Become a Sponsor

Information Pages:
Marine Aquarium
Articles/ FAQs/Index
Freshwater Aquarium
Articles/ FAQs/Index
Planted Aquarium
Articles/ FAQs/Index
Brackish Systems
Articles/ FAQs/Index
Daily FAQs
FW Daily FAQs
SW Pix of the Day
FW Pix of the Day
Conscientious Aquarist Magazine
New On WWM
Helpful Links
Hobbyist Forum WetWebMedia Forum
Ask the WWM Crew a Question
Search Feature
Admin Index
Cover Images

  Cardinal Tetras:
A School of Beauty

What YOU Should Have in Your Reef First Aid Kit.

By Tim Hayes

There are any number of things that can go wrong in a reef or marine aquarium. We can roughly divide them between mechanical problems and biological problems. Most of these problems will be as a result of human error in the form of ignorance, forgetfulness, neglect, or stupidity. Don't worry - I'm not getting at any one, but we're all guilty of one or more of these failings at one time or another! A problem can also be caused by someone or something other than the reef keeper and with the number of different species we keep from all over the world in unique, differing combinations it is quite possible to suffer from a problem that no one could reasonably foresee.

This article is intended to give you some ideas about how to deal with some of the more commonly encountered problems and what pieces of equipment are useful to have on hand to address them.

Power Outages

Unless the power outage is going to be of long duration, the priorities are water movement/aeration, and conservation of heat. Heat is dealt with by wrapping the tank with polystyrene, old blankets etc. If necessary, you could float food safe containers filled with hot water in the tank (a camping stove of some sort would be useful). As the majority of reef aquaria are larger than the average sized tank, we do have the advantage that heat loss will be slow. So, as long as any temperature change is slow (either up or down) and doesn't go outside the range of 20˚c min - 30˚c max (68˚F-84˚F), there shouldn't be any real problem. Just remember, when conditions are returned to normal, you want a slow transition back to your regular temperature.

An example of a battery powered air pump.  Such units are available at pet stores as well as sporting good stores (for use in bait buckets).

Water movement is the main priority. We need to keep levels of oxygen up, and in the case of immobile invertebrates, make sure that water keeps moving around them as an aid to the exchange of respiratory gases and the removal of waste products. A battery- powered air pump is very useful for smaller aquaria. In fact, by moving one or two of these from tank to tank, say 15 minutes a time, you can keep a fair number of tanks going. 

Light won't be a problem unless the power outage lasts an unusually long time. Three days unlit shouldn't be a problem; corals in the wild can be deprived of light due to suspended sediment in the aftermath of tropical storms for many days. Here in the UK, it would be a very rare incident to go without power for more than three days (some homes were without power for this length of time in South Staffordshire, where I live, in the summer of 2003). More remote areas may be more at risk of longer power cuts, but I guess that if you live in one of these areas you probably already have a generator.

It certainly gives peace of mind to be able to lay one's hand on a small generator. If buying one sounds out of proportion,  I suggest (if you're brave enough!) that you calculate the contents of your tank at current retail prices. The result may surprise/horrify you. (And its probably advisable to do this exercise without the knowledge of any "significant other"!) By the way, I can tell you from personal experience that it's not much use having a generator if it won't work! Try to remember to fire up your generator a couple of times a year to make sure everything's working fine. [Editors note:  Many/most modern natural gas or propane powered generators run for a few minutes once a week as a self-test and warn the user of any problems with an indicator light.  Gasoline versions don't generally have this feature and must be tested manually.]

An alternative to a generator is an "uninterruptible power supply" or UPS. I don't have any experience with these, however. They are a battery backup systems used mainly with computers that provide a short term power supply and then recharge when your power supply is back on line.  These units may not work with all equipment (especially motor driven pumps), so it is advisable to test it first.

I guess the problems of hot weather and over heating should be addressed next. There are actually some similarities here to power out problems, including a potential high cost solution. As the temperature goes up so levels of dissolved oxygen go down so the first thing to do is increase aeration/water movement.  Temporarily reducing your lighting (quantity and/or duration) will help reduce heat, but is obviously not a long-term solution. If you have covers on your aquarium remove them and install a fan so it blows along the surface of the water. This "evaporative cooling" is probably the most cost effective form temperature reduction. The high cost option is to go for a heat exchanger or chiller. A heat exchanger should do double duty all year round, cooling in hot weather and heating during cold. Again, look at the value of your livestock to help you make a decision.  

You should always maintain a selection of spares to get yourself out of trouble. Obvious things to keep on hand are a spare heater, spare power head or air pump, and spare thermometer, these can earn their keep, use them when you heat and mix new saltwater.

No More CO2?

If you run a calcium reactor, try to keep a spare CO2 cylinder. Perhaps if you bought a CO2 starter kit you’ll only have a small cylinder. As you build up the number of corals in your reef , the calcium demand will rise which in turn means you'll go through CO2 more quickly. Buy a larger cylinder and reserve your smaller cylinder as a spare, keeping in mind how handy it'll be when the large cylinder has to go away to be refilled. Always ensure you have reactor media in reserve.


In the event of a pollution incident in the tank as a result of the demise of an  invertebrate (or fish), or perhaps an external event, such as over enthusiastic use of cleaning materials, pet flea remedies, insecticides, or even the intervention of a small child, you need chemical removal materials.

Polyfilter or activated carbon are some of the most commonly used chemical media. Don't forget to do a series of water changes to dilute any pollutant at the same time; helping to ensure your chemical filtration media isn't used up straight away.

If your pollution incident is due to a dying coral or anemone, or if you have an ailing coral showing tissue deterioration, the first thing you should do is to bag the offending animal underwater before removing it from your tank. By bagging the coral before removal you minimise the chances of any infection spreading to the other corals in your tank through the agency of water borne gobs of goo (that's a technical term!).

Sick Corals

If the coral has an infection - bacterial or protozoan - you have a couple of avenues of treatment available to you. Fresh water dips, Iodine dips or one of the increasing number of coral dips now on the market have all been employed with varying degrees of success. Not all corals will tolerate these methods of treatment, so do some research to check which type of dip is appropriate. Study manufacturers' instructions before use. A good source of information on treating diseases of corals is Aquarium Corals,  by Eric Borneman.

To make a freshwater dip for treating corals or fish: - bring tap water up to the same temperature as your tank by the addition of freshly boiled water. Add Sodium Bicarbonate to the water to set the pH of the dip to match the tank pH, and add the aquarium dechlorinator of your choice to the dip. (Incidentally, I favour using a dechlorinator that removes Chloramine and will, in an emergency, remove or detoxify Ammonia and Nitrite. If you do this, be aware that after using some of these dechlorinators you can get false readings when using a test kit.)

Disease In The Reef Aquarium

In the case of fish disease in the reef aquarium, you are limited in your choice of appropriate medications because a number of the most useful remedies are toxic to invertebrates. Medications I've successfully used in a reef include Melafix, Myxazin, and Octazin. I'm not keen on chemical intervention in the reef tank <Editors' note- Neither are we!>.

If you can remove a diseased fish to a quarantine tank for treatment that’s all to the good. Unfortunately, given the nature of reef tanks, it's often difficult to catch a fish without stripping down the aquarium! A possible solution is a fish trap. It is possible to treat some parasitic diseases in the reef by manipulating the specific gravity and temperature of the water. Do read up on this techniques on this website and other online resources.

Reef First Aid Kit.

Power Outage Battery powered air pump
Generator or UPS
Blankets or Polystyrene foam
Overheat/Equipment failure Power head or air pump
Fan, Air conditioner unit, or Chiller
Water Quality CO2 cylinder and reactor media
Polyfilter or carbon
Fish Disease Treatment Dechlorinator
Sodium Bicarbonate
Medications such as Myxazin, Melafix, Octazin
Fish trap
Quarantine/Hospital tank
Coral/Invert disease

Coral dip such as Kent Tech-D, or Lugol's solution

Plastic bags

The above list contains just a few of the items I consider it essential to keep in your reef first aid kit. I could go on, and probably would, if talking to you in the flesh! Adding all manner of things to this list - scissors and toothbrush for cleaning up necrotic coral tissue or for removing pest algae from rocks and corals, for example. But I'm afraid space is limited and some of the problems I've touched on deserve to be written about at length at another time.  Be creative and decide what you need to have in your own reef first aid kit!

Remember, it's always a good idea to have a reef first aid kit for when things go wrong!

Marine Disease Treatments on WWM

Related Articles: Treating Marine Disease, Biological Cleaners, Marine Parasitic Disease, Parasitic Marine Tanks, Parasitic Reef Tanks, Cryptocaryoniasis, Marine Ich, Marine Velvet Disease, Treating Parasitic Disease, Using Hyposalinity to Treat Parasitic Disease, Antibiotic Use

Related FAQs: Treatment Tanks



Featured Sponsors: