Prepare Your Saltwater Aquarium For Vacation: Gear Checklist & Helpful Tips
Preparing your aquarium for a vacation can protect your aquarium against some unfortunate circumstances that you would otherwise be able to correct. Taking the necessary precautions will also allow you to peacefully enjoy your time away from home without having to fret about your reef aquarium.
Of course, it's always a good idea to have a friend or family member physically check on the aquarium every few days but with the use of modern technology and automation, your tank can run on autopilot for 5-7 days without issue.
Vacation Preparation Tips
- Perform a water change before your leave: This is especially true for tanks on a regular water exchange schedule and it's just a good way to ensure your tank is balanced and looking its best before you go.
- Get a tank-sitter: If you have a trusted friend who has some experience in the hobby, that is the best option. Otherwise, friends or family members can at least be tasked with physically checking on the tank, making sure nothing has gone wrong. Write a checklist or instructions for the tank-sitter and don't skimp on the details, the more details the better.
- Make extra water, just in case: Be sure that your freshwater RO storage container is full of water and also fill up your ATO reservoir. It's a good idea to mix up a batch of saltwater too, that way if an emergency water change is needed, the tank sitter is prepared. Leave your water change supplies and buckets in an easy-to-find location.
- Check your pumps and equipment: Clean your pumps and protein skimmer cup then double-check all of the essential components of your tank for proper operation - powerheads, skimmer, lighting, ATO, etc.
- Don’t make any major changes: Don't install new equipment, change up your dosing regiment, or make any other major change to the routine maintenance of your aquarium before your go.
- Consider emergency power: Be sure you have a battery backup for your powerheads at the bare minimum or better yet, an emergency generator just in case the power goes out.
- Set up alerts using your controller: If you have an aquarium controller, be sure you are getting alerts/emails to your phone. Leak detectors are a big one but also pH and temperature alarms too.
The Essential Gear Checklist
This is a list of equipment that when used properly, can completely automate the everyday maintenance of your aquarium, right down to feeding the fish. We not only listed what gear you need to have but also provide a few tips and tricks to ensure you covered all your basis.
Auto Top-Off (ATO) System
An auto top-off system is essential to any saltwater aquarium and will automatically replenish the aquarium with fresh water that is lost to evaporation on a regular basis. This maintains the water level in the aquarium and also ensures a stable salinity.
Outside of going on vacation, an ATO just saves you a ton of hassle and maintains a more stable environment which is why we recommend every tank owner have one. If you don't have one yet, get one, and be sure to install it at least a couple of weeks before you are ready to leave.
- Verify your ATO is working properly for at least 5-7 consecutive days before leaving. DO NOT ADD A NEW ATO the day before you leave.
- Be sure your sensors and/or float switches are clean and functioning properly.
- Verify the ATO pump is working and that the water line will not siphon water.
- Fill your freshwater ATO reservoir 100% and be sure to leave instructions for refilling the reservoir when it has depleted.
- Instruct your tank-sitter to visually check the water level in the aquarium and ATO reservoir.
Wifi Capable Temperature Controller
While it is necessary to have a heater running at all times to maintain suitable temperatures in your aquarium, its a good idea to have some kind of redundant temperature monitoring solution.
Your heater is the #1 most likely piece of equipment to fail on your aquarium and falling or rising temperature can kill your aquarium inhabitants in a hurry.
An aquarium controller like the Neptune Systems Apex has the ability to oversee the water temperature, control your heaters, and notify you directly should the temperature fall out of range. You can even plug in and program a backup heater that will kick on if your primary heater fails.
The Inkbird Wifi controller is also a great option that can monitor water temperature, oversee the operation of your heater and notify you when temperatures fall out of range.
- Keep a backup heater on hand at all times. This way you have a replacement should your primary heater fail.
- Always have a separate thermometer or temperature controller monitoring water temperature. That way your tank sitter can check the water temperature at a glance.
- Be sure you have the temperature alarms setup correctly.
For most reef aquariums that contain stony corals, additives are typically dosed to maintain water chemistry. This will vary from tank to tank but the point is, you need to automate the addition of these additives in your absence.
Dosing pumps are peristaltic pumps that can deliver small quantities of fluid into your aquarium. Reef hobbyists use these small pumps to make frequent additions of additives, usually multiple times per day.
- Do not add a dosing pump the day before you leave, be sure it is running and dosing accurately for at least 2-4 weeks before you leave.
- Calibrate your dosing pump to ensure accurate doses.
- Be sure the dosing lines are clean and not clogged up
- Test water parameters regularly to verify stable parameters
- Ensure your additive containers are full and will not run out while your away
- If you have a controller, set up pH alarms to notify should pH rise/fall to dangerous levels which could be caused by a dosing pump failure.
Automatic Fish Feeder
This one is pretty straightforward; an automatic fish feeder will allow for the automated feeding of dry pellets or flake food into your aquarium. Most fish feeders allow for multiple feedings per day and you can control the qty of feed delivered with each feeding.
Positioning a feeding ring directly below the feeder will contain the food and reduce food waste.
Auto Feeder Tips:
- Be sure the feeder has fresh batteries and is full of food.
- Verify it is working correctly and feeding enough food throughout the day before you leave.
- 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.
- Instruct the tank-sitter to monitor the auto-feeder and be sure it's full of food.
- If you have a controller, you can program a feed mode to automatically shut down your pumps while the auto-feeder is running which helps reduce food waste. Just be sure the pumps return the normal operation after a set period of time.
Battery Powered Backups or Generator
Emergency power is important to ensure your tank stays alive during an unexpected power outage. Most tank owners employ a battery backup attached directly to a powerhead. If power is lost, the battery steps in to keep the powerhead running, and ensures the water stays oxygenated.
You don't need to run your entire filtration system, heater, and lighting as long as the power outage only lasts for a few hours. After 24 hours, water temperature becomes a threat alongside the oxygen levels. In this case, a generator really is the only option.
- Verify your battery holds a charge and kicks on automatically.
- Be sure your generator has fuel and starts
- Test to see how long your battery can run your powerhead, that way you know how long you have before the fish and other livestock are at risk.
- Keeping a battery-powered air pump on hand with fresh batteries is not a bad idea. A simple airstone can keep the water oxygenated as well but for only as long as the batteries last.
BRS Recommended: Neptune Systems APEX
An aquarium controller is the most valuable piece of equipment you can install to prepare your tank for a vacation. A multi-element controller allows you to automate and control all of your equipment using a central device. You can also monitor your aquarium's water parameters and even connect a webcam to view your tank in real-time from anywhere in the world with an internet connection.
The Neptune Systems Apex is one of the most powerful aquarium controllers on the market and allows you to use leak detectors, float switches, flow meters, power monitoring, pH probes, temperature probes, ORP probes, salinity probes, dissolved oxygen probes and they even test for Calcium, Alkalinity, and Magnesium using a device called the Trident.
- Be sure to create alarms for at least the most critical parameters including temperature, salinity, and pH so you will be notified should any of these parameters start to stray.
- Install the controller well in advance and familiarize yourself with its operation before you go.
- Take advantage of the power monitoring feature to see if your pumps and other equipment are operating as they should.
- Turn on the heartbeat function to be notified if power is lost to your aquarium.