Going away on a holiday should be a relaxing event. Holidays are meant for unwinding and forgetting about life’s cares. If you have a dog or cat, you can use the services of a kennel or send the pet to a friend’s house. But what about your reef aquarium? Who can you trust with a saltwater ecosystem that relies on a balance of technology, science, and intuition to keep the tank looking good?
If you are like most marine aquarists, you usually end up asking a neighbor or family member to take care of your reef while you are away. If the aquarium’s caregiver is a seasoned reef person, you’re golden. Chances are good he or she will text you some photos of how well the reef is doing.
But, unfortunately, for most of us, we have to rely on a non-aquarists who does not really want the responsibility of caring for an aquarium. I have had the opportunity to talk with many people who were enlisted to tend to a friend’s reef aquarium. Some were very nervous about the task.
They know the corals and fish are expensive and believe they are very delicate. They have seen you work tirelessly on the aquarium. They worry that something will go wrong and everything will die. On the other end of the spectrum, there are those who don’t care about your marine aquarium.
They think you are too obsessed with it. I’ve heard them say “I never did anything to the aquarium until the day before they came home.” Relatives sometimes take this unhelpful attitude. So what can you do to make it easy for someone to care for your aquarium while you are away? I cannot help you select the best candidate but I do have suggestions for dramatically increasing the chances the reef will be alive and healthy when you arrive home.
Check the Aquarium Hardware a Week before you leave
The week leading up to a trip can be hectic. There are plans to be made, things to get ready. As much as we love our aquariums, they are sometimes the last thing we check on the way out the door. About a week before leaving the house, make a thorough inspection of all the hardware.
This includes the lights, pumps, and heater. Are they all working properly? But wait! Are there hoses and fittings? Check them! Take a good look at your protein skimmer. Clean it and make sure it is adjusted correctly. If you have a sump, check the bulkhead fittings for leaks. Make sure the overflow is clean and clear.
Change the canister filter and add fresh media. Make sure the lid is sealed and the hoses will not kink. If something can clog, it will happen while you are away. How about your power strip? Is it crusted with salt or clean and safe? What about that lighting timer? Is it set properly? If you use an automatic top-off system, make sure it is working flawlessly. Now that the life support system is checked out, inspect the marine life.
Check Saltwater Fish and Invertebrate Health
How many times have you heard someone say upon returning home to an aquarium problem “My fishes were fine when I left.” As I said, we typically throw in some food, see the saltwater fish eat, and run out the door. Instead of sitting down and observing the reef, we are preoccupied with the trip. Take ten minutes and give the reef a good inspection.
Are there any missing fish that could cause a water quality problem later? Do all the corals look ok? If that one questionable frag dies back, will it foul the aquarium? Now is the time to decide. You cannot expect a non-aquarists to know what to do if a fish or invert has a health issue while you are away.
Test the Aquarium Water
Do not assume everything with your water parameters is correct. Check pH and alkalinity. If the alkalinity level is correct, the pH will remain stable. Also, test ammonia and nitrite. These should be zero. Anything else could be a sign of an imbalance. Make sure the water is safe before you leave. If you plan on making a water change, do it several days before leaving the home.
This gives you time to make sure you plugged all the hardware back in and that drip of water is just a drip and not a leaking aquarium seam.
Hide the Food and Water Conditioners!
You may not like this but your aquarium caretaker may not follow your feeding and dosing instructions. I’ve heard them say “I forgot to feed the fish, so I dumped it all in on the last day.”
Feeding, invertebrate food, trace elements, and water conditioners confuse most non-aquarists. I suggest deviating from your normal routine and feed as little as possible and skip any specialty foods and trace elements during the vacation. The easier it is to care for your reef aquarium, the less likely there will be a feeding or dosing mistake. The fish and invertebrates do not need to be fed every day.
Trace elements do not need to be dosed while you are absent. If you must feed, pre-measure one or two feedings. More problems are caused by over-feeding than by any other activity.
Topping Off the Reef Aquarium
If you use RO or deionized water in your reef aquarium, have it prepared ahead of time. By “prepared” I don’t mean placing a bucket of water next to the tank. I like to use smaller one-gallon jugs. The smaller container is lighter and easier to pour than a five-gallon bucket. There is less chance of a spill into the electrical equipment with a smaller jug.
If possible, have your caretaker add water only once or twice during the trip. Keep it simple! Even if you normally use an automatic top-off system, consider using small jugs while you are away. Do you really want a novice fooling around with a float valve system?
Peace of Mind
We’ve all heard that aquariums are supposed to be relaxing. The last thing you want to be doing, while on holiday travel, is worrying about your reef aquarium! Worry can be avoided by planning ahead and keeping things simple for your friend or family member. Not only will it ensure your reef looks great when you return, but it will also be easier to enlist an aquarium-sitter the next time you need them!