What to do if an aquarium leaks?

What would you do if your aquarium leaks?

I don’t mean to be Mister Doom and Gloom here, but I have a question for you: Are you prepared to handle an aquarium emergency?

I recently read the book, The Martian, by Andy Weir, which was also turned into a major motion picture, starring Matt Damon as the main character, Mark Watney.

It’s a great story of ingenuity and personal triumph. Most of Mark Watney’s struggles were related to keeping his slice environment suitable to support life, while dealing with the challenges he faced. That got me to start thinking about my own saltwater aquarium in the same way. Am I prepared to handle an emergency with my saltwater aquarium?

In The Martian, NASA had built redundancies and contingency plans to deal with equipment failures. They also trained their astronauts how to handle emergencies by first dealing with the emergencies in a simulation.

I thought it would be fun to simulate a few saltwater aquarium emergencies to see how I would respond and to help identify areas where I’m under prepared or insufficiently equipped to handle the situation. That’s what I will cover over the next few blog post.

Simulation # 1: Something happens and the saltwater aquarium leaks.

What would I do if the aquarium sprung a major leak.

Fish Tank springs a leak at T-Rex Cafe

What would you do if your aquarium broke? It’s hard to think about, but all that water is being held in place by a few thin panes of glass and some silicone caulk. If your aquarium springs a leak, all the water would drain out, to the point of the leak.
Brainstorm: What’s the biggest problem. If my aquarium begins to leak, I have to deal with the following: gallon upon gallon of water pouring out from the point of the breach onto the floor, rolling downhill into the floor, down the walls and into the basement.

Depending on the size of the breach, I have livestock being sucked out of the tank being poured out onto the floor and I have live rock corals, fish and sand stuck inside the draining tank.

Electrical Safety first

The first thing that comes to mind is safety…electrical safety…did the lights fall into the tank or is the water pouring out onto the power strips, etc? I’m not sure how I would do this, but first step would be to confirm there is no electrical safety issue.

By BrokenSphere

Nothing worse than rushing in to fix the leak and getting electrocuted. that would be a worst case scenario there. So rapidly cutting the electricity should probably be step 1. Not sure what the arrangement is in your tank, but all the power to my tank travels through 1 wall socket, to a power strip or series of power strips…now that I think about it, this is a bit of a disaster on its own and should probably be fixed. If the situation isn’t too bad, yet, I could simply pull the plug. if it’s a bit messier of a situation, the safest spot to cut the power would be at the circuit breaker. I’m about 30 seconds into dealing with my emergency and I already found my first big issue. I have no idea what circuit to break. That’s ok, in an emergency I could just cut all the circuits. Note to self, test, confirm and label the circuits after this exercise is over.

Towel time

Next, I want to try and soak up as much of the spill as possible to help minimize the damage to the old domicile. If this emergency happened tomorrow, I would be able to use the towels in the linen closet, which would help me soak up the spill and minimize damage to the house, but would likely render the towels unusable (by spousal standards) to the rest of the family for general use. Note to self: search for and pick up some cheap towels specifically for disaster cleanup.

Not much of strategy here, I would just throw the towels down to sop up the mess, specifically where the water is pouring out.

Plug the leak

My next thought is a patch. Is there something I can do to patch the leak, plug the hole? I

need some duct tape. I’m sure I have duct tape lying around the house, but I have no idea where. Note to self buy some duct tape and keep it in an emergency kit. I’m not sure what else to use here. I’m also envisioning using a plastic bag, like a disposable grocery bag or a small trash bag to place inside the tank near the leak. My thought is that the gravity pull on the water would suck the bag into the leak. It wouldn’t seal the leak, but I think it might plug it up enough to slow the flow of water so that I could seal things up a bit better on the other side with the duct tape. I’m not sure if that would work or not, but I’m adding duct tape and a plastic bag to my emergency kit.

Diverting the flow of water

The next big issue is managing the huge volume of water exiting my aquarium. Cutting the power should help this, a bit, because at least I’ll keep whatever remains of the ~18 gallons of water in my sump from pouring out onto the floor. What do I do about the rest?

Next, I need somewhere to store the rest of the water so that it doesn’t just keep pouring out on the floor. I need capacity to store a lot of water. My total aquarium volume is 92 gallons plus a 20 gallon sump, but with live rock and sand, I bet you it’s less than 100 gallons of water. What am I going to do with all of that water?

I have 2 of those rope handle totes from a local hardware store and 6 old salt buckets. Each tote holds 18 gallons and each bucket holds 5 gallons. So that’s 66 gallons. I also have an empty 10 gallon and 20 gallon long aquarium I could bring up from the basement. That gives me an extra 30 gallons of water holding capacity and brings me up to 96 gallons. While we’re on the topic, have I mentioned that I have an aquarium hoarding problem? That’s a topic for a different post.

If any animals were in imminent danger (like flopping on the floor), I would quickly move them to a bucket while draining the tank. The rest I would leave in the tank until the end. No sense in chasing them around a tank while the tank is pouring out on the floor.

I’m pleased to see that I relatively easily could manage portable storage to hold all the water if I needed to. The only risk here is that running around and pulling up glass tanks from the basement seems a bit risky to me. Those totes seem to be exactly what I need—and they only cost about six bucks, so I’m going to add a few of those to the list. That seems like the most effective tool for the job.

But now, how am I going to get the water out of the tank? I suppose if it spouted, like a fountain, I could just line up my buckets under the flow of water, but if the leak is somewhere less convenient, I’m going to need some way to drain the tank.

The only way I currently have set up is to use the water change siphon. That will work, but it drains pretty slowly. In the case of an emergency, I’m going to need a faster way to get the water out of the tank in a controlled manner.

I’m envisioning a small pump or powerhead with a flexible tube that I can submerge to pump the water out. I’m adding that to my shopping list. I’m a bit conflicted, because part of me thinks it’s a luxury item, and not really required in the case of an emergency, but if the water is leaking out of the tank, and if I can’t stop or slow the leak, temporarily, it’s going to cause a lot of damage and having a pump will really make a difference…so…I think I am going to add this to the list.

Ok, so I’ve handled electricity, I’ve soaked up some of the mess and I’ve directed the remaining water safely into containers. I have also, hopefully, rescued any livestock that were sucked out of the tank and have them in somewhere in a container.

My hope is that somewhere along the line, the leak is under control enough where I can pause to rescue the livestock before the tank drained entirely.

Livestock rescue

It’s nearly impossible to catch fish in a tank filled with Rock, so I would take the coral and rock out and stash them in the big totes. perhaps another reason I should pick up an extra tote or two. I wouldn’t be worried about arranging at this point, just moving and storing.livestock rescue
With the water level down pretty low and the rocks and corals removed, I would then attempt to rescue the fish. For this, I need a net, specimen container and a step stool to be able to reach in and have a reasonable amount of leverage/access.
What would come in really handy, at this point, is an inventory list of all the livestock in my tank. Sure, I could go off memory, but I’m not really sure exactly how many crabs and snails….and what if a fish is really hiding…in the chaos, am I going to remember? Note to self, create a list of livestock. Something else that will be important is to be sure I know if there are any dangers with any of the livestock. Any chance of palytoxin? Perhaps. Any venomous fish (like a foxface?) for me, no but what about you? Those will take special care.

Ok, electricity is off, tank is drained, livestock is relatively safe, now it’s time to do a more thorough clean up. I probably just threw the towels everywhere to try and sop up the mess, but now I can take the time to do a more thorough exploration and clean up. I’m going to need a few more towels and a giant fan to dry out this mess.

Temporary life support

Next I have to set up temporary quarters for my livestock. I haven’t mentioned this yet, but I have a hospital/quarantine tank set up for new livestock additions. I would move my fish there. I would also use at least one of the totes to hold the live rock and corals, for now. I would move the tote under a window in my office where I get a lot of direct sunlight and hope that’s good enough for now. I would relocate the heater to the tote with the coral (the hospital tank already has one) and set up an air pump to circulate and oxygenate the water in the tote.  I would attempt to do a quick role call to confirm all livestock are present and accounted for before moving to the final stage—deconstruction and clean up.

Deconstruct & rebuild

aquariumAll that’s left now is a few hours of work to deconstruct the tank. Ugh. What a mess. I have a deep sand bed in my tank. I would have to scoop out and dispose of all that sand.

For that job, I’m going to need some way to scoop and transport the sand do dispose of it. I literally don’t know what I’m going to do there. So I’m going to need another tote to stor
e the sand outside until I know what to do with it…I’m also going to need some sort of a mini shovel or something to scoop out the wet sand and a few buckets to carry that heavy wet mess outside the house. Next step is to do a google search for ways to use sand. I don’t recommend saving sand. I tried to do that, before, when I moved my tank, several years ago, but the sand does not travel well. It turns the water super cloudy and is rotten smelling. There is a lot of nasty going on there, I don’t think it’s worth the risk.

The final step, after weeping and assessing the damage, is rebuilding. Assuming the disaster has not sworn me away from the hobby altogether.

So let me recap my plan:

  1. Electrical safety first—cut the electricity
  2. Towels, towels and more towels to help minimize damage already done
  3. Plug the leak if possible (and fast)
  4. Redirect the water into water proof containers
  5. Rescue livestock
  6. Set up temporary life support/tank
  7. Deconstruct & rebuild

During this simulation, I found a key strengths and weaknesses.


Having my quarantine tank all set up will be really helpful in transitioning the livestock in a situation like this. I’m glad I have one set up and running.


I was under-prepared to manage an electricity risk. I need to test and label better. I also need a better way to evacuate more water (snicker, snicker) quickly, and an inventory list of the livestock to make sure I’ve rescued everyone appropriately.

Shopping list

I need to pick up a few items to handle a disaster like list

  • Towels
  • More totes
  • Duct tape
  • Plastic bag (is there a better solution?)
  • Pump and flexible hose to drain the tank faster
  • Gravel vacuum
  • Net and specimen container
  • Air pump and airline
  • Extra heater

Follow up actions needed

  1. Test and label circuit breaker better—and clean up my darn electrical mess
  2. Organize the emergency kit in single place so I can move quickly
  3. Create an inventory list of all the livestock in my tank

What are your thoughts?

I want this page to be a resource to help you think through your own plan if your aquarium leaks. Critique this post—how can I make the plan better? What are the weaknesses? What would you do if this happened to you? Do you have other ideas, approaches? Leave a comment here and let’s help make this THE go-to resource for an all out emergency.






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