Moving a Reef Tank, Part 1

Since we are in the midst of summer, we are also in the midst of moving season. Changes in jobs, school and other factors cause more and more of us to move every year. For all of you, who have considered moving your reef tank, always remember that a successful move is a well planned move. My experience moving reef tanks comes from having moved my own 480 and 180-gallon systems and then moving all of the inhabitants from the 480 into a 1200-gallon system. In addition, I have helped numerous other individuals move their reef tanks over the past ten years. What I hope to do in this article is point out some of the things that have worked and what is required to be successful at moving a reef tank. Most of the infrastructure of your system can be saved; such as the pumps, lights, sumps etc. with little difficulty, but trying to move everything, particularly if it is a great distance is very difficult. You are probably better off only trying to save the irreplaceable fish or corals. The other stuff that is easy to replace should be sold off and replaced once your new set up is in place.

Before continuing with this article, please remember two things are absolutely critical for success: PLANNING and TIME. More than anything else you have done with your tank to date, you need to carefully plan, and I mean be very specific, when planning this move if you are going to succeed and only lose a minimum of your tank’s inhabitants. In addition, you have to allow yourself adequate time if you are going to complete moving your inhabitants successfully.

The first thing that needs to be planned for is where your tank is going to be placed once you move, or where your larger tank is going to be placed. Obviously, it is advisable to visit your new residence and physically see where you want to place the tank before you start the actual moving process. The first thing that needs to be done is to make sure that the floor in the new residence is built so that it can hold the additional weight from a new tank. This is especially important when the tank is large. It may be necessary to contract a structural engineer to make sure that this is the case. Once this is done, make sure that there is adequate space for the tank. Bring a tape measure and mark off where the tank will go as well as space for the equipment and then where all of the furniture will be placed. Make allowances for space around the furniture that you own as you don’t want to have a place picked out only to find that once you’ve moved in, your tank is wedged in by your living room sofa. Allow for adequate space to work in the tank. Having space in which to work is just as important as having space for the tank itself. The space you’ve picked out should also contain adequate electrical outlets and also not be in front of a heating or cooling source. You also need to consider the effects that the lighting in the room will have on the tank and conversely what affect the tank’s light will have on your activity. That is, you don’t want the tank next to the television where the activity on the screen may affect the tank due to the shadows and constant movement, and you also don’t want the tank’s lights obscuring your view of something or waking you up in the morning. One last thing to consider in determining a site is the traffic pattern in your new residence. While you want the tank to be in a location where it can be easily and readily viewed, you don’t want the location to be such that there is constant movement around and in front of the tank, otherwise your tank’s inhabitants will be constantly frightened and will spend most of their time hiding.

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The problems are similar if you are moving your current tank and its residents to a larger tank. Unfortunately, there is often an additional problem in that the new tank usually takes the place of the old tank and will occupy the same space. In this case many of the recommendations that will be presented for moving will hold true.

Once the new site has been determined the next step is to prepare for the move. How long of a distance is it between your present and future residences? What are the characteristics of the new location’s water? How much water are you going to be able to save from your current tank during the move? Are you going to be able to move your tank yourself or will movers haul your tank and its inhabitants? Will your tank be the same as it presently is or will you make changes either in terms of equipment, location or other things?

In terms of distance, it is probably obvious that the greater the distance the more difficult it is to move. However, within reason even a move over a distance that requires twenty-four hours of transit can be done with adequate preparation; which I will cover below. In terms of water at the new location, it is not only hardness, calcium and pH that need to be considered, but also whether it is high in phosphate, nitrate, silicates or any other key element like iron or sulfur. To prevent this from becoming a problem and to keep the water as consistent as possible, it is always a good idea to start with pure water by using either a reverse osmosis (RO)/deionizer unit. Otherwise one of the first things that may greet you in your new home is an algal bloom. The quality of the new water also impacts how much water you need to save from your old system. I learned to try and keep a minimum of 50% of my old water to try and reduce the inherent shock that a move entails. If I found the new water to be of poor quality I tried to save an even larger amount. This is because for the water that you don’t save, you need to make up new water and if you need to run it through a deionizer or RO unit this takes up additional time and time is your enemy during a move. Lastly, if you can move your animals yourself it is to your advantage, as you know how delicate these animals are and you can also take care of their needs such as temperature and oxygen more readily than can or will be done by the movers.

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If you are planning on making changes in equipment after the move, try to make them as minimal as possible in terms of how much time they will take to implement. This is important as you don’t have time to waste making trivial improvements when your animals are waiting to get back in a stable environment. Also, before you move, make a diagram of where you want your animals to be placed once you have completed your move. Draw a diagram to scale of where you want to place the animals and allow extra space between animals as one of the things that you will find is that when you rearrange a reef there is always less room than you started out with.

The next step is to begin preparation of your reef tank for being moved. The first step is to begin weekly or bi-weekly water changes of at least 20%. This is to get the inhabitants used to changing water, but also to reduce the quantity of nutrients in the tank. These changes should commence three to four weeks before the move. About four days before the move you should also stop feeding the fish, as you don’t want the fish or inverts to foul their bags by releasing large amounts feces during their trip.

During this time you should start acquiring Styrofoam boxes and plastic bags for shipping. The pet shop where you acquired these animals will usually give or sell these cheaply, particularly after they have received a shipment of fish. Also try to get all the bag liners that you can, as these can provide for a little more safety in terms of reducing bag leakage. These can also be acquired used after a fish shipment, in which case they should be rinsed in freshwater at home. These liners aren’t a luxury but rather a necessity in that if you don’t use them I can guarantee that you will get at least one bag to leak. Since time is crucial, you don’t want to have to waste time searching for a leaking bag once you’ve packed everything, nor do you want to lose a valuable specimen due to laziness or lack of foresight. Also if a bag leaks it will more than likely leak on your wife’s cashmere sweater or a box of pictures for which you will pay dearly. You should also try to get the shipping box that the Styrofoam arrived in, as these boxes are more stable than the Styrofoam alone and they also provide for some additional insulation for the box as well as being more easily stacked than the Styrofoam alone. The same stores can also sell you the bags that you’ll need to carry your inhabitants to your new location. You might also make arrangements for trading in any specimen’s that you don’t want or can’t take with you for whatever reason. At this same time you can make arrangements, if you are traveling a long distance, for this dealer to provide oxygen for your animal’s trip. When getting boxes and bags, always get more than you think you will need as it is far better to have too many shipping containers so that you can allow adequate space rather than have inadequate boxes and then need to scrimp on space. From my last two moves I have found that I needed about one Styrofoam box for each cubic foot of tank. That is, for the 125-gallon tank that measured 4′ X 2′ X 2′ that I helped move we needed sixteen Styrofoam boxes. This is for a reef tank; less will be needed for a fish only tank.

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The next thing that you need to calculate is how much time this move is going to take. Moving my 55-gallon tank a distance that took one-hour driving time took a total time of ten hours. While moving a 125-gallon reef into a 240 gallon tank took eighteen straight hours. These may seem like excessively long periods of time, but I’m happy to report that I did not lose a single animal during either of these moves and the 125 gallon tank contained over 100 separate sessile invertebrates, ten fish and 150 pounds of live rock. I also did these moves completely by myself, so one thing that I would advise is that you make friends in both your old and future residences as having a helper to help wrap and pack animals would cut the amount of time required significantly. In this regard it might be useful to contact a local aquarium society to see if any members might be interested in helping you and thus also securing a new member for the club.

Mike Paletta is the author of The New Marine Aquarium and Ultimate Marine Aquariums. He has been in the hobby for over 15 years and has written numerous articles for Aquarium Fish Magazine, Tropical Fish Hobbyist and Aquarium Frontiers.