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How I Stop Worrying and Love the Maintenance-free Break

By Justin Norman

So, it's summertime, the kids are out of school, it's time to load up the old Wagonqueen Family Truckster and head cross-country out to Wally World. The bags are packed, the stove is off, the fish... THE FISH! OH NO! How will you ever maintain your fledgling marine world in your absence?

Relax! If you're reading this, then you're already one step ahead of our examples above. Vacation time doesn't have to be riddled with fear that your beautiful in-home biota is collapsing under its own waste production, as long as you plan ahead. In fact, as you become more advanced in the hobby and your setup becomes more autotrophic, vacation time will become essentially effortless. Even without high dollar top-off systems and calcium reactors, it's still quite possible to not feel so concerned while taking that family drive.

Things to consider when planning

You need to come up with a game plan based on how long you intend to be away. For a lightly stocked tank, equipped with a properly-stocked refugium, a trip away for a week will be practically fully automated. For ventures longer than a week, you should plan to have an experienced friend maintain the tank in your absence. If no one is available, check around with local pet stores, as they can likely recommend a local person whom can be paid to maintain your tanks while you are gone.

One of the key points in readiness with a marine system is a make up/top off water storage system of some sort. While it is always a good idea to have adequate water prepared 'just in case, this point is doubly important when a third party is handling the upkeep of your aquarium. Rubbermaid trash cans equipped with a powerhead for water circulation are cheap and are available with wheels making it easy to store them out of sight but roll them right to the aquarium when needed.  Since keeping things simple for your tank sitter is important, simply leaving the top off water next to the tank may be worth considering.  

Actually topping off water is another essential point in your absence, and is one that can be easily addressed without expensive top off equipment. You can make a simple device, similar to a water bottle for a pet rodent's cage to replace evaporated water as it drops past a certain level. This can be done with one or more jugs, at or slightly above water level, with its opening just below the surface of the water, allowing the water to 'burp' into the tank from the bottle. Of course, sophisticated systems with a float valve or other level sensor can automatically control a top off pump.  These systems can save you and your tank sitter a lot of time and effort, but unfortunately they are not fool proof and reports of empty sumps or flooded floors do exist.

There are some things not to do when planning for a vacation.  It is a good idea to avoid adding new animals, making major system changes, adding new equipment or making any other significant change in the few weeks leading up to your absence.  Making these kinds of changes often causes minor problems when they are watched daily by an expert eye, but can become disasters when they are (easily and understandably) overlooked by an inexperienced neighbor who only stops by every other day.

Preparing your Temporary Reefkeeper

Always remember to keep your tank sitter well informed of what is expected of them. Explain everything to them in detail, answer any questions that they may have and write down a detailed list of everything you expect them to handle. If the person you will be having maintain your tank is experienced, the thorough explanations may not be as crucial, but an exact list of what maintenance procedures you wish done is always beneficial. Be sure to include in this list:

  • where the foods are located

  • where maintenance tools are located

  • what tests are to be performed (including checking temperature)

  • what parts of the system should be inspected

  • what amounts of supplements to add (based on the tests if applicable)

  • where spare equipment is kept

  • how to check and reset GFI's and breakers

  • a phone number where you or an experience/professional back up can be reached

It may also be a good idea to leave them a checklist of tasks for each visit.  Such tasks might include:

  • Check temperature

  • Check sump water level

  • Feed fish

  • Verify pumps are working

  • Check skimmer collection cup

Even though you will have shown your helper around your system, it is not a bad idea to label equipment with it's name and any important information regarding that equipment.  This is especially useful for inexperienced helpers who might not remember which do-hickey is the protein skimmer and which is the calcium reactor.

Unless your tank sitter is very experienced or you will be gone for more than two weeks, it is my opinion that it is better to leave supplements off of the list and re-balance when you return.  Another important item to have on your list is the phone number for a professional in town in case of a major emergency that is beyond the abilities of your tank sitter. Remember, the more detailed your instructions, the less potential headaches arise while you're out scuba diving with your favorite fish!

When it comes to the issue of feeding, the biggest concern is usually overfeeding. Most local pharmacies carry weekly pill containers that have separate labeled compartments for each day of the week.  This simple, inexpensive device will allow you to leave the exact amount of food that you want fed each day.  If you have multiple tanks, and will provide a simple way to differentiate between multiple fish tanks or feeding regimes, you can use multiple pill containers labeled for each purpose. Sandwich baggies, microwavable containers, pill bottles, or any other such small containers can be used the same way. Just be sure that each container only contains enough food for an individual feeding, so there is no question on how much to feed. Clearly label each container with which tank it should be used for along with a written feeding schedule.

Final Preparations

Right before you leave your tank in the hands of your selected tender, go through your normal maintenance routine.  While you are doing this, it is a good idea to follow the instructions you leave for your tank sitter to be sure you didn’t leave anything out. Clean your pumps and intakes of debris, clean out your filtration devices, thoroughly clean your skimmer, and do a large water change. Test important water parameters and adjust if necessary. Make sure that anything your temporary fish keeper might need is easily accessible and that he has everything he needs to access your home. Once you've got this checklist done, you're ready to go!


Vacation time doesn't have to be a time of fear and anguish that your hard work is crumbling to its own demise. With some planning, a thorough to-do list and someone who you trust to follow your instructions, all your concerns can be alleviated. These simple tips, along with standard good husbandry skills can keep your aquatic garden looking beautiful for your return to the rat race!

Vacations & Marine Systems on WWM

Related Articles: Maintenance of Marine Systems While You're on Holiday Reef Maintenance, Marine System Maintenance

Related FAQs: Vacations from your Marine Systems

A very good idea to leave (only) pre-measured sealed food containers for "fish sitters"...


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