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"
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
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
- Wash hands and rinse well before touching tank water.
Soaps, lotions and perfumes can be toxic to the animals.
- Wash hands well after touching tank water. The water
is full of bacteria.
- Metal objects do not go into the tank.
- Keeps hands and arms away from the metal halide bulbs.
They are extremely hot and will cause serious burns.
- 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
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.
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
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!