When disaster strikes, be ready ...

Photo courtesy of Pinterest.
I’ve had two major disasters in my reef tanks over the past 15 or so years. The first one was in 2003 during an un-expected October ice-storm. The second one was on Friday of last week. Disaster number one caused a massive livestock loss and nearly put me out of the hobby. The one that occurred last Friday I was able to manage, without losing (or really damaging) any livestock. The difference, years of experience and the foresight to be prepared. Like many reef-keepers, I sometimes get frustrated with having equipment, water and other essentials lying around that barely ever get used. More than once I’ve considered selling excess equipment kept in the case of disaster. Friday was a stark reminder why the effort and frustration to prepare for the worst is necessary.

After a tank disaster, it’s healthy and smart to compile a list of what went well and what could have been done better. In this case, such a list can aid other reef keepers in being better prepared for something un-expected. During both tank disasters I’ve faced, the opportunity for an entire tank wipeout was high. When disaster strikes, you want to be ready.

Disaster 1:

Photo courtesy of Generac

In 2003 I was in my third year of college and proud owner of a 150-gallon reef. I still have pictures of the tank on several computers and it was the first SPS dominated tank I kept. For the time-period, it was quite the stunner. I was working on an internship that had me traveling two hours from school and writing a detailed paper regarding an adventure rehabilitation program for troubled teens. I was a sociology major and this program incorporated attributes from cultures all around the globe. Needless to say, I wasn’t paying the closest attention to my tank. I had heard chatter that an unexpected ice-storm was rolling in, but assumed that even if it did the effect on my tank would be minimal.

In October, the leaves are still on the trees, making any build-up of ice or snow disastrous, as the branches get heavy and break. Sure enough, around 8 p.m. the ice storm hit. I can’t remember what time the power went out, but I do know it was out the next morning when I awoke. I can still remember the sight of my fish laying helplessly on the tank bottom. Corals were sliming and the entire scene was a catastrophe. I ended up driving two hours away, just to get my hands on a generator capable of getting the tank running again.

It was a major loss and an important lesson. Since then, I’ve always had a gas generator capable of running my entire tank(s) on hand, ready to go. During Hurricane Sandy, such a generator saved my 110-gallon reef tank, which would have otherwise been without power for a solid week. When I built my own house, I made whole home back-up power a hallmark feature. It’s already come in handy, as a few days before Christmas last year we lost power for nine hours or so, but my tank didn’t even realize it.

Disaster 2:

Photo courtesy of Aqua Care Denmark

Fast forward to last Friday and I’m sitting with my daughter in the fish-room watching You-Tube videos about marine fish, while we ogled at the tank. Suddenly through the returns water more akin to milk started pumping in. At the time, the zeolite reactor was churning and my first inclination was that the zeolite was very bacteria laden, thus producing thick mulm. However, the white water kept getting thicker and staring down at my Apex’s display, I could see the ph going up, up and away. Quickly, I shut the entire system down and noticed that the kalkwasser stirrer was full of thick, milky water. It was clearly the culprit and the ph had jumped from a stable 8.14 to 9.80.

All my corals were curled up, releasing thick slime and most of the fish were dying. Barrier reef chromis were lying on their sides, gasping for breath. All my tank’s wrasses were belly up and I thought all the fish were goners. Considering all my fish are rare, expensive species, I figured I was in for a massive loss. Immediately I wondered if I would even try to rebuild 250 gallons of reef paradise, a tank that I had designed myself setting in a room of my house entirely designed and dedicated to marine aquaria.

Dealing with disaster:


Photo courtesy of Reef Keeping UK
There are two disasters that are particularly deadly for marine fish and corals. One is a power outage, as without water circulation and filtration, carbon dioxide released by respiring fish pollutes the water and eventually poisons them. Within two hours of a power loss, aerobic bacteria begin dying off, leading to spikes in ammonia and nitrite, both of which are deadly to all the tank’s inhabitants. Without O2 in the water for fish to breathe, combined with the excess ammonia, several hours can be a death sentence for all the tank’s inhabitants.

The second is something foreign entering the water, quickly and severely altering water chemistry. Most marine animals can withstand slow water chemistry changes that remain within in their tolerable range. This can be a ph drop of 8.2 down to 7.8 within a matter of days, or a temperature drop that takes place over hours and hours. Fish and corals are actually rather resilient to temperature drops of up to 10 degrees, even if they happen quickly. However, they are less resilient to rising temperatures that happen fast. The lesson is that it’s manageable for your tank’s temperature to drop 10 degrees within a matter of minutes, but not manageable to use high wattage heaters to raise it back up as quickly.

Disaster one is easily dealt with by having back-up power on hand. Battery powered UPS (uninterrupted power source) devices only go so far, and they are handy for outages that last several seconds or minutes, however long term they are of no value. The real solution is a gas powered generator that powers the entire tank without issue. It doesn’t end there, as a generator that is tucked away in a basement or garage with an empty gas tank does little when trying to save a reef tank. Also, the need to run extension cords through windows and around the house can keep an aquarist busy for over an hour, all while the tank has no water circulation.

I recommend having a back-up power solution that is reliable, maintained and easy to use. For this, I’ve yet to find anything that beats Generac’s generator line and transfer switch. With this system, your generator can be kept outside the house, either covered (Generac makes an exterior generator cover) or housed in a specially built enclosure. With the transfer switch an outlet is installed on the home’s exterior where the generator’s power line can be connected. In the event of a power outage, you simply start the generator, plug it into your home and switch your breaker box from the primary breaker, over to the generator’s breaker. Properly set-up and maintained, it takes about 3 minutes to go from grid power to generator power. I personally use a series of battery back-ups that can keep my tank(s) running for 10 minutes, so there is no power interruption between an outage and the time it takes me to activate generator power. Also, I have my home’s cable modem and router on battery back-up, since the smart UPS device I use can email a notification, in the event of a power outage. If I’m at work or away, I’ll be notified of the outage and can rush home to start the generator.

Such a system is pretty fool-proof, but generators require maintenance. I recommend running them for 30 minutes each week, to allow the system to heat up and ensure proper function. Whole home, automated generators automatically do this and often create reports that relay information about function, which are emailed to the user. Keeping plenty of gas on hand is a must, as well as conducting regular oil changes. The system I have in place cost about $ 1,300 for both the generator and the transfer switch along with installation (an electrician is required). Not cheap, but cheap insurance given the value of many of our tank(s).

Prepping for disaster two:

Photo courtesy of Home Depot

Most reef2reef users have at some point, read a thread about a tank being overloaded with calcium or alkalinity solution. Dosing pumps fail, as do tank controllers and sometimes solution ends up in an aquarium via an odd, unforeseeable circumstance. For me, my failing Apex (the new unit with a bad SD card) decided to kick on my ATO pump which is hooked in-line with a kalkwasser stirrer. Usually the Apex kicks the ATO off, if the ph reaches 8.3. Due to the failing controller, it abandoned those pre-set precautions and kept on pumping, to the point that raw kalkwasser was entering the tank. Looking back, I should have removed the Apex from my system, as I knew it was failing and was awaiting a new base unit from Neptune. However, it seemed as though only the network portion of the controller had failed, so I kept it in service. I didn’t want the aggravation of removing the new controller and setting up my old one and I paid for that bit of laziness ten-fold.

First, it’s worth mentioning that if I hadn’t been standing in front of the tank when this happened, I am confident I would have lost it. I was able to act immediately, which certainly saved all the animals. Considering that, the best precaution is to ensure something like this doesn’t happen to your tank and that means not relying so heavily on fallible technology to control tank management. I will just leave that here, as I know maintaining a stable reef tank without the assistance of automated systems is nearly impossible these days. Given work (and life) schedules, we cannot be on hand at all times to manually maintain water chemistry, especially in reef tanks where calcium and carbonate are depleted quickly and need constant replenishing. I’m currently re-planning how dosing will work in my tank and will update this article as I put together a safer (and hopefully equally as effective) system.

Having large amounts of marine water on hand can be frustrating. The water takes a long time to make using a RODI unit and mixing it and maintaining it over time requires elbow grease. However, in instances where something enters the water, which quickly alters chemistry, replacing that water becomes the only real solution to save your system. I have two 55 gallon drums on hand, which are used to hold marine water. These can be found on Amazon and have opening tops that seal-up when the drum is filled. They can also be purchased with dollies that allow the drum to be rolled around the fish room. At the time of disaster, I only had one drum full of saltwater but I have since filled and balanced water in both of them, totaling 110 gallons of on-hand, pre-mixed marine water.

To be viable, marine water needs to be consistently aerated, circulated, heated and filtered. A good way to provide circulation and aeration is with a simple Maxi-Jet power-head with the circulation cover installed. An air hose can easily be fitted into the screen cover, allowing the propeller to blast air-bubbles throughout the water. A simple 200-watt aquarium heater will suffice for heating. Filtration can be accomplished with a power-head and quick-filter. I personally use a 500 gph Aqua-Clear powerhead with the quick-filter attachment. This consists of a filter pad which water is pulled over and a spherical carbon filled center. Using such a device ensures your on-hand marine water stays clear.

Efficient water changes:

Photo courtesy of Genesis Reef

Having plenty of water on hand is just the start. All aquarists need an efficient system for getting water out of the tank and getting new water into the tank. When disaster strikes (whether it’s a mass of food entering the tank, supplement or additive) it’s vital to get the foreign substance out. In my case, kalkwasser was literally resting on coral tissue, causing a violent slime-response. The best way to do this is with a ½” siphon hose. I personally attach a manual air-bladder to the siphon hose which allows a siphon to start without a mouthful of saltwater. 32-gallon Brute trash cans on dollies (Rubbermaid actually makes a dolly that snaps into the brute) or additional 55 gallon drums on dollies are both the best devices for removing a lot of tank water quickly. They can then be rolled to a drain and emptied with a powerful utility pump. Having these on-hand allowed me to siphon nearly all the kalwasser off corals quickly. A powerful utility pump can move saltwater an impressive distance and having one installed in your water vats is paramount. Another helpful tool is a half-dozen or so construction clamps, which can be used to clamp tubing to the tank, a drain, etc. The goal is to be able to move a lot of saltwater out of the tank quickly and replenish it quickly. Large water changes like those performed in an emergency leave coral out of water, so time is of the essence.

A reliable Shop-Vac:

Photo courtesy of Rigid

A Shop-Vac is the one tool that every aquarist should have near their tank. I recommend a wet/dry vacuum that holds at least 12 gallons of water and has a peak horsepower of 2 HP or more. These are useful if you have to drain your sump. Since the sump is often mounted on the floor, it’s impossible to get a siphon running and using a utility pump to drain it doesn’t allow you to remove foreign debris. A good wet/dry vacuum quickly removes debris and water, while also being useful for cleaning up the mess made saving your tank.

I’ve personally found that Rigid’s line of wet/dry vacuums hold up well under the stress of sucking up saltwater. Ensure you get a model that is entirely plastic as any metallic parts will corrode very quickly.

Using tap water to make marine water:

Photo courtesy of Discover Safe Testing

Even when you’re prepared in the manner discussed above, sometimes you won’t have enough pre-made marine water on hand to save your tank. It’s vital that as aquarists, we know the contents of our raw tap water. Test kits are available online that allow you to test every aspect of your tap water. Pay careful attention to nitrate, phosphate, chlorine and other contaminants within your water. Just because your water is safe to drink, doesn’t mean it’s viable to be used during a reef tank emergency. I recommend all aquarists install a whole home sediment filter, preferably with activated carbon. These are in-expensive to install and maintain and remove potentially harmful solids from tap water.

The decision to use tap water to make marine water isn’t one to be taken lightly. A simple TDS test shows us the stark difference between raw tap water and RODI water. For example, my RODI unit makes water with a 0 ppm TDS reading. Water running out of my tap has a TDS reading of 25 ppm. I don’t know what all of those compounds are, but I know they are there.

However, in an emergency where your tank’s water is tainted, using tap-water (if you don’t have enough RODI water on hand) becomes your only option. This also shows the importance of having ample salt-mix on hand at all times. One benefit to using tap water in an emergency is that with a quick check thermometer, you can adjust the tap water to your tank’s temperature, saving the time needed for RODI water to heat up. Most of our aquariums employ filtration that can remove residual nitrate, phosphate and organic compounds from marine water brewed from tap water.

A comprehensive list:

Photo courtesy of Amazon.com

Prepping for a reef tank disaster isn’t easy or cheap, but for long-time aquarists, it’s vital. A matter of seconds can destroy something you’ve spent years and years building. Below is a comprehensive list of items that can save you in a disaster.

· A ½” siphon hose with manual bladder.

· Multiple sized vinyl tubing, long enough to reach from your tank to a marine water source and drain.

· Several general construction clamps.

· Enough salt-mix on hand to change your aquarium’s entire water volume.

· A pocket, quick check thermometer (similar to a meat thermometer).

· A digital refractometer.

· A digital battery powered ph probe.

· Several utility pumps of 600 gph or more.

· Several maxi-jet circulation pumps for water circulation.

· Several aqua-clear powerheads and quick filter attachments.

· Several aquarium heaters.

· Enough 55 gallon drums to hold your tank’s entire water volume (for fresh marine water).

· Enough 55 gallon drums to hold your tank’s entire water volume (for compromised tank water).

· A 12 gallon, 2 or more HP wet-dry vac.

· Several extension cords.

· A coral life luft high-output air pump and tubing.
About author
Jeremy Gosnell has been a marine aquarist for nearly all his life. While studying sociology in college, Jeremy pursued becoming a professional scuba-diver, eventually serving as a coral reef biology science instructor for the Beautiful Oceans Academy based in Montreal, QB. This took him around the world, exploring some of the planet's incredibly diverse coral reefs.

Also, Jeremy worked on staff at the Pittsburgh Zoo's PBG Aquarium. He has contributed to a variety of aquarium-related publications over a 15 year career including, Freshwater and Marine Aquarium Magazine (FAMA), Aquarium Fish International (AFI), Fish Channel, Tropical Fish Hobbyist Magazine (TFH) and reefs.com. Today, he serves on the content review, editorial board of TFH Magazine in addition to providing original content for online and print publications.

He is also the author of novella Neptune's Garden and novel The Terminal, which won a merit of science fiction award at the 2015 Guadalajara International Book Fair.

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