Before Your Next Trip to Fiji...

Lucky you! You've just won a two-week, all expense paid trip to Fiji. The excitement at the prospect of two weeks in a tropical paradise makes you feel as if you're walking on air. Moments later, a thought hits you like a ton of bricks sending you crashing back to earth; "Two whole weeks! What about my aquarium!?" Faster than a speeding search engine, your mind uses the word "vacation" to immediately retrieve threads you've read on the bulletin board. Unfortunately, they all start the same way: "While I was out of town…" and proceed to describe the catastrophe that wiped out … well, you know the story.

The fact is sooner or later, whether for business or pleasure, we all have to leave our tanks in the hands of a tank sitter. In a perfect world we would all have another aquarist available to take care of our precious ecosystems while we are away from home. Here in the real world, however, tank sitters are most often inexperienced, non-aquarists. Fear not fellow reef enthusiasts, this does not mean disaster is imminent. What it does mean is that you have to think ahead and have a plan.

I am forced to leave my aquarium with a tank sitter for two weeks every July with several shorter absences throughout the year. (I only wish I were vacationing in Fiji!) This is one occasion when being a wee-bit obsessive really pays off. I devised a plan. The plan, which started as a couple of checklists, has evolved over the last three years and can be broken down into five sections: Emergencies, Documentation, Maintenance, Preparation and "Don'ts."


List of contacts. I give my tank sitter any and all phone numbers where I might be reached. This includes my cell phone, my husband's cell phone, and the number at my hotel or office. I provide a contact name and phone number from two local fish stores as well as the name and number of a trusted aquarist (even though that aquarist lives in another state).

Arrangement with the local fish store or aquarium maintenance service. I have an arrangement with both my local fish store and an independent aquarium maintenance service. I let them know when I will be out of town and give them the name and number of my tank sitter. I authorize them to do whatever is necessary to assist my tank sitter in case of emergency with the understanding that I will take care of any expenses upon my return.

Emergency kit. My kit contains a heater, a fan, two power heads, a battery operated air pump with air stone, a spare circulation pump, water dechlorinator and a tool kit for plumbing repairs. Fortunately for me, power outages in my home are infrequent and short in duration so I don't have to worry too much about power. For those areas of the country where power outages last longer and are more frequent, I suggest some type of power backup such as a battery backup unit or gas-powered generator.

Emergency procedures. In the unlikely event that my tank sitter is unable to reach me, or anyone else on my contact list, I have a set of emergency procedures he can follow. Here's one example:

Temperature five degrees or more above normal - turns off lights, unplug heater, make sure fans are working, use spare fan if needed, reduce temperature in the house. If temperature does not start decreasing, fill a zip lock bag with ice and float in the sump.

I have similar instructions for all the emergencies I could imagine. I add to the list each time I read one of those heart-wrenching "While I was out of town" stories.

Define "Emergency". I also found it helpful to my tank sitter to leave a list of those things that are emergencies. For example, one dead fish is not an emergency. Two or more dead fish is. Lights not coming on is not an emergency, water on the floor is.


Label everything. I labeled all the equipment and all electrical plugs in my system. After all, I can hardly expect my tank sitter to know the difference between the calcium reactor and the protein skimmer. By labeling the electrical plugs, it is a simple matter to have the tank sitter unplug a piece of equipment. I used stickers to mark the proper water level for the sump, refugium and top-off reservoir. This draws immediate attention to levels above or below normal and helps prevent accidental overfilling of the reservoir.

Daily checklist. I developed a checklist for the tank sitter with the tasks I want done on a daily basis. At a minimum my list includes checking the temperature, checking the water level in the sump and refugium, refilling the reservoir and feeding the fish. My checklist also has a list of important general reminders at the bottom. They are:

    1. Wash hands and rinse well before touching tank water. Soaps, lotions and perfumes can be toxic to the animals.
    2. Wash hands well after touching tank water. The water is full of bacteria.
    3. Metal objects do not go into the tank.
    4. Keeps hands and arms away from the metal halide bulbs. They are extremely hot and will cause serious burns.
    5. Untreated tap water NEVER goes into the tank.

Document the system. I made a list of all the equipment (brands names and models) I use in my system and all the tank's inhabitants. I keep this in a notebook next to the aquarium. If my tank sitter is not able to reach me in an emergency and has to call someone on my contact list, that person may need the information in order to help.

Tank Sitter Guide. Aside from the three items above (which I believe are the minimum), I have also added other topics that make up what I call my tank sitter guide. One chapter is entitled "Animal Behavior" in which I explain some of the quirky behaviors that may be a cause of concern for my tank sitter. For instance the ten-inch anemone that can completely disappear into the rockwork, the crab that sheds its exoskeleton leaving what looks like a dead crab on the floor of the tank and the mandarin fish that looks dead when it's sleeping. This information has saved my tank sitter from undo worry on several occasions.

This molted exoskeleton looks like a dead crab to a non-aquarist.

I've found that conscientious tank sitters prefer to have more information than they need, rather than not enough. It is also unrealistic to think that any non-aquarist will remember all the information given to them during their all-too-brief training.

Here's another excerpt from my tank sitter's guide under the topic "Reef Aquarium Basics."

Salinity is the measurement of the amount of dissolved salt in the tank water. It is critical to the health of the animals that this level be stable.

When water evaporates from the aquarium, the salinity increases (making the water too "thick") because only the water evaporates leaving the salt behind. That is why the top-off reservoir is filled with purified water without any salt added.

If water is removed from the system by anything other than evaporation, such as a water leak, the water must be replaced with mixed saltwater. If plain purified water were used in this case, the salinity would be decreased by dilution (making the water too "thin").

The main idea behind the tank sitter's guide is to provide the information in a format that is easily read and understood by non-aquarists.


Check all equipment. In addition to my regular weekly maintenance (water change, testing, etc.), I have a list for pre-trip maintenance. My pre-trip maintenance list includes items such as replacing the activated carbon in my sump, cleaning the screen around overflow box, cleaning power heads (when I was using them in my tank), checking the pH of my calcium reactor effluent and making sure my siphon breaks are clean. For every tank this list is going to be different. All aquarists have things in their systems that require special attention; for example, the trap that gets clogged with algae, or the suction cups on the power head that come loose. Add these items to your list as they occur to you. Make sure all the items on the list are done before you leave for Fiji.


Pre-measure. Everything that goes into my tank while I'm gone is pre-measured. I set up all food, phytoplankton and additives in individual daily portions. The plastic weekly pill organizers found at any drugstore are ideal for this purpose. By pre-measuring everything and impressing upon my tank sitter that nothing more goes into the tank (no matter how hungry the fish look!), I greatly reduce the risk of overfeeding or overdosing.

Pre-mix. Preparation also includes having sufficient quantities of RO/DI water for the top-off system as well as pre-mixed saltwater for emergencies.


This is a list of things NOT to do prior to leaving on a trip:

  • Don't add new animals. I give myself at least two weeks to observe a new animal to make sure it is compatible, eating well and healthy before leaving it with a tank sitter. 
  • Don't disconnect existing equipment. My system has stabilized itself with the equipment that is currently operating. Turning off a piece of equipment could have unforeseen side effects. (We've all heard stories like the aquarist who turned off the protein skimmer to make maintenance easier for the tank sitter. What the aquarist failed to realize was that the skimmer was the primary aerator for the tank. Turning the skimmer off caused anoxia that killed several animals.) 
  • Don't make changes to feeding or lighting cycles. This is simply a matter of making sure my environment is as stable as possible before I leave.
  • Don't take short absences for granted. The only difference in my preparation between a two-day absence and a two-week absence is the amount of food I prepare.
  • Don't forget your responsibility. I have a responsibility to my animals to make sure that my absence goes largely unnoticed by them. I also have a responsibility to my tank sitter to make sure that taking care of my aquarium is a positive experience. After all, I'm going to need a tank sitter again next year.

While I realize that all my plans and preparations won't prevent all disasters, I do feel better knowing that I have done all I can to save me, my tank sitter and my animals from simple mistakes that cost lives. I also know that the time to prepare and implement the plan is before you need it. You just never know when you might have to board that plane to Fiji!

If you have any questions about this article, please visit the Notes from the Trenches forum on Reef Central.

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