Aquarium Redundancies

To avoid a complete tank failure, especially when events outside your control strike, it is important to have as many backup systems in place as possible.

In terms of climate, Southern California may seem like Shangri-la to most people who live elsewhere. Blizzards, hurricanes and F2 to F5 tornadoes don’t vacation here. But people forget, including oblivious residents from time to time, that So Cal is tailor-made for all manner of disasters – human-caused, natural and a combination of the two. This is why it is critical for anyone keeping a decent-sized tank with lots of expensive fishes, corals or both to build as many redundancies as possible into their systems.

Redundancy is a doubling up of crucial systems, especially life-support, in our aquarium systems. It is best to include redundancies in the initial planning and set-up stages of a system’s design. This idea may not be as important for a 10-gallon nano tank, but for any system 100 gallons or more it merits consideration. The livestock alone in the larger reef tanks can run in the thousands of dollars, not to mention all of the time invested in testing and changing water, feeding animals, aquascaping, babying corals, quarantining new arrivals, cleaning unwanted algae and all of the other activities necessary to transform a run-of-the-mill tank into a real showstopper.

No area of the United States is immune to disasters, which often come with little warning and may or may not affect the power grid feeding our aquariums. The animals we keep in artificial environments called aquariums are subject to many of the same environmental variables as astronauts in space.

One of my favorite movies is Apollo 13. At one point, Ed Harris, as NASA Flight Director Gene Kranz, says, “Lunar module has just become a lifeboat.” This is an example of redundancy, albeit unplanned. Without the Lunar Excursion Module, or LEM, in tow, the crew of the real Apollo 13 would have perished in the cold recesses of space. At nearly every turn in the movie (and the real-life event, too) some critical life-support system either failed or was in danger of failing. Not much different from what our fishes face every day, wouldn’t you agree? One could liken the Apollo 13 astronauts to a trio of extremely stressed fishes in a tank heading for a complete system crash, while Mission Control might be a bevy of aquarists working to avoid a total system meltdown and subsequent loss of the fishes.

Like it or not, we are Mission Control for our fishes. We constantly monitor the systems keeping them alive; we keep tabs on water parameters as well as the vital signs of individual fishes. “Failure is not an option.”

We had a moderate earthquake here the other day. I was still at work and thus too far from the epicenter to have felt it. Had I been home and about 40 miles closer I would have felt a couple-second shimmy of the stucco-and-wood-frame home I share with my wife and daughters. Almost not even newsworthy, the story was buried several pages deep in next-morning’s newspaper. But it is a harbinger of lurking disasters that have the potential to catastrophically affect our aquariums and the piscine aquanauts within them.

I moved to Southern California in October 1993 during some tremendous firestorms, created by a combination of Santa Ana winds, a near constant state of drought, a build-up of natural fuel, downed power lines or other human-caused accidents as well as the insane shenanigans of the occasional arsonist. Only a few months removed from the fires, Los Angeles experienced a break in a blind-thrust fault nearly 11 miles under the San Fernando Valley. The rupture extended upward but stopped about 3 to 4 miles shy of the surface. The entire rupture area consisted of a between 9- to 12-mile underground chunk of rock. The 6.7 Northridge quake deformed an area of the Earth’s crust of more than 4,000 square miles (by comparison Connecticut is 5,543 square miles). Some local mountain ranges are thought to have risen by more than 20 inches. While I don’t have the statistics, I can say without reservation that many a fish tank was destroyed outright by the quake. Of course, many aquariums outside of the immediate damage zone later crashed as a result of power outages, some of which lasted for days.

Of course, one doesn’t need to have a commercial airliner or a house-size meteorite land atop one’s fish room for one’s aquariums to experience system failure, although both of these events would surely do the trick. A few summers back, during one particular blazing-hot month, our overtaxed power grid experienced at least half a dozen brownouts as local utilities struggled to conserve wattage. Now if your tank’s vital life-support (i.e., heater, chiller, pumps, lights, filtration, etc.) went comatose during some similar power outage, by the time you dropped your briefcase and said, “Hi, honey, I’m home” — it might already be too late for your fishes and corals.

An aquarium can crash and burn in roughly eight hours once its pumps stop functioning and all water turnover ceases. Water movement is critical for oxygen exchange to occur in a tank. Without functioning pumps, fish and corals would quickly strip a system of its useable oxygen and mass suffocation would follow. Back-up generators are especially important in areas that are affected by heat waves, ice storms, violent thunderstorms and hurricanes. Back-up generators are one form of system redundancy.

Another fail-safe is running several small pumps rather than one large one. If a system relies on only one pump and it fails for some reason, the entire system may be compromised if the situation isn’t quickly rectified. Some water circulation is better than none. If you don’t want to invest in a back-up generator, there are battery-operated air pumps that can be used in the case of an emergency.

Aquarists must also be cognizant of the fact that equipment wears out over time, so again redundancies can keep a total system collapse from occurring while a frantic aquarist scrambles around for a replacement part. Besides a back-up generator and pumps, you should also consider multiple filters, heaters and chillers. You should keep spare T5 bulbs on hand when they burn out, or when their output degrades after about six months to the point of worthlessness. Any drainage system should have multiple drains, as single-drain systems can become plugged and may end up flooding fish rooms, living rooms, etc.

The bigger your system, the more you have to lose. I don’t want to sound redundant (ha!), but wherever you can add redundancies in your system you should by all means consider it.

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