Moving Your Aquarium: Part 3

Moving Your Aquarium—Part 3—

In Moving Your Aquarium, Parts 1 and 2, I covered setting up your plan and packing up your most important living creatures—your biological filter. Now it’s time to pack the rest.


The size, shape and type of coral you have will dictate how you should pack them.  Soft coral are easily packed inside zipper-lock backs. I like to buy the ‘freezer bags’ in both the ‘sandwich bag’ size (for smaller corals and fish) and the ‘one-gallon’ size (for larger coral and fish). The freezer bags generally have a thicker ply of plastic and a more rugged zipper than the standard bags. I’m not sure if the extra strength is necessary—I just don’t want to take any chances.  Resist the urge to fill your bags all the way to the top with water—you want to leave some room at the top (headspace) for air.  Place the bags gently in a cooler. I have tried to use local fish store style straight plastic bags but found that the experts make it look easier than it is. Ever since my first move (with leaking, saggy bags), I now stick with the zipper-style.

Image of some things that can help you move

Stony corals, depending on their size and shape, can be packed in plastic bags or the disposable-type plastic containers. GLAD, RUBBERMAID and other companies make these and often sell them as ‘disposable’ plastic containers.  I try to reserve these hard plastic containers for oddly shaped corals. The hard plastic is unforgiving and often a stony coral jostled around in transportation will break or get damaged when they bang into the hard plastic.

For really big corals, or corals glued to large pieces of rock that can’t be separated, pack those in a large plastic bucket with a lid (filled with water). Buckets are generally not insulated, so reserve this measure only for extreme situations. The rest of your corals belong in a cooler—protected from temperature swings and impact. Moving vans are exposed to the elements and can be extremely hot or extremely cold—so I recommend you leave space in your car if possible for the livestock.


To make things easier to catch your fish, try to get everything else out of the way first. Pack your coral, live rock and remove any decorations (or other obstructions).  Begin removing (dumping) the tank water to lower the water level. By now, your fish are likely very spooked, but trust me—removing obstructions and lowering the water level will help you capture your fish with less stress. By taking those two steps, you take away your fish’s ability to hide from you, get injured on a rock and also limit their ability to maneuver away from capture. The less water in the tank, the less room they have to amaze and frustrate you with their evasion measures. You also want to avoid tiring your fish out if possible. Fish build up lactic acid in their muscles when they fight/flee and this can be detrimental.

If you plan to lower the water level to just a few inches (make sure you save a bucket of relatively clean tank water and set it aside to fill your bags/containers with—because you are going to stir up detritus once the water level gets low enough and your fish start darting back and forth—and you don’t want to pack the fish in gunky water.

You will develop your own ‘technique’ when trying to capture your fish—and if desperate, you’ll likely employ any means necessary (well, almost any means). My preferred method is to use a big scary net to ‘corral’ or ‘herd’ the fish into a hard (clear seems to work better for me) plastic container (like a specimen container).  The fish’s natural instinct is to flee the approaching net, and seek shelter—but in the empty tank—the container is the only real structure. Given the choice between the two, some fish will willingly (or unwittingly, I’m not sure) flee into the plastic container.

After capture, I use the same zipper-lock bags, leaving plenty of headspace (air) and place them in cooler. I generally mix fish and coral bags/containers indiscriminately with the goal of filling all coolers (if I needed more than one) to keep the bags from moving around during transit. Just like with the coral, I recommend you take the fish with you in the car rather than pack them on a truck exposed to the heat or cold.

Live Rock

I touched on this briefly in the last post, but the key to moving live rock is keep the rock relatively temperature controlled (as much as is possible/reasonable) and damp. I have packed live rock in Styrofoam coolers wrapped in wet paper towels, and I have also packed live rock in buckets filled partially with tank water (on a shorter trip with plenty of space in nice weather). I have found that wet newspaper is dirty, smelly and gross—and I don’t recommend it.

If, for whatever reason you can’t move your live rock in suitable living conditions to keep the inhabiting bacteria and invertebrates alive, make sure you set the rock aside to cycle before adding back to your aquarium once the move has been completed.


Some of your equipment (like glass tube heaters) is very fragile—so be sure to pack it with care—like a delicate plate or bowl. Make sure the heating tube is cool to the touch before packing and then wrap with bubble wrap and place safely in an appropriately sized box with other light stuff.

Pumps, powerheads, protein skimmers, hang-on-back filters and other equipment should all be cleaned out and dried prior to packing. You can use a weak acid like vinegar to break up any hard gunk. Just be sure to rinse, rinse, rinse. I usually just pack them in a bucket (because even when I try to dry them well, there is usually water…somewhere that leaks out.  Of course your equipment would benefit from a little tender loving care (TLC) if you have the time and patience to wrap them up to prevent bumping around in transit.

Next to the tank itself, your lights are probably the hardest thing to move. I never count on my light bulbs to ‘make it’ through the move. While I have only had a few light bulbs meet an ‘explosive’ end, I have had more than a few bulbs just decide not to work after the move. That said, I have moved enough times that now when I buy new bulbs I tend to keep the original packaging for a few bulbs in my basement. Come moving time, I put the bulbs back in the box, bundle similarly sized boxes together (for example 4-48 inch T5 bulbs together, and wrap that bundle in bubble wrap). The light fixtures I wrap up and treat like delicate furniture, wrapping them up with bubble wrap, moving pads or blankets—whatever is around and adequate.

The Tank

If you have made a considerable investment in your tank—and can’t afford to replace it on the other end if it cracks, I encourage you to hire a professional. It is not cheap, but the professionals will actually build (usually from scratch) a wooden crate that fits around the tanks to protect it completely during transit.  Please recognize that when moving your aquarium, anytime, you take on serious risk that the tank will become damaged and possibly non-functional.

That said, a few precautions should help improve your odds. First, be sure your tank is completely empty. Aim for spotless (or as close to spotless as is practical given the timing pressure you’re likely facing during the move) and settle for ‘debris free’. Second, protect the outside of the class however you can. As I mentioned before, the best protection is from a professional with a wooden crate. When I have moved smaller tanks by myself (ones that I was willing to risk breaking), I preferred to wrap the tanks up with soft towels. You can use packing tape to bind the towels tightly to the glass—be sure to cover the glass completely and use care not to get the sticky tape on the glass itself. I then cover the outside towel layer with empty boxes cut to size and take the box container around the outside. This only provides protection from scratching and a glancing blow. Anything more serious would have permanently wounded my tanks.

Keep in mind that any sand, salt or other grit will grind away on your glass, scratching it up. Any impact can shatter the glass, and even odd stresses/pressures can loosen up a silicone seam. Test your aquarium out in a safe place before setting it back up—and seriously consider enlisting the help of a professional to move your prized display tank.

You made it to the third post in this series, continue on to the fourth and final post in this series–Moving Your Aquarium: Part 4

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







Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *