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Moving Marine Aquariums

Bob Fenner

Styro boxes are very handy for moving

From time to time all aquatic systems have to be moved. This Section details steps to safely and efficiently get a system from one place to the next.

A safe, successful re-positioning of a marine system and livestock involves careful planning and execution of a finite number of simple, logical steps. It's not a nightmare, just a matter of knowing what to do and being prepared.

Materials and Tools Needed:

As with all projects the first step after planning is gathering the necessary tools and materials for the job. For moving aquaria and livestock these are:

Siphon(s) of large and small diameter.

Hoses with adaptors for filling and emptying.

Water treatment chemicals.

Test gear; thermometer, test kits.

Nets; large and small.

Trash cans and/or buckets.

Bags and/or liners and rubber bands.

Gloves for everyone doing lifting.

Possibly a large, flat board, hand truck, cart, water

pump and hoses.

Truck or adequate size car with blankets, cardboard, et al. for mechanical insulation.

Depending on how far, how many organisms are involved, you might need an air pump and airstone, kiddie wading pool with net cover, heater, extension cord.

Adequate help to do the job.

Next, consideration must be given as to the final destination of the system. Do you have a key to the building? Is the electricity and water on, if necessary? Are there other people you need to interface? Basically, is the pre-designated area ready to receive the system?

Once you've gathered all the tools and materials together and you're sure the destination site is ready, you can make preparations to:

A) Drain the system, after checking and recording chemical parameters.

B) Remove livestock, if any.

C) Remove as much mass from the system as possible.

D) Move the system.

E) Re-set Up.

F) Re-introduce livestock. 

A) Dewatering: In general as much of the system's water should be saved as practical. If a good percentage of the upper water column can be moved with the system (in separate containers) shock on your livestock will be lessened considerably. 

Typical considerations of venting water to waste apply.

1) Know where you're dumping! Toilets and sewer clean-outs are OK. Sweetwater, street drainage is a no-no in some communities. System water is not suitable for landscape irrigation.

2) Take care not to clog drain lines with sand or gravel. Unless you're siphoning out substrate on purpose, screen the trap site.

3) Keep your eye on the discharge! Overflows, spills, hoses flopping out are big potential problems. 

B) Removing Livestock: As previously mentioned, as much water

should be saved and moved with the system as practical. This is

best coordinated with the moving of livestock.

1) In as large an uncontaminated container as you and available help can safely lift, fit a doubled polyethylene fish bag or doubled trash-can liners.

2) Siphon, pump, scoop water into the bags about half full.

3) Net, bail, hand catch livestock and move to bags.

4) Depending on the duration of the trip and concentration of livestock the following techniques apply from most to least intense:

1) Add mechanical aeration

2) Anesthetize livestock and

3) Add oxygen to bags and band closed

4) Leave bags open

5) Close with ambient air and band closed

In the best of possible worlds an already-operating system would be available to put the livestock in at the new locale and you'd be able to take your time taking down the existing system. This is rarely the case so the rest of the moving process must be carefully planned.

Store the livestock container(s) where they will be subject to the least environmental change in light, heat and vibration until ready to move all. They should be the last loaded and the first unloaded.

C) Removal of Mass From the System:

1) All equipment should be turned off and removed from the system.

2) Rock, gravel and other decor should be taken out of wood/glass, glass, fiberglass, acrylic, in other words all systems to reduce scratching and mechanical stress and facilitate lifting.

3) If the system is in line for a routine cleaning, this may be your chance. Gravel may be vacuumed while the system is being

de-watered; other decor may be bleached or washed.

4) If a stand is involved, much of the equipment may be safely stored and moved inside it. Gravel, rock, other hard materials should be moved in lined, water-tight containers. 

D) Moving the System: The Hard Part.

1) Many systems are attached/embedded into what they're setting on. There is a fine art to breaking them free. After the top cover, hood(s), all else has been removed from the system, pressure and/or a padded push/pull may be applied to the upper edge of the longest edge of the system. This can be done front and back until the bond between the system and it's base is broken.  

2) Next the system is slid, tilted in such a manner as to get hands or tools underneath to lift and move to your truck, car or next room.

3) Care must be taken if the system is drilled through with fittings attached to not jar these areas. Fittings are prone to snap easily or crack the tank if lateral force is applied. The system may have to be laid down on it's face during transport.

4) In some cases it is possible and appropriate to move the system on it's stand. Another useful technique involves placing the system on a padded flat board slipped underneath to facilitate carrying.

5) Lift carefully: As we all know, with your legs not your back. Know and respect your limits. Share the load with your help. Use a hand-truck or cart if available. Well fitted gloves are very useful.

6) Imagine the worst scenario when loading your equipment, livestock and system when packing the transport vehicle. Fit cardboard, towels, carpet scraps under and between. If all is set, jamming on the brakes should not spell disaster.

7) Drive carefully. Take your time. You're organized and everything's going as planned. 

E) Re-Set Up:

1) Move the livestock container(s) in from the elements.

2) Bring in the stand, if any, and place in pre-designated space, leaving adequate room for getting around and for equipment.

3) Center system on stand.

4) Return filters, gravel, rock, ornaments, other equipment as you wish.

5) Refill the system with water slightly warmer than that in the organisms' shipping containers.

6) Treat water and check parameters compared to before the move; adjust if necessary.

7) Turn on pump(s), heater(s), filter(s), but leave off system lights if possible. 

F) Reintroduce Livestock: (See Acclimation Articles)

1) There are several techniques for this: I suggest you blend the new water in the system with the shipping water slowly to reduce chemical and physical differences and shock to your livestock. This can take the form of mixing water back and forth, floating bags, et al..

2) Ultimately pour out, net back, replace the livestock.

3) Many people are of the opinion that flavine dyes, freshwater dips, other chemical preparations are useful in the shipping, post-shipping phases of moving livestock. You should generate your own opinion from local sources re the efficacy of such action.


Some variation of the above steps and precautions will apply to the safe, efficient moving of any aquatic system. Use this Section's series of steps as a check list in planning your moves.

Bibliography/Further Reading:

Paletta, Mike. 1993. Moving a reef tank; definitely not fun, but it can be done. AFM 7/93.

Whorff, John & Lori. 1995. How to successfully move your reef tank. FAMA 6/95.

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