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re: CO2 system...

> Since I am already out $500 in fish (and just bought additional PCs for
> $100+ and more plants for another $100) and already have $100+ in the CO2
> set-up, the question becomes: How can I make the system I am using right now
> safe (without buying a whole new system)? Will a real-good needle valve
> help? Or would I still get a dump and blow up the needle valve in the
> process (as well as kill the fish)?

I'm really sorry about your disaster.

Get the CO2 tank refilled and see if everything works again, or if the
diffusor was damaged when everything blew up.  I've never seen one of
these high pressure systems, so I don't know exactly how they fail. 
Does the diffuser just pop off the end of the hose?  If so, maybe all
you need is a hose clamp.

You probably don't need a "real-good" metering valve, just a pretty good
one.  Its purpose is to restrict the flow to a safe level if the
diffusor fails or if the regulator output pressure rises dramatically
(or both).  You don't have to be able to adjust the valve for optimal
flow rate; you are already doing that with the regulator output

I love to tinker, and I'm a real cheapskate, and I don't have any
valuable fish, so take this into account when you weigh my advice.  But
I do remember what it felt like when I killed a whole tank of worthless
fish that I was quite attached to (I accidently got some soap in the
filter and didn't realize it).

Best regards,