5 pieces of equipment that can save your aquarium from disaster
in the event of a power outage.
While it’s still a bit on the cold side up here in Minnesota, severe weather season is quickly approaching most of the country. It’s mostly storms and Tornado’s here but depending on where in the country you are you may have to contend with tornados, hurricanes, wind storms, rain etc. It wasn’t much later than this last year when we received a pretty typical rain storm that left most of us without power for an extended period of time. The storm came in on a Friday night and power here at the office didn’t come back on until right before work Monday morning. It was even longer at some of our houses. Fortunately for us, we had backup equipment for all the tanks here in the office but it could have been a lot worse.
If there is one thing that all aquarium owners have in common, whether it’s a reef tank or fish only tank, saltwater or freshwater, LPS or SPS, it’s that we all have a reliance on electricity to keep our delicate ecosystems running’s. Most of us have fairly consistent power sources but were always one step away from losing it due to a hurricane, earthquake, tornado, snow/ice, or last spring for us it was just a good rain fall.
Fortunately, in most cases the power is only out for a few hours, though depending on your location and the magnitude of the cause, it can turn into days, weeks, or even months. Here are a few pieces of equipment that can save your tank when you’re in a jamb. Some of them are short term solutions capable of taking care of the most critical short terms problems (like circulation) and others long term issues (like lighting).
The thing your tank needs the most is air. Your fish consume oxygen and produce carbon dioxide. Most of the oxygen enters the aquarium (and co2 leaves the aquarium) by gas exchange at the water surface. The excess co2 gasses off into the room and fresh oxygen enters the water. With good air exchange the aquarium reaches equilibrium with the levels in the air around the tank, and for the most part, doesn’t vary too much. Good air exchange is the result of good flow in the tank and agitation at the surface of the tank. When the power goes out, so does most of your gas exchange. This isn’t a huge issue for most aquariums if we're talking about a short period of time, but the sooner you can get that water movement and surface agitation back up and running the better.
A battery powered air pump is one of the things that should be in everyone’s kit. They are inexpensive and can save you a boatload in the event of a power outage. At around the $20 range, they are probably cheaper than any piece of livestock you have in your tank. They generally come in two different flavors, automatic and manual. With a manual battery powered air pump like the SAB10, you put batteries in the air pump and it starts pumping. The batteries are its only power source. Simply submerge the end of the airline tubing down in the tank and let it bubble. As the bubbles rise to the surface they will not only produce some movement of water in the tank but they will cause ripples on the water and agitate the surface of the water, promoting air exchange. Not only a life saver in the event of a power outage, but the SAB10 is a great option for long rides home from the fish store or frag swap.
The other type of battery powered air pump is an automatic version like the SAB11. The SAB11 not only runs off of two “D” size batteries but also has a power cord to the wall. It runs on your main power normally and will automatically switch over to battery power in the event of a power outage. If you have an application where you are running an air pump 24/7 on a normal basis as it is (like to keep a phytoplankton culture going, etc.) then this is a great option because it will automatically switch over to battery power if necessary. For emergency aquarium issues it can also be used just like the SAB10.
If you already have the EcoTech VorTech pumps in your aquarium, your already most of the way to being worry free about flow in the event of a power outage. The VorTech pumps run on DC current, which is the same reason why they are able to ramp their speed up and down. This also makes them very efficient for running from a battery (which supplies DC current). Every EcoTech VorTech pump has a small additional port on the bottom of the driver that most of us never use (maybe never even noticed it was there). This port actually connects a wire directly from the EcoTech Battery Back-Up.
In the event of a power outage, the pump will automatically switch over to powering off of the battery backup. The pumps will also switch to an energy conserving mode to maximize the battery life. A single battery backup can run up to two pumps at a time. A single battery backup can run an MP10 Vortech Pump for up to 72 hours or 36 hours with an MP40. If one so desired you can actually connect two VorTech battery backups together to double the run time. While it’s possible to run 2 pumps off of a single battery (or 1 pump and 1 extra battery), in most cases, you will be better served by running one pump and taking advantage of the longer run time. In most tanks, the single pump will be sufficient to at least keep the air exchange running and its best to be prepared for the power being out longer than expected.
It is worth noting that the battery backup can also be used to power the Radion LED systems in the event of a power outage. Honestly, it’s helpful to have this feature but I would suggest not utilizing it if you only have a single battery. Your tank would be fine for much longer (days) without light whereas the entire tank could go south within hours of losing flow. If you have a single battery the pumps are the most important thing and if you’re in a situation where you will be out of power long enough that light will be an issue, you need to have one of the long term solutions from below already in order.
Tunze controllable pumps work on DC voltage just like the EcoTech VorTech pumps and if you have the Tunze controllable pumps there is a solution for them as well. It is called the “Tunze Turbelle Safety Connector” which is kind of a funny name for what it is. The Safety Connector is basically a connector that allows you to connect your DC powered Tunze pump to the battery or dc power source of your choice. Just like the VorTech Battery Back-Up, the Safety Connector will run off the main power source when power is available and then automatically switch over to battery power when needed. It comes with a built in 4 amp fuse.
Most folks will use something like a deep cycle battery, the type commonly used in RV’s and on boats. Deep Cycle batteries are designed to run equipment for long periods of time and will be a better choice than an automotive battery for frequent discharge/charge cycles. Instead of being able to chain multiple batteries together like with the EcoTech batteries (though you can manually wire multiple of the same batteries together in parallel for the same purpose) you have the simple flexibility to just swap them out, so you could have one running while another charges in a different location (not that you can’t pick up an extra EcoTech Battery and move it as well).
So far I have just focused on equipment to keep some flow in your aquarium as that is the most important thing on a short term basis. But what if the power is out for a long period of time and you need to run some other equipment like lights or heaters? In a normal short term power outage of a few hours, or even overnight, there isn’t a need to worry about things like heaters or lights. Tanks are fairly resilient to a slowly declining temperature and most power outages happen in the warmer months as it is, but this isn’t always the case. Sometimes the power goes out for longer periods of time, or during cold weather and you’re not able to run the furnace, etc. This is where a power inverter may be a handy emergency tool.
You may have seen these at the electronics or hardware store for a variety of purposes. A DC to AC power inverter takes a DC power source (such as a deep cycle battery) and converts it to 120v AC, similar to that supplied via the electrical company. Power inverters are a potential option for power outages longer than a day or two or anytime you need to run more equipment than just a DC pump (if you even have one) because they give you a standard 3 prong outlet like you find on most of your equipment. This means that you can plug in things like heaters, lights, etc. assuming that you have an inverter rated with enough power to run them. Heaters, in particular, consume a large amount of power, as do many forms of lighting so you may need a really beefy inverter to power them, and even beefier battery/batteries to run them.
When selecting a power inverter there are a few things to look out for. First is output. Power inverters are rated by the amount of power they are able to put out. For example, a 400-watt power inverter is capable of running devices whose maximum power consumption is less than a combined 400 watts. If you want to run 200w worth of pumps, a 300w heater, and 200w worth of LED lighting then you’re going to need a pretty sizable inverter. A minimum of the total draw of these items (700w) but you would be better served by going even bigger as many devices may actually draw more than they are rated for (especially at startup).
The second thing you will see on inverters is pure sine wave vs modified sine wave. The majority of inverters on the market are modified sine wave inverters. A pure sine wave inverter will create a “cleaner” source of electricity that is nearly identical to the type you get from the power company. This is more desirable for certain types of equipment such as a motor, pumps, and fluorescent lighting. We happen to use a lot of this type of equipment in the aquarium so it will be a better choice for most folks.
The downside to using a power inverter for an aquarium is that if you need to use them because the power outage has gone long enough to require higher current devices like lights and heaters, the batteries won’t last very long. How long they will last depends largely on how big of a battery you have and how much power you are consuming. There are various calculators online, in particular from companies that manufacturer inverters, but as an example a 60amp/hr. battery that you are running 300 watts from may only last about an hour. The other downside is that the power often goes out in severe summer weather when you are far less concerned about keeping the tank warm and far more concerned about keeping it cool. Frozen bottles of water can be used to cool the tank but you’re only going to have so many, and without power to run a freezer you can’t keep making more. Equipment like chillers (which internally are basically a small refrigerator) are going to draw more current than you can expect out of a typical inverter.
Batteries can be charged, and some smaller inverters can be setup to run, right from a running vehicle, using the engine to power the inverter or charge the battery though it may not be healthy for the battery or the car. There may be special needs or equipment when doing that, and may be extra wear on the car, so it’s best to consult with the company who manufactures the battery about its charging needs.
Obviously running and recharging batteries every couple of hours isn’t very feasible for a long period of time. This is why for most folks it makes more sense to pick up a small generator. A small generator will cost more than a battery and inverter but if you don’t already have a deep cycle battery lying around, it might not be as much of a cost difference as you would think. Most small portable generators are typically run off of gasoline. You can’t run them in your house but you can fill the gas tank up, park it outside and run them for a long period of time. You can even use them to do things like charge up other batteries. Whereas your typical electronics store inverter may be up to 400w, small generators usually START at 3,500w and only go up from there.
Picking a generator is similar to picking a power inverter. You need to first identify how much power you may need at a maximum. Think about things like lights, pumps, heaters, and chillers. Chillers are usually the most power hungry of all your devices so don’t forget it in your calculations if you have one. You may even want to factor in something like your freezer/refrigerator (a great technique for getting spousal approval). Most equipment will have a label on the back that tells you how many watts of power it consumes. If it doesn’t list it in watts it should at least list it in amps. Watts = Amps x Volts. We know the power source is 120v, so if it draws 1amp @ 120v then it uses 120 watts. Just keep in mind that many items like pumps will have increased power consumption as they start. Most generators have this in mind, so you will usually see a rating for continuous wattage as well as peak wattage (where they can supply more for a very short period of time, like when a pump starts). Some generators even have GFCI protection built right in! Other features like push button/electric start can also make life easier (for a price of course!).
From there you want to look at other features that may be important to you. How long can you run it at a time, how much fuel does it consume, and how big is its gas tank? My own generator is a 3500w model. At 50% load, it consumes 1/3rd of a gallon of gasoline and the tank holds 4 gallons of gas. That means it will run for about 12 hours on a tank of gas. At current gas prices of around $3.50 a gallon that means it costs a little over a buck an hour to run. All points consider that’s pretty cheap considering how much live stock is in the tank.
The Watts = Amps x Volts from above can be calculated in reverse to solve for amps as well. So my 3500w generator = Amps x 120v. 3500watts / 120v gets you about 29 amps. Considering most normal circuits in a house are rated at 15 amps, even if you have two circuits just for your aquarium there is a pretty good chance even a small generator will keep your aquarium running, it’s just a matter of what else you may want to run (an air conditioner may very well need 30amps or even more). If you really wanted to go to the extreme, you can get whole house backup generators that usually run off of natural gas and automatically turn on and switch your house over to when the power goes out.
In a perfect world, my suggestion would be to use two of these methods. The generator for long term power outages and one of the battery/pump combinations whether the EcoTech VorTech or the Tunze Turbelle DC pumps happen to be your preference. Both of the pump setups are left on all the time and function automatically in the event of a power outage. That way if you’re not home and can’t make it home for a while (My wife and I were out with friends last spring when a storm hit, took me 2 hours to go 5 miles because the roads were flooded and trees were down) you have something that will take over automatically. Give you time to get home and assess the situation, and if it’s going to be a long haul then you can get the generator fired up without having to worry.