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Aquariums and vacation: our guide to avoid the risks due to the absence

What can we do when we are leaving for vacation and we have an aquarium of this level?

Managing and thinking about the aquarium when we’re away is very stressful and cause for concern for everyone. But there are many things we can do to minimize risks and problems.

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This article is also available in: italiano

Let’s begin by saying that, obviosuly, when we’re on vacation our aquarium stays alone waiting for our return. We know that the life of our aquarium depends exclusively on us (… and the electric current!).

It goes without saying that if the aquarium remains unguarded for a long time is very dangerous. As the Murphy’s law teaches, “Anything that can go wrong, will go wrong” at the worst time and in the worst way possible. And with many years of aquatics behind I can say I think I’ve seen everyting.

So, if we want to avoid unwanted surprises we must meticulously take care of everything, if the problem could present itself regardless of our cyclopean efforts.

Reasonably, an aquarium can resist unbothered for about 2 weeks. We have to consider this lasting.

Let’s analyze the problem from every angle:

  1. Wellness of the fish
  2. Wellness of the corals
  3. Wellness of the tank
  4. Cover in case of blackout, both for a short and long time
  5. Way of stay aware of what happens in the aquarium at all times
  6. Research of a substitue for severe cases

Wellness of the fish

For a certain amount of time, no one will take care of the fish. This means that nobody will feed them and will be there to keep and eye and control if there’re problems.

Usually, when it comes to feeding, except for specific cases, it’s not a problem if the aquarium remains “alone” for 2 or 3 weeks (speaking of aquarium of about 200 liters and correctly managed). Maybe the fish will lose a bit of weight, but if they’re properly fed they’ll keep grazing happily on the rocks and they won’t have particular problems. My suggestion is, anyway, to havily overdose the food, even up to twice the dose we’re used to, during the week before our leaving. In this way they’ll have more stocks to draw from in our absence.

Last year Dupla presented at Nuremberg Interzoo a special gel feed that lasts 1 or 2 weeks, that doesn’t rot and that the fish can nibble for a long while. On the market there already are some automatic feeders that could fulfill the task in our absence. I usually tend to discourage their purchase for some reasons: first of all, feeders are usually placed next to the aquarium, where humidity is higher, so often the feed moistens before it’s released in the tank, and in the worst cases it rots too. Sure, this doesn’t happen with the food that is administered the day after or such, but think about a food that stays inside a feeder, exposed to humidity for a week or 10 days. Can we affirm for sure that it will still be healthy? Then I don’t think it’s wise to rely on a tool that we use only occasionally, that may have failures exactly when we need it and lead us to turn to the overdose solution anyway.

If the conservation of the food in the feeder doesn’t scare you (and please, if you do, use always granural food, possibly macrocapsulated), consider that it could block or spill the food in the tank.

Sure, in the years, each company has done its best to come up with feeders that won’t have these problems. If you want to try it out, so that you can be reassured, maybe is better to start with a smaller amount than usual, and start trying it a few weeks before your leaving, so that you can be sure of their proper functioning. Always remember that the feeder is for the survival of the fish, not for their wellness. A smart solution might be to prepare it for a time shorter than your absence. For example, you can try using the feeder for 4 days if you know you’re going to stay away for a week, or using it for not more than 9-10 days if you’re leaving for two weeks ore more. In this way you can minimize the risks.

I have my aquarium since 2001, even if in different tanks, and since then I have been away several times, between one and two weeks, without any particular problems. But in the last years my friends gave me a big hand. It’s obvious that if we host aggressive fish in tank, or fish that have harmful behaviors against others, our absence could exacerbate the situation and this could lead to something lethal. I refer to some kinds of triggerfish, naturally aggressive, which, if left without food, may wipe every shrimp and urchin in the aquarium.

Mangime Granulato per pesci: Elos SVM2
Granulated food for fish: Elos SVM2

If you have the luck to have someone that can visit the aquarium once every 2-3 days, it’s enough a spoon of food, or two. Little food, little pollution: remember that if the aquarium gets polluted when we’re away it can be a huge problem.

Wellness of the corals

Speaking of corals, the issue is more complicated. Corals have much less tolerance than fish to pollution, dissolved oxygen, lower temperature. Moreover, don’t forget that the bacterial reproduction method can have some negative repercussions in our absence.

The corals need light every day, many light, and this shouldn’t be a problem, but they also need calcium and carbonates, and this also shouldn’t be a problem, but also movement, and even here we should be ok… but with alimentation and additives we have huge problems.

The management of of calcium and carbonates is usually demanded to calcium reactors or dosing pumps with balling. Normally we don’t have to do anything more, least of all the maintenance the day before the departure. If everything was working well before, then it’ll keep working well even without us. If you need to do the maintenance do it at least two weeks before the departure, so that you can control that everything works properly.

In my past experience I’ve never lost a single coral due to my own absence. Actually, every time I came back, the corals were healthier than at my departure. So I believe that it won’t be a big problem.

On one hand the corals can feed themselves through excreted by fish, even if the although the coloring may be affected. On the other hand, a decrease in metabolism doesn’t lead to big problems even if it’s prolonged for a couple of weeks. Even in this case I suggest to overdose the food the week, or the weeks, before the departure, with a last generous supper right before we leave the house.

Tipica sump
Typical sump

In case you chose the manual adimistration of calcium and carbonates i suggest you to do nothing, because in our absence the limitation of calcium and carbonates in the water, concurrently with the lower availability of food, will lead to a slowdown in the growth of the corals without damaging their health. Maybe it could be helpful to lower the power of the lights by 20%, just enough to lower the matabolism of the corals without damaging them. At the most, we could find them a bit discolored. Nothing that we can’t adjust in a few weeks.

But let me make a clarification: the corals don’t consume the whole calcium in the water until it’s finished, so as to compromise their own survival. When the calcium decreases, the development rate of the corals decreases as well because the energy needed to extract the calcium from the water is greater and this, together with the less availability of food, lowers the metabolism and the growth… Instead, the highest rates of growth are in those aquariums where the level of calcium is high and the nutrition is heavy and continuous.

Wellness of the aquarium

In addiction to fish and corals we also have to consider the aquarium as a whole, being it marine or freshwater. Everything has to function perfectly when we’re away. The main problem, besides the electric current, is keeping the correct level of salinity.

As you surely know, whoever has a marine aquarium somewhere has also a refill tank with osmosis water to restore the evaporated water. The capacity of this tank is limited, and usually is for about 3-5 days. So if you want to be sure in case of absence you should increase the capacity. Who can connects the osmosis system directly to the tank, so that it’s always full. But since not everyone can do it, we have to act differently.

La mia sump in una vecchia foto con a destra il serbatoio di rabbocco
My sump in a old picture with, on the right, the refill tank

Temperature and salinity…

Before we go on with the salinity, we have to consider another parameter which may create many problems: the temperature.

The temperature in aquarium has to remain within a certain range, and even if this usually isn’t a problem in winter, it could become one in summer. This is a huge theme, maybe it’ll be the object of a future article. Let me just say that, in the summer, we have to cool down the aquarium and we have basically three ways: the air conditioner, the fan and the chiller. Each one of these has a great influence on the aquarium and its salinity.

If you have the air conditioner… it’s better to leave it off, because you also have to leave the windows open for the exchange of air between the tank and the aquarium. Obviously, in case you have a controlled mechanic ventilation, you could keep the temperature on 25 or 26 degrees, in this case the evaporation would be minimal. The fans, instead, are deleterious, because they cool down the water by making it evaporate so that it loses energy, which is heat. So, they evaporate a lot of water, which has to be stocked and restored. The chiller is the right choice because it lowers the temperature without increasing the evaporation.

Refrigeratore Teco Tank TK1000 a fianco della mia sump
Chiller Teco Tank TK1000 next to my sump

In this way we can calculate how much water do we need and choose the tank with the required capacity. It’s obviously a solution that we have to test before. Be careful to prevent water siphoning and pay attention to the law of communicating vessels. That is, if you have a very high container the water outlet pipe should NEVER be under the water level of the tank! In fact, if the joint connected to the pump, starting from inside the new refill tank, ends lower than the water level of the same tank it will happen that when the pump starts, the sump will begin to fill up, but when the pump will stop the water flow won’t stop as well, draining all the container inside the sump. If you don’t trust me… just try 😉
In any case, just do a small hole on the top.

It could also be useful to prepare some tanks with osmosis water ready to be poured in our refill tank, so as to make things easier for those who will refill the tank for us or in order to be ready when we’ll come back home.

Obviously before you leave fill the tank at its top, then ask some friend or relative to come and refill the missing water.

Cover in case of blackout, both short and long term

So, let’s begin to deal with the real problems that can happen. It’s clear that our aquarium bases its survival on the electric power, and that a blackout is incompatible with its life. So, we have to arm ourselves.

It’s impossible to think about an alternative source of energy for the aquarium for the whole time we’re absent, because the causes of the blackout could be many and various. I think it’s necessary the use of a uninterruptible power supply specifically for the return pump of the aquarium. We talked about its importance in this article.

I already discussed in many articles why it’s necessary to power the return pump. I refer you to the many links for a more complete discussion, but, to sum up, the main point is that we have to maximize the life in aquarium during our absence and increase the number of outlets to power will reduce the time they could be active. The return pump is the one that guarantees a certain recycle in aquarium and the oxygenation thanks to the gas exchange derived from the fall of the water in sump.

Another school of though prefers to give more importance to the movement pump, so much that, for example, Ecotech Marine provides a Back up system that keeps the movement pump at its minimum. I don’t believe this is a efficient solution, because even though you’ll have more movement in aquarium, you’ll pay with less oxygenation. I read about some negative experiences that brought me to prefer the first solution. In any case, matching the two things, you’ll obtain an even better solution.

The UPS alone are absolutely unuseful if we’re on vacation for longer than the back-up time, as, by the way, it’s normal.

So you absolutely have to have a device that alerts you of the black out in aquarium. Right now, I have a dialer connected to my alarm system that calls me if there’s a black out, in addiction to the Aqua Go system… and they don’t only call me, but my wife as well. Since the autonomy of the aquarium is more or less 24 hours and, even on holiday, I regularly check my phone, I can always warn a relative of mine and ask to control what happened and reattach the electricity meter. If I didn’t have available relatives I’d ask to an aquarist friend, leaving them the keys of my apartment. In this way I’m completely covered, except for unpredictable machine errors, for at least 24 hours, enough time for someone to intervene.

Since I’ve always been interested in aquarium maintenance systems, and after having tested Aquatronica, Limulus, Biotopus II, Vertex Cerebra and, finally, Aqua Go, I always tried to use the GSM modules sold by the companies. Now it’s integrated in Aqua Go, so I feel reasonably safe.

Remember that if you won’t be alerted if there’s a problem, everything done before it’ll be useless.

Way to be aware of what happens in the aquarium at any time

As I have already mentioned, being informed about the condition of our aquarium when we’re away is vital, both for being reassured and for having the chance to intervene remotely if necessary. The solution is having a computer that manages the aquarium for us.

Combinatore gsm e computer per acquari: tutto in uno in Aqua Go
GSM counter and computer for aquariums: all in one with Aqua Go

Usually, if you give them the order, the aquarium systems can not only alert us about the condition of the electric current, but also keep us informed about the general parameters of the aquarium, like temperature, pH and other.

Now you can also install a webcam pointing on the aquarium so that you can remotely control that everything works perfectly. They cost a few tens of euros, so I strongly recommend the purchase. For example, here you can see Wansview webcams in action that are relatively cheap but work very well. These are the ones I chose.

Summing up the duties of our substitute

As you understood, without someone that can physically control the tank is difficult to feel completely safe, at least if we’re away more than 7 days, even if everything has been perfectly arranged. A part from this, however, the duties we leave to our substitue should be extremely simple, so that, maybe, they don’t complete even difficult task, for example cleaning the skimmer, while forgetting the easier but more important ones, like refilling the refill tank.

So, I suggest you not to overdo it, and leaving them just to feed the fish and refill the refill tank, and nothing more! Let’s keep things easy, so that everyone can do it!

I also suggest to leave to our substitute the phone number of an aquarist friend of us 😉 So that they would know who to run to.


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