getting your aquarium ready for vacation

Getting your aquarium ready for vacation

Schools will be out for summer here, pretty soon, and the warm weather goes hand-in-hand with vacation. I’m gearing up here to take a few days off. If you’re relatively new to the hobby, you may be wondering…what do you do with your tank when you go on vacation?

Well, if you have a reef jar, you could take it with you…but it would be a bit much to bring my display tank with me. Which is why I leave it home and enjoy my vacation!

Here is what I do to get my aquarium ready:

early steps to get the aquarium ready

Preparation starts about 7-10 days before departure

My first, basic preparation step generally starts somewhere between 7 and 10 days before departure.

Fatten up my fishes and corals (and the biological filter)

For about 7-10 days before I plan to leave for a few days of vacation, I feed my fishes, corals and aiptasia anemones more heavily than usual. Unless I’m going away for an extended period of time, I generally don’t bother with getting a fish/coral sitter. Since I know that the meals will be a little leaner without me there, I try to compensate for the lost calories a bit in advance, by fattening them before I go.

I also like to pick fatty live foods, like blackworms or brine shrimp, because I know that the animals in my tank will eat them until they’re stuffed, and I know they are high in calories.

I’m probably over-thinking this a bit, but the extra waste caused by the extra feeding also creates a nutrient source to boost the growth of the beneficial bacteria that serve as the backbone for the biological filter. Then, since the feedings will naturally go down when I’m not there to feed the tank, there will essentially be ‘extra filtering capacity’ in the tank, in case something goes wrong and dies while I’m away.

So fattening up my fishes and corals also has the positive side effect of boosting my biological filtration capacity as well.

2-3 days before I go

The bulk of the work, stress, and burden of prep before I leave for vacation happens roughly 2-3 days before I go. My reasons for making this the big day are two-fold:

  1. Leaving for vacation is stressful enough, no need to elt last-minute aquarium maintenance add to the stress
  2. I don’t want to uncover any problems last minute–or even worse–I don’t want to cause a problem that I won’t be able to catch, because I’m away

For those reasons, I try to get the most important stuff done in advance.

A big water change

Because I’ve been feeding my tank a lot more than I usually do, I tend to notice that the nitrates start to climb, and since I’m not going to be around to troubleshoot any problems, I try to give my tank the best chance at success by performing a larger-than-usual partial water change.

Clean up gear that could fail

Another important chore that I try to get done a couple of days in advance is to clean up the gear that could clog up, like my powerhead and return pump pre-filter. I also scrub, clean and even cut away with a razor blade at the coralline algae and green star polyps that grow on and near the slits in my overflow grate.

Which leaves a big question–what to do with the protein skimmer? If your protein skimmer has an overflow drain, you could set up a drain bucket or disconnect the skimmer completely. This is the step that used to cause me the greatest anxiety–you either run the risk of an overflow or polluting your tank. If this totally freaks you out, you may need a tank sitter who understands saltwater tanks to take care of your reef.

Day I leave

Because I get most of the work/preparation out of the way early, I try to make the day I leave relatively stress-free, from an aquarium perspective

Stay on top of the top off

It’s a good habit to stay on top of evaporation every day…but…um…a little confession here, I never really developed that habit. I do dream of setting up an auto top off unit, one day, but that day has not come yet.

In the meantime, I generally top off my tank (due to water loss from evaporation) one bucket at a time–and occasionally a bit more.

When it comes time to leave, I fill my tank back up to the max fill line to make sure there are no issues due to evaporation.

Last meal

Depending on what time we depart for vacation, I may try to slip one more feeding in. Again, the goal is to fatten them up for the fast that is about to happen. I get a lot of questions about whether or not the fish and corals can survive for a few days without feeding. In my experience, yes, as long as they are healthy and otherwise plump from well-adjusted aquarium life. Remember, most corals are photosynthetic, so they’ll continue to make themselves TV dinners while you’re gone–and if you have a mature reef tank, your fish will be able to find a few tiny morsels to eat.

If this is your first time leaving for vacation, you may want to have a tank sitter come and feed the tank a couple times while you’re gone.

One last inspection

Right before I leave, I try to take a look and listen to watch for anything that looks, sounds or is behaving abnormally. If everything looks okay, I take a deep breath and lock the door.

Tank sitter

When I first started out, I used to have a tank sitter come by–a friend, family member or neighborhood kid who would take a quick look to make sure the tank hadn’t emptied out onto the floor and drop in some food.

Having someone check in on your tank is fairly straightforward if you are lucky enough to have that closeby friend, family member or neighborhood kid who happens to also have a reef tank, but if they don’t have a lot of experience keeping a reef tank, you probably want to keep what you’re asking them to do really, really simple. Rember all the little mistakes you made when you first started and how fickle the tank can be sometimes.

If you’re using a sitter, be sure to portion out your food into individual bags or containers…and keep your portions a bit on the light side. You certainly don’t want this person to guess how much food you need or risk shaking the container of flakes/pellets over the tank…that would cause a whole lot more harm than good.

Leave clearly written, detailed directions and avoid using acronyms and jargon. Ask them, politely, to touch and do nothing else :). I don’t recommend you ask them to do any testing or maintenance. I’m a bit of a control freak there, but I’ve read horror stories about things that happen when the tank sitter comes over.

How often should you have the tank sitter come over? Twice, during a week-long vacation would probably be fine.

getting your aquarium ready for vacation


That’s about it. Nothing too fancy. If you’re new to this, you might want to have someone check in. I certainly think it’s a better plan than the one I laid out, especially if you have someone with a bit of skill in the hobby who can stop by, but if you don’t have that option, just know, you won’t be the only one out there who leaves their tank alone. Try to get your aquarium as close to autopilot as ready and enjoy your vacation.

Do you have any advice or things you generally do before you go away on vacation?






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