Feature Article: The Innovative Aquarium Products of InterZoo 2010
The international pet product trades show in Nuremberg, Germany this past May was a smorgasbord of new marine and reef aquarium products. Some of these new products for aquariums were unique, some creative, some were great and others were really bad. All of these qualities are not mutually exclusive; many of these aquarium products were innovative and many of them deserve further attention. Obviously the question of whether a product is innovative or useful is totally subjective but I hope you'll just take this article as a mini review of products which are interesting enough to write about. If nothing else, take these products as harbingers of concepts which have wider implications for what kind of concepts can help us all to run better marine and reef aquariums.
The Evo3 from Genesis is an interesting device which is kind of like a steampunk DialySeas machine. Instead of using a thin film membrane and water to constantly remove wastes that are dissolved in the water, the Evo3 Titanium uses a roll of filter material and a water wheel to dole out the paper filter as needed based on the amount of waste clogging up the filter paper. The way the Evo3 works is by having the filter paper wrap around a large cylindrical titanium basket. The large basket offers up a large surface area for water to flow through and be mechanically filtered. The filter basket is contained within a box of a modest size and about ten inches deep. As the filter paper around the basket becomes clogged and passes less water, the level of water in the box rises and eventually overflows via a dedicated pipe. This overflow pipe feeds water to a waterwheel which is connected to a waste filter paper collection roll. As the filter paper around the basket becomes clogged, the water level in the Evo3 box rises, overflows to a waterwheel, when it turns so does the waste collection roll which also pulls in fresh paper over the filter basket, causing the water level to drop in the box and the cycle begins all over again.
The Evo3 looks and sounds like a Rube Goldberg machine and I had my doubts when I first came across it. However, watching the Evo3 do its thing over the better part of a week gave me a sense of confidence that the design was robust and in fact, the Evo3 has been cleaning up ponds for the better part of five years. What is new is the Evo3 Titanium which features all custom made bearings, filter cage and bolts that are machined from titanium to absolutely eliminate the risk of corrosion when used in a marine water environment. My enthusiasm for the Evo3 is less about what it can do for marine fish tanks now, than what the concept of constant mechanical nutrient export can do for managing water quality of aquarium water. At $2000-2500 a piece the Evo3 is far from affordable but with future expansions on the concept of automated mechanical filtration perhaps future low nutrient SPS tanks will rely more on steam punk mechanical filtration ingenuity than starving Acros and Montis like bulimic super model corals.
The manual protein skimmer neck cleaner from Deltec is not a standalone product as much as it is a feature. Beginning very soon, selected models of Deltec skimmers will come with the option of having this manual neck cleaner which is basically a double bladed squeegee that rides the inside of the protein skimmer neck. The manual neck cleaner is rotated by twisting the lid of the skimmer cup. The first thing that struck me about the manual neck cleaner for Deltec protein skimmers is why the motorized version came before the manual one. Perhaps the motorized skimmer neck cleaner was first introduced because of the perception that a self cleaning head needed to be a very constant operation to prevent big globs of gunk from falling back into the skimmer body. Depending on how the skimmer is performing, it stands to reason that twisting the lip and neck cleaner every few days would remove a small amount of accumulated proteins which could then be easily foamed out the skimmer neck. My guess is that the increased overall performance of the protein skimmer with a cleaner neck would outweigh some of the protein skimmate which might return to the system. Also keep in mind that this Deltec feature is only the archetype of the manual protein skimmer neck cleaner and the concept is screaming to be elaborated on.
You can picture how my eyes rolled when I was walking past the Aquatic Nature booth and a representative said he had a special fish net he wanted to show me. I could not fathom how in the world a fishnet could ever be worthy of writing about but then he pressed the net against the aquarium glass and the epiphany of this device's usefulness was immediately apparent. You see, the Aquatic nature fish net is not only clear and light colored to make less visible underwater but the fish net incorporates a thick piece of silicone between the head of the net and the end of the handle so that the net can easily be pressed against the aquarium glass to catch the desired aquarium fish and to keep it from escaping. Like Deltec's manual neck cleaner I already wrote about, the flexible fishnet from Aquatic Nature is an idea so simple it's a wonder why no one has ever thought of it. Sure the Flexi net is not going to keep aquarists up at night waiting in anxiety to get their fins on state of the art fish capture technology but, for busy aquarium shops who sell a lot of livestock the flexible fishnet is sure to be a welcome addition to the tools of the trade.
The last really simple and novel product that I came across at InterZoo is actually a whole category of products. In recent years certain aquarium manufacturers began taking notice of the clip on propeller fans which are often used to increase evaporative cooling of aquarium water. These fans are clipped on the side of the aquarium and they are in your face, really taking away from the aesthetic of the aquarium. Vortex fans use a rotor which is more like an impeller in that they "pump" air through a narrow channel and direct this airflow to the aquarium's water surface. What sets vortex aquarium fans apart from regular clip on fans is that the main operating parts can hang on the side of the aquarium and their slim profile makes them easy to hide behind the aquarium. The only part of the vortex aquarium fan which is plainly visible is the small channel that is integrated into the holder on the edge of the aquarium. One model we saw even had a adjustable outlet and when angled straight down it did a fine job of rippling the surface and increasing glimmer lines. Vortex aquarium fans with the hang-on back of the aquarium design were represented by models from Dymax of Singapore, Kotobuki of Japan and several other OEM manufacturers from China.
Speaking of glimmer lines, if someone had told me that two of the more memorable devices at InterZoo would be return/draining devices I would have told them to get outta dodge. First up is the Xinout combination return and draining device from the Italian company Xaqua. The Xinout kit comes with a decent draining component that is both an ideal sized strainer and a silencing kind of drain fitting, a high quality silicone hose for the return line and a vacuum hose for the drain. Sounds pretty mundane but the real fun is where the return device comes in. With no moving parts, the return component of the Xinout pulses the water in a rhythmic motion that is based on the flow rate. There are no diaphragms and no moving parts in this thing and it's just bizarre to watch it pulse with water flowing through it and nothing but fluid dynamics producing the pulsed effect. I took a good look at the inner chamber of the Xinout and all I could gather is that there is an egg shaped cavity at the point where the water is directed at a ninety degree angle. At the moment the pulsing motion is really good at producing extra large ripples which are more aesthetic than anything, helping to increase the amount of glimmer lines coming from point source lighting. With some trial and error it might be possible to adjust an Xinout return device to pulse at a frequency that resonates with the dimensions of an aquarium to get more harmonic wave motion a la Tunze Wavebox or Vortech pump. There is virtually no other information available on the Xinout from Xaqua but I hope that it gets puts through wider aquarium use in the future so we can all learn what this thing is really capable of.
The second noteworthy aquarium water plumbing device I spotted at InterZoo is the Mame Nano Overflow, an elegant and ingeniously designed overflow and return device. If you try to imagine the path that water takes when flowing through a conventional overflow box, and simplify that image to a single continuous tube you get the Nano Overflow. The Nano Overflow is made of three pieces of handmade glass connected together with tightly fitting vinyl tubing. The center piece of glass is actually the middle of the drain line and the only piece of the return line which are fused together by thick sections of solid glass. The return tubing has a built in venturi which is set up to draw in the air that normally accumulates on the last bend of the drain tube, same as you would on the U-tube of a classic overflow box. The venturi of the Nano Overflow can automatically restart the siphon in case of a power interruption or other siphon break. When I looked closely at the Mame Nano Overflow I couldn't help but be reminded of a classic freshwater device, the Lily Pipe made by Aqua Design Amano.
Mame only makes four products so it's such a surprise that another one of their most recent products is also quite memorable from the ocean of aquarium product from InterZoo. I saw well over 100 different LED lights, strips, tubes, lamps and just about every other form factor you can conjure up. There was a number of aquarium lights using RGB LEDs that offered a degree of custom color control but the Mame Eco-Light was a real standout effort at doing RGB reef lighting. The 49 watt Eco-Light is actually the fifth version of this particular product and the build and finish of it really made it stand out from lots of hastily completed prototypes that were the norm at InterZoo. Furthering the cause is Mame's inclusion of yellow LEDs which makes the Mame Eco-Light the first RGBY LED aquarium light and with 49 watts of diodes in less than a square foot, the power ought to be well enough for a medium sized nano reef. If you think that RGB lighting is corny, well that's because you haven't seen what RGB LEDs can do because you haven't seen Mame's RGBY Eco-Light. Furthermore, custom control of color and intensity of LEDs will become the standard for the solid state lighting in the future so we might as well figure out how to make it work for aquariums now.
If you've been jaded by a slew of new LED fixtures that are hard to justify in the reefing budget, then get a hold of the LED tubes from Econlux that are the same T5 and PC shaped lamps you're already using. Sure you've seen fluorescent shaped t00bs with LEDs in them but these are uniquely designed to be powered by the ballast that is driving your existing HO T5 lamps and power compacts. Econlux was showing these plug and play LED replacement tubes for conventional t00b technology in a wide number of sizes and power ratings. Econlux didn't seem too interested in bringing these to market themselves as much as making them for regional lighting markets that would be OEM'd for other companies. Presumably we'll one day be able to walk into a fish store and pretend to buy a replacement in a shape we are familiar with but instead it will be loaded with the light emitting diodes as opposed to the much shorter lived fluorescents. Imagine if a single lamp could be built with a wide range of LED colors with blue and white LEDs that would accomplish similar effects as the dual colored power compact lamps. This hoop-dream of plug and play LED lamps that replace fluorescent lights could take a while to become widely available and it's viability really depends on how cost and performance of full blown LED lights change progresses in the future.
The last really memorable product from InterZoo that I want to tell you about is the HD touchscreen aquarium controller called the Vertex Cerebra. The Cerebra is interesting not only for it's ultra modern touch screen interface and iPad-esque form factor but also for it's applications. Much like the Apple Music store of the App store the Cerebra will have its own app market where developers will be able to sell or give away their aquarium apps. Theoretically the apps could control anything that the Cerebra interfaces with which for now is limited to the Vertex line of products which includes lots and lots of very new products. If you think about it, the Vertex Cerebra is copying Apple's iEcosystem of products and services which in itself is far from innovative. However, if you consider that it might one day be possible for an inexperienced aquarist to buy an equipment set, download an app to control it all and have it tuned to run as a Chalice coral tank or a high energy SPS tank, well that's bold new ground my friend. The concept that the Vertex Cerebra is trying to bring to the aquarium hobby will have an uphill battle of price (the Cerebra will almost surely cost more than an iPad), applications that run on popular smartphones and open software and hardware controllers that are currently under development for the aquarium hobby.
It's easy to criticize new products, products for which a market category may not yet exist. I am sometimes accused of being overly optimistic about the potential of new products for the aquarium hobby. I think it's way too easy to pick at everything that can go wrong with a certain device or invention and it's all too easy to kick the legs out from a concept before it's really been given a chance. InterZoo 2010 certainly delivered on a load of new products for use on small and large aquariums and many of them may not be revolutionary in themselves. However, the ideas these products represent can shed insight on new ways to perform common tasks like lighting a reef tank, catching a fish with a net or getting water in and out of an aquarium. I hope readers will consider the ideas that I tried to illustrate in the new products from this ginormous trade show because it'll be another two years before we get another massive wave of innovation in the aquarium hobby until the next InterZoo conference.