This Site Uses Cookies
This site uses cookies to improve your experience. By continuing to use & browse this site, you agree to the Privacy Policy and accept the use of cookies.
Reef Stable is a small business focussed on educating and providing the best coral for beginner reef keepers

Disclaimer: This page contains advertisements and/or affiliate links. We receive compensation from clicks and/or purchases made through these links. Though we may not have tested the specific product(s) mentioned, we do our best to recommend products that are beneficial to our visitors.

How to Set Up a Fully Automated Reef Tank

Share this article:
Pin it!

Last updated on November 17th, 2023


How to Set Up a Fully Automated Reef Tank

Why Set Up a Fully Automated Reef Tank?

If you've tried to keep a reef tank, you likely know that there are many little details needed to keep coral and fish alive. Everything from topping off the tank with fresh water, measuring chemicals, adding chemicals, feeding the fish, doing water changes, and the list goes on. Even more, if you forget any of these tasks for too long, your coral and/or fish will most likely not survive!

One of the goals of Reef Stable is to make keeping a reef tank possible for EVERYONE by making saltwater aquariums simple. With all of these tasks and details, how do we make reef tanks simple? In short, this is where automation comes in. A fully automated reef tank is like a self-driving car. The tank will do almost all of the work, but you still need to be attentive to what is going on in case you need to step in.

Shop Coral at Reef Stable

What is a Fully Automated Reef Tank?

A fully automated reef tank is a saltwater aquarium that measures parameters and acts on them to fix what is wrong. Additionally, full automation will handle routine reef keeping tasks, such as adjusting alkalinity and calcium, or even do water changes for you! Imagine if all you had to do was sit back and watch the tank! Maybe add food and change a filter once per week. Bringing your tasks to almost nothing!

I am going to explain how to set up a fully automated reef tank focussing on one task at a time. Most of this setup will likely sway toward Neptune Systems Products simply because they are the equipment I currently use. That being said, I will try to provide other options. For example, GHL and Hydros are both VERY good reef tank controller options! Additionally, I do lean toward the Neptune Apex because the software makes it VERY easy to set up, aligning with Reef Stable's goals.

Fully Automate: Reef Tank Top-Off

Starting with one of the simplest, most common automated reef tank tasks, the auto top off. If you think back to when you started your first reef tank, or maybe you are at this point now, you might remember drawing a line on the tank or sump for where the water level needs to be. Then nearly every day, adding fresh water and topping off the tank back to the line.

This is one of the most common tasks to automate. Mostly because it is a very simple, cheap automation options. All you need is an auto-top-off, a container of fresh water, and an outlet. There are a couple types of ATO sensors, float sensors and optical sensors.

Optical Sensor

An optical sensor uses light to determine if the sensor is above or under water. The advantage is that there are no moving parts that can get stuck. Optical sensors also take less space. However, these sensors can be thrown off by high light environments, or can be blocked by algae growth covering the sensor.

Float Sensor

A float sensor uses a floating platic piece to determine if the sensor is above or under water. The advantage is that these sensors are simple and reliable. If you keep them clean, float sensor ATOs will almost never disapoint. The downside is that small critters such as snails, or even dense algae can block the float from rising.

For more information about Auto Top Offs, please read Saltwater Aquarium ATO Guide

What's Left to Automate

The only thing left is to refill the auto topoff container. This can be done using an RO/DI filter plumbed to the container with a shut off for when the water level is full. You will only want it to turn on when the level is low however to prevent continuous small refills as these generally have the highest TDS.

Recommended Auto Top-Off (ATOs)

Fully Automate: Temperature Control

When it comes to automated temperature control, many new reef keepers will purchase heaters with controllers built in. The problem is that most of the temperature measurements from the heater's built in controller are not very accurate, and they are known to fail. Since the heater is one of the most critical components of your reef tank, why trust your aquarium's life to something known to fail?

This is why having an external temperature controller is crutial! An external temperature controller has a probe that you can place anywhere in the aquarium or sump, giving you full control over the accuracy. The controller then turns the heater on or off based on the temperature from the probe. Personally, I took it one step further and plugged the reef tank heater controller into an Neptune EB832 and use the Neptune Apex (Standard) to turn off the temperature controller if the temperature were to get too high.

This redundancy isn't needed for everyone, it is just to prevent double equipment failure. Since the temperature is critical for coral life, maintaining this with multiple levels of redundancy is a safety feature that is worth the money to me! I can honestly say, there is a great peace of mind knowing if any one piece of this equipment fails, I will get an alarm telling me what's wrong, and the aquarium controller will do what it can to keep the tank running in the mean time.

For more information about Reef Tank Heaters, please read Simple Rules for Picking a Fish Tank Heater

Recommended Temperature Controllers

Fully Automate: Parameter Measurement

One of the most annoying, and frequently overlooked task for keeping a successful reef tank is measuring your aquarium parameters. Parameters such as alkalinity and salinity should be measured daily. Though multiple times daily is better! Other parameters such as calcium, magnesium, nitrates, and phosphates should be measured weekly, just to ensure everything is in line. So I'll ask, when is the last time you measured all of these parameters, let alone doing so weekly?

I know I am not as on top of parameter measurement as I should be. Making this a perfect task to automate! Depending on what you're trying to maintain, there are a number of different options on the market.

Recommended Automatic Parameter Measurement

Fully Automate: Supplement Dosing

You may remember, or may currently be hand dosing your reef tank. Measuring out how much alkalinity buffer, calcium, magnesium, etc and pouring it into your reef every day. We've all been there! However, automatic dosing is another simple way to automate your reef tank! Making one less thing to worry about handling every day! Additionally, dosing pumps can add chemicals across different amounts of time, leading to a more stable environment.

The main way to dose your reef tank is to determine how much of a chemical is needed, and divide that up across the day. If you have automated parameter measurements, you can identify how much of a certain additive is used at different times, for example every 6 hours. Then you can add that amount over that period of time to keep the parameters consistent.

Some reef control environments, such as the Neptune Apex + Trident environment, allow you to automate the amount of chemical added based on measurements. I personally don't fully trust this method yet, however the logic is solid. I just have a very specific way that I would like to achieve this myself.

Recommended Dosing Pumps

Fully Automate: Filter Changes

For filters like fiter socks to be effective, they need to be replaced roughtly every other day. This is because the waste that is caught breaks down in the filter sock and turns into nitrates and phosphates. The reality is that remembering to change these filters that frequently leaves a lot of room for error. This is where the Automatic Aquarium Fleece Filter Roller comes into play.

Automatic filter rollers use fleece pads that filter out debris and waste the same as filter socks. The filter roller rolls up the waste automatically, removing it from the water. Essentially acting as a filter sock change. All you have to do is replace the filter pad roll when it is full.

Recommended Automatic Filter Roller

Fully Automate: Automatic Water Changes

Automated water changes are becoming common place in the reef keeping hobby. There are MANY ways to achieve this, however, there are 2 ways that stand out above the rest. The first automated water change method includes using one or more high end aquarium dosing pumps to remove and replace a specific amount of water either daily or weekly. The second includes configuring an aquarium controller, pump, and series of sensors to handle the water change.

Using high end dosing pumps to do a water change is the most accurate method of changing water in an aquarium. It is also the easiest way. Simply set up the dosing pump to remove a certain amount of water and another one to add the water. That's it! The downside is that this method is slow for large aquariums. A 30 gallon water change may take a full day. Additionally, running the dosing pump for this long can wear it out quicker and lead to higher costs.

Using an aquarium controller, sensors, and a pump can be faster, and much easier on the equipment. The downside is that it is far more expensive and complicated. For example, you can set up a Neptune Apex Pro with a "full" and "low" optical sensor. The "full" sensor needs to be at the level of the sump when the return pump is off for this to work. Then connect a pump in the sump and a pump in the new salt water to the Neptune EB832.

What you would do is then at a given time, have the Aquarium Controller turn off the skimmer, heaters, return pumps, and any other equipment that may be affected by being out of water. Then after 5 or 10 minutes, have it turn on a "remove" pump until the "low" sensor is out of water. Then turn off the "remove" pump and turn on the "refill" pump until the "full" sensor is submerged. Then turn off the "refill" pump and turn the equipment back on.

You can see the difficulty, however, this makes large water changes automatic and quick. It doesn't cause a lot of stress on the equipment, and is overall a more techy solution.

For more information about Automatic Water Changes, please read Neptune Apex System - Auto Water Change System

Recommended Automated Water Change Methods

Fully Automate: Automatic Feeding

Depending on what you feed your fish, there are a few options that you can use to automate feeding. The simple solution is for dry foods. Automating feeding dry food is as simple as connecting a Neptune AFS (Auto Feeding System) and connecting it to your Neptune Apex. There are also cheaper options available such as the Noodoky Automatic Fish Feeder. Though I cannot speak to the quality of these products.

If you feed frozen or refrigerated foods, I have seen some people pick up a small mini-fridge, drill a hole through a safe location in the mifi fridge, and feed a dosing hose through. This would allow you to use a dosing pump such as the Ecotech Versa Dosing Pump or Neptune DOS to add food to the tank. You could even run a second line to have a dosing pump refill the container with water as it is pulled out. All you need to do is keep food defrosted as needed, and make sure the dosing pumps don't clog. I do not reccommend drilling through a mini fridge if you do not know what you are doing! There are gasses and electricity that could cause ingery. If you do this, I AM NOT RESPONSIBLE.

Recommended Automated Fish Feeders

Fully Automate: On-Off Control (Everything Else)

For everything else, you can control the equipment using controllable outlets. For reef tanks, the most common solution is to connect a reef tank controller with controlled outlets, such as the Neptune Apex or Hydros Control. For control that requires parameter input, such as temperature, pH, etc. this is the method you will need to take.

If you are controlling outlets on/off based on time, there are far cheaper options available. You can use a cheap Outlet Timer or Smart Plug to control outlets. This will save you money on easy to control on/off equipment, saving your controller outlets for more complicated control.

Recommended On-Off Control

What Isn't Automated?

Though there is a lot that can be automated, even a fully automated reef tank requires some human interaction. Most of this falls under supplying and maintaining the automation. Some tasks that are not automated include replacing RO/DI media, replacing filter media such as carbon or filter rolls, refilling test reagents, refilling dosing reservours, refilling food containers, replacing equipment such as heaters annually, mixing new salt water, and some general cleaning of probes and tubes to ensure they are not clogged or blocked.

You will also need to do some other minor maintenance tasks such as removing cheato algae and cleaning the glass. As well as determining how much of different additives, such as alkalinity and calcium, to add based on the results of the measurements over time.

Shop Coral at Reef Stable


Though there is currently not a perfect, fully-automated reef tank, if you implement all of the suggestions from this article, you will be 90% of the way there! You can automate daily tasks, and even annoying tasks such as water changes. Meaning all you will need to do is small weekly tasks like refilling all of the containers. This makes maintaining a reef tank SIGNIFICANTLY simpler. Likely leading to more success!

Share this article:
Pin it!

About the Author

Reef Stable Founder John Krenzer

John is a Software Engineer with a passion for saltwater aquariums, as well as the founder and president of Reef Stable. He started in the aquarium hobby as a child with a 20 gallon freshwater aquarium. His interest in aquarium life grew and in 2008, John set up his first saltwater aquarium.

Today, John maintains an over 300 gallon reef tank system, consisting of a 120g reef and a 210g reef. These large tanks are contained within the same system, sharing a sump as a means to reduce total maintenance and increase total water volume.

John writes articles for the blog as a means to learn about more reef aquarium topics. These articles act as a reference for the readers as well as himself. John updates these articles frequently to provide additional information or make corrections as new information becomes available.

If you would like to request an article, tank tour article, or to collaborate, let me know via the Contact Me Page!

About Reef Stable

Reef Stable was initially founded in 2019 as a reef tank parameter log to fill a need. Reef Stable quickly grew, becoming a location to solve all of your reef tank problems as well as a place to learn.

Reef Stable now provides a Reef Blog, Reef Aquarium Guides, Coral Care Guides, Identification and Solutions for Pests and Algae, and Reef Dosing Calculators, in addition to the original Reef Parameter Log.

Reef Stable continues to grow, striving to provide a single location for all your reef tank needs!

Swim With Us!

Follow Reef Stable on your Favorite Social Media Platforms!

Reef Stable Facebook PageReef Stable Instagram PageReef Stable Pinterest PageReef Stable Youtube Page

+1 (414) 810-7878

© 2019-2021 Reef Stable, LLC. All rights reserved.