How to prepare for an aquarium emergency

In the event of a tank emergency, being prepared will most certainly be the difference between the survival or quick demise of your aquarium's tank inhabitants.  There is a myriad of things that can go wrong that will put your tank at risk but a majority of the time, these emergencies arise because of just a handful of reasons. Having a game plan to cover just a few things that cause 99% of the disasters will dramatically increase your tank's chances of long-term survival.

Neptune Systems Apex
Neptune Systems Apex

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Neptune Systems ApexEL
Neptune Systems ApexEL

Buy ApexEL

In addition to being prepared with a game plan for recovery, outfitting your tank with an aquarium controller to oversee equipment and monitor water parameters is the only way to be notified directly when something goes wrong inside your tank. Controllers like the Neptune Systems Apex are incredibly powerful and have the ability to send you a notification on your phone or fire off an email when something goes awry.

We broke the list out into the top 6 reasons things go wrong inside an aquarium and provided you with an effective game plan to enact when the fish hit the fan.

1. Water Temperature

Having a stable temperature is important and experiencing rising or falling water temperatures is high on the list of reasons people experience a tank crash. This is primarily because heaters are the #1 piece of equipment to fail. Whether the sticks ON and overheats the tank or the heater fails and things get too cold, the heater is usually the problem.

Always Monitor Water Temperature

Monitor your aquarium's water temperature at ALL TIMES, 24/7-365 using a thermometer. This could be something advanced like an aquarium controller that will notify your phone when temperatures fall out of range or something simple like a digital thermometer that you can glance at each day when you walk by the tank. As long as you catch a water temperature problem right away, you can usually solve it pretty quickly.

Always Keep A Backup Heater

This means you can just replace a broken heater right away. If the tank overheats, you can cool things off by floating Tupperware full of frozen water. If things get too cold, the new heater should be able to kick in and heat the water appropriately. For this to work, you have to notice the falling temperatures before things get too bad so monitoring temperature is of utmost importance.

Use Two Heaters

This is becoming more and more commonplace with temperature controllers that can handle two heating elements but is also possible with glass heaters that have built-in thermostats. Heater A will be set as your primary heater (78°F) and Heater B is set 2-3 degrees lower (75°). If Heater A fails, temperatures will fall and Heater B will kick on to maintain suitable temperatures. Once you notice the lower temperatures, replace the broken heater.

Replace Your Heater Annually

In addition to keeping a backup on hand at all times, it's not a bad idea to simply swap your heater on an annual schedule to avoid running into the problem. No matter how much it costs, all heaters eventually fail. This is especially true if you're using glass heaters with built-in thermostats but titanium heaters and temperature controllers will eventually wear out too.

Gas Exchange Diagram

2. Water Flow

Flow is critical to ensure the water stays oxygenated but also moves water through your filtration system. Water pumps are what provide the flow we need in our aquariums which again, puts our tank at the mercy of a working pump. Flow meters and power monitoring with an aquarium controller are the best ways to monitor the status of the pumps inside your tank. 

Always Keep A Backup Return Pump

Pumps can fail for a variety of reasons and if you have a backup, you won't ever have to worry about going without. Whether the impeller snaps or the motor just stops, a backup pump can keep the tank running until you get a new primary pump installed.

Battery Powered Air-Pump

An air pump pushing air through an airstone in your tank can actually keep the water oxygenated by producing water movement. While this won't be as effective as a powerhead, it can buy you a few hours until a new pump can be acquired or the power is returned.

Battery Back-Up

When the power goes out, your return pump won't do you any good in the way of keeping the water oxygenated. Attaching your internal powerheads to some kind of battery backup will keep the tank alive through short power outages.

There are a few battery solutions made specifically for aquariums that will automatically kick on should power go out but you can also use a USP-type battery backup designed for computers that function the same way. In any case, these batteries will typically last for no more than 24 hours which keeps you covered for most power outages.

3. Power Loss

Loss of power to an aquarium is absolutely the biggest threat because, without some kind of emergency power source, the animals will simply not survive. For short-term power outages, keeping the water oxygenated is the primary concern but for any outage longer than 24 hours, the water's temperature and quality start to become a problem as well.

Buy a Generator

This is the best solution and really the only viable solution for those who are at risk of long-term power outages. You can effectively run your entire tank using a single generator but can also just run it bare bones with a single pump and heater to extend fuel life.

Households with large aquariums should consider how much power is required to keep the tank alive and choose the generator accordingly. There are small portable generators as well as large generators designed to support the entire household which is more common in areas with extreme weather conditions.

Battery Back-Up

If a generator is out of the question, hooking your powerheads to a battery can save your tank during a power outage. The investment is minimal but the rewards are grand for when the day finally comes that you need it.

Be sure to test your battery backup for proper function every few months. It's a good idea to run the battery down every now and again, then let it recharge to extend the battery life.

Consider this, battery backups are automatic so even if you are not home, the battery will take over when power is lost. A generator on the other hand will often require manual start and connection to your tank's equipment unless it's integrated into your home's power grid. 

4. Leak or Flood

The nightmare of all tank owners, water on the floor is never a good thing. Having a tank break and dump your entire display onto the floor is a far cry from having a leaky pipe fitting but nonetheless, you should be prepared for anything.

Silicone & Teflon Tape

Having some silicone can be handy for repairing small leaks as well as Teflon tape and plumbers putty, both of which are great for sealing leaky pipe threads. While these solutions should not be permanent, it's good to have them on hand for short-term fixes. 

Holding Bin

This is something most don't think about but if your main display tank is structurally damaged, you're going to want to have a suitable holding bin or spare tank that is large enough to hold the fish and other animals until you can get back on track. Rubbermaid containers work great but also any old aquarium will do. All you need to do is provide flow and keep the water temperatures stable with a heater and the animals should survive just fine.

Plumbing Supplies

An assortment of important plumbing parts like insert fittings, elbows, and even a bulkhead can come in handy in the event something happens to a critical part of your plumbing. Also keep some PVC glue, tubing, clamps, or any other component of your plumbing that you couldn't live without or repair.

Use Leak Detectors & Water Alarms

These devices will notify you in the event they detect water. The sensors can be placed anywhere around your tank where water might show up should your tank spring a leak or overflow. The Watchdog is very popular and most aquarium controllers also have this capability and can notify you on your smartphone.

5. Disease Outbreak

An outbreak of disease or parasites in your aquarium can move fast, sometimes infecting the entire tank seemingly overnight. Acquiring healthy fish and doing everything you can to minimize the introduction of these pests is the #1 course of action but no matter how much you prepare, there is always a risk.

Quarantine Tank

Having supplies for a quarantine tank on hand at all times means you can set it up in a hurry and isolate your fish for treatment before a disease or parasite becomes deadly. Doing this in a timely manner can be the difference between life and death. Keep some common medications on hand too such as Copper and Metronidazole.

Learn More: How to Setup a Quarantine Tank

UV Sterilizers

While having a UV sterilizer installed on your tank is a great way to reduce the presence of disease-causing pathogens and parasites, you can just as easily have one stored away for intermittent use as well. UV can be effective at killing algae, bacteria, and a variety of parasites when implemented properly.

6. Water Quality

This is when something happens to the water conditions that will threaten the health of the fish. Whether it be some kind of contamination or the result of something like a broken ATO causing a rise in salinity, the most important thing about water quality is ensuring your monitoring it so you can take the necessary action before the fish and animals are threatened.  

Keep Activated Carbon On Hand

In addition to improving water clarity, Carbon filter media can help remove a variety of contaminants that may enter your aquarium unexpectedly. This could be lotion or perfume from your hands or maybe your kids dumped something toxic into the tank by accident. Carbon and water changes together will help to dilute and remove these kinds of foreign contaminants.

Keep Water Change Supplies On Hand

Water changes are just part of the game when maintaining an aquarium so this is something most all of us do anyway.  The thing is, you want to be prepared to perform a water change at any time. That means having an RO/DI system at home to filter tap water, along with salt mix and the necessary mixing supplies to make saltwater should you need to perform an emergency water change in the middle of the night. 

Ammonia Poisoning

Ammonia is deadly to fish and should be monitored closely with an ammonia test kit. While we generally only do this on new aquariums, it is also important for quarantine tanks.  You might also consider ammonia poisoning if your experiencing bacteria blooms or mysterious fish loss. 

Keep a water conditioner like Seachem Prime on hand so you can detoxify ammonia if it shows up! 

Monitor pH, Temperature, & Salinity

The only way to maintain water quality and critical parameters is with regular water testing. There are a variety of water tests that should be done regularly but pH, temperature, and salinity are hands down the most important. These three parameters give you an indication that your aquarium environment is stable and any changes are an indication something is wrong.