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Keeping Aquarium Fish Alive During a Power Outage or Other Disaster

Having a contingency plan for your display aquarium is a good idea in disaster-prone areas and volatile seasons.

By Clay Jackson | By Clay Jackson

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The 2009 Station Fire

The 2009 Station Fire burning up the tinder-dry hillsides behind some foothill communities in Los Angeles County, California.

Fires in Colorado. Biblical flooding in Florida. A derecho (huh?) knocking out power to more than 3 million homes (some of which undoubtedly have or had aquariums housing hundreds, if not, thousands of dollars of fish , corals, etc.) in the East. Fish, corals, clams, etc., are alien-looking when compared to our furry, fuzzy and feathered pets. The former live beneath the watery surfaces of our planet while the latter are terrestrial and more familiar to us.

To hammer the alien point home even further, when anything from a local brownout to a hurricane or earthquake strikes, we can pretty much “walk” and load most of our pets up in our cars and head for safety. Not so with our watery friends and their life support systems (their aquariums), with all of the accompanying electronic gadgetry they depend on for their very survival. Even a few hours into a power outage, many delicate fish and corals end up being severely stressed and may cross over to the point of no return.

So what’s the answer when the mandatory evacuation orders are blared over the loud speaker as the patrol cars come up your street? Should you just leave behind your one-of-kind 150-gallon reef tank and hope for the best? Or should you “ride it out” with your fish and corals, possibly being incinerated or drowned in the process?

Believe it or not, there are lots of preventative measures one can take to ensure their beautiful and pricey fish and corals come through a disaster in flying colors. In the recent storms that hit the Midwest and East, while some unfortunately had towering trees fall and split their roofs in two, most were impacted by a loss of electricity. I vividly remember the 1994 Northridge Earthquake that awoke millions in Los Angeles, blackening the city as transformers arced and went off line. The same thing recently happened in the Northeast as trees blew down on power lines.  And that is probably the way you and your fish would be affected the next time a windstorm or big quake strikes your area. Unfortunately, if Mother Nature wants to topple a 100-year-old spruce tree onto your roof, cleaving both roof and reef display beneath it in two, no amount of preplanning can undo such an act of God.

Power outages affect aquariums by shutting down pumps and other water movement devices, thus causing the cessation of water movement, with the dissolved oxygen in the water quickly being used up and the tank residents jeopardized by oxygen starvation. The problem is even more critical in saltwater tanks because they have less oxygen to begin with, so the warmer the water gets, the less oxygen it holds.
Another problem is that when a pump goes out the water in the main tank may continue draining and filling the sump to overflowing – now not just your tank is affected but your carpeting, wood floors and drywall, as well.

Another critical life support system shut down in a power outage is the heater. Tropical fishes and corals and other invertebrates – in other words, most of what we keep in our freshwater and marine displays –need water temperatures maintained in the 72 to 78 degree Fahrenheit range, and this is accomplished  through the use of a heater. When the power goes out, the heater or chiller stops working and the water temperature begins to drop or rise, respectively. Fish are fairly hardy when it comes to temperatures fluctuations, but corals and other reef invertebrates can be severely affected by big temperature swings caused by prolonged power outages.

So, what are some tips you can use to ensure your tank, expensive electronics, prized fish and corals make it through a major disaster like a hurricane or earthquake or a minor one like forgetting to pay your utility bill and having the power company cutting you and your fish off?

  •  Keep tanks away from windows, especially in areas with super-heated summer temperatures, as tank water can quickly overheat.
  •  When leaving town on an extended vacation, have a trusted, knowledgeable aquarium pal aquarium sit for you. This way, should something go haywire your friend possesses the aquarium acumen to deal with it.
  • To avoid a sump overflow, turn off your pumps and skimmers and watch the sump fill. If it fills to about 1 inch below the sump rim but no further, this is the maximum fill line and you’re OK. But if it looks like the sump is going to overflow, bail water with a bucket until equilibrium is reached and maintain your sump at this level. This way, should the power go out, your main aquarium water only drains into the sump up to the maximum fill line and not to overflowing.
  • A back-up generator is one of your best options to avert power outage disasters but these can be expensive.
  • Keep UPS battery backups on hand in case of a power outage. These devices are typically used to keep computers and the like up and running when the power unexpectedly switches off. When the power fails, a battery backup device runs the devices plugged in to it from its battery reserve. Powerheads and the sump’s return pump are key components that should be backed up with one of these devices. The right backup can provide several days of emergency service until the power returns. You may also want to have extra battery backup to run a small heater in order to keep water temperatures above 60 degrees Fahrenheit.
  • Battery-operated air pumps (i.e., air stones) are the most economical devices to keep the water aerated during a power outage. There are manual versions that the aquarist must be present to switch on and auto versions that switch on automatically in case of power failure.
  • Most fish are pretty hardy and can handle drops in temperature due to heater failures. Corals are usually OK provided the temperature doesn’t fall below 60 degrees Fahrenheit. Wrapping the reef tank with insulated blankets in a pinch can help to reduce heat loss should the power go out.
  • In earthquake country, you’ll want to secure your tank (acrylic is best for this)  to a rigid stand and then strap the stand to the wall studs; these can be located with a stud finder.
  • Talk to your insurance provider about securing extra coverage for your tank or tanks, equipment and fish and corals. You may have to pay some extra, but it provides peace of mind and if something should happen, it can end up saving you hundreds, even thousands, in replacement costs.
  • Invest in a surge protector, as one of these devices can save your valuable aquarium electrical devices from getting fried when the power shuts off all at once and when it roars back to life when an outage is over.
  • Keep emergency spare tanks, sponge filters, heaters, etc., along with portable power supply unit with an adaptor for use in a vehicle. This way you can at least evacuate some of your more prized and irreplaceable specimens should it come down to this.
  • If for whatever reason an outage is localized to your immediate address, some extra-long extension cords may allow you to piggyback off a kindly neighbor’s power supply, keeping your tank humming along until the problem is fixed.

Hopefully, you found this article informative and useful. Please comment and leave any additional tips you might have to better disaster-proof your freshwater aquarium or reef tank below.

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Reader Comments

Angelo    San Leandro, CA

10/29/2012 12:50:41 PM

Wow! Tanks/fish are so delicate!

Joshua Wiegert    Washington, DC

8/31/2012 3:33:02 PM

One of the most important things to consider is also what happens when the power comes back on. Often, the power will come on and flicker several times, which can damage delicate pumps, burn out or even burst light bulbs, etc. Many pumps will also not prime properly, including outside power filters, without a little help. If the power should come on when you're not there, and the pump doesn't prime, it can and will burn out -- I know of one person who actually had a fire as a result! Additionally, if you're using a canister filter, and it's full of gunk, it can turn anaerobic and dump H2S or other noxious gases into the tank, killing the fish. This can happen in as little as 15 minutes.

I recommend people UNPLUG the aquarium when power goes out, and leave it that way until power is securely on. Clean any canister filters before turning back on. Make sure all your pumps, filters, and other equipment are working normally.

Lastly, when the power fails, check any equipment that might have a check valve -- pumps in sumps, or air pumps. These things do fail, and don't count on them. The last thing you want is an air line syphoning water onto the floor (and then getting power back!)

Hannah    Irvine, CA

8/30/2012 3:13:33 PM

What if you have to evacuate?

LJ    Olympia, WA

7/14/2012 8:00:27 AM

Investing in a home with a woodstove will not only keep your family warm but your aquariums as well. At night or when you are away be sure to cover your tanks with blankets until you can get the woodstove going again. This has worked well for my freshwater tanks on several occasions in the past.

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