Aquarium Dosing Systems: What's the Difference?
When keeping a reef aquarium the addition of liquid to our aquarium is required to perform a number of tasks.
Keeping water chemistry in line using liquid supplements, feeding corals to sustain healthy growth with plankton-based food or amino acids as well as keeping salinity constant with the addition of fresh water.
Often times, the need for adding liquid to your reef tank becomes a daily chore. Thanks to the problem-solving nature of our aquarium predecessors, there are some excellent automated solutions available to you.
An automated dosing system can be set up a number of different ways with the same basic goal: to add liquid to your aquarium in the correct amount at a safe rate.
This article will give you insight into some of the popular ways hobbyists are automatically dosing their aquariums and help you on the road to total aquarium automation—freedom from tedious and messy manual dosing or top-off!
Gravity-Fed Dosing Systems
This method may seem archaic to some, but it remains one of the easiest and least expensive ways to dose your aquarium and is very popular among the DIY crowd for automatic top-off and buffering.
The way this works is simple. The container is filled with the liquid of choice and placed above the water line. The airline is attached to the container on the bottom and led into the aquarium or sump. The adjustment valve is placed inline after the container. With the magic of gravity, the liquid will flow from the container into your tank continuously. Using the adjustment valve you can reduce the rate of flow to a slow drip, creating a constant and effective way to slowly add a liquid into your aquarium.
The downside of this method is that the flow of fluid will be continuous. You will need to test frequently in order to ensure you are dosing the correct amount of fluid. This method works best for automatic top-off, alkalinity buffering or adding kalkwasser but can be problematic when used for feeding or dosing other supplements, such as magnesium or trace elements.
Automatic Top-Off System
Most of us are pretty familiar with ATO systems as they are usually the first automated device a reef hobbyist will purchase. While many of us may not look at an automatic top-off off system as a "dosing" system, in reality, it is doing exactly the same thing as any other dosing system: adding a fluid to your aquarium in the correct amount at the correct rate—but it is automated based on water level.
While an ATO system is intended to keep your salinity and water level correct, many of us may not realize is the addition of certain additives to your top-off water can be an effective delivery method for supplements that will maintain alkalinity, calcium and even magnesium.
Many different ATO systems are available and we have a great article describing several popular units in detail. Because the addition of fluid is based on your water level, this does not give you much control. It is important to test and adjust the concentration of your additive of choice as needed based on your water parameters. It is best used as a supplemental way to keep your parameters in check if manual dosing is your main means of adding elements to your aquarium.
Air Pump Powered Dosing System
This method is perfect for those of us on a budget and great for the DIY hobbyists. This air pump powered dosing system works using an air pump, a standard timer or aquarium controller, and pressurized containers to hold and deliver the fluid of choice.
The air pump is used to pressurize the containers holding your fluid; the fluid is then forced out of the containers and into your aquarium when the air pump is powered on. The plumbing of the system must be specific using flow control valves and check valves in the proper location to ensure the fluid flows correctly and at the correct rate. You can find tutorials online and in forums. ESV has a kit for their popular B-Ionic Two-Part Calcium Buffer System that comes with all of the necessary components, although we no longer carry it.
The benefits of an air pump powered dosing system are that you can control the rate of flow with a flow control valve and the time at which the fluids are dosed using an aquarium timer or controller. The air pump can be powered on at the time of your choice and then simply adjust the rate of flow using the valve. Because of the precise control, this system can be used for a variety of additives from two-part solutions to phytoplankton feeding and can successfully be a comprehensive dosing system for all of your fluid delivery needs.
Peristaltic Dosing Pumps
The cream of the crop when it comes to fluid delivery devices. Peristaltic dosing pumps are electronic, self-priming pumps that will precisely deliver fluids into your aquarium. They can often be controlled directly on the pump itself or using a standard aquarium timer or controller. These pumps are widely becoming the method of choice for dosing your aquarium by hobbyists worldwide.
Peristaltic dosing pumps are the best choice because of the precise control. The pump can easily be discreetly mounted in your aquarium stand and operate very quietly. Most pumps in the US will utilize standard ¼" tubing. Many of the higher end pumps available today come with the capability to program the time and duration the pump operates and come with multiple pump heads in order to handle multiple fluids. Some of the lesser expensive pumps available are continuous duty and will run when power is applied so the use of an aquarium timer or controller will help operate these models. Both will give you the ability to precisely dose your aquarium.
When using a dosing pump it is crucial to monitor the amount of fluids being delivered. Once you set up a program, it is always a good idea to test the amount of fluid being dosed before allowing operation on your aquarium to ensure the correct amounts are being delivered. Because of the precise control you can utilize dosing pumps to not only dose supplements and foods, but you can top-off your aquarium and automate water changes as well.
With all of your options, automating the dosing of fluids into your aquarium is surely something most any hobbyists can accomplish. It will most definitely release some of the stress associated with daily attention to your tank and will also help you to maintain consistent parameters with less fluctuation in your aquarium. Many advanced hobbyists know that a reliable system of maintaining stable water parameters is one of the biggest keys to a successful, thriving reef.
RELATED READING: How to Set Up a Dosing Pump