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An equipment warning

Becca

CCA Members
Staff member
This is a hard post to write, and is bound to be a long one. On Wednesday morning I woke up to a tank full of dead and dying fish. Filters were running, temperature was correct. While moving the struggling survivors to a quarantine tank, I got out test kits. Ammonia - 0, Nitrates - 0, Nitrites - 0, pH 6.5. Perfect conditions for these fish. I opened up the filter to see if it was clogged, it was barely dirty. The tank had plenty of circulation, it's a 40 breeder with 2 powerheads and a canister filter, plus a very large air stone.

Those of you who know me, know I love my fish. I might not love them in the same way I love my dogs, but I do love them. My morning ritual involves taking a few minutes to sit in front of each tank in my living room and observe them. I do the same thing each evening after dinner. I take fishkeeping fairly seriously. The fish in this tank were not just among my favorites, but they were also rare. Almost every fish in the tank was endemic to the Rio Xingu or one of its large tributaries, the Rio Iriri. They were rapids-dwelling species, which makes them hard to collect and contributes to their relative rarity in the hobby. These fish are not just hard to find, they may soon be impossible to find because their habitats are threatened by dams, mining, farming, forest burning, etc.

I rechecked the fish for signs of illness. Some of them showed marked improvement in their new tank, others looked like they were likely too far gone. There were no signs of parasites, bacterial infection, fungus, etc. They were clean, perfect looking, aside from being obviously stressed. Somewhere in my mess of a brain I thought of something that seemed almost preposterous. It's something that comes up in saltwater fishkeeping, but not so often in freshwater - "leaking voltage."

You see, much of the equipment we use to keep our fish alive, warm, happy, and healthy is driven by electricity and operated submerged in water. It is not supposed to leak any significant amount of voltage but, given how corrosive saltwater is, it's been known to happen with some frequency in marine aquaria. I took out our volt-meter and checked. Readings jumped all over the place but were high enough to have an impact (at least 15 volts). I unplugged everything and checked - 0 volts. I plugged the pieces of equipment in one at a time and found the culprits. It wasn't just one piece of equipment, but two. These were made by the same manufacturer, Cobalt Aquatics. My fish, and all of the hopes of some minimal degree of conservation that went with them, had been killed by a NeoTherm heater and the pump for an EXT canister filter that was less than a year old. With both the pump and heater running, the voltage meter read as high as 29 volts.

I've reached out to Cobalt about this and will let folks know if and what I hear back. This was easily $350-$400 worth of fish - 6 adult Moenkhausia heikoi, an adult spawning pair of Teleocichla centrarchus, and an adult pair of Teleocichla sp. Xingu III "spots." I've ordered grounding probes, something I'd never even heard of until I googled how to check for electrical currents in an aquarium. I tested other tanks and the other "leaky' items I've found are Hydor powerheads/propeller pumps, but those are still small potatoes compared to this. I feel shame, failure, frustration, sadness, and anger. Moreover, I wonder how companies keep getting away with operating in ways that deplete their customer base. I'm unlikely to ever buy a Cobalt Aquatics product again and, although I used to recommend them often, I won't be doing that either. I will continue keeping fish.

I keep thinking about what something like this would mean for a newer hobbyist - perhaps someone whose fish kept dying and just gave up on the hobby because something like leaking voltage would never even occur to them. People have experiences like this and decide "fish suck." It drives people away from the hobby that clubs like CCA are trying to keep alive.
 

Tangcollector

CCA Members
Staff member
Becca,
Thank you for sharing that. It must be awful. What a great way to celebrate Thanksgiving. I too have recommended Cobalt but after having lost 5 Neotherms in 6 months( 4 stuck and one died) I will also never trust them again. I can buy a good heater run through a controller for the same amount of money and get some redundancy. Thanks for the post and I will now be checking all my tanks for voltage.
 

Becca

CCA Members
Staff member
Becca,
Thank you for sharing that. It must be awful. What a great way to celebrate Thanksgiving. I too have recommended Cobalt but after having lost 5 Neotherms in 6 months( 4 stuck and one died) I will also never trust them again. I can buy a good heater run through a controller for the same amount of money and get some redundancy. Thanks for the post and I will now be checking all my tanks for voltage.
It's worth noting that all electrical equipment (particularly the type with motors) will generate some induced current and it should not normally be enough to harm fish. Any more in-depth than that statement and opinions seem to vary WILDLY as to whether stray voltage really is a problem. That said, I'm giving grounding probes a try.
 

CichlidDan

Members
Sorry to hear about your fish losses. Unfortunately I've been reading a lot of Cobalt products malfunctioning, hopefully they get back to you. I hope you are able to find a source for the species you lost. I will keep an eye out if I see those species for sale somewhere I'll let you know.
 

Jim Anderson

CCA Members
Becca, that is an awful way to start the day nevemind the holiday long weekend. So sorry to hear that, thanks for sharing.
 
Sorry for the loss. There have been a number of Cobalt heater explosion accidents reported. But in your case, there was no explosion. I used to own an aluminum framed tank that when I touched the metal, I felt a slight electrical shock but no dead fish. So the electrical leak theory is just a suspect and could be something else. Has there been a power outage at night? A power surge can cause anaerobic condition in a canister and when the power returns, it can flush out toxic gas momentarily that won’t be detectable later.


 

JLW

CCA Members
I'm repeating myself, but its worth repeating. Voltage in water isn't really anything to worry about. Voltage isn't anything to worry about. I can hit you with 10,000 volts and you won't even feel it -- heck, the static shock you feel from pulling off a sweater is often twice this! Volts, for whatever reason, have gotten the reputation for being the scary aspect of electricity, but they're really a meaningless measure. Its amperage you gotta worry about, and more importantly, the combination of the two, power or wattage.

Fish are even more fortunate than us -- they're not often grounded. Because of that, they can survive very high power leaks, with no ill effect. If you've ever worked in retail, you've probably had the experience of some dumb f--ishkeeper putting an AIR pump into the water. It doesn't kill the fish, but boy does it hurt when your each in to get it. Ditto on a shattered glass heater. With soft water, the effect is even lower -- water is actually an insulator, its the salts and such that conduct electricity, and soft water has less of those. This is why voltage leaks aren't usually talked about with freshwater -- since our water is such a poor conductor vs marine water,its a much smaller problem (though, please don't electrocute yourself in the fish tank). Its fish that ground themselves that usually suffer first: bottom dwellers, loricarids, shrimp, and what not.

Leaked electricity in the tank can and will kill fish, but seldom suddenly. It messes with perception, lateral line sensing, and all that. Its a major stressor. They don't like to live in it, and it'll do them in over a few weeks, months, or longer. A grounding probe will help eliminate any minor leaks of electricity into the tank, and all aquariums should be on a GFCI circuit for safety, too.

If you stick a voltmeter into the tank, you're going to measure voltage. Always. This is from something called induced voltage. Basically, all those pumps and stuff work like miniature generators and create a small charge on the water itself -- fluorescent bulbs do this A LOT. They're not generating any power, just a bit of voltage, and its harmless. Becca, you said it was jumping all over? If it was a voltage leak from equipment, it would be fairly steady, and it would also likely match your home's voltage (~120V).

I don't think this was a case of voltage leak from the equipment.

A very simple test: reach into the tank with a papercut. If you can't feel the electricity, it isn't hurting the fish.
 

Becca

CCA Members
Staff member
No power outages, no spray cleaners, no diffusers, no essential oils, 2 other tanks in the same room that are more heavily stocked, and all else was normal. I only even thought to check voltage because of what I knew about cobalt malfunctions and because of the way the fish were spastically darting around.

I compared voltage from this heater to similarly sized heaters, including a Cobalt heater operating in another tank. My multimeter measures current but not amps, so I've ordered a new one to be sure.

The fish that I moved to another tank filled from the same rain barrel are doing fine. This is a tank I maintain more stringently than any other tank in the house. The longest it's ever gone without a water change is 2 weeks. The fish I lost had been in there longest.

I suppose I may never know the exact cause, but the only thing "off" that I could find was that it had higher voltage than any other tanks in the house, including those operating on much larger pumps and heaters.

I don't currently have any cuts on my hands to test with and I'm not in the habit of intentionally injuring myself.
 

Becca

CCA Members
Staff member
Sorry for the loss. There have been a number of Cobalt heater explosion accidents reported. But in your case, there was no explosion. I used to own an aluminum framed tank that when I touched the metal, I felt a slight electrical shock but no dead fish. So the electrical leak theory is just a suspect and could be something else. Has there been a power outage at night? A power surge can cause anaerobic condition in a canister and when the power returns, it can flush out toxic gas momentarily that won’t be detectable later.



Interesting- this is a 200 watt model. The other one purchased with it "stuck on" in a really weird way (apparently set itself to the highest level). I had tried to replace this one but had trouble ordering the setup I wanted to use (BRS, rarely in stock in a small enough size). This one was purchased in spring 2016 but I do not see a tag with the manufacture date on this or any of my other cobalt products.

The other one failed when it should've still been under warranty, but, by the time I got a response from Cobalt it was several months out of warranty. They offered me 50% off another heater - no thanks
 
After rereading your posts, I am more suspicious that voltage is the cause of death. Elevated voltage has no impact unless there is current generation by completing the circuit. Voltage built up in metal all the time in dry air, and when you touch it bare foot, you complete the circuit and get a shock. And I disagree that bottom feeding fish is more vulnerable to shock as the substrate is not grounded. I am wondering how you measured the voltage and do you have an ampere meter to measure the current. Interestingly, several vendors sell in tank electrolysis device that is said to inhibit algae growth, so direct current into the tank water apparently won't kill fish.


It appears that your dead and dying fish are rare rapids dwelling species. Some fish are just more sensitive and can die off at certain stage with no apparent causes. I have lost entire batches of grow outs several times mysteriously even though they had been thriving for months and I could never figure out the cause. Some fish are born with internal deformity that only manifest death at certain stage or there can be unidentified environmental factor that bother them.
 

Becca

CCA Members
Staff member
After rereading your posts, I am more suspicious that voltage is the cause of death. Elevated voltage has no impact unless there is current generation by completing the circuit. Voltage built up in metal all the time in dry air, and when you touch it bare foot, you complete the circuit and get a shock. And I disagree that bottom feeding fish is more vulnerable to shock as the substrate is not grounded. I am wondering how you measured the voltage and do you have an ampere meter to measure the current. Interestingly, several vendors sell in tank electrolysis device that is said to inhibit algae growth, so direct current into the tank water apparently won't kill fish.


It appears that your dead and dying fish are rare rapids dwelling species. Some fish are just more sensitive and can die off at certain stage with no apparent causes. I have lost entire batches of grow outs several times mysteriously even though they had been thriving for months and I could never figure out the cause. Some fish are born with internal deformity that only manifest death at certain stage or there can be unidentified environmental factor that bother them.

You are correct that they are rapids-dwelling fish - the tank was filled with rapids-dwelling fish. The plecos (L174 - also rapids-dwelling) survived and, although they seemed a little confused, don't seem to have suffered other ill-effects. Knowing that these fish come from relatively pristine waters, built up waste/blocked filtration was my original thought, but there was no indication of that in the water chemistry, color, or odor. I used a multimeter but it doesn't measure amperage. I should have my hands on one that does by the end of the week. The lemon tetras in the tank looked like hell and I was pretty sure at least 1 wouldn't make it, but they recovered.

The fish were all mature adults. The M. hekoi had lived several months (last Dec through April) growing out in a fish-room 40B that was not nearly as well-maintained as this one.

I mean, honestly, the only thing in my house that was "different than usual" was that I was watching JLW JLW 's dog for a few days. While Albus' farts stink, I didn't think they were actually deadly.
 

Becca

CCA Members
Staff member
So - update. I managed to get a hold of a human at Cobalt for a change (this is not the first time I've tried to reach them in the past 6 months).

I spoke to a guy named Thomas who wants me to send him the heater to test and says that, even if I can send him the required photos of dead fish and receipts for said fish, it's unlikely Cobalt will cover any of the losses though they might replace the heater if it's under warranty (no thanks). Honestly, I didn't think to look into an electrical cause until I'd already disposed of the dead fish (I tried to do this quickly because my kids were awake and asking uncomfortable questions about death) and I only have one picture that shows any of them. I don't have photos of all of the dead fish. I also don't have receipts for all of them because a few were purchased from club members. Seriously, my 3 y/o has been asking me if/when I'm going to die ever since Wednesday and my 7 y/o has had nightmares about things dying.

I'm planning to document any volt and amp readings on video before sending Cobalt my only piece of "evidence" at my own expense.
 
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