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Surviving extended power outages: how to keep your aquarium alive!

By Mike Maddox and Merritt Adkins

Recently, many citizens of the southern United States were mildly to severely affected by the hurricane activity that took place there this summer, including ourselves. We were forced to evacuate twice (leaving our large aquariums behind) and were without power for two weeks in our place of refuge (120 miles away from the coast!) after Hurricane Ike. Every aquatic animal we were able to bring with us survived that two weeks, and we’d like to share how we accomplished this, and what we learned. We hope that you can learn from and apply the knowledge from this article, whether your power outage lasts two hours or two weeks!

Step 1: Equipment

Seeing as we literally lived on the coast, we had additional equipment that most hobbyists probably consider unnecessary, but could find helpful should they ever experience an outage.

Common items that you should have, or probably already have:

  1. Battery operated air pumps: available from most hardware/sporting goods stores, or online from various pet vendors. We purchased a waterproof version that ran for 36 hours on 2 D cell batteries from Academy. Don’t forget extra batteries, or even better (and more environmentally friendly!), rechargeable batteries and a charger. A battery operated air pump shouldn’t set you back more than ~$15, although there are ones that will automatically turn on in the event of a power failure that cost more. A battery operated air pump is invaluable, both for oxygenation and water movement, and they’re very efficient.

  2. Uninterruptible Power Supplies: Often referred to simply as a UPS. Widely used in many homes and offices to prevent computer data loss during a power outage, a UPS will provide AC power from a battery for a limited amount of time. Very handy for periodically running pumps/filters/heaters, they can also be used to run low wattage air pumps for days or even weeks. UPS supplies usually run $50-200, depending on the size of the battery in the unit. A useful investment, a UPS will be useful every day for protecting your computers and other sensitive electronics.

Less common items that will help in the event of a long term power outage (aka fun toys for men and other electronically inclined individuals):

  1. Generator: gasoline or butane powered, a generator (depending upon the size and wattage) will anything from a small aquarium system to your entire house. Their downfall is they are expensive to run (especially with gas prices these days), require fuel (something that was in such short supply we usually couldn’t run one), are usually quite expensive ($500+) and have to be run outside to prevent dangerous carbon monoxide buildup. For us, it turned out that it simply wasn’t practical or possible to keep our aquatic systems powered by a generator due to fuel shortages and other necessities. Generators are purchasable at hardware stores or via online vendors.
  2. Portable power supply: these nifty items are usually sold for cars, and often have a built in jump-start capability, tire inflator, emergency radio, or some combination thereof. However, many also have AC plugs and function identically to a UPS. We discovered their usefulness to aquatic hobbyists during the hurricane outage by using one to power two small water pumps in our nano reef aquariums, and it could be recharged via our solar charger. We bought our portable power supply from Wal-Mart for $100 for auto emergencies, and have seen them for sale in other warehouse departments and at hardware stores.

  3. Solar trickle charger: a small solar pane that trickle charges up to 12 volt batteries. We used this to charge our portable power supply, and an extra car battery we had. Best $20 purchase I’ve ever made, and they can be found from specialty battery/electronics vendors online.

  4. Automobile power inverter: We already owned this 200 watt inverter for the car (Mike likes electronics, can you tell?) and used it daily by attaching it to a spare car battery. Inverters of various wattages can be had in the automotive section of any department store, and cost $20-100, depending upon the output wattage.

Many of the above items, or combination thereof, can be used to charge D cell batteries for your air pumps, which is generally the most efficient use of your limited power.

Step 2: Prepare

Forewarned is forearmed, so they say, and this is no exception. If you know a power outage could be immanent, it’s time to prepare! Our goal is to minimize waste buildup, keep oxygen levels high, prevent temperature swings, and in the case of marine invertebrates, provide at least some water movement.

Prepare on a per system basis: Do you have a marine or freshwater aquarium? Is it fish only? Do you have a reef aquarium? Each type of system is going to need different treatment in order to survive loss-free. Fish only systems (especially freshwater) will do fine as long as there are no fast temperature swings and oxygen is maintained. Reef aquariums will need water motion, and in long term scenarios (a week or more), some form of lighting. Here are a few guidelines to follow no matter what type of system you have:

  1. Clean! Clean all filters thoroughly, and gravel vacuum (if applicable). Perform large (50%+) water changes with water of the same pH/temp/salinity (if applicable). Set aside freshly mixed aquarium water in case you need it.
  2. Stop feeding: most healthy aquatic animals can go a week or more without eating with no ill effects, and usually longer. Less food means less pollution, more oxygen for your animals, and less fish waste.
  3. Temperature control: If possible, insulate your aquarium with household insulation available at hardware stores before the outage. Blankets work well, also, especially during an unexpected outage. You may not be able to prevent temperature changes, but you should be able to prevent rapid temperature changes, which is essential if you want your animals to survive. Depending on how the temperature will shift, prepare with ice or frozen water bottles, battery/gas heaters, oil lamps, or fans.

Step 3: Outage

During the outage, there are a few things to watch for, and steps you can take (besides nail biting) to prevent loss of life. Consider the following:

  1. Oxygen: the amount of dissolved oxygen will depend on a number of factors, including surface area of the aquarium, stocking level, temperature, dissolved organics, and activity of the inhabitants. One battery operated air pump should be more than enough for all but the larger or more heavily stocked systems. If your fish are ‘gasping’ at the surface, oxygen levels are critically low.
  2. Water motion: water motion is very important in a reef aquarium. The simplest way to accomplish this (and the least power hungry) is to use battery operated air pumps. Even in a large aquarium, you should be able to provide enough water motion to keep the inhabitants alive with a few pumps. A little elbow grease and a pitcher should work on corals that are overly ‘sliming’. If you have any of the nifty power supplies lifted above, turning on the circulation pump for a few minutes every hour will help greatly (small pumps could possibly be run for the entire outage).
  3. Water quality: ammonia neutralizers like Seachem’s Prime or Kordon’s Amquel will go a long way towards keeping your fish alive, especially if an evacuation was necessary. We managed to keep large marine and freshwater pufferfish alive in 5 gallon buckets by dosing Prime every day, and feeding very little. If your fish are still in the aquarium, refrain from feeding, and perform water changes frequently if necessary.
  4. Lighting: not necessary for fish, but eventually necessary for photosynthetic animals. If your outage lasts less than a week, you have nothing to worry about. If you’re without power longer than a week, try for opening a window (even indirect sunlight carries a lot of energy) or plugging in fluorescent lights into a battery backup for a few minutes to an hour a day. This is when a small solar charger + portable power pack can save your corals, as we found out.

Step 4: Recovery

Let’s hear it for power! I’m sure you’re ready to bask in the now-restored air conditioning, or heating, if you’re up north, but first take a few minutes to check your aquariums. Clean out the filters again, and perform another large water change. After that, you should be good to go! Hopefully your animals survived, perhaps partly from the information you learned here! 

Electricity and Aquariums on WWM:

Related Articles: Marine ElectricalMarine Aquarium Light Fixtures and CanopiesGFCIs and Marine AquariumsPump Problems

Related FAQs: Electricity FAQ 1, Electricity FAQ 2, GFCIs and Marine AquariumsGrounding Probes,


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