It’s All Costing More

Nearly everyone is feeling the increase in cost, the cost of energy that is. Much of the world’s energy is derived from oil, and the price of oil is very noticeably going up. This is possibly going to continue for a longish period until some kind of equilibrium is achieved. The days of cheaper energy are probably gone forever.

In some oil producing areas output has been boosted to try and control the price increase. This isn’t going to have any immediate affect on cost, and if and when it does probably the cost of oil isn’t going to come down to its former level. Oil is becoming more scarce as well, and demand is rising.

So we are generally stuck with the cost – the motorist, the air passenger, the housewife and everyone else. This includes the marine aquarist.

The largest numbers of marine aquarists live in North America and Europe. Manufacturers of marine equipment, retailers and anyone else to do with the marine hobby, must be concerned. Marine aquariums are luxuries and, if things are bad enough (which I hope and believe they never will be) they will be one of the items that are not necessary and therefore represent a good saving if closed down.

Well before the need to close an aquarium down completely there are actions that can be taken to reduce energy use, with different levels of effectiveness.

The aquarium can be looked at in the same way as our homes – by using insulation the cost of heating them, or keeping them cool, can be reduced.

The first thing then, is to consider insulating the back and side panes of glass to reduce heat loss. This can be easily achieved by the use of polystyrene. This material is readily available and is best about 1 to 2″ thick. Cut it to size with any cut-outs done for pipes etc. It may be considered unsightly, so the inner surfaces of the polystyrene can be painted blue or whatever colour the aquarist prefers. I always think matt is better than gloss. The edges and outer surfaces can also be painted if wanted to match in better with the surroundings. If the tank has a back panel the polystyrene can usually be inserted between the glass and panel with a bit of adjustment, although not always. If not, put the polystyrene on the outside of the back panel. The polystyrene can be fixed in place with silicone glue, which secures it easily.

Talking of polystyrene, obviously a panel cannot be permanently fitted over the top of the aquarium as this would interfere with the lights a little! However, why not put polystyrene over the top of the aquarium after lights out and remove it before lights on? This doesn’t take any effort and only a few seconds, so isn’t going to interfere with the aquarists routine. With metal halide lighting it isn’t a problem as the light unit is usually well above the aquarium. If fluorescent lighting is in use then these lights are often nearer the water surface, but raising the tubes just enough to allow a polystyrene sheet to be inserted is usually possible and this should not be detrimental to the corals. Another advantage is that doing this will reduce evaporation. It is easy to stick the polystyrene to one or more glass or stiff acrylic sheets. Using glass or acrylic stiffeners for the top is not absolutely necessary as 1 to 2″ thick polystyrene is stiff anyway. This polystyrene can be painted too if required.

Remember that if there is a sump polystyrene sheets can be fixed to the vertical glass panes as well, and of course the top, though equipment in the sump may make this a little more awkward.

The aquarist should – over a period of some weeks – be able to note the reduction in electricity usage for heating the aquarium. It might be thought that lower wattage (W) heaters could be obtained. This is not necessary and would be wasting money, the heater(s) will come on as required but once the design temperature is reached they should stay off longer because of the insulation, which is where the saving is achieved.

With heating, also consider the temperature setting. If it is set at, say, 80 deg F, does it need to be? Could it not be turned down to 77 deg F? If reducing the temperature, do so slowly, not all at once. 1 deg a week should be fine.

For many aquarists, probably most, heating is the biggest user of electricity. There is another big user though, and that is lighting.

For a hard coral reef the current lighting used by most is metal halide. This lighting is very effective for the corals needs. However, it is usually high powered, that is to say the wattage (W) can be from 150 to 400. There are lower and higher wattages but these are probably the most frequently used.

Let’s say that a 250W metal halide bulb is in use. For every hour that it is ‘on’ it uses ¼ of a kilowatt (a kilowatt is 1000 watts). So if it runs for 12 hours then it will use 3 kilowatts per day. Over a week it will use 21 kilowatts, and so on. Most electricity suppliers charge per ‘kilowatt hour’, and the units are not cheap, and they certainly aren’t now! Many aquarists use lighting systems with multiple metal halide bulbs, so the cost also multiplies.

The first thing to consider is if the metal halide bulbs in use are too powerful for the depth of aquarium. If a 250W bulb is in use, would a 150W be sufficient?

Secondly, what is the lighting period in use? Are the bulbs running for 12 hours, or 11, or 9 maybe. Could the period be reduced? It is often said that 12 hours is a good lighting period for corals as that is more or less what they get in the wild. Well, yes, but it takes no account of the lighting power reduction in the morning and evening when light slants down through the water because the sun is not overhead.

Lighting periods can be reduced within reason. Many successful reef systems have 8 hours with the main lighting on. Actinic tubes may well be on for 8½ or 9 hours (coming on ¼ or ½ hour before the main lights and turning off after them).

If the aquarist wishes to reduce the lighting period, the exercise must take place over a considerable period, as the corals have become used to the lighting availability. Reduce the period by about 15 minutes every week until the target period is reached. The corals should not be adversely affected.

Another way of reducing the cost of lighting is to change the lighting system. Subject to the depth of the aquarium, many aquarists are successfully using fluorescent T5 tubes. Changing to these from metal halides is a big jump and needs to be done with care. It also entails a monetary cost – the tubes of course, but also the electronic ballasts. Soft corals can generally be kept under fluorescent tubes without problem, but light loving hard corals may need to be restricted to the upper third or half of the reef. Therefore it may mean redistributing some hard corals, and possibly changing others for soft corals.

For the aquarist who would like to reduce the cost of running his/her aquarium and at the same time is not too concerned about the cost of the change (how many aquarists are as lucky as that?) the relatively new LED lighting arrays could be of interest. They have several advantages including the running cost. They’re currently expensive.

Of course, there is an obvious way of reducing cost but probably not a very popular one. This is to reduce the size of the aquarium. If the new aquarium is not too deep then cheaper to run fluorescent tubes can be used, and it will not require so much heating. Many of the nano tanks are very popular and attractive, and some beautiful results are being achieved. There is also a reduction in the cost of routine water changes because of the smaller volume.

As said, the cost of energy has risen rapidly and what we were used to will probably never return. The aquarist can, to an extent, control the cost.