I have been an avid aquarium hobbyist for many years and been working in the industry for well over 20. A common story I have heard far too many times is “I came home from vacation and everything in my tank was dead.”
The last thing you want to come home to after a relaxing vacation is a crashed aquarium.
I have learned—sometimes the hard way—there are ways to prepare your tank to prevent disasters from happening while you are way. While none are 100% guaranteed reliable, the following techniques and equipment have helped me leave for business or pleasure and safely return to an aquarium teeming with life who did not even notice I was away.
An aquarium does not have to be a ball and chain that prevents you from getting away for a weekend at the beach or a holiday stay with your folks. Read on to find out how to prepare your tank for a summer sabbatical.
First up is setting up an auto top-off system for your tank. An auto top-off system is not only nice to have for vacations; it is a great piece of equipment to run at all times to maintain a stable environment in your tank. If you are setting up a top-off system for the first time or adding one because you are about to take a trip, we recommended installing it at least a week in advance. This will give you time to monitor the system to ensure it is topping off your aquarium properly. In other words, you will be able to see if it is adding too much or too little water.
There are many different types of auto top-offs available to aquarium hobbyists. One of the most popular devices to use with an aquarium with a sump is a float switch. Simply put, a float switch is a device that measures the water level in your sump. When the water level drops, it will activate a pump (which may be supplied with the system or sold separately) to push water from a remote reservoir into the sump. When enough water is replenished, it will shut off the pump. This goes on throughout the day to replace any water lost from evaporation.
Other popular auto top-off options include directly connecting your tap water filter (such as an RO or RO/DI water filter) to your sump with a float valve, using a dosing pump like the SpectraPure Litermeter III (you will also need a Top-Off Control Module) or by plugging a small pump into a timer to pump water into the tank or sump for a set amount of time each day.
We typically do not recommend hooking up your RO or RO/DI system directly to your sump. If the float switch were to ever get stuck for some reason, freshwater would be continually pumped into your system and could overflow your sump as well as turn your saltwater tank into a freshwater tank. However, if this is the route you chose, using a system with dual float switches is highly recommended. With dual float switches, if one fails, there is a second one in place to prevent a disaster from occurring. The SpectraPure Single Tank Liquid Replenisher is a great example of a system that incorporates dual float switches.
For example, if your tank loses about a gallon a day from evaporation and you are going to be gone for 10 days, your water reservoir should hold at least 10 gallons of water. This ensures you will have enough water to top-off your tank each day you are away.
The more popular auto top-off units we have available as of June 2012 are the JBJ ATO Controller, Tunze Osmolator and Elos Osmocontroller. All have an average customer rating of 4 stars or better. We encourage you to check out other users’ product reviews to learn more.
With a bit of research, you should be able to determine which auto top-off system will work best for your aquarium. Of course, if you have any questions, contact us. We are always here to help and would love to hear from you!
Depending on how long you are going to be gone, you may need to set up an auto feeder for your fish. There are many different brands of auto feeders available, but most work on the same principle. They have a holding drum or bin to put the flake or pellet food in. The drum, which attaches to a motor base, will then rotate around and dump food into the aquarium. Some units have digital displays that give you the ability to program how many times a day you want to feed while others rotate at a constant speed. Digital units are usually more expensive, but they do offer a lot more feeding options. Non-programmable units generally feed fish once or twice a day. All of the units allow you to adjust the amount of food that is dispensed during each feeding.
We would like to mention 2 quick points about auto feeders. First, it is important to mount them in a very secure spot on your aquarium so they do not fall inside the tank. I learned this lesson the hard way. I had to throw away a brand-new $30 digital auto feeder 5 minutes after taking it out of the box. I turned my back for a few minutes after mounting the unit to the tank and, when I turned back around, the feeder was nowhere to be seen. After scanning the tank for a few seconds, I discovered the feeder resting on the bottom of the tank. Despite my best efforts to dry the unit, the digital display never worked properly again.
The second point is to keep the feeder away from high turbulence areas, particularly spots where water is bubbling or splashing. When water finds its way inside an auto feeder, odds are the food will get wet and clump together (especially flakes). This jams the feeder and prevents it from dispensing food. Fortunately, some feeders are equipped with an airline hook-up that allows you to blow air into the unit (using an air pump) to reduce the buildup of humidity inside the food drum.
Check Your Equipment
A few days before you leave, do a once over on all your equipment and fittings to make sure everything is working properly and nothing has come loose. Check all your pumps, powerheads, heaters, protein skimmer, controllers, timers, auto top-off, auto feeder, etc. to make sure they are all functioning properly. If your timers have a battery backup and/or if you have been using your auto feeders for a while, it may be a good time to replace the batteries. You should also check all your hose clamps to make sure they are still tight.
A piece of equipment that is sometimes overlooked before a vacation is the RO or RO/DI filter. If your filter is set up with a float valve to fill your tank or reservoir, double-check all the fittings going into and out of the unit. Over time, compression fittings can become brittle and may crack or come loose. You definitely do not want to come home to a filter spraying water all over your house. I know two people that this has happened to and, believe me, it is no fun to deal with.
A quick (but thorough) look over your aquarium equipment can prevent a possible flood. I cannot stress the importance of this enough. Spending just 30-60 minutes to make sure everything is as it should be before you go may very well prevent a major disaster.
Don’t Make Major Changes
We as reef keepers have a difficult time keeping our hands out of our tanks and fiddling with equipment. But in preparation for vacation, we must curb the desire to change our systems. Avoid adding or changing equipment, like a return pump or heater, unless they are broken and in need of replacement. Avoid major system overhauls, like changing up your plumbing or aquascape. In other words, “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” At least not until you return from your trip.
This is another lesson I learned the hard way. Before a trip to Las Vegas, I decided to add new, rotating returns to my aquarium. The new return outlets were a few inches lower in the tank compared to where the old return outlets were. To make a long story short, the power went out and the water level dropped 6 inches in the main tank instead of the normal 2-3 inches. There was too much water for the sump to handle and the water overflowed the sump on to the floor. I got a frantic call from my mother-in-law letting me know there was water everywhere and the tank was making funny noises. With the help of my son, who was 5 years old at the time, they got the water cleaned up and unplugged my return pump. Luckily it happened the night before we were heading home, but it nevertheless ruined the trip for me.
Water Change and Maintenance
About a week before you leave, I recommend performing your normal water change, even if it is ahead of schedule. Ideally, you want the highest quality water conditions in your tank just in case something drastic happens while you are gone. If there are any other chores you normally do during water changes, such as replacing filter media, filter socks or sponges, these should also be done. Keeping your tank’s water chemistry at its best can help your tank survive longer in the event of a power failure or if any inhabitant passes away while you are gone.
Some reef keepers are fortunate enough to have fellow reefers who live close by and are willing to check on their tank while they are gone. Others may rely on neighbors with the sentiment that a reef aquarium is “just a fish tank.” They do not understand the amount of time and money we have invested in our aquariums, nor do they know about the equipment we use on the tank.
If you are one of the lucky ones, it is a good idea to have your reefing buddy stop by a day or two before you leave. This way you can explain your system to him or her and let them know how things run and what to do in case a problem arises. Go over your basic items, such as what plug is what, how your controllers or timers work, what time your lights come on and off, how much too feed and so on. Even though they also care for a reef tank, they may do things differently than you. You should not assume they will know how your system works. Since most reef keepers are equipment junkies always looking for ways to improve their tanks, they will more than likely love to hear how your system operates.
If you are not one of the lucky ones, I suggest inviting your neighbor over before you leave so you can briefly explain how your system works in layman’s terms. They will, more than likely, not understand a lot of what you tell them, but hopefully the important stuff will stick. Write notes for them and label everything so there is no doubt in their mind what each switch or plug is for. Go over different scenarios that could happen while you are gone and what they should do. Things that seem obvious or come natural to you will be brand-new to them and it may be overwhelming. Leave them phone numbers to reach you in case of an emergency and, if possible, the phone numbers for one or two local reef keepers who might be able to help out in an emergency situation.
Have Plenty of Saltwater Ready – Just In Case
I recommend storing as much premixed saltwater and filtered freshwater at home as possible. Do not forget to label which is which for your tank-sitter so they will not have to taste the water to find out. Just having the water prepared is not enough, though: make sure you show them how to siphon or pump the water from your container(s) to your tank if they are not an experienced fish keeper. By having the water made in advance, you (or your tank-sitter) will be ready to fix any water disasters that may spring up.
This is yet another lesson I learned the hard way. Going back to my Las Vegas story, I did not have water premixed in my home. I needed over 30 gallons of saltwater to immediately replace the water lost, but with my RO/DI filter only making 2-3 gallons per hour, I was in trouble. I ended up using straight tap water with a tap water conditioner to quickly mix up some saltwater. Although the results on my livestock were not fatal, it took them time to recover from the experience. It is worth noting that many local fish stores sell premixed saltwater that can help out in a bind.
There are a few different ways to combat a power outage. First is the use of battery-operated air pumps. There are two main types of battery-operated pumps available, manually operated ones and automatic ones, although the automatic ones can be hard to find at times. Manually operated pumps need to be hooked up after the power goes out; automatic pumps will start once the power has turned off. These pumps can be the key to preventing oxygen levels from falling to deadly levels in the aquarium. Manually operated pumps will only be good if you (or your tank-sitter) are home to hook them up and turn them on. If you are using this option, make sure you show your tank sitter where the air pumps are located and how to use them.
A second option is to use a UPS (Uninterruptible Power Supply) battery backup device, like the kind used for personal computers. Smaller battery backup units do not last long, so I would not recommend one of these units for your return pump or a large powerhead. Smaller, energy-efficient powerheads work better. Larger battery backup units can provide power to a small (low wattage) powerhead or an air pump for many hours to prevent low oxygen levels from occurring in the tank.
EcoTech Marine, producers of the VorTech powerhead, offer a battery backup unit that will automatically turn on and keep the VorTech pump running at half speed for up to 30 hours. You can connect 2 battery backups in tandem to extend this period to 60 or more hours. These units offer piece of mind in case of a power outage while at the same time providing the flow needed to sustain a reef aquarium.
Taking it to the Extreme
With the amount of time and money we invest in our reef tanks, what are some other options to help protect them? Some hobbyists invest in a generator to run their tanks in case of a power outage, myself included. During a power outage, you really only need to worry about running your circulation pump(s) and possibly a heater. Keep in mind heaters can be a large drain on a generator, so unless there is a possibility your tank will drop below 70° for an extended period of time, you should not worry about them as much. Your tanks inhabitants will be fine with the lights off for a few hours—even a day or two—so you should not worry about running your lights during an outage unless you have very energy-efficient LED lighting.
There are numerous generators available. The best choice is the kind that will automatically start when a power outage is detected. Within 5-10 seconds of losing power, these generators automatically kick on to provide power to your tank. There are many different sizes to choose from. Consider the size of your tank and what else you might want to run off the generator to make sure you purchase a model that suits your needs. If auto-start generators are beyond your budget, there are plenty of other types of portable generator available. If you live in an area prone to power outages, a generator is a piece of equipment that will quickly pay for itself.
Take “Control” Of Your Tank
Another piece of equipment that can prove invaluable to disaster prevention, especially from heat, are controllers. In addition to being able to monitor and/or control electrical equipment used on a reef tank such as lighting, powerheads and temperature, many controllers allow the user to program what should happen in the event the tank reaches critical temperatures. These measures may include turning on a chiller and/or a fan to help cool down the tank. If those initial actions are not enough to lower the tank temperature, a controller can also shut off the lights to help out. Some controllers can even send email alerts when your water level is too low, your temperature is too high or if critical system parameters enter ranges that are dangerous to fish, coral and invertebrate. Controllers range in price depending on the features you want. The bottom line is that if a controller prevents just one disaster, it will pay for itself.
A vacation is supposed to be a relaxing time away from home. But with all of the things that can potentially go wrong with our aquariums in the back of our minds, it can make it difficult to chill and enjoy the moment. Hopefully we have inspired you to make the necessary preparations so you can take a worry-free vacation this summer. If you have vacation prep tips you would like to share with us and other readers, please leave us a comment below. Thanks for reading!