How To Move Your Reef Aquarium

There are six keys to successfully moving a fish aquarium with much less stress on you and your fish.

This is a small reef aquarium at just 3 gallons. But you still need careful planning when moving it. Via Martin Guerre/Wikipedia

AFIA friend once told me that moving is one of the top 10 stressful events in life. Obviously, she never moved with a reef aquarium, or otherwise she would probably bump it up to number one. It is a high-stakes, high-stress event, and failure can have almost unthinkable consequences. Having moved more reef tanks than I care to count, both personally and professionally, I can attest to this fact more than most. Live rock, corals and sandbeds create unique challenges that don’t come up with less sophisticated aquarium styles, and our complex plumbing makes for longer tear-down and set-up times.

To put it plainly, moving a reef tank is no fun, and you should probably avoid it if you can – but of course, almost everyone will have to move eventually. And while all of us cringe at moving our reefs, we cringe even more at the idea of not having it. So how do you make your move as smooth and painless as possible? I’d like to share some of the best tips I’ve learned for moving reef aquariums. Hopefully, these tips will help your move go smoothly from the planning phase to moving day.

Make a Plan

When you move, the goal is for the aquarium to end up in the new location just like it is now (or even better). The best way for that to happen is to have a plan and execute it. Ideally, you should start the planning process weeks or even months in advance; essentially, start planning as soon as you know you’re going to move. It sounds like common sense, but you’d be surprised how many clients (I used to be the marine livestock manager for an aquarium retailer in Arizona) I’ve had that waited until the day before their move to even start thinking about it. When moving day arrives, time will be of the essence; your livestock will need to be moved as quickly and safely as possible, and the only way to do that is to be prepared.

You want to ensure that you have the right equipment to do the job. This will vary from tank to tank, but I’ve supplied a checklist of the most common items needed in a move. Also, you’ll need the right team to help move the tank. Having hobbyists help is ideal, since fellow reefers will often work for coral frags and pizza. At least choose someone you trust to be able to work independently on the many tasks involved in moving. Hiring a professional can sometimes be a good alternative, but this usually requires scheduling several weeks in advance (and it isn’t cheap).

Also, consider the process in its entirety, including the physical logistics of getting each piece of equipment and your livestock from one point to the other. Think about all aspects that might come into play: Seasonal weather conditions, construction, traffic congestion and other unique local factors can significantly impact the process. Measure the transport vehicle and each doorway and hall to ensure the aquarium will physically move into its new space. With bigger tanks, especially consider how the heavy lifting will be done and how many hands will be required for each lift. Each environment is unique, but if you give it some thought, most problems can be avoided.

Do as Much as you can Before Moving Day

Taking your aquarium apart is a good opportunity to do some thorough cleaning and maintenance. Cleaning pumps, protein skimmers, probes, heaters and plumbing is something that you may not have the opportunity to do on moving day, but you might be able to do it in the days leading up to the move. Having everything clean will make the finished setup much nicer, and having your equipment run at peak performance will help the overall system recover.

Remember that biological deposits often clog plumbing, and if your tank has been up for several years, you may want to simply replace valves, fittings and hoses. If you plan to replace plumbing, having the parts assembled and prefitted can make the process immensely easier. Coralline algae and other calcium deposits can be removed from pumps, nozzles and heaters with vinegar or other acids, but they’ll often need to soak for several hours. Do a thorough cleaning on the aquarium itself, as well; you won’t want any of the algae on the back glass and rocks coming with your aquarium to its new location, and if you can remove it, you’ll prevent those stored nutrients from remaining in the system.

You’ll also need to be able to quickly get your fish, corals and rocks out of the aquarium. Again, planning ahead can make a huge difference. Have enough containers ready to hold your live rock, and decide how to disassemble your rockscape to best avoid avalanches. Remember that you’ll have to lift these containers to move them, so be sure to use enough ice chests, styrofoam boxes or tubs to keep them manageable.

Evaluate whether you have fish that are likely to dart into a crevice and get stuck; if so, try to identify which rocks you could relocate to a sump or holding tank beforehand to limit this possibility. Corals may need to be pruned or broken free of rocks so that they can be transported, and if you plan to sell or trade cuttings, it would be best to do it before the move. And clean out those boxes of old junk in the back of the fish closet in advance, since you definitely won’t want to be doing that on moving day.

New Water is Probably Best

The conventional wisdom, often perpetuated on the Internet, is that you should save as much of your existing aquarium water as possible to avoid “shocking” your animals. I’d like to refute that here. There are several reasons why new water is best. First, the process of moving your aquarium will stir up an almost unbelievable amount of debris. Ever since your aquarium was running, excess food, fish waste and bacterial matter have accumulated in the gravel and under the decorations. Even if you’ve been diligent with gravel vacuuming or maintaining live sand ecology, there is inevitably a huge mess made during the tear down.

Second, the water in your aquarium doesn’t generally travel well. You’ll need to use a good amount of the water to house the live rock and animals as they travel, and just like when you bring an animal home from the aquarium store, that water will change during the journey. Your fish will consume oxygen and release ammonia and the corals will secrete a lot of mucus. The pH will also drop substantially. This water essentially ceases to be “tank water” and becomes “travel water,” which is something you won’t want to reuse.

What I have always recommended (and the method I use myself) is to have new, clean, well-mixed water available. It is best to already have this waiting at your destination, but you can also carry it with you for long-distance moves. Use this new water to refill the aquarium when you set it back up, and carefully acclimate your fish to the new tank. If possible try to mix it at the new location a day or two before, allowing it to heat and oxygenate as needed. Matching the temperature, salinity and pH of the water to your previous aquarium conditions will allow your fish and other animals to acclimate to a healthy, familiar environment.

The concern about “shocking” fish and corals with minor changes in aquarium chemistry is one that I believe is overblown. Moving will definitely be stressful, and fish stress is a concern. However, minor changes in things like calcium and magnesium that might come from new aquarium water will be much less problematic than an influx of suspended organics and acidic waste products that will be found in old aquarium water. Additionally, bacterial filtration is accomplished by solid surfaces like live rock and other biological media; the good bacteria that we cultivate is not found in aquarium water, and using new water will not affect the biological filter.

Make Livestock the First Priority

Once moving day arrives, you will be prepared. You will have the livestock containers in place, life-support devices ready to go, and your help will have arrived. Give your helpers a full briefing before powering down the system; if everyone understands the plan, the process goes quickly. Deconstruct your live rock almost completely, but avoid moving the pieces sitting directly on the sand to avoid stirring up sediment. As you remove rocks and corals, you can siphon tank water into the transport vessels, being careful to not fill them too much. Rather than using a net to catch the fish, use a specimen cup or other clear plastic containers. These will be less visible to fish, and they are more likely to swim into them. They are also far less likely to suffer injuries, such as snagging fins or gills. Bring the water level down substantially to give the fish less area to elude you and to make it easier for you to capture them. Another trick that works for some setups is to cut a temporary divider out of plastic egg-crate grid and section off a portion of the tank. With practice and creative maneuvering, you can box fish into this sectioned area and scoop them out easily.

The most important part of this phase is to carefully minimize the stress to your fish and corals while working as quickly as possible. Also, be sure to wear protective gloves and protective gear if you have them available. Sponges, bristleworms and tubeworms are lurking in sandbeds and under live rock; they can all cause painful puncture wounds or splinters, and dealing with this will not only be aggravating but will also cost valuable time.

As you capture fish and remove corals, place them in containers for transport and immediately add oxygenation, either in the form of circulation from a powerhead pump or an air pump. It is possible to get converters that will allow ordinary electrical devices to get power from a car’s AC outlet during actual transit, and these can be quite handy if you’re using several containers. Otherwise, battery-powered air pumps can be used to provide oxygenation.

One important tip for fish transport is to keep the water shallow. This may seem counterintuitive, but shallow water means a larger surface area in proportion to water volume, and it will allow better gas exchange and oxygenation all the way to the lower reaches of the vessel. If you’re moving everything in one trip, keep the fish and corals indoors as long as possible. They should be the last things loaded and first things unloaded during the move. This way they will be in a temperature-controlled and stable environment while you work with equipment and the aquarium itself.

Rinse Sand Before Reuse

Sand might be the most problematic thing to move. It’s going to be wet and heavy, and it will stick to everything while you scoop it. If the grain size is fine enough, the easiest way I’ve found to move sand is by siphoning it through a 1-inch flex line rather than scooping it. This will require a large enough receptacle to hold a lot of sand and water. I’ve found that for larger tanks, the large outdoor trash cans are best. If the tank is smaller, you can use plastic storage totes.

Next stir the sand vigorously and get all of the debris out of it. The amount of detritus and muck will be surprising, and it’s important to get it all out. The container will probably be heavy, so you can wheel the container to the toilet and pump the muddy water off of the top (dumping the water down the toilet is best, as this water will go to a treatment plant and kill any small critters dumped). The remaining aquarium water is good to use as rinse water, and you may need to repeat the rinsing process several times. If saltwater runs out, freshwater is acceptable; rinse the sand until the water comes out relatively clear.

You will likely notice bristleworms, amphipods and other small organisms coming out of the sand, and it is unfortunate to lose them. However, the consequence of adding all of this muck and sand back into the new display is much worse. Most hobbyists who don’t rinse their sand end up with a high nitrate level and substantial algae blooms, particularly cyanobacteria.

To avoid losing all of the sandbed fauna, you can preserve a small amount of the top layer of sand in a separate container; aim for approximately 1 to 2 pounds per square foot of tank space. Keep this portion separated from the rest of the sand, and plan to reintroduce it on top of the sterile sandbed once the tank is set back up. The organisms in this sample will soon reproduce and replenish the biodiversity.

Give yourself enough time

Once the tank is deconstructed, get everything loaded as quickly and carefully as possible. Pack everything so that it won’t blow away during transit, and be mindful of where splashing might occur. Plan to keep livestock inside of a vehicle where the temperature is controlled, especially for longer moves. This will also allow you to take advantage of AC power jacks so that you can plug in air pumps to keep the transport water oxygenated if you plan to do so.

Moving Equipment Checklist

Remember to go through your equipment needs and assemble everything you need ahead of time. Here are some suggestions for things that have come in handy for me and others in the past. You won’t need all of these, but having what you do need will make all the difference.

Life-Support Accessories

Battery air pumps with air-line tubing
AC adapter for automobiles
Heater (in cold weather) or clip-on fans (in hot weather)
Small circulationpowerheads

Tubs for live rock
Buckets for sand
Ice chests for fish and corals
Plastic dishware for capturing fish
Boxes for aquarium supplies
Sand scoops
Protective Gear

Packing blankets
Towels Ladders
Teardown and Set-up Gear

Screwdriver/drill with screws for mounting power strips
Extension cord
Replacement bulkhead gaskets
Channel lock pliers
Nut driver (for steel clamps) Hose cutter
Gear for Big Tanks Hydraulic suction cups and/or hydraulic lifts (can sometimes be rented).

Everything essentially goes in reverse order when you arrive at your destination, but don’t skip the details in hopes of making up time. Be sure to level the aquarium, test your plumbing for leaks and ensure that rockwork is stable. These are tedious things to do late in the day when you’re tired from moving, but they are much more difficult to address when the tank is running and full of water and fish.

The final piece of advice that I always used to tell my clients is that moving an aquarium is a long, tiring process. You need to have a solid plan in place, and if you execute it well, it will go smoothly, but it will rarely be on time. Even smaller projects have a way of dragging out through an afternoon, and you should avoid scheduling appointments or commitments later in the day. There is much less stress, and thus much less propensity to hurry and commit a drastic error if you’re not trying to meet a deadline. The rule I use for my own moves and when I’ve been hired to do them is to carefully estimate how long I think it will take and then double that time. Unfortunately, I find that with most projects that doubled time is much closer to the reality.

If you’ve planned your move well and anticipated all of the challenges, it can be done cleanly and efficiently, and your reef will have the potential to look even better when it gets to the new location. If you’ve taken the time to clean thoroughly and make a nice new aquascape, it can even be like having a new tank. It’s almost never quick – and it’s never fun – but it is doable. And at the end of the process, the thrill of seeing your beautiful reef tank in your new place justifies all of that work.

Steve Bitter is a senior aquatic biologist at the Florida Aquarium in Tampa, Florida. His areas of interest include fish health and quarantine, scuba diving and reef restoration.


Article Categories:
Fish · Reef Tanks