Moving Your Aquarium–Part 4

Now that you have taken care to pack and care your fish, coral and equipment with care, the next stage is setting everything back up in your new home.

Test for Leaks

The first thing to do when you arrive at your new home (ok first fishy thing you want to do) is leak test your aquarium. Set the tank up, temporarily, in a place that won’t get damaged by a flood of water if the tank leaks. Fill the tank with freshwater, dry off the outside and just watch and wait. After you are comfortable that the tank does not leak, you can set the aquarium up in the new, permanent location.

Tip # 1: Be sure that your permanent location can handle the weight. Remember that a 75 gallon aquarium could weigh 800+ lbs when filled with sand, rocks, equipment, stand, etc.

Rebuild from the bottom up

The Substrate

When rebuilding your tank, you want to rebuild from the bottom up by starting with the substrate. If you packed up and moved your substrate (which I don’t really advise) you’ll want to take some precautions before you put that sand or crushed coral back into your display tank. You want to avoid polluting your aquarium with either the noxious by-products of anaerobic bacteria or die-off of bacteria/invertebrates during the move. If you notice any ‘off’ odors (rotten eggs or decay) you want to throw it out, or cycle the substrate separately.

If, on the other hand, you are starting over with new substrate (recommended), wash the substrate to remove any dust/dirt and place it directly in your tank.

Tip # 2: If you fill the tank with an inch or two of saltwater, the substrate will sink more gently to the bottom than if you just drop it in dry.

Tip # 3: Rather than move your whole sand-bed, you can replace your sand-bed with inexpensive dry sand and just inoculate the fresh sand with a small amount of live sand (a zipper-style bag full) from before the move.

-Live Rock

After the substrate, you want to put your live rock back into the tank. Take the time to set the rock up the way you want it. Once your tank is up and running, it will never be this easy to move the rocks around.

Tip # 4: You should do a “sniff test” before you put the rock back in your tank. You’re looking for any pungent or noxious odors. Don’t put anything back in your tank that doesn’t smell like the ocean.

Tip # 5: Always use gloves when handling live rock for some protection against getting stung by hydra or cut by sharp edges. I like to use these gloves, made by Coralife because they extend far enough up my arms to stay dry.

After you have set the live rock back up, add back enough aquarium water to cover the live rock. If you have a lot of rock, you may want to simply spread the rock out across the substrate to create a ‘low profile’ so you can keep the water level low in the beginning and slowly increase the level over time.


When I have moved shorter distances (from one apartment to another across town, or just a couple of hours away), I have actually moved buckets of aquarium water—no joke. The key is to keep the buckets in a relatively temperature controlled environment—which for me meant moving them in the car/van and only over short distances. If you can manage this, you can fill your tank up on the other side with mature water and reduce the risk of shock from putting your fish and corals in a tank composed completely of freshly made saltwater.

If your move is a longer one, or if conditions are severe (hot, cold, etc.), then don’t bother, you’ll just be moving heavy, wet buckets of slop.

Tip # 6: Make sure whatever you pack near your buckets of saltwater can handle getting wet. During the move, the water may slosh around in the bucket—and even with lids, I have had water spill.

-Life Support Systems

Now that you have your substrate, live rock and some water (either mature tank water that you moved with you or freshly made saltwater), it is time to connect some of your life support systems, if you can. At a minimum, you want to connect your heater (assuming it’s submersible and there is enough water in which to submerse it) and a means for creating water movement—perhaps a powerhead, airstone or even a simple sponge filter. The goal is to have enough life sustaining capacity to sustain your tank’s inhabitants for a few hours up to a few days, while you reestablish your tank. I like to leave the equipment running in the mostly empty tank until I feel comfortable enough that nothing weird happened to the heater. Once I’m comfortable that the heater thermostat is working normally—and the water temperature is stable, I move on to the fish, coral and other invertebrates.

Tip # 7: A few weeks before your move, place a sponge filter in your aquarium. Pack the sponge up just like you would a fish or coral on ‘move-day’ and set it up in your tank as soon as there is enough water. With this step, you’ll be seeding your new tank with beneficial bacteria required to restart your biological filter.

-Fish, Coral and other Invertebrates

Finally, it is the time you’ve been waiting for—time to get your livestock out of their bags and into the aquarium. I’m a proponent of the ‘drip method’ of acclimation—and in a big move like this it helps to have a lot of buckets, a lot of air tubing and some valves. You can get these online fish stores like Premium Aquatics (one of our sponsors) as well as

Your goal here is to avoid exposing your fish and coral to sudden changes in water parameters (temperature, pH etc.), so the drip method allows for a gradual, consistent acclimation. When possible, I like to acclimate each specimen separately. I do bend that rule with schooling fish (like a handful of chromis) or if I’m confident that the water hasn’t deteriorated noticeably (short moves, pristine water, etc.).

Tip # 8: One trick I’ve picked up along the way is to put several smaller containers (disposable plastic containers) with individual drip lines inside of a bigger container, like a 5-gallon bucket. In this way, I first drip acclimate each individual specimen in their respective container—and when the water starts to overflow the smaller containers, it begins to fill up the 5 gallon bucket. That way the water all mixes together, and I can acclimate more specimens in the same amount of time.

Once your fish and coral have been sufficiently acclimated, (I generally acclimate for 30-45 minutes) gently add them to the aquarium.

-Final Steps

If you have been following along the steps I laid out, you should now have a partially filled, but minimally operational tank. The water level will be lower than usual, but you should have enough water to operate the life support systems (sponge filters, heaters, powerheads).

Once I have all the livestock in the clean, aerated tank water, I then turn my attention to large-scale saltwater production and make as much water as I can (up to the amount I need to fill the tank). From here on out, I try to add the water back gradually, being careful not to introduce too much freshly made water too quickly.

Tip # 9: Think of the final step as ‘water changes in reverse’. I generally add 10-20% of the water volume back at a time—and take steps to ensure even those additions are gradual.

Tip # 10: Over the years, I have found that the best piece of equipment to help me here is the Aqualifter pump. This tiny pump will lift 3.5 gallons of water per hour—a nice, slow and steady stream that your coral, fish and invertebrates won’t even notice.

Monitoring and Testing

It goes without saying (or did I just say it?) that you should test your aquarium water routinely—but testing is critically important when you set your aquarium back up after a move. You want to watch out for are spikes in ammonia, nitrite or nitrate. Lots of things can go wrong during the move—and the only way you will know is to watch your tank’s inhabitants and test the water parameter.


I hope you enjoyed reading this four-part series on how to move your aquarium—and I hope I gave you an idea or two to help you design the best plan that works for you. Have any tips or suggestions? Post your comments here and let your fellow hobbyists know.

This article on how to move your aquarium was part of a series. The first article in this series, titled Moving Your Aquarium: Part 1.

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







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