aquarium power failure

Aquarium Power Failure

After Hurricane Sandy blew through, I had my first real experience dealing with my aquarium during a power failure. In this post, I will take you through some of what I learned along the way. My heart goes out to those who were effected in a major way by this storm. I was fortunate to only have been inconvenienced by the loss of power.

Aquarium Power Failure

Even though I live pretty far in-land, we did get whacked pretty hard by the storm. I haven’t seen this many trees uprooted in quite some time. In this post, I hope to share with you some of the lessons learned about a recent aquarium power failure.

I am far from a tree-expert, but I offer you this humble advice from my anecdotal observations after this storm. If you have large Juniper, Tulip Poplar or Scrubby-looking pine trees close to your house, I encourage you to ask a tree expert about whether or not it poses a risk to your home in a bad storm. The vast majority of the downed trees I have seen fit the profile of the three trees I single out here. I never gave it much thought before today, but it seems like those trees all had relatively shallow roots and blew over pretty easily.

I suspect falling trees are what caused my house, and millions of other houses, to lose power. Our electricity was off for almost a full day. I’m glad I took the time to put together the previous post about how to prepare your aquarium for a hurricane or winter storm—because it helped me mentally prepare for the storm myself.

While this may sound cliché, there is no substitute for real-life experience. It may sound like patting myself on the back, but my contingency plan worked out reasonably well. The one downside is that it was a bit more stressful and labor intensive than I would have preferred. There are a few lessons I learned the hard way that I would like to share with you now. I almost considered revising/re-writing the last post to include more balanced information (and the benefit of experience/hindsight), but I decided that this is a more natural and humble approach to document the lessons after-the-fact. Clearly I don’t know it all—and it’s good to make mistakes and keep learning—just don’t tell my wife. I don’t like to admit to her that I don’t know it all…that fight has been going on for years now, but I digress….

Here are 5 lessons I learned about dealing with an aquarium during a power failure that I want to pass along to you:

Lesson 1: Family comes first

Ok, family comes first— I didn’t really have to learn this lesson. Putting family first (and the house second) came to me very naturally. The lesson learned is actually a consequence of how easy it was to put family first. Because what you’ll notice is that aquarium fish and coral come much further down the list. While this, too, may seem intuitive, where it became a challenge for me personally is that my plan for the aquarium was not designed in a way that put family first—it was designed in a way that assumed I had enough time and energy to focus on the aquarium.

For me, what I learned from putting family first is that any investment that helps me keep the focus on my family is well worth the money. There are several things I could have done to be more organized and things I could have purchased that would have made it easier for me to implement my plan—all of which would have made it much easier for me to put my attention on my family and keep it there. Any time that I spent doing something that I didn’t have to do (if I had a better plan) was time that was wasted and unnecessary stress that I added to my life—because I even had to consider or worry about where it was best to spend my time.

Lesson 2: Waiting for the storm to hit is too late to start planning

Prior to the hurricane news—I didn’t really have a plan. I had some equipment I had purchased in preparation for a storm we had a while back, but in my entire life, I have only been without power for a few hours—so I wasn’t really all that concerned about it.

That said, this storm was greatly anticipated (and hyped), so I decided it would be a good idea to create a plan. I posted the plan on the blog late the night before the storm.  Even with the plan developed, I never took the time to gather the supplies all together in one location until after the power went out—and at that time what I really needed to do was take care of my family. After ensuring everyone was calm and ok (I have 3 excitable children who were a little concerned), I was able to root through the dark with a flashlight to gather everything I needed. But that was really not the ideal time to have to do that, as you can imagine. Don’t be like me—take a moment now to get your gear ready.

Lesson 3: Do a dry run to know what steps you need to take

Most of what I’m capturing here in this post are things I learned the hard way—but what I realize now, with the gift of hindsight, is that many of these hiccups could have been avoided if I took the simple step of performing a dry run to practice my plan and understand where the weaknesses were. Here are three small things I found out the hard way that could have been discovered during a dry run:

1)      Extension cord was too short. Luckily I had more than one. That could have been bad. I would have preferred to spend that time hanging out with my family.

2)      Extension cord didn’t fit through doors well. I had to problem solve to find the right spot while holding the door open, letting ice-cold air into a house with no heat. I would have preferred to spend that time hanging out with my family

3)      It was harder to dig around the sump in the dark and find the right wire for the heater to remove it and place it in the display tank. You probably guessed it—I would have preferred to spend that time hanging out with my family.


aquarium power failure

Lesson 4: Have your supplies and equipment consolidated and ready-to-use

My gear was everywhere. I had one extension cord in the basement, one extension cord in the garage—which was a treacherous place in the dark—mostly because my stuff is strewn about the garage even on a good day—my power inverter was in a random bucket (not where it was supposed to be), my battery back-up air pump had old batteries in it that had leaked battery acid. Not the prettiest site in the world. I was never a Boy Scout. In hindsight, that be prepared motto sounds like a good creed to live by. It would have saved me lots of time and stress to have all this gear consolidated in one safe place, and make sure that anything battery-operated is clean and that you have a pack of fresh batteries.

Lesson 5: Have enough gear to set it and forget it

I don’t want to dramatize my experience with the hurricane too much, because as far as hurricane experiences go, my experience was a mild one. Even as I write this post, there are people in my own neighborhood still without power. My heart goes out to all those who have lived through more serious conditions.

Even with my relatively mild experience here, I found myself conflicted. As a father and a husband, I felt the need to take care of everything—and my plans for taking care of my saltwater aquarium didn’t properly account for the time I needed to spend on higher priorities. What I realized through this experience is that any money that would have been spent on something that would have made my chores easier would have been worth their weight in gold.

What it really came down to was having the proper gear—and enough of it to go around. Let me be very granular here about three inexpensive things I wish I had a better supply of that would have made things much simpler.

  • Air pumps—I needed one per tank. Not one per floor. With a sufficient supply of batteries to last for a few days. We ended up using some batteries for a radio, I didn’t account for replacing the batteries which were corroded inside of the pump already. I had no idea how long the batteries would last—and as a result faced an immobilizing self-imposed pressure to conserve the battery power. According to the pump manufacturer’s description, which I checked when internet access returned, a fresh set of batteries should last 48 hours—so there was no benefit to my impulse to conserve battery use
  • Heaters—it was a bit of a hassle to fish my heater out of sump areas in the dark, play the see if this is the right wire game, with everything else going on. I am going to add 2 heaters to my list of supplies to stock in my kit in preparation for the next storm. These likely won’t be high-end heaters, but I think having the time and peace-of-mind savings is going to be worth the investment
  • Extension cords—I had enough cords to make it work—so I guess that’s why I hadn’t thought that part through—but I’m going to make sure I have the right cords ready to go next time, so I don’t lose more time setting things up than is necessary.


For me, losing power during the storm was a humbling experience. The raw power of the winds, the relentless volume of water dumped on the house, and the bitter cold were eye-opening. I was extremely about the basement flooding and the house getting too cold for the kids. I was also surprised at how quickly and easily my saltwater aquarium (which I spend so much time working on and writing about) fell down on the priority list—probably because I had so much else to do that I didn’t even know I needed to have ON a priority list in a big storm situation like that.
The bottom line is that I learned that I had a pretty good plan—that could be executed a lot better. Family and home come first in a storm—that much was natural and even easy—but don’t make things any harder on yourself (like I did) by not having the right gear to make taking care of your saltwater aquarium an easy task.

What Actions Am I Going to Take?

One trick I like to use whenever I learn something—is to figure out what it is that I’m going to stop doing—and what I am going to do differently.

Based on what I learned from this storm—I’m going to stop measuring the value of things by cost alone. I had the bare minimum equipment that I needed to make my plan work—and I pulled it off with personal effort—essentially with sweat equity. In hindsight, I wish I didn’t have to spend so much time implementing my plan, so that I could have spent even more great time with my family taking care of them.

As far as what I’m going to do differently—I’m going to buy some more supplies—and have them packed, ready and dedicated to use in a power failure situation. Here is what I’m going to get:

1)      A larger, upgraded power inverter. The power inverter was awesome. I used it for much more than just my aquarium—it literally kept my basement dry. I can’t say enough how impressed I was with that little piece of equipment and how I used it during the storm. Awesome.


aquarium power failure power inverter

2)      A few more battery back–up air pumps—one for each tank, in total. If this ever happens again, I don’t want to have to run around moving the pumps

3)      Heaters—I am going to get 2 aquarium heaters to dedicate to power failure usage—again, it just wasn’t worth the time and hassle to retrieve and use the heater from my sump—at this point I’m going to make the investment so that I can invest more time with my family if the power goes out again

4)      Insulating blankets—I hastily slapped those together in the dark. I’m going to spend time trying to get these ready-to-use for next time.

5)      I’m going to explore/investigate other battery back-up options—the power inverter solution worked well, but what I didn’t like was having to run out to my car, turn it on, turn it off, etc. I also wonder about how much wear and tear I put on my car—so I am going to look into other battery-related options to see if I can improve on this design, now that I already know it works like a charm.

How about you, what are you going to do?

Written by Albert B. Ulrich III. Follow me on Google + and Twitter






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