Vacation flight over Oahu
Photo Cred to staff member: John S.

The year 2020 is finally ending and I am sure we could all use a nice little holiday vacation by now. For many of us, we have been in quarantine with little to do but work on our aquarium. For some, you may have finally pulled the trigger and started your journey into the hobby - welcome! During these trying times, our tanks have probably gotten so much attention that we have formed a bond with it which our significant other could probably never understand. And the thought of leaving our tank babies to go on vacation can have us feeling anxious, as the possibility of our systems crashing lingers in the back of our minds. So to ease your fear, here is a list of gear and tips of proper preparation for your vacation.

Auto Top-Off (ATO) System

ATO system preparation of foreseen evaporation during vacation
Staff Picks: Neptune ATK ATO, XP Aqua Duetto ATO, and Tunze Osmolator Nano ATO System

An auto top-off system is an important piece of equipment to have in general, but even more so when you plan a vacation. For the unfamiliar, this piece of equipment keeps your tank's water at a constant level. Perfect for freshwater systems, ATOs will also protect marine aquarium salinity levels from large fluctuations, and maintain reef stability.

ATO systems are composed of a float switch or an optical sensor (sometimes a combination of the two as a failsafe), a controller, and a pump. The system also requires a reservoir to draw top-off water from, which many sump filters are coming equipped. Otherwise a stand alone, water jug or bucket will suffice.

ATO system installation diagram in preparation of foreseen evaporation during vacation

How it works is when the water level lowers in a calm area in the the sump or, it trips the sensor/float switch, signaling the controller, which then activates the pump. The pump draws water from the reservoir and up into the tank until the water level reaches the sensor again, as shown above.

ATO Tips:

  • If you are setting up a top-off system for the first time or adding one because you are about to take a trip, we recommend installing it at least a week in advance. This will give you time to monitor the system to ensure it is topping off your aquarium properly.
  • If you are using a separate reservoir to replenish your tank, make sure the volume of water it holds is enough to top-off your tank for the entire time you are away. For example, if your tank loses about a gallon a day from evaporation and you are going to be gone for 10 days, your water reservoir should hold at least 10 gallons of water.

Auto Dosing Systems

In preparation for vacation a dosing system can supplement tank with major and minor trace elements

For reefkeeping hobbyists, our tanks require a steady dose of essential elements daily for them to thrive. If you don't have a calcium reactor system hooked up and have been dosing your aquarium supplements manually, investing in a automatic dosing pump may be the next piece of equipment to consider.

Single, double, or quad, many dosing pumps are WiFi controllable so you can tailor the supplement dosing your tank needs multiple times a day, every other day, or weekly. They can even expand to testing the water alkalinity and calcium and will also work great to feed certain liquid coral food or dosing freshwater liquid supplements for your plant and shrimp aquarium.

Auto Dosing Tips:

  • Dosers should be calibrated before using to assure they dose precisely. Test that it can dose 100 ml of RO or distilled water from one measuring cup to another, or if you have a graduated cylinder even better.
  • Setup the a few weeks before leaving on vacation. This will allow you to test parameters each day and adjust the dosing, if needed.
  • Be aware of which dosing systems require non-standard size tubing before you purchase. Not that the tubing is expensive, but it is disgruntling to find out that that air line hosing you have laying around doesn't fit your new dosing pump.

Auto Feed Your Fish

An auto feeder will help keep fish fed while away
Intelli-Feed Programmable Fish Feeder with USB Rechargeable Battery

Many mature systems have enough biodiversity that they are almost self sustaining. Fish can feed off algae or any small crustaceans like copepods for a couple days, depending on how large the bio-load in the aquarium is. However, if you have a great assortment of fish or are concerned about the fish with a high metabolism that must feed often like anthias, an automatic feeder may be something to consider in proper preparation for vacation. Auto feeders store your fishes' favorite dry flake or pellet food in a refillable compartment which can be adjusted to how much food you would like to be fed. A programmable timer signals the motor to drop a portion of food into the aquarium to however many times your tank may require.

Auto Feeder Tips:

  • Mount the feeder in a very secure position on your aquarium so it does not fall inside the tank.
  • Keep the feeder away from high turbulence areas, particularly spots where water is bubbling or splashing. When water finds its way inside an auto feeder, odds are the food will get wet and clump together (especially flakes). This jams the feeder and prevents it from dispensing food.

Battery Powered Backups

battery backups can keep tank pumps running proper gas exchange, if there were power outages

If you are living in an area prone to power outages, then you may be aware of or have discovered the battery backups available for your tank. If not, there are a few different options to combat a power outage in preparation for your vacation, just in case. Battery backup devices available for aquariums are similar to the ones used on personal computers and can keep powerheads running up to 72 hours, depending on the size and number of pumps. The IceCap v3.0 and EcoTech Marine battery backups can also be daisy chained to extend the operation time and a peace of mind in case of a power outage to provide the flow needed to sustain a reef aquarium, until your sitter returns.

Infographic of operation time in correlation to number of pumps

Battery backups can also be used to run a USB powered air pump, if power were to go out. There are also air pumps, like the Cobalt Aquatics USB Powered DC Air Pump, that when plugged into a power outlet detects an outage. If the pump is already running it will continue to run on battery power, or if the pump is off it will automatically turn on to livestock loss.

Manually operated air pumps are also an option, but would need to be hooked up after the power goes out if you have anyone to check up on your house while you are away. Just be sure that the air pump is somewhere they can find it, with instructions on

Control Your Tank

controllers that can help monitor and notify you if there are problems with the aquarium while you're on vacation

Aquarium controllers are another piece of equipment to help in proper vacation preparation and prevent coming home to a tank tragedy. They are programmable. Create rules and schedules to suit your tank needs, controlling major equipment like pumps, lighting and heaters. Some even reduce the power cord clutter, like the Hydros Control 4 Controller, providing power through its drive port connections.

Controllers are Wi-Fi connected, so have the ability to alert you of any equipment failures, temperature drops, pH swings, leak detection or other critical factors that could be devastating. With a cloud-based app, you can power equipment on or off remotely, like turning on the chiller or cooling fan through your mobile device to take corrective action. So, if the controller prevents even one disaster, it will pay for itself.

Controller Tips:

  • Controllers manage the main functions of your aquarium, but are expandable if your tank could use more equipment.
  • Many aquarium controllers come with Wi-Fi Power Strips to switch on and off equipment outlets individually.
  • If feeling overwhelmed, there are many forums to help guide your install, setup and programming like or on the manufacturer's Facebook group.

Further Proper Vacation Preparation Tips:

  • A Water Change Before Leaving to make up for however long you are gone (a little). Keeping your tank’s water chemistry at its best can help your tank survive longer in the event of a power failure or if any inhabitant passes away while you are gone.
  • Get a Babysitt...errr... Tank-Sitter - yeah that's what we meant. If you have local friends in the hobby to check up on things while you're on vacation, they will have the knowledge of taking care of tanks, rather than a non-aquarist neighbor. Just set some guidelines and pointers, like feeding, where extra filter socks/floss are, or any additives you may have been dosing by hand.
  • Make Extra Water, Just in Case before leaving. Have some fresh RO/DI and saltwater ready for your tank sitter, in case your ATO reservoir needs a refill, or if the tank needs any chemistry adjustments a water change can fix.
  • Perform a Preventive Failure Equipment Check before you go. Checking all essential components to keep your tank alive: pumps, powerheads, ATO, lighting, controllers, feeders, heaters, sensors, float valves, etc.
  • Don’t Make Major Changes like adding or changing equipment unless absolutely necessary, otherwise, it can wait until after your trip.
  • Consider an Emergency Generator if your area is prone to power outages or if you were caught off guard by a storm like the hurricanes fellow South Eastern State hobbyists experienced in recent times.


Although never totally full proof, making the proper preparation for your vacation, protecting your tank from disasters while away is always a must. Sometimes we think we are good to go, and return home from vacay to find something small like forgetting to fill up the ATO reservoir before leaving took its toll on your tank. However, making preparations still lessens the probability of failure, and greatly increases the likelihood of safely returning to an aquarium that looks like you never left. So, don’t let your tank prevent you from a staycation at an Air BnB for a holiday getaway, enjoy that overdue trip, knowing you've made all the preparations for your tank.