A big disaster? Or a chance to start over?

The recent Nor’easter took out power to my house. The power went out on Friday, while I was away on business travel, and as of Sunday, the power was still out. The temperature outside was 36 degrees Fahrenheit. The temperature inside the house dropped to 48 degrees by Sunday morning.

This is me, in sunny San Diego, before my tank started freezing to death:

Yes, my head is just inches away from causing a total cranial eclipse. Get your eclipse glasses out. Don’t look directly at the sun in this picture.

By the way, why don’t we all live in San Diego? It’s so nice there!

So, what happened to my reef tank?

The tank sat motionless, without power or human intervention, from Friday morning until Saturday at about 7 pm, when I got home.

At that point, I ran my hurricane/winter storm emergency protocol. I wrote about it before. which means I started my car, connected a power inverter to the cigarette lighter and connected the return pump and heater, essentially breathing life (oxygenation, water flow and heat) back into my aquarium.

I ran the heater and pump until bedtime that the evening to try and get the oxygen level up and buff up the temperature a little, but by 7:30 AM on Sunday morning, the temperature was back down to (or still?) 53 degrees Fahrenheit.

Here’s what I observed without power

This is the zoanthid equivalent of an angry emoji

  • The corals obviously looked distressed. All polyps were totally retracted. No surprise there.
  • This one crazy Capnella species (it was a frag that I thought was something ‘cooler’ that I saved YEARS AGO that grew to a massive size) that was most visibly distressed—it was drooping…ready to disintegrate.

With leather corals, “sloughing” isn’t always bad. It’s a way they naturally purge themselves–but this time, it was a bad omen

  • The fish all looked ‘fine’. Jittery, and hunkered down, but fine. I could see my neon dottyback and royal gramma wedged in the rockwork, motionless.
  • The clownfish were still swimming about aimlessly.
  • The yellow tang seemed like it was looking for a spot to hunker down but didn’t feel secure anywhere. So it would freak out and hunker somewhere else.
  • Interestingly enough, my peppermint shrimp, which I’d long since assumed was dead, actively swimming in the dark tank. Now, I could argue this is abnormal behavior since the shrimp generally lived a cryptic existence, but by all other observational accounts, it looked fine.
  • On Sunday morning, still without power, I saw the second truly distressful sign of distress. When I set up my ‘car generator’ and gave the tank some power, my engineer goby was listlessly swimming in the tank. He kept his head up, but he otherwise didn’t look completely in control of his body. Sorry, I don’t have video of that. Wish I did. The other fish looked fine.
  • He would look out, as he floated by in the current. I’m sure I’m humanizing it, but it looked distressing. He was mostly being swept away in the current.
  • There were now pieces of the devil’s hand coral littered the sand bed. The colonies (originally from the same mother colony, but split on its own) were extremely shriveled up. With no real source of power and no water to do a water change with, I just had to ride it out.
  • On Sunday night, the power came back on. We were out, while it came back on. I found my listless goby sucked into the powerhead. He was alive (unfortunately) but not well. I gently scooped him into a net, laid it by the rockwork. The Capnella looked terrible (but hadn’t started melting yet).
  • The other fish looked fine

This is the yellow tang, seemingly fine ~18 hours or so before...the end...

  • Monday bloody Monday was when the carnage started. Goby made it out of the net, into the rocks, but didn’t last the night. It was a work day…so by the time I got home…the tank was 78 degrees and cloudy with decay :(.
  • I raced to get the water changes going. My fish were freaking out (ammonia poisoning, likely? Maybe even sulfur from the deep sand bed I wrote about just a few weeks back?), particularly my yellow tang. I could tell he was also in very bad shape. Spastic and listless/unresponsive, somehow, at the same time.
  • Assuming it was poison, I rushed him into new water, but he only lasted a few more minutes. I can’t recall watching the last breaths of an otherwise-seeming ‘healthy’ fish. Very sad :(. I suspect my hasty and sloppy solution sped things along, but I’m not convinced the outcome would have changed—and I was more afraid of not removing him from the problem.
  • The only other confounding factor that makes me suspicious that it wasn’t acute poisoning…and was perhaps some cumulative complications from stress was that the other fish and a peppermint shrimp were all…not dying…

A dark spine is literally the only thing out of sorts with this tang, that I can assure you, was unfortunately expired before this photo was taken. I stared in disbelief for quite some time thinking he’d snap out of it any second now (he looked that good, otherwise)

  • I did a MAJOR water change (~80%)
  • The clownfish literally and peppermint shrimp swam to me and into my net, in as close to a human gesture of…get me out of here…that I’ve ever seen. So they moved to my nano.

  • The gramma and dottyback dove deeper into the rocks.
  • I pulled out every coral with a bad looking Capnella on it—which—in a tank with 1 capnella is nearly every rock in about a month ;). I cut off the corals as close as I could and put them in a separate tank to cure.
  • 3 out of every four Capnella frags were just melting…

  • The corals left in my tank all looked terrible for an entire week. No real signs of recovery. I did 50% water change and a 20% water change.
  • After about a week, some signs of life started back. A few angry polyps returned.
  • Even now, nearly 2 weeks after the power outage, Most of the corals in my tank haven’t opened up.

  • I was waiting to write about it because I was hoping to have some good news. My neon dottyback freaked out…not unlike the tang…and has since disappeared…I fear the worst on that one.
  • Otherwise the clowns, peppermint shrimp, and gramma remain.


Storm-related power failures are out of our control and can be humbling. I’m thankful my family, friends and house were all fine, all things considered. I know others who have endured hurricanes have suffered much greater. I’m grateful to have the self-awareness there to know this isn’t that big of a deal.

I was lulled into a false sense of security with previous power failures, thinking…my tank would be fine.

I should have pulled and purged more of the corals that looked very bad…sooner. Capnella is and grows like a weed. Even though the colony was huge–and I sort of loved it–the reality is that it would have grown back quite quickly. If I pulled more of it out of the tank before it melted…maybe things would have been better?

I don’t know if I have the heart to do this–but I wonder if I should create an emergency ‘triage’ in advance so that I know what limbs I might have to cut (metaphorically speaking) to save the patient…I don’t know, that’s just a random thought.

I think I should get a real generator now, to allow for the real-life support system, even with the power out. It’s an extra expense. It’s an extra piece of equipment to ‘maintain’, but seems worth it.


I also wish I had the presence of mind to test my water to better know what was happening, chemistry-wise. I knew enough to know I should have—but some combination of tired, burnout and fear of what I’d see (creating more work) kept me from doing it. I could have had more/better info to document and share.

Big storms happen.

In the ocean, they destroy reefs. In suburbia, they destroy reefs too.

Not it’s up to me to figure out. It’s ironic that I wrote the ‘burnout’ article before the storm actually hit and before I was feeling burned out. I don’t think I’ll sit idle for that long here, but now I get the chance to figure out what I want to rebuild here.

Which is good.

My own little reef was so stable and the colonies were relatively large—I was sort of afraid of upsetting the balance. My previous crashes tended to connect back with something I added…that started a bad series of events…

Well now, with the bad events out of the way :), it’s time to rebuild. Just like in the natural reefs, I already see signs of rebuilding.

There is a new hope.

A New Hope? Return of the Jedi?

But unfortunately, just like with the Jedi…the dark side is still here too:

aiptasia anemone

Perhaps this is Empire Strikes Back

What should I build next? Have any of you had tanks that survived extended power failures during extreme temperatures? Any advice for me or others?

Thanks for reading. Sorry that it wasn’t more helpful or constructive this week. It’s just real.


  1. So sorry to hear,Alan. I hope your system rises from the ashes like the most spectacular colorful Phoenix imaginable!

  2. I am so sorry! Thankfully, I already have a generator for power backup due to living in Alaska. I had already invested in battery run pumps for backup for just in case too. I know you have to be heartbroken. Again, I am so sorry. Totally sucks I know. I’m so sad for your water babies and you.

  3. Hurricane Irma did the same thing to my tank, it was terrible. I also lost an engineer goby and a sailfin tang, as well as a Mandarin, a rock flower anemone, starfish, urchins, corals, flame scallops, and a few other fish and inverts. I was afraid it would flood in the room (from the storm surge) so I bought and cut some 4x4s to buttress the stand before I evacuated. Luckily we had no flooding, but the power was out for a couple days, and it was really warm in south Florida with no ac. If i had come home to find my whole tank destroyed, I would have probably cried. Luckily, it only crashed… hard. Now my tank is happy and healthy and better than ever 🙂 It’s getting better all the time!

  4. That’s a bummer for sure. Hurricane Irma hit us directly last summer and we lost power for 5 days. I had no generator and was gone I business at the time. My wife was home and every 2 hours or so siphoned 5gal out of tank and poured it back in for oxygenation. I can never thank her enough. I lost most acros and 1/2 of my fish but not a total crash. I now have battery backup for return pump and generator for long term power loss.

    1. Author

      Tim, Jake, Kelly, Muttley, Alan,

      Thank you for the kind words. I suppose the post was a bit self-indulgent. I don’t think I was pandering for sympathy, although maybe I was ;). I do appreciate hearing your stories as well–and as I put it into context, things were a lot less bad than IRMA around here.

      I do like the added measure that you shared, Jake, with respect to 4x4s to buttress the stand. That’s a great precaution. I couldn’t imagine the mess otherwise. Ugh.

      In the meantime, I’m watching to see which corals recover and trying to extract those that don’t.

  5. Al, this is a perfect time to convince you wife that it is time to get a backup generator for your house. I did not have nearly the loss that you did because I had just set up my tank,but it gave me the excuse to get one. This is how I did it. You cannot tell your wife that it is for the reef you have to tell her that you cannot stand the idea of not being able to turn on the light and seeing her beauty. But she will say “that is what flashlights are for”. I cannot see the entirety of your Venus with just a flashlight. You need light to engulf her entirely to enjoy her splendor! The soft light of the house does it perfectly. My wife gave me a strange gaze but a few weeks later we had a generator that automatically comes on when the power goes out. It’s worth a try.

  6. Just don’t know what to say. That must be really hard to deal with!

  7. Oh man that’s horrible. I feel for you on that.
    I work up in Lansdale, live in Downingtown. We lost power from Friday morning to monday night that storm a few weeks back, but at least i was local to get home and get life support on the system with just a little loss.
    I cant even imaging the bullets you were sweating when you walked in from your trip.

    1. Author

      Thanks, Jason. Glad to hear your tank pulled through. I was certainly sweating bullets. Then thought I ‘got away with it’ when I first saw them. It’s all good. Some of the corals still aren’t responding. I’m probably going to pull the plug on them soon or do something drastic to shake things up.

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