Emergency Simulation # 2: Equipment failure

As a follow up to last week’s blog post, I am trying to pressure test my aquarium set-up and prepare for an emergency. This series was inspired by the book,

The Martian, a book turned major motion picture about an astronaut stranded on Mars who deals with one emergency after another to survive. The story resonated with me, because a lot of what we try to do in this hobby, albeit in a much lower stakes situation, is work to keep our aquarium running. The main character in the book is demonstrates amazing ingenuity in order to survive. I don’t have that amazing ingenuity, but what I thought I would do is steal the premise of preparing for failure by simulating an issue, to figure out how I would respond, and to help identify weaknesses and gaps.

[content_band bg_pattern=”http://yoursite.com/path/to/your/image.jpg” border=”all” inner_container=”true”] [custom_headline style=”margin-top: 0;” level=”h4″ looks_like=”h3″]Emergency Simulation[/custom_headline] In this post, I will simulate an equipment failure in my saltwater aquarium and think through the steps I would take to keep the tank running.[/content_band]


The basic premise here involves aquarium equipment failure. If the lights go out/burn out or otherwise shut down, I’m not all that concerned. Yes, I have a lot of photosynthetic corals that require the lights for their growth, but everything in the tank will be fine if the lights are out for a few days. In fact, a lot of people will purposefully black out their tanks for a few days to help get a problem algae outbreak under control. As long as I could get online to order a replacement light fixture right away or head out to the local fish store, everything would be just fine.
Let’s say, for the sake of argument, that the tank was on the planet Mars and I was unable to get a shipment from a reliable online vendor, what I would do in the down time before I could get a replacement light is:

  • Remove the glass canopy. Even when clean, the glass canopy does restrict the flow of light through the top of the aquarium. If my light manifold broke, removing this canopy would help increase the amount of ambient light getting through
  • Clean the aquarium glass. For the same reason as # 1, I would make sure the aquarium glass was sparkling clean, to make sure the maximum amount of light gets in from all sides.
  • Create a solar reflection panel. Using aluminum foil or a solar emergency blanket and some cardboard, I would create a giant reflector panel that would help reflect the ambient light from around the aquarium into the aquarium, to maximize the use of the existing light in the house, until I could get to the store and replace the light.


Unfortunately, I have read way too many forum and Facebook posts about heaters malfunctioning. It’s a bit like creating a saltwater aquarium soup. That is gross.

I know. If my heater was malfunctioning, the first thing I would do is cut the power to the heater and bring the aquarium temperature back down. If the temperature was just a little bit high, and if the livestock looked like it was doing alright with the situation, I would just let the room temperature slowly bring the temperature back down into the normal zone.
If the animals looked stressed, I would step up my game a bit and bring the temperature down a bit more aggressively by performing a partial water change made from some cooler temperature water.
If the temperature was sky-high and the animals were extremely stressed, I would do a 75% water change, to attempt to fix the problem promptly. Rapid temperature changes can be extremely stressful for the animals in your tank, particularly the invertebrates. In this worst-case scenario, I’m weighing the risks of possible shock from rapid change with the certain damage of a catastrophic temperature. Those aren’t great choices, but it seems like the best option is to stop the damage quickly.
But then, even once the temperature is brought down, this heater-failure scenario presents another problem—how do I keep the temperature stable from here? If I’m able to run out to the local fish store, that’s no problem—but if this happens late at night or when the store is closed—I’m going to have no way to regulate the temperature of the tank.
This worst-case scenario planning has helped me realize that this is the biggest vulnerability in my aquarium system. Heaters are prone to breakage AND if it breaks, I really have no way to regulate the temperature in the tank. This confirms that I should have a back-up heater on hand, to handle an emergency situation.


My tank is very much dependent on the powerheads to generate the water flow inside of the tank which my corals depend on. Corals don’t have a circulatory system, they are dependent on the flow of water to bring oxygen and food to them and to move waste products out away from them. Powerheads act as the heart in your tank and circulate the water throughout the tank. In the event of a power failure or equipment malfunction, I would connect a few air pumps and airlines to my tank, to add back some level of water movement and oxygenation to the water.

Return pump

While the return pump doesn’t add a tremendous amount to the flow of the water in my aquarium, it does provide the very important service of sending the water down into the sump, where it gets heated, skimmed and circulated through a big old clump of macro algae before being returned up into the tank. If the return pump failed, I would potentially be in pretty big trouble. 
My biggest concern, in this scenario, is about temperature control. Losing the return pump isolates my heater from the aquarium, which puts my tank in serious risk of dropping down to room temperature (about 68-70 degrees Fahrenheit).
To address this issue, the first thing I would do is remove the heater from the sump area and place it directly in my aquarium, taking care not to ensure the heater is not touching anything (like a coral) that would be burned.
My return pump also does a reasonable job of oxygenating the water. To compensate for the loss of this oxygenation, I would connect an air pump to add some bubbles to the water.

Protein skimmer

I have had my share of protein skimmers break. If your protein skimmer breaks, don’t fret. This piece of equipment isn’t critical to your mission. A protein skimmer works by removing waste from your aquarium. But you will have a few days before it will really matter, and you can always account for the loss of skimming with an increase in water changes.


reportWhat I have realized through this simulation is that my greatest system vulnerability is in the scenario where my heater breaks.  Loss of lights, protein skimmer or powerheads would be expensive and a hassle, but but I could make due without the lights for a few days and I could create some water flow using inexpensive air pumps that I have around the house.But if my heater fails, I really have no way to maintain the temperature of the tank. Because of this, test, I’m going to buy a backup heater.
What are your thoughts about this? What equipment have I left out? What would you do if your equipment failed?

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