What is it about taking a vacation that seems to precipitate problems in a marine aquarium? My system can go for many months or even years without a significant glitch, but then as soon as my wife, Melissa, and I embark on a much-needed getaway, something always seems to go awry.
A memorable example of this phenomenon occurred just a few summers back. Melissa and I were down in St. Augustine, Florida, enjoying dinner at one of our favorite restaurants, when her cell phone rang. At the other end of the line was her father, LeMoyne, who, despite being a non-hobbyist, is always kind enough to feed my fish and top off my tanks whenever we’re out of town. Now, LeMoyne has a pretty solid grasp on those particular duties and is not prone to making frivolous phone calls, so the fact that he was trying to reach us did not bode well.
My fears were confirmed when Melissa said, “I have no idea! Here, I’ll put him on” and then handed the phone across the table to me. LeMoyne proceeded to explain to me that the water flow in my 75-gallon reef tank seemed to have stopped and the level in the tank had dropped by several inches. Being a few Sam Adams Boston Lagers into the meal, I struggled at first to get my head in the game but then shifted into problem-solving mode. Based on LeMoyne’s description of what he was observing, I was pretty certain my return pump had failed.
What we’ve got here is failure to communicate!
To verify my suspicion, I began asking a series of questions about the state of various components in the system. It was then that it really hit home—LeMoyne and I have no common ground whatsoever when it comes to aquarium terminology. As I’ve already noted, he’s not a hobbyist and, thus, is unfamiliar with most of the jargon we all like to toss around. So, when I began asking questions about the overflow, sump, protein skimmer, powerhead, return pump, etc., he had no conception of which part of the system I was referring to.
Resorting to clumsy descriptive terminology—such as “that transparent boxy thing at the back of the tank” or “that black thing with the nozzle in the front, right-hand corner near the top”—helped somewhat, but it was still a proverbial case of “the blind leading the blind,” and being a few thousand miles removed from the situation certainly didn’t help matters.
A solution found…
Eventually, I was able to walk him through the process of taking the whole sump offline. We were coming home in a few days, and I figured that was the easiest solution under the circumstances. The heater was located in the display tank, so there were no worries there, and the lights were functioning fine. As long as the powerheads were still providing adequate circulation in the display tank, I wasn’t overly worried about the lack of protein skimming for such a brief period. Once I got home, I made a quick trip to my LFS to pick up a new pump and then got everything up and running again, fortunately none the worse for wear.
…And a lesson learned
Still, that experience, which could have turned out much worse than it did if I had been keeping more sensitive livestock, taught me a valuable lesson. While I gave LeMoyne very comprehensive feeding/top-off instructions and pre-apportioned food for every day we’d be gone, what I didn’t prepare him for was any sort of serious contingency that might arise. At the very least, I should have left him the name and phone number of a local hobbyist who, in a pinch, could be called to help troubleshoot the problem.
We can cover a lot of routine aquarium tasks when we’re on vacation via auto-top-off systems, controllers, auto feeders, light timers, etc., but some problems still require a hands-on solution. After all, they haven’t yet invented the controller or timer that can swap out a broken return pump. In that kind of situation, it really helps to have a living, breathing hobbyist on call.
“Caribbean Chris” and I are fortunate in that we live in relatively close proximity to one another, so each can provide this service for the other when he’s out of town. For example, when CC was recently diving in the Dominican Republic, I was his on-call guy, and I’m sure he’ll be more than happy to reciprocate the next time Melissa and I head for Florida.
If you aren’t lucky enough to have your own personal “Caribbean Chris” (or Lucky Day enough to have your own personal El Guapo), you might want to see if you can make a similar arrangement with someone in your local aquarium club or even a trusted staffer at your LFS. If you don’t have any such options, the best advice I can give is to ensure that redundant life-support equipment is close at hand for your non-hobbyist assistant and be prepared to walk him or her through the process of replacing components over the phone or through video-calling technology in the event of an emergency.
Remember, non-hobbyist friends, family members, or neighbor kids who’ve agreed to handle simple chores like feeding the fish and performing freshwater top-offs haven’t signed on to deal with major malfunctions and can’t realistically be expected to handle them unassisted.