Piling the kids in the car. The smell of the ocean and coconut sun screen. Getting up in the middle of the night so you can be on the road when there is not much traffic. These are some of the things I remember about heading off on vacation. Since it is just about vacation time for many of us, it also brings up something else that occurs every time I go on vacation: the constant worry to the point of paranoia, that I am going to come home to a disaster in my tanks.
As the old joke goes, you are not paranoid if someone really is out to get you. So I don’t think we are being paranoid when most of us worry when we go away that something bad is going to happen to our tanks, since many of us have come home from a much-deserved vacation only to find that a disaster of some type has befallen our aquaria while we were away.
I have had the unfortunate experience of coming home to flooded carpets, RTN outbreaks, algae blooms, bleached corals, anemones being sucked into powerheads, fish jerky on the floor, dysfunctional lights, cooked tanks, time-shifted controllers and the worst, a blown circuit breaker that was not reset, to name just a few of the highlights of my returning home from vacation. I have been doing this a while and travel a lot so I have unfortunately learned that sometimes there is a price to pay for a relaxing vacation.
there is a price to pay for a relaxing vacation
So these past experiences undoubtedly add to my paranoia. Sadly though, I have also heard of these same types of events occurring to some of my fellow hobbyists as well, so I am not alone in my fear of going away. So since it is getting close to prime vacation time, I thought it would a good idea to try and provide some ideas of some of the steps that my experience has taught me to try and reduce or prevent coming home to any tank disasters large or small before we head away, and to try and reduce the angst about our tanks that many of us feel as we pull away from the driveway.
Just as most of us and our significant others plan a vacation in a fashion similar to how they planned for the Normandy Invasion, we have to include planning for our tank while we are away as well. Implementing this plan does not happen overnight, so take your time in making the plan and putting it into practice and remember it is several steps, not just one thing.
The first part of this plan is the easiest part, all it entails is not adding anything new to your tank for at least two weeks before you leave on vacation. I am not just saying do not add any new fish or corals to the tank, but do not add anything new. No new lights, pumps, filter media, additives, heaters, nothing new should be added to the tank right before you go away.
The reason for not adding any new fish or corals or anything live before you leave is fairly obvious: new stuff can bring in new pests or diseases. While the new stuff may look wonderful, despite careful prophylactic procedures, anything added to the tank can bring in something that might wipe out your carefully selected fish or corals – and if you aren’t there to remove it, it can easily cause a lot of damage in your absence.
Also when we are going on vacation we tend to be in a rush right before so we may not be quite as diligent in dipping and quarantining things as we are when we have time, so it is my recommendation that nothing new should be added before we leave. In the same vein, even though new equipment is new, and thus should work perfectly, there is still a chance that a new piece of equipment will malfunction.
I have had new pumps, powerheads and heaters all fail soon after I added them to my tanks, fortunately I was around in most instances to notice when this happened. If I had been away the results could have been very bad and luckily this does not happen often. However an even greater problem I have found is that when you add something new like a pump or light, etc, it may cause a slight disruption in the tank, and even though this disruption may be small in and of itself, it can be enough to cause big problems if you are away and not see what is happening.
For example, once soon before I left an old powerhead was replaced with a new, slightly more powerful powerhead. To me this seemed like a good thing and on the surface it did not really change much of the dynamic in the tank. However, the new flow was great enough that it caused an anemone that had been happy in the same place for a couple of years to move. It moved so much that it decided to move right into the new powerhead where it got shredded and irritated much of the tank.
This was not bad enough though, as the waste from the anemone irritated many of the corals in the tank, they started sliming excessively which caused the skimmer to overflow and this resulted in a significant amount of water getting on the carpet. Needless to say this is not what you want to return home to after a long drive back from vacation. But it taught me not to change even a small thing before I go on vacation.
Don’t change anything right before leaving
The next part of the plan is to make fish friends as I call them. That is try to find people who live close by and who share this interest and become friends, so you can look after one another’s tanks when you are away. Almost nothing has reduced my stress level as much as knowing that if something goes wrong, the people who I have watching my tank daily and who do the daily feeding and other small things on it have someone they or I can call should something major happen.
By the same token, these friends have conveyed the same sense of relief when they go away because I am there as a backup should things go wrong. This is such a good idea that now I have a couple of friends, a cousin actually who feeds my tanks daily and adds the additives. I also have a couple of other people we can call if something like a light or pump malfunctions, or even if a coral just falls into another coral. So as with most things you enjoy, it is always better if you have a friend to enjoy it with.
But these special reef friends can only help if they know there is a problem. Most of the people that we have help us, like our kids, or spouse, do not really know when something is wrong, so that makes it difficult to know when to call in backup. Fortunately it is now rather easy and inexpensive to get an online camera that will monitor our tanks 24 hours a day.
Having a live webcam to see the tank and controller values has reduced my concern even more. I personally use a Dropcam, now Nest camera, to monitor my tanks, and for approximately the price of nice frag it is well worth it. There are other even less expensive cameras out there that allow for monitoring, so if you travel a lot, and have the same fear level as I do, this may be a good way to reduce some of your anxiety.
This is really the only technology I feel comfortable with using to alert me to problems occurring in my tanks. I have heard too often of monitors and controllers fail to send alerts or emails when a problem had occurred in a tank. I do have my controllers set to turn off lights and other heat-producing equipment should the temperature in any tank get too high, but with the camera I can look at the monitor directly any time I like.
controllers often fail to send alerts when there is a problem
The above suggestions are the easy part of reducing your separation anxiety from your tank. Some of the other things I suggest just require some preparation on your part. The first thing I do in terms of preparation is to mix up and have ready extra saltwater, in case something bad happens that results in a loss of water.
Your tank-buddy can fix just about any problem if it is noticed, but if there is a leak or an overflow problem and you tank runs dry there is nothing they can do without having good saltwater on hand. So while I usually have 50 gallons of water at the ready for a water change at any time, before I go away on vacation I mix up an extra 50 gallons just in case. I use old reconditioned pickle barrels as the water holders, but anything can be used even just a plastic garbage can. If this water is not needed it is not wasted as it is just used in a water change once I return home.
Similar preparation should occur for anything else that may run out while you are away as well. C02 tanks for calcium reactors should be checked and filled as should the media in the reactor. The same holds if two-part supplements are being used as they should be filled before you leave as well as should any top off reservoirs to replace water that has evaporated.
At the same time any points where clogs or blockages could occur in your tanks should also be inspected and cleaned. One thing that is often overlooked is the overflows on a tank, especially if they are over the tank type of overflows. For me these often seem to be a point of problems when I am away, so I take extra care to make sure they are clean and functioning at least a week before I leave on vacation.
Another thing that can be done ahead of time is measuring out and preparing any food or additives that you want you tank sitter to add to the tank in your absence. I no longer leave to chance how much of anything is going to be added to my tank as one thing I have found that many tank sitters seem to say is “the fish looked hungry so I just fed them a little more”.
Since I use a lot of frozen foods I cut the frozen blocks and place them in small cups in the refrigerator where they stay relatively nutritious and where they thaw gradually before they are added to the tanks. When I have relied on them to not starve the fish I have come home to off the chart levels of phosphate and nitrate and it is amazing how fast algae can grow when conditions are right even though there was seemingly no algae to be found before I left. [Ed Note – consider switching to dry foods while you are away, this reduces the chance of nutrient build up and is easier for your sitters to handle]
For this reason, any additives are also precisely measured out before the trip is taken. In this way little is left to chance or their opinion of what needs to be added to my tanks. Another often over looked thing that I do is check what the weather forecast will be while I am away. Summer often brings two things: thunderstorms and heat, either of which can disrupt your tank. So one of the things I have my tank sitter watch is the temperature in the tanks and the temperature in the house.
If either get too warm I make sure they know how to turn on the air conditioning. I would much rather pay for extra electricity to keep the tanks at a proper temperature than lose tanks to overheating. And if thunderstorms might occur, I try to prepare the tank sitter for what to do if the power goes out for even a short time. In this case the main thing I have them look for are sump overflows or changes in times on the timers and controllers.
I have one battery back up, for my main tank, and this works well for keeping any time shifts from occurring. To ensure that there aren’t any overflows that they missed I use leak detectors around all of my tanks that start shrieking should any moisture get near them. They are irritating, but they keep water leaks from becoming big problems and alert the sitter that there is a problem before they see it.
Some other things that I do before heading off is to clean all of the glass thoroughly inside and out to ensure that I can see what is going on with the camera. All of the algae scraped off is siphoned out during a water change to slow its regrowth on the glass. All of the skimmer cups are cleaned thoroughly as are the lights. If any corals seem to be moving or seem likely to fall I try to remount them at least a couple of days before I leave and I also try to make sure that all of the covers on my tanks are tight so that nothing can easily jump out.
Also, for a week or so before I leave I do almost daily water testing to make sure things are not trending down in any way. I also do one full set of tests the day before just to make sure. Lastly I make a precise list of when and how everything that my tank sitter needs to do will be done. I list which food or additive goes where, when the tanks should be fed, and also when the lights should go on and off.
I list which circuit breakers are for the tanks and I also have them marked in the box so that if one should go off my tank sitter knows which ones might need to be flipped back on. Lastly I have all of the phone numbers for my emergency tank friends listed should they not be able to get me and I also let my buddies know that I am leaving and that they might get a call. I also promise them frags should they be needed.
Going on vacation should be fun and relaxing, but knowing how many things can go wrong with our tanks when we are away can cause a lot of unnecessary anxiety and detract from the trip. Considering how much time, effort and expense we put into this hobby I think I have gotten better at reducing my fear of a catastrophe occurring while I am away by doing what I have described above.
I will admit that things are better now since I am better prepared and can see my tanks any time from almost anywhere. However, I will admit that just as most people don’t want to see the pictures you took while you were on vacation, most of your fellow vacationers don’t want to see how you tank is doing on your phone while you are on vacation.
So just enjoy the trip, relax and enjoy your tank when you return. Got any traveling tips of your own? Share your tips and tricks with us in the comments below.