Keeping Your Aquarium Alive During a Hardware Failure
I heard a story about a guy who manufactures and maintains custom marine aquariums. He is a bit of a wise guy. When customers ask him about guarantees he always replies “I guarantee that one day your aquarium is going to fail!” He wants his customers to have in the back of their mind that someday, their aquarium is going to have some kind of “unfortunate event” and not to be surprised. Imagine buying a new car and having the salesperson tell you “When there is a recall we will send you a notice.” On the surface it might seem like a foolish thing to do. But in truth, as every aquarium owner knows, sooner or later something is going to “go wrong” with your aquarium. Marine aquarists are particularly fearful when they have an issue with their fish or reef tank. This Survival Guide is based on walking aquarists through hundreds of real-life situations. It will help you be ready in case something breaks on your aquarium, usually when you least expect it.
Aquarium Heater Failure
If an aquarium heater fails by staying in heat mode, unplug it immediately. Once it cools, discard it. It cannot be trusted to work properly. If the water became very warm over an extended time, it probably killed fish and invertebrates. Remove dead livestock immediately to reduce decay in the aquarium. The aquarium will cool down once the heater is unplugged. Be sure to monitor ammonia and nitrite over the next few days. Make water changes if the tests show positive results. If your aquarium heater is defective and won’t heat the water, it should be replaced. The electrical components have failed and cannot be trusted. I suggest having a back-up heater on hand in case the main heater fails. Some aquarists use two heaters in their tank, while others just have a spare on the shelf in case they need it.
Aquarium Filter and Pump Failure
Ideally, we all should have a spare filter or water pump in case of failure. Large public aquariums and research laboratories always have spare pumps in case of emergency. You may not have the funds to buy a duplicate filtration system or pump for your marine aquarium. In many cases, a broken filter does not spell death to the aquarium. If your filtration system shuts down, the quick fix is to provide aeration and circulation to keep the fish and invertebrates alive. Depending on the size of the aquarium, all you may need is an air pump and an air stone. You could also place a small power filter on the tank until the main filter is repaired. In survival mode, your aquarium does not need activated carbon or particulate filtration. Just keep the water aerated and circulating.
Aquarium Lighting Failure
Although rare, I’ve seen catastrophic reef lighting malfunctions. Most of the time it is a power switch or ballast problem. I feel today’s modern LED light fixtures are simpler and more dependable. But any electro-mechanical device can break down. So what to do if the light don’t shine? If you are using a timer, make sure it is working properly and the settings are correct. Bypass the timer to see if the light works at all. If not, do not panic. Marine fish do not need light to survive. Reef aquarists report that their tanks survived total darkness for nine days, during a time of emergency. Obviously, this is not ideal but there is no need to miss work while driving around in a panic, looking for a new light fixture. You have time to call the manufacturer and troubleshoot the light. If you need a new fixture, there is time to research and shop for what you need. If you have a spare aquarium light, temporarily place it over your saltwater aquarium until the new light is purchased. This is not a true emergency.
Protein Skimmer Failure
I’ve included this one because some of you crazy reef people will actually lose sleep and work worrying about a broken protein skimmer. Yes, protein skimmers remove “bad stuff” but your reef aquarium is not going to die without a skimmer. Go to sleep! Go to work! Eat some food! Then, drive to your local fish shop and buy a new protein skimmer.
Loss of electrical power seems like a huge disaster for the marine aquarist. You might say it’s like everything going wrong all at once. No heater, no light, no pumps or filtration. But as we have learned from recent hurricane disasters, reef aquariums can survive days without power. The reports I have read say the corals and fish were a little stressed but bounced back when the power was restored. But what can you do to prepare for an extended power outage? Some aquarists have built battery backup systems from plans on the internet. Usually, the results were disappointing, with the power lasting a few days at best. The larger the heater and pumps, the more power is consumed and the faster the battery drains. Some have tried computer back-up systems. But in reality, these usually last only a few hours and we know the reef aquarium can easily survive a day with no juice! Let’s be completely honest. If you experience an extended power outage in a cold climate, your aquarium and family are going to struggle. Unless you have a generator, the house and aquarium are going to get very cold. There is just no sugar-coating the situation. If you live in a very warm climate, without air conditioning, the aquarium will be stressed. Close the door and pull the curtains. This will keep the heat in or out, depending on the situation. The best you can do is keep the room temperature “stable” as best you can until power is restored.
A leaking aquarium is a true emergency! Not only can you lose fish and inverts, salt water can damage walls, floors and anything else it seeps into. Some leaks can be fixed without completely draining the aquarium. If you trace a leak to a glass seam, near the top of the aquarium, it can easily be patched with silicone. Simply drain the water level below the leak. Using a razor, cut away the old silicone. Make sure the bare glass is clean and dry. Now run a bead of silicone onto the seam. Allow the patch to dry and refill the aquarium. If, however, the leak is low on the seam or the aquarium is cracked, it is a larger problem. Grab buckets. Call your friends. Call your local fish shop to see if they have a tank or buckets or a plastic tub to hold your live rock. You DO have a relationship with your local independent fish store-right? This disaster will be a lot of work and clean-up. The best you can do is have some buckets on hand and formulate a plan of action. Oh, and if your friend’s tank leaks and he asks you for help…in the middle of the night…go! Not only will you be helping your friend, but you will also learn what to do if it ever happens to you.
None of us wants to constantly worry about aquarium failures. The truth is they are rare. But when these things happen, it is invaluable to know what to do. Being prepared can make the difference between an aquarium disaster and a minor inconvenience.