Death Tank

Many of us today get started in this hobby by purchasing a tank that is already up and running. This can be great as you get all the equipment needed for a reef tank along with the rock, sand and even sometimes coral and fish! You can get a great deal from somebody who is just fed up and ready to get rid of their tank. Sometimes you can even get it for free! Now this sounds so fantastic your wondering where you can come across a deal like this, but it comes with its own challenges. When you are looking to adopt or purchase a set up like this you want to ask the owner about the problems they have been having with it. You are not just buying a complete set up, your buying their problems too.


Here is an example: I have a very good friend, who we will call Sally, who did just that. Sally purchased an existing and running set up from a neighbor. While talking to him she learned that this man had never done a water change and, in fact, didn’t know what a water change was. He would buy fish, put them in and they would die. He would then just buy more and repeat the process. It’s a 29 gallon bowfront -we believe- that came with very little rock, a graveyard of sand full of bones and snail shells and dead coral skeletons. It’s also came with two very large Blue Fin Damsels, a Yellow Tang, and an Angel. The damsels, somehow, have survived the move and all the problems that have persisted. The others, unfortunately died within a week of the move.

This is what she bought after getting it home.


Not the prettiest thing. Now, moving a tank that has been up and running is quite the process. There is work involved. Sally didn’t do anything to it, just moved the whole thing while stirring up the sand and rocks and all kinds of detritus and who knows what. Doing this can cause many problems including a new cycle ,algae issue, death to the fish and inverts, to name a few. In her case, all of the above. There was a water change done first thing and the litter on the sand was cleaned out, but the problems of high Nitrates, phosphates and ammonia persisted.


Nitrates 200+ ppm ^

Every fish, snail or hermit she added died within days adding to the already poor water quality even while doing multiple water changes. After consulting with her and the process in which she moved the tank and all the problems the previous owner had with it, I asked her if she would just start over. Of course, Sally was just fine with that since she wanted to have a successful tank! We talked about the proper procedure for moving a tank that is set up and running with livestock, little though it was in this case.

  • Remove the live rock and fish into separate buckets with the tank water and, depending on the distance of the move, and airstone. Be sure to have a product like Prime or Amquel during this entire endeavor to help control ammonia.
  • If corals are present put them in bags or their own bucket with tank water. This also depends on distance of travel and the size/number of the corals.
  • Remove the rest of the water and sand and dispose of both. Have brand new sand ready for the tank when you arrive home.
  • If you need to keep the sand, then leave it in the tank and rinse it thoroughly when you get it home. It’s best if you can spread it out and let it dry after this and before setting it back up.
  • Rinse off the live rock in saltwater (giving them a good shake and swish would be fine in most cases) to rid it of any lingering detritus and other dead things.
  • Remove all filtration components and clean with vinegar and water (and a good scrub) before setting it back up.
  • When you get everything home and cleaned, you’ll want to set the tank back up using some of the fish’s old water (preferably the water that was in with the live rock and corals to get as little ammonia as possible), the new sand, de-funked live rock, new saltwater and all the newly cleaned equipment.
If you have chosen not to Quarantine the new fish (even though it is highly recommended that you do) then you can add the fish and corals back at this point, but you will want to monitor for ammonia spikes and do water changes as needed since you may end up with a short cycle after all that.

So what if this tank’s problem is an aptasia infestation? In that case you may want to let your new-to-you live rock dry out completely in the sun for several days to kill off every single little pest. You could also soak them in bleach to kill off any and all little badies that might be present. This would require soaking in RO/DI water after and letting the rock dry out anyway. This method would also require curing in a separate (from your display) container, as there will be dead plant and animal matter left in the rocks that will break down when added back to the tank.

Back to Sally: After talking about the process she might have used to move the tank and the options left to her she decided she would do the “reboot”. Sally removed the two fish and placed them in her QT while all this happened. She wants to keep them since they seem to be the toughest fish to ever exist. Good call!


Sally purchased new live black sand, took all the old sand out and chucked it. She removed all the live rock and gave it a good rinse, swish and soak in new saltwater. She drained all the water out of the tank, removed and cleaned the HOB filter and skimmer, then put it all back together again.



She bought a few new pieces of live rock since what she had was a little sparse to say the least, and added that to the mix and this is what she has ended up with!


Not too shabby! Quite the turn-around for this little tank, but it was a hard lesson to learn losing so much life in such a short amount of time. It’s a good lesson to read about rather than experience. So, next time you are looking at that deal that seems too good to be true, be sure to do your homework and ask those questions! See what your buying with the tank besides livestock. Then make sure you take the steps to keep those problems out of your house.

Happy Reefing!

Article name and photo credit to @RealtyBoss
About author
Meredith Presley started keeping marine aquariums in 2007. She’s done everything wrong that can be done in the hobby (mostly but not all in that first year) and that has afforded her to learn a lot of hard lessons. Recently she’s been focused on marine disease diagnosis and treatment and hopes to focus on breeding soon as well. She also keeps a blog with basic info on saltwater keeping and her experiences with her own tank and livestock.

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