mounted discreetly inside your aquarium stand. Since dosing pumps are not submersible and can be damaged by heavy moisture or salt creep, it is important that the unit be secured in some form.

Bubble Magus has a beautiful (sold separately) bracket that works for their BM-T01 dosing pump and BM-T02 extension; others keep it simple and have slots for screws in the back. Your dosing pump should be placed within close proximity of the supplements you are dosing and your tank or sump so you do not have to run long lengths of tubing.

I have observed two types of tubing connections on dosing pumps: standard barb-style fittings and heavy-duty compression fittings. Compression fittings are preferred because they ensure a secure, leakproof connection with your tubing.

Your tubing will need to be cut to length, but be careful not to cut it too short. Allowing a little excess may help you maneuver the tubing in and out of sight, if necessary. Attach tubing to both the suction and pressure sides of the pump, then to your dosing containers. Next, secure the tubing to your aquarium or sump. Be sure the ends of the dosing tubes are ABOVE the water line. This ensures water will not be back siphoned out of your aquarium.

You can actually place tubing directly into your supplement bottles if you prefer. The biggest problem with this approach is the tubing may not pull out all the supplement fluid before losing prime. This can leave you with 1-2” of usable fluid left in the supplement bottle. A good way to combat this problem is to attach a ¼” piece of rigid airline tubing to the end of the dosing tube to reach deeper into the bottle (or just use the nice dosing containers mentioned earlier).

STEP #4: Set the Dosing Schedule

When you first set up your automatic dosing system, expect some trial and error. Basically you will need to dose, test your water parameters and then readjust the dosing schedule so that it fit your aquarium’s needs.

For dosing pumps with fixed flow rates, you can use a simple calculation to estimate the length of time to run the pump. For example:

Let’s say your pump is rated to deliver three liters per hour and you need to dose 100mL per day. You can deduce the pump delivers approximately 50mL per minute. You can then set the pump to run for two minutes once every 24 hours. You can use our handy conversion calculator to help you here.

Keeping with this example, if you wanted to split the dosage in two to avoid larger fluctuations in water chemistry, you could set the pump to run for one minute every 12 hours.

The way the controller works varies from pump to pump, although most work based off a simple program: how long the pump should run and how many times it should run within a period of time. If your dosing pump does not have a built-in controller, the concept remains the same. Set your timer to run the pump for however long you need based on the pump’s flow rate.

Sophisticated high-end dosing pumps, like the new Neptune Systems D?S or Innovative Aquatics Sentry, offer the ability to adjust the rate at which the pump turns to control the flow rate. This type of precise control may not be necessary for all aquarium owners, but it is certainly nice for those of us who need to micro-dose or create complex dosing schedules consisting of several supplements.

STEP #5: Test and Monitor Water Parameters

Once you have your schedule set up, do trial runs before applying the system to your tank.

The easiest way to do this is by using a couple of inert glass or plastic cups to collect the dosed fluids rather than simply allowing the unit to dose your aquarium. After the first cycle has completed, measure the amount of fluid to ensure you are dosing the intended amount, or close to it. This way you can be sure your program is correct.

You are now ready to allow the unit to dose your aquarium.

I recommend testing the affected water parameters and adjust accordingly. If you are using the dosing pump to feed your aquarium inhabitants, schedule it so you are able to view the tank during the first couple of feedings to ensure the proper amount is being dispensed. Make sure your protein skimmer does not overflow due to the supplements being dosed. If it does, you might consider putting the skimmer on a timer so it shuts off during the times when your aquarium is being dosed.

RELATED READING: Aquarium Dosing Systems: What's the Difference?