Jake Adams and the folks over at ReefBuilders recently published a video about a spectacular custom installation in California. AcroOptics built the lighting system for this uncompromising project, and we are thrilled with the results. It’s great to see this reef mature, and intriguing to see how the client has utilized the capabilities of the light system. In many reefs, corals with varying light requirements are moved vertically in the water column to receive the light intensity desired. In this reef, thanks to AcroOptics’ sectional control, these zones are horizontal, creating beautiful and natural-looking transitions between reef habitats.
Inspired by the amazing livestock and the development of the reef, we thought it would be fun to take a stroll down memory lane to explain how our portion of the build came together. (Full disclosure, we are about to get our engineering geek on.)
Sam Slobusky, founder of Wet Work out of New Orleans, oversaw the larger project. He reached out to us to see if we would be interested in handling the high-end, complex lighting requirements (and to get a sense of whether we could pull it off, I’m sure). After an initial meet-and-greet over some local Colorado brew, Sam outlined the full project. Bottomline, Wet Work’s vision was a “dream reef” and AcroOptics was definitely interested!
Everything from the architectural aesthetics to the ease of maintenance was clearly well thought out. I could spend pages covering all of the cool aspects of the installation, but we are light guys, so let’s jump to the goodies.
The design called for a 70” seamless fixture with a clean “edgeless” look. A one-piece canopy would cover a low-profile luminaire. Two single suspension cables would connect to single-point anchors. No visible electrical wires or peripherals were allowed. The electronics had to be silent and heat transfer kept to a minimum. The system had to pack sufficient punch to allow the most demanding Acropora and other SPS to thrive, while simultaneously lighting areas of the reef structure at an intensity suitable for Echinophyllia, Mycedium and Pectinia. Finally, the entire front, back, and canopy were to be a vibrant cerulean blue, with gunmetal side panels. Yep, that’s 70” of bright-ass blue.
The functional and design specifications posed several challenges. Given the size of the fixture, single anchor points required the center of mass of the fixture to stay low, to prevent front to back camber. Variable output over the area of the reef called for independently controllable arrays of LED panels. As reefs evolve over time, all of the arrays would be built to provide output to meet the requirements of the neediest coral in the reef. Subsequently, the fixture would need to handle up to 2,000 watts of electricity. Even running highly efficient LEDs and drivers, this meant active cooling for both the fixture and the supply. Active and silent is always fun.
To nail the mechanical and aesthetic requirements, we recruited the help of Joe Steinman, a former design engineer from Tesla. Joe produced an intriguing design. Using a modified version of our original heat sink, Joe designed machined aluminum brackets to mount inside the extrusion. After sliding the brackets into the extrusion, an arced top bolted to the brackets, connecting all of the components together and providing the curve for the canopy.
To canopy was formed with tabs along the edge that slide into a circular slot in the upper lip of the extrusion, avoiding any visible seams on the vertical faces of the fixture.
Two end plates were stamped and punched to allow airflow into the fixture. The right plate would face the wall, so the peripherals and power cord exited there. The end plates would connect directly to the extrusion, tucking neatly under the canopy edge.
This early rendering shows the wall-facing side plate shown in the image above. The wifi antennae, power, and USB ports were placed here to remain invisible to the viewer; the power cable connects directly to a wall port. Machined holes in the extrusion allowed the electronics to be wired up between the three pieces. Air egress vents were placed along the back edge of the arced top. The arc adds a great visual symmetry, but is more than just good-looking. By placing the air vents below the apex of the curve, they cannot be seen from the viewing side of the reef. We had created the shape the client desired.
At this point, it was time to get blue. Color anodizing is always a challenge. The process involves etching the surface of the aluminum with acid, then running an electronic current through the metal while it sits in a bath of liquid which contains the anodizing material. (There is a reason most consumer electronics are black.) Most shops will only create a custom color in either small
tanks (perhaps 30”) or giant ones up to 40’. The liquid needs to fill the entire bath, and it isn’t cheap. The pieces of metal are suspended in the bath by hooks, which also act as the conductors for the current. With a 14” x 71” canopy and 71” sections of heat sink, we needed a good-sized bath. To further complicate the issue, the heat sink used for the housing could not be the same aluminum used for the canopy and end plates. Matching colors across different alloys required a shop with some serious chops. Several places simply turned us away. One of the more adventurous vendors took a shot, to no avail. Fortunately, a colleague referred us to Erie Protective Coatings, located in PA. A gentleman named Raj patiently listened to me run through what we needed. “Tricky, no doubt”, he said. “I can’t make any guarantees, but we will do our best.” To say it was a long week waiting for the metal to arrive would be an understatement. When it arrived, the delivery guy hadn’t even finished bringing the boxes up when I was tearing into them. I liked what I saw, but the ultimate judge had yet to weigh in. Sam showed up a few days later. “Looks great!” he said. Massive sigh of relief, and kudos to the Erie Protective Coatings crew.
On the electronics side, we used three control modules, each running 6 LED panels. These connected to the power outlet on the side of the fixture that would face the wall, along with the wifi antennae. The driver boards connected to the LED panels via machined pass-throughs along the length of the heat sink. During low power portions of the photo-period, passive thermal dissipation keeps the diodes cool. During high-output periods, internal temp sensors activate a series of 80mm SilenX fans. We went with the SilenX due to their audible output – they run below 14dBa, the threshold of the human ear. We hand-fabricated wiring harnesses to tie all of the components together. 18 individual LED panels populated the bottom of the fixture, with TIR arrays over each panel. It looked like we were in business.
As the metalwork and electronics came together, I realized what a great vision the client had. The fixture looked crisp, clean, and stunning. We wired it up and began testing. When all of the systems had checked out, we were ready for the final assembly.
Once the assembly was complete, I contacted the client about delivery. I suggested the usual suspects – DHL, FedEx, etc. The client wasn’t wild about any; the risk of damaging the fixture in transit was simply too high. Having seen what can happen to fixtures during shipping, I knew he was right. Given the amount of TLC poured into the system, we were as attached to this beauty as the client.
That meant crossing three mountain ranges and the Mohave dessert, with a really expensive piece of electronics that was too large to fit inside the car. With several inches of protective padding and a need for a rigid container, a roof-top cargo carrier wasn’t an option. We decided to build our own waterproof box, quickly dubbed “the coffin”, for the roof.
Joe was wrapping up when I arrived Friday to get ready to leave. By the time we were done testing, packing, and getting the fixture on the top of the car, it was getting close to 10 pm. I was meeting the client for the install in Los Angeles the following afternoon. Smoky and the Bandit time. Fortunately, the weather held, never a certainty in the mountains, and I rolled into LA (fairly close) to on time.
With assistance from Sam and one of his crew, the installation itself went smoothly. There were some last-second adjustments to cabling and alignment, but all told it was perhaps a three hour affair. With the light mounted, the whole set up revealed how clean the lines would be. (I only had my phone camera handy, so forgive the coloring.)
Once the fixture had been hung, I had a chance to get a close look at the rock work. I am a huge fan of this reef structure. It is beautiful on its own. The shapes are great, and it does not look prefabricated; it was only apparent due to the color in its raw state. Never needing to replace coral that has taken a tumble due to rambunctious tank denizens is really sweet.
Further, the ability to incorporate the glass as part of the structure creates a much bigger canvas to work on. Many reefs look like a rock wall standing in the middle of the aquarium. This one has a much more natural appearance. The porosity of the ceramic provided a huge amount of surface area for the anaerobic bacteriological processes that denitrify the water. It also contains countless nooks and crannies that were soon to full of living creatures.
All in all, this was a fun one. Great reef, fantastic hardware, great livestock, and a good team. Kudos to all involved, too numerous to name here. From Wet Work through the crew at Unique Corals and all of the teams in between, everybody really produced a gem. Sam keeps videos of the builds his team does, so check out their website. (This build is reef #301.) He has a tour of this installation as well as more details about the incredible design and equipment that went under the tank. That said, the best way to enjoy this reef is just looking at it.