Thursday, April 2, 2009

More detail for the DIY auto top-off system for aquariums

I've had a few requests for plans of the auto top-off system for aquariums. This project is fairly straight-forward, and I would imagine the most difficult part is machining the sensor head that holds the two optical fibers. This will require a drill bit that is sized just right, and the angles need to be pretty accurate. The wiring and electrical side of this project is very easy, and only requires minimal soldering. Here's some rough instructions and part list that I emailed to an interested DIYer:

This project involves wiring a household electrical outlet. As you know, saltwater is a great conductor and the wiring must be protected from drips, etc. Always disconnect the power when working on the circuit, and use good wiring practices.

I'd start by getting a Keyence fiberoptic sensor FS-V11 (or similar) ebay like this:

Next, you need a wall-wart power supply (AC adapter) to provide low voltage to the Keyence. You'll need 12V DC at almost any current rating (mA rating). Be sure the AC adapter is a linear voltage supply, not a "switching" supply -- it should be relatively heavy.

You'll need some 1mm jacketed plastic (PMMA) fibertoptics. I didn't find any at a great price on eBay. You'll have to hunt around a little. Edmund Optics sells it per foot, so you might be able to just order a small amount.

Get the Aqualifter AW20 pump ($10 or $15)

Get a solid state relay eg Kyotto KB20C02A (Jameco #175214) $6.55

You can wire it all together in a standard electrical box with an electrical outlet from a home improvement store.

The basic idea is that the Keyence device gets power from the 12V DC supply, then controls the solid state relay with its output. The solid state relay controls power to the electrical outlet, which is where the AW20 pump is connected.

I don't know if I would recommend this project to someone who has never done any electrical/electronics projects before. It involves wiring a household electrical outlet, and this really has the potential to cause a lethal shock -- especially around saltwater aquariums.

Another problem is that a malfunction might flood your house! I noted problems about air bubbles. If the fiberoptic sensor head traps a large air bubble, the top-off pump will continue running even after the aquarium overflows. For the first week or two, I used the top-off system as just an indicator -- not risking any floods. You should do the same if you attempt this project. I modified the sensor head, so that I doubt air bubbles will cause any more problems, but you never know.

Feel free to give me more feedback in the comments...


  1. Thanks for the details - I'd just recommend putting in a high water level electronic float switch. That way if the sump level rises for any reason - in addition to the bubble, the pump will be shut off.

  2. Ben,

    thanks for the additional information!

    Could you elaborate on how you make the sensor head? (machinery used, how to drill at the exact angle etc etc etc...) Maybe a little photo reportage?



    OK, I hope this is helpful for someone.