Aquarium Equipment: The Internet Accessible Aquarium for the Budget Conscious Aquarist
As a life-long technology geek and professional network administrator, I find myself in heaven whenever I can incorporate computers and gadgets into my reef aquarium setup. This is no better represented than in my implementation of an aquarium controller and a webcam to give me on the go, 24/7 control and monitoring of my reef aquarium. But the best part of it all is that this kind of technology is more affordable than ever. You could for example setup a webcam to monitor your aquarium while on vacation for as little as $75 depending on what network/Internet equipment you already have setup in your home. So while cost is not necessarily an obstacle, the expertise required to get something like this up and running can be daunting to the average technically challenged hobbyist.
My goal with this article is to give you the necessary information, presented at a layman's level, to get your reef aquarium up on the Internet. The Internet accessible aquarium will be discussed here from the standpoint of two particular pieces of equipment, the aquarium controller and the network webcam. While it is still possible to spend thousands of dollars on an aquarium controller and several hundred dollars on a state of the art network webcam, you can also do this at considerably less expense if you choose to implement a more modest monitoring and control scheme.
The budget aquarium controller
The aquarium controller is an accessory that would have set you back at least $500 a few years ago but this segment of the aquarium market has begun to see entry level Internet accessible controllers in the $150 (Neptune Systems Apex Jr) to $250 range (Digital Aquatics ReefKeeper Lite with NET module). So what can a budget controller do for me? Well for starters you will be able to control the on/off status of 4 electrical outlets, this can be used for timing light cycles, for thermostat control of temperature controlling devices (heaters, chillers, fans, etc.) and for controlling pumps for wave simulation or auto-top-off applications. A temperature probe is also standard at this level with the more expensive ReefKeeper Lite adding a 16 X 2 alpha-numeric, backlight display unit. But the most useful feature in both of these units is the built-in Ethernet port for remote Internet control and monitoring. Both of these controllers offer additional features (float switch control, pH and ORP monitoring and control, and additional controllable electrical outlets) via upgrade modules and the nice thing is that you don't need any of these upgrade modules for basic functionality and you can buy the additional modules and features as your needs or budget grows. The ability to program these controllers in a user friendly manner makes it possible to monitor, control and even automate just about anything in your home aquarium.
The budget network webcam
The network accessible webcam can provide you with real-time video of your aquarium and many of these are even able to feed this video to your iPhone or Android phone. The choices for an entry level Internet accessible webcam are many and they generally start in the $75 to $100 range. While not as versatile of a monitoring and control device as an aquarium controller, a network webcam can provide you with real-time pictures and video, which in some instances can tell you more than a controller ever could? I have even heard of one inventive hobbyist using his network webcam to monitor temperature and pH by simply pointing the camera to the LED readouts of his aquarium's thermometer and pH probe monitor, essentially creating an Internet accessible temperature and pH monitor for much less than it would cost with a controller. A camera can also be focused on the water surface of your tank, to easily monitor your water circulation system (no water surface agitation might mean your pump just went on the fritz and you better get home to take care of it). These are just a few examples of what you can do with an Internet accessible webcam and a few more dollars invested in this monitoring technology can even yield you an Internet controllable camera, one you can pan and zoom from you mobile device or laptop. Suddenly the possibilities are endless!
Now that you know what these devices can do and how much they will cost you, it's time to talk about what it will take to make it all work. Depending on the features, usefulness and user-friendliness built into the device this can be anywhere from pretty easy to a total nightmare. While I can't possibly cover every device available and their uniquely different setup instructions, I can outline for you some useful information and tips to will make the purchase, setup and installation as painless as possible.
Let's first cover the hardware side of things. You will need the following items in order to be able to connect to your aquarium from the Internet.
- The device you are trying to connect with. As mentioned earlier we will only cover the aquarium controller and network webcam in this article.
- A router. This is the device that will route the Internet traffic from your modem (the box that plugs into your Internet provider's outlet) to the webcam or controller. Routers come in two versions.
- Wired-only - These require an Ethernet cable in order to connect to the controller or webcam. If you get a wired-only router you will also want to make sure your controller or webcam has an Ethernet port to connect to. Both of the controller's mentioned earlier have an Ethernet port with the ReefKeeper Lite needing the NET module for this functionality.
- Wi-Fi - These use wireless radio signals to connect to your controller or webcam. Wi-Fi routers generally allow for Ethernet connections also so they provide the most flexibility. You will need a controller or webcam that is Wi-Fi accessible in order to connect via Wi-Fi. The two controllers mentioned earlier do not have Wi-Fi built in but most network webcams do.
- A modem. This is either the cable or DSL modem which you use to connect to the Internet. If you are currently online via cable or DSL high-speed Internet service then you have a modem already installed at your home. Note that some Internet service providers include a device that combines the functionality of a modem and Wi-Fi router into one device. If this is what you currently have in your home then you'll be able to save the expense of having to buy a separate router.
- Ethernet cable. If you choose or are forced to choose a wired network connection between your router and controller/webcam then you may need to purchase an Ethernet cable. Many times this cable is included with the router or controller/webcam purchase but depending on your unique installation needs you might have to purchase a longer cable since the ones usually included for free are only 3 or 4 feet long. Note that a single cable run may not exceed 100 meters according to the Ethernet cabling standards.
The following two diagrams depict a simplified connectivity scheme for getting your webcam or controller to be accessible from the Internet.
You now know the equipment you'll need but you'll still have to pick out the brand and model that will work best for your situation. The following section will offer tips for making the right purchase decision.
Shopping for a controller
If you are shopping for a budget controller, the two choices I mentioned previously should probably be on your short list. Look around on the web for reviews by reputable publications and hobbyist. Snoop around in one of their support forums and see if there are lots of issues with the hardware or software. When there are problems, is the manufacturer quick to respond on their support forums? Are firmware updates regularly offered to provide bug fixes? Download the controller's manual and see if you find it easy to understand and program. Most importantly, write down what you want your controller to do and be sure the functionality is available either in the controller or through an upgrade module.
Shopping for a webcam
While most people call these webcams, we are actually shopping for netcams (network webcams). The difference is that webcams need a PC to physically connect to in order to function on your home's network while netcams can directly connect to your network and host video streaming services. While you could get away with a cheaper webcam connected to a PC or laptop, this will further complicate the installation since the webcam will have to be in close proximity to a PC or laptop that is on and connected to the Internet. Under this setup your computer will function as the web server streaming your camera's video. With a webcam, no computer means no streaming video so that if you take the laptop that connects to the webcam with you on your vacation trip you will not be able to access video from the webcam. If you decide to go with the much more versatile netcam then be prepared to pay a bit more and to have to make a more complicated purchase decision. You will first have to choose between wireless and wired netcams. The wireless model will give you more flexibility with regards to the installation but it will make the network configuration a bit more complicated while likely adding to the cost of the camera. The most important feature of your netcam will be the quality of the video it captures. Resolution, frame rate, color accuracy, white balance and the quality of the focus mechanism will all play a part in the quality of the video captured. This is where you will want to read reviews of actual users and see real world video samples of the network camera. It is important to note that while a camera might deliver perfectly fine outdoor daylight video, it might be a poor performer under indoor lights. The camera's ability to properly adjust to a reef aquariums lighting will significantly affect the camera's performance also. Hop on to your favorite aquarium web forum and ask to see what others are using and how they rate their netcam's performance. Finally a netcam with remote pan and zoom capabilities will increase the camera's usefulness but be sure that whatever device you intend to use for your monitoring is capable of using these features.
Shopping for a router
If you are going with a wireless router then be sure you match up the Wi-Fi protocols available on your controller or camera with those of your router. For example, if your netcam supports 802.11n (Commonly called Wi-Fi CERTIFIED n) with a data rate of 150 Mbit/s then try to get a router with support for the same specifications. Getting a router with a slower and older standard (Wi-Fi b for example) will force a Wi-Fi n capable netcam to run at a lower compatibility speed. Be sure to match up security encryption protocols also so that you can properly secure your home's wireless network. WPA2 is the most secure Wi-Fi encryption protocol and you should try to setup your Wi-Fi router to use this for encryption and authentication. And finally buy a newer model router as these have greatly improved their user-friendliness right out of the box.
Setting it all up
Now that you have all the pieces in your possession, it's time to connect it all together and configure the various devices involved. The fact that you are reading this article makes it very likely that you at least have Internet access in your home so this guide will work under that assumption.
Setting up the Router
You will now want to setup your router according to your router's setup instructions and verify that once the router is installed that you are still able to access the Internet. The following tips will help when configuring the router.
- Understanding what is actually taking place during a router installation will help you to troubleshoot any problems that arise during the install. Here is a quick layman's rundown.
- Your computer (laptop, desktop) currently connects directly to your cable or DSL modem (we'll call it just modem from here on) for Internet access. Most likely the physical connection to the modem is through an Ethernet cable that connects to the back of your computer via a jack that is similar in appearance to a telephone jack (RJ45)
- Your computer's IP address is the local address assigned to your computer by the modem to allow for data traffic to be properly delivered. Use this link to find out your computer's IP address ( www.reglos.de/myaddress )
- Your router will need to come between your modem and your computer. It will essentially become a middle man with sole access to the modem. Any computer or device wishing to get out on the Internet will need to be connected to the router. The router's main purpose is to allow the sharing of your Internet gateway (modem) so that multiple computers and devices can simultaneously access your home's Internet connection.
- Once installed the router will take over from the modem the duties of assigning IP addresses to all computers and devices connecting on your home's network. Any traffic needing to go out on the Internet will be passed from the router to the modem.
- The easiest way to get your router installed is to follow the router's setup instructions. A more condensed, quick setup guide is often included and is most useful. If you are instructed to first install the software included on a CD then be sure to do that first. Most of the newer models install a software wizard that will often instruct you on what to plug in, where to plug it in and when to plug it in.
- If configuring a wireless router keep in mind that somewhere during the installation process you will need to name your wireless network, decide whether to make the network's name visible (I would recommend you do make it visible), the kind of encryption you wish to implement if any (I would recommend WPA2), the password key to use when joining a PC to the network, and finally the password to access the router's configuration utility. There are likely other features that can be implemented and configured but the one's I just listed are the most important. One additional feature you will want to implement is port forwarding but you'll want to do that once you have setup your aquarium monitoring device.
Setting up your aquarium's monitoring device (controller or netcam)
To keep within the scope of this article, I will only be covering the network configuration of your controller or camera. Since the specific setup will vary from device to device, I will simply provide you with the information you will need to setup the networking functions. You'll want to consult your documentation to find out where to make the network configuration input.
- You will need to assign your device an IP address that is in the range of your networks IP addresses (subnet). The easiest way to do this is to allow the device to use DHCP to get its IP address from the router. While a DHCP address assignment is by default temporary, you can change this setting in the router's configuration to allow for a permanent IP assignment. So set your device to DHCP and let it grab an address from the router. Doing the network configuration using DHCP keeps you from having to input the IP address, the subnet mask, the default gateway and the DNS servers. The controller or camera will ask the router for this information and make the appropriate entries.
- The one setting you might have to assign manually is the device's port assignment. Consult your controller or camera's documentation to find out how to make the port assignment. A port number above 1,001 is likely a safe assignment. A 4 digit number of your choosing will work just fine.
- Now, there is just one more step to complete on the monitoring device and that is the assignment of an access user name and password. Be sure to pick a strong password that is at least 8 characters and includes a combination of numbers, letters, capital and lower case letters. Remember that you are in the process of putting your aquarium's controller or netcam on the world's public network. You don't want some hacker playing around with your controller or snooping in on video captured in your home so make sure to use strong credentials.
- Now that your controller has a specific IP address and port assignment the only thing left to do is to make the DHCP IP address assignment for your device permanent and to setup port forwarding on the router. Essentially this will allow Internet traffic destined for your device to successfully make it past your router and to the controller or netcam. Again follow your router's instructions as this is implemented a little differently on all routers. The DHCP permanent assignment is usually done in the DHCP section of your router's configuration utility. Port forwarding is usually also in its own section of the configuration utility. For the DHCP permanent assignment you will need to know the address currently assigned to the monitoring device and then input that address information as a permanent assignment entry. This will assure that your device will always receive the same IP address assignment, preventing other computer and devices on your network from every being assigned that address. Port forwarding will require you to know the IP address assignment of your controller or netcam and the port # assignment. Port forwarding is essentially just a list that includes the IP address and port # of your controller or netcam and because of its addition to this list, the router will allow Internet originated traffic to pass to your controller or netcam. Without port forwarding the Internet traffic never gets beyond the router.
Extra's that make the Internet accessible aquarium even better
Dynamic DNS is something you might want to consider when hosting Internet services from your home's private network. Because your Internet service provider doesn't exactly want you hosting Internet services with the connection they provide you for home use they don't always give you the options available to a business who's intention is to host Internet services. One option which makes hosting Internet services all that more convenient is the assignment of a permanent registered IP addresses that corresponds to a registered domain name. This is what makes it so easy for a business hosting a service (an Internet discussion forum for example) to just tell you to go to www.forumport.com to access their forum.
Not having a static registered IP address makes it possible for your Internet gateway's IP address to change from time to time. So here is the dilemma: You have your controller or netcam all setup to be accessed from the outside world. You have found out by visiting www.whatismyip.com that your current Internet gateway's IP address is XXX.XXX.XXX.135. Armed with this information you know that if you go to Starbucks and point your browser to that IP address with the appropriate port number appended to the address that you will get access to your controller or netcam. The problem arises when your Internet service provider changes your gateway's IP address assignment to XXX.XXX.XXX.129. This change renders your aquarium inaccessible from the Internet. This is easily fixed by again visiting www.whatismyip.com to find out the new address but the problem is that you have to visit the whatismyip.com website from a computer inside of your home's network. Now you have to leave Starbucks, go to your house, connect to your home's router and open a browser to www.whatismyip.com in order to get the new address. You can see how this would be highly inconvenient particularly if you were on vacation far away from your home. A dynamic DNS service such as www.dyndns.com helps you avoid this by providing you with an easy-to-remember Internet address such as www.mycontroller.dyndns.org. The best part with a dynamic DNS service is that your router can be configured to update your dynamic DNS service provider with your new Internet gateway IP should it ever change. Some router's do not support this update feature but your dynamic DNS service provider likely has a free computer program that will automatically do the address update.
There are mobile apps for the Apple mobile devices as well as the Google Android-based mobile devices which will give you customized access to your aquarium controller or netcam. An Internet browser can also be used on your mobile device or your computer to access your aquarium monitoring device. Don't waste your time and money on an app which does not explicitly support your device. Most mobile apps have a free light-version available which you can use to test for usefulness and compatibility prior to paying for the full version of the app.
I also use a website that host a portal into your aquarium monitoring devices. This website allows me to access my controller and netcam from one location. These portal sites can offer added functionality and are often free of charge. A list containing this portal site's address and other useful information follows this article so be sure to check it out. Keep in mind that every setup will be unique and have its own challenges, but the basics outlined in this article will go a long ways towards assuring success. As I always advocate, take advantage of your local reef club and online forums. There is no better resource in getting your device up and running than someone who has experience doing it themselves. And finally, be sure to pass along any knowledge you gain in your setup process to your fellow hobbyist but try not to boast too much about the fact that you can now turn off the lights in your tank from your phone!
About the Author: Raul Roman holds a Bachelor of Science degree and has over 20 years experience in the saltwater aquarium hobby. This experience ranges from hobbyist to owner and operator of a coral propagation business. Raul's current involvement in the hobby is as the president of the Marion Ocala Reef Enthusiasts and the caretaker of his 150 gallon garden eel dominated reef aquarium. Raul can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org for comments or questions.
- Dynamic DNS: www.dyndns.com
- Port forwarding: www.portforward.com
- Controller and Netcam hosting portal: www.reeftronics.net
- Neptune Systems AquaControllers: www.neptunesys.com
- Digital Aquatics Controllers: www.digitalaquatics.com
- Digital Aquatics Reef Central forum: http://reefcentral.com/forums/forumdisplay.php?f=329
- Neptune Systems Reef Central forum: http://reefcentral.com/forums/forumdisplay.php?f=368
- Ken's Reef (Neptune Systems info and utilities): http://www.kenargo.com/