Arduino based LED controller review

Discussion in 'Equipment' started by sfsuphysics, Sep 19, 2015.

  1. sfsuphysics

    sfsuphysics Supporting Member

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    With all the glory of fancy all-in-one controllers like the Neptune Apex and ReefAngel controller, I figured I'd jump into the DIY side of things, and review a couple LED controllers I've had the benefit of using.

    Why Arduino based? Why not just get an Apex?
    Two primary reasons, first is functionality, at the time (I'm unsure if this has changed) the Apex was limited to 0-10V analog dimming, this is fine if you're using it with a multitude of brand name LEDs (AI, Ecotech, etc), as that is what they use, however if you're using any sort of DIY leds, you're in the PWM arena of dimming. I'm not going to bore you by going over the difference in PWM & analog, there are plenty of websites out there that do and you can google them, but needless to say I went the DIY route, so I needed PWM. Now you can buy converters, to make control PWM, but they're 3rd party, and if you have something like an Apex I feel you should get what you want out of the box and not try to kludge together a solution. AFAIK the ReefAngel does do PWM as well as analog, but I believe that's because it is Arduino based.

    The second reason, and this is always an important factor, is cost. With other controllers you need the entire controller which costs a pretty penny, and then if you want to dim, you need to buy a module to do that, and those modules actually cost considerably more than both of these products I'm about to review. And no offense towards Neptune but some of their expansion ports are quite limited considering the investment you put into that thing, now this may not be an issue for some people, in which case more power to them, but for me it would be an issue.

    What is Arduino? Why do i have 2 controllers?
    Without going into too much detail (again Google, if you want the nitty gritty), Arduino is kind of an all-in-one DIY kit architecture to making electronics devices. That said the controllers I'm reviewing do not require you to DIY much of anything, and you don't need to know how to program anything, they're already programmed and put together and ready to go right out of the package, they're simply based on the Arduino chipset.

    And I do not have 2 controllers, I simply pulled a boner with the first one, where it was in a spot such that I did something which allowed water to drip onto it. So my replacement I decided to try another one, just to see what other options are out there. Needless to say this one is situated where water will not drip down on it :)

    Typhon LED Controller
    This is the first controller I had, and is based off of some a design some DIYers did. Now being as they freely posted it, I think some other companies simply used their work to monetize the idea, which may be sketchy, but in the grand scheme of things it works better for most people, and it's not like the original guys were selling it either. However different companies will have their name printed on the boards.

    This controller can controller 4 different channels individually, or you can turn up them all on/off or any fraction of output you desire. You can set the maximum output level of your LEDs too, if you wanted to not max out a particular channel when it went to full brightness. Each channel can slowly ramp up to the desired level you want as well, so this isn't a matter of off/on only like with metal halides or T5 setups, you can set the how long it takes to get max brightness too, so if you want your blues to come on at 8am and slowly ramp up to maximum intensity at 10am and if you what your white channels to come on at 10am and quickly get to max intensity by 11am you can do that. The fading is symmetrical, meaning the fade time you set for the rise will be the same as set.

    The interface is done via 4 buttons on the front, one is a select, another is a confirm, the other two are essentially +/- changes, it might take a bit of practice to figure out which does what, but once you have it setup most people probably do not need to ever change their lighting setups. And with a couple button presses you can turn your lights on if you need an emergency night time light over the tank. You could do a moonlight for your tank too, but at the expense of one of the channels, which may or may not be an issue.

    Pros
    Cheapest @ $45
    Very straight forward control

    Cons
    Only 4 channels (may not be a con for you though)
    Limited case options available.

    You can pick up something like this from StevesLEDs or any number of other online reef stores.

    Corallux Storm LED controller
    This was my replacement controller, there is an updated StormX controller, but for what I need I figure this is more than sufficient. I got this mostly because I could pick it up from RapidLED (shop local! :D... and they're a sponsor... I think) but yeah mostly because I could swing to their offices in Burligame and pick it up. It differs from the Typhon in a number of ways as well, and I wanted to try out some of them.

    The first thing that is immediately different from this one is that you can control up to 6 separate channels, now again this may or may not be needed, but having more is always good IMO :) The programming menus are different than the Typhon controller, it has two levels of control, the first is simply cycling through either your programmed setup, manual percentage change of your LEDs, and ON/OFF, this is a little more straight forward for emergency changing IMO, then there's the programming part which an extra bit of effort to get into, but programming is straight forward. I actually like this design this way you can't accidentally screw up something on the programming side of things.

    You do have more options as far as what to do with the lights, including a minimum dim level, so if you wanted you could simply have one channel stay on ultra-dim and be your moonlights, and still use that channel's LEDs as part of your overall lighting scheme during the day. You can set up your sunrise/sunset to mimic a particular latitude if you wish as well and the sunrise/set will change throughout the year (although this is not something I plan on using). There's also a storm simulation where you can set up a frequency of "random" storms and cloud cover, now some might swear that changing the intensity might have benefits to your reef tank because that's how it happens in the wild.. me.. I'm not sold on that. If there's one thing I'm not particularly happy about the programming is how all the LED channels are in some way tied together. Instead of each channel having a separate sunrise/set and ramp up time, they all share the same ramp up time, basically when all channels are at their maximum. So while I can delay when channels start to come on, I can't have say the blue channel at maximum intensity and then have the white channel starting to ramp up, which this might not seem like a lot, this was a pretty big kick in my nuts, I'll probably live with it though so it is what it is.

    The interface for this is a single knob, the knob turns to select a particular menu item, and then you can press the knob down to select, or a long press to confirm/exit. Overall I like the simplicity of this interface much more so than the Typhon. You can also attach a temperature probe to the thing, I didn't buy one of those because I wasn't quite sure what use that would be, as I already have a temperature probe for my tank. One aspect I also found, but didn't like, was that on the 2nd and 3rd pins they don't dim to zero, they dim to 1% and when they go to zero the channel goes full power, there is a work around by using a 10K resistor but for the life of me I do not know why this is a function.

    Pros
    More channels
    Simpler interface
    More case options
    More programming options (clouds, etc)

    Cons
    Channels not truly independent, there still is some dependence between them
    A bit more expensive $65
    Channel 2 & 3 doesn't dim to zero without some effort on your hand (beyond programming)

    Again you can pick up something like this from RapidLED, or any number of other places too, the upside is most places sell for the same price (not sure if it's MAP pricing, which I am not a fan of, but it is what it is).

    So overall, these LED controllers are quite useful if you're doing a DIY direction on your lights, or even if you're not since they also have the option of doing 0-10V analog signals. Now they won't have a slick interface that you can get with Apex via a smartphone, but then again I feel that once you find what you want you won't ever need to use that interface ever again, now some people might have different opinions on that which is fine, maybe they want to turn their lights on for guests that come over outside of their lighting schedule. But for me, being as I don't own an Apex, and a 4-channel module is going to run you at least $100 on top of the cost of an Apex (or ReefAngel, or Reefkeeper), I found this to be a much better value. Plus I'm the kind of person who wants to be able to fiddle with things, even if it's something as simple as plugging in cables, and what not.
     
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  2. rygh

    rygh Supporting Member

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    Nice write up!

    My LED controller is an Arduino as well, total DIY version.
    Agree that fancy controls are not important.
    And simpler can be more reliable as well.

    I do have some buttons to turn on lights for visitors, although disconnected, since almost never used.

    The main problem with Arduino though - really weak network connectivity.
    Which matters even for controlling lights.
    Two key features:
    1) Getting TIME OF DAY automatically.
    2) Basic logging, to make sure all is well.

    You can get a network card for Arduino, which I have as well. But that is not so great either.
    Hardware is ok. The limiting factor is the weak network stack an Arduino can run.
    And I have a Mega.

    You can put on a small real time clock module, but they are rather poor also.
    Unless automatically updated with NNTP, they drift rather substantially.

    I have been switching over to RaspberryPi. I hope some of the simple semi-DIY like
    above do as well.
     
  3. sfsuphysics

    sfsuphysics Supporting Member

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    Well the network connectivity isn't a problem with me... because I don't care about it :D If the time drifts it's not a huge huge deal either, although I haven't noticed any time discrepancies worth caring about. As to the logging, eh... again, I see my tank at least 4 times a day, once to open up the door to let the cats out in the early early morning, feeding twice a day, and then once at night to close up everything and make sure cats are back inside, so that's been a fairly good log of whether or not the lights are working so far :) Of the issues I have, it's never been controller based (if you exclude that salt water drip fiasco), some of the worst things that have happened 1) realizing that brass and copper in a humid environment with DC power running through it will cause galvanic corrosion, and worst 2) apparently stranded copper lamp cable will start to corrode and arc as well (still trying to wrap my mind around this one).
     

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