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Moving and Transporting
your Livestock and Tanks

By Amy Janecek

Editor's Note on Specialty Tanks

This article presents the basic considerations that apply to moving just about any aquarium.  Reef tanks, planted tanks and very large aquariums present some special moving challenges over and above these basics.  If you plan on moving such a tank and don't have tank moving experience it is recommended to seek advice from your local aquarium society members.

So you’ve found that perfect house or apartment, or are heading back to college or home…  but how do you move your fish?  It’s actually not that difficult to move fish and tanks if you plan ahead.  Larger tanks and longer distances are more difficult, but should not be too challenging.  There are quite a few options out there, and you can choose the best ones for your situation.

 The New Water

One of the first things you should do, if possible, is test the water at your destination and see if it differs dramatically from the water your fish are used to before your move.  Mainly keep an eye on the pH, KH, ammonia and nitrates.  Test the water right out of the tap, after letting it run for a few minutes, especially if no one has been living there for a while. This will allow some of the impurities that have built up within the pipes to clear out a bit. City water will almost always have chloramines and chlorine added, which will need to be treated by a dechlorinator, such as Chlor Out, Amquel, Prime, etc when filling the tank and doing water changes.  Well water will not have the chlorine but can be very different from nearby sources, so be sure you test it.  If the area is, or has been in the past, a farming community, don’t be surprised to see nitrates out of your tap.  They are a lingering result of fertilizers seeping into the soil.  This may affect your need for increased water changes, so check for nitrates even if you are on city water.  A water softener is also something that may prove useful. 

If any of these things are drastically different from the water your fish are used to, you will want to consider how that will affect them.  Most fish adapt just fine to water outside of their “ideal” pH, if acclimated properly, but there are sensitive species and breeding setups that will need special arrangements.  The quality of your new tap water is less important if you use Reverse Osmosis or De-ionized water as many marine aquarists do.  If you do use some kind of water purification, you will have to make up the water in advance, and salt should be added to the proper salinity and aged at least 24 hours before use. Now is the time to figure those things out, not while you are tired and stressed-out from a day of moving!

 Deciding on “Packaging”

Two of the biggest obstacles in moving fish are getting them the oxygen they need to survive, and preventing the water from getting too polluted and possibly toxic.  Depending on your resources and situation, there are several options for overcoming these obstacles.

One of the best things you can do for your fish, no matter what type of container you decide to use to transport them in, is to fast them for a day or two before the move.  By not feeding them they will produce less waste and not pollute the water as much.  This reduces the stress on the fish, as dirty water is one of the things that will kill them the quickest during a move.  The fish will also be hungry and more willing to eat when they get to their new environment, which may help in cutting down on nervousness and stress.

BAGGING – you’ve probably seen it done many times at the fish store, and maybe wondered just how long the fish can last in that plastic bag.  Depending on how well its done, the answer can be anywhere from a few hours to an entire day or two.  Some local stores will bag up fish for you with pure oxygen for a fee, this is the way fish are shipped overnight with good results.  If you can not find a store that will do this for you, you may have to do it yourself.  Often if you ask nicely, the store will give you a few bags, sell you some at a reasonable price or you may need to order them from a vendor.

When bagging the fish yourself, not using pure oxygen, remember you don’t want to overcrowd each bag.  Use bigger bags for bigger fish, and don’t put too many in each bag.  You want the bag to be 2/3 air and 1/3 water.  Do not blow air into the bag!  Carbon dioxide from your lungs will do more harm than good to the fish.  Instead, you quickly grab the bag closed near the top, trapping air inside, twist it so the slack is taken out and the bag is taut, bend over the twisted part and rubber band securely.  Remember to keep the 2/3 air and 1/3 water ratio.  Often it is best to double bag, especially any aggressive fish or fish with spiny fins, who can often poke a hole in the bag.   

There are a few products out there that help with bagging fish for long periods of time.  Breathable bags allow oxygen flow, and tablets such as “bag buddies” release oxygen into the water over a period of time.  These products are somewhat rare in local stores, but can be found at vendors online.  

Put your bagged fish into a cooler or wrap them in blankets to help insulate and maintain constant temperatures.  Often times, Styrofoam shipping containers are available for free from your local fish store.  This also blocks the light and helps reduce stress on the fish.

Quick Tips!

Plan, plan, plan!  Moving large tanks, planted tanks and reef tanks can require an entire day just to move the tank and often have complicated plumbing and lots of ancillary equipment.  Mentally rehearsing the move and making notes helps make sure you think of everything in advance.  Here are some of the things to consider:
  • Have plenty of bags, Styrofoam boxes and containers.
  • Have lots of towels and blankets to protect floors, clean up messes and dry off wet equipment.
  • Be sure you have plenty of space in your moving vehicle for everything.  All of the equipment and animals take up a lot more space when they are disassembled and packed for moving!
  • For marine tanks, it is best to save as much of the old water as possible to minimize the stress of newly mixed seawater.
  • Because saltwater should be mixed to the proper salinity, aerated and heated and aged for at least 24 hours before using, it is wise to mix up enough to completely fill the tank, sump, etc. in advance, just to be safe.
  • Recruit some help!  Aquarium club friends are ideal since they have some aquarium knowledge, but just about anyone can be bought with beer and pizza!
  • When estimating the amount of towels, blankets, bags, containers, Styrofoam boxes, water, time and help you need for moving large or complicated tanks, it is wise to make your best estimate and DOUBLE it.  It is very easy to deal with too much of these items, but very hard to deal with a shortage.

Safety first!

  • Observe proper lifting technique when moving heavy equipment, buckets of water and boxes of rock.
  • Broken aquarium glass can be deadly!  Use plenty of help and have a plan for getting away from a dropped tank, especially on stairs.
  • Unplug all equipment before beginning the tear down to avoid electrical hazards.
  • NEVER release aquarium inhabitants into the wild.  If you have unwanted specimens, sell them, give them away or humanely euthanize  them.  Non-native wildlife are ecologically destructive!

CONTAINERS – A good alternative to bagging your fish is to use some sort of container.  The basic guidelines to choosing your container are that it must not be toxic to the fish, it must hold water and it must not allow them to jump out.  Generally anything food safe will be safe for the fish.  "Deli containers" (the clear, round plastic containers that foods like potato salad are packed in) are very popular for smaller corals and even small fish.  Depending on the size and amount of fish you need to move, you can also use anything from an ice cream bucket to a 5 gallon bucket to a large Rubbermaid type storage tote, though for long distances and/or extreme temperatures, a Styrofoam or plastic cooler is a very good idea. The insulation will help keep the water temperature steady.  An alternative option is wrapping blankets around the container to help hold in the temperature.  Lining the inside of the container with a large black garbage bag can be useful.  The dark color will help keep the fish calm, and you can loosely close the top to help prevent splashing while still allowing some air flow.  Just be sure you check to make sure you got all of the fish out of the container before throwing the bag away!  Generally you only want to fill the container with as much water as you need to, while still giving the fish enough room to move around and be comfortable.  If the container is filled too full, there will be unavoidable splashing and some of the fish may possibly get tossed out.  Remember, water is heavy and you’ll need to be able to carry the container, water, fish and all, so test the weight as you fill. 

When moving or keeping fish in containers for any length of time, it is a good idea to have an air source running.  You can buy a battery-powered air pump for less than $10 online, and they will run an air stone or sponge filter for several hours on 2 D cell batteries.  This provides your fish with the oxygen that would normally be supplied by the tank filter, and can also be a life saver during a power outage. I recommend every fish tank owner keep one or two on hand.  Another option is a DC to AC power converter.  This is a device that plugs into your vehicle’s DC outlet or cigarette lighter and converts that power to a standard outlet.  This will allow you to run an air pump or even a filter on your container while in the vehicle, without batteries.  This sort of set up works great for longer trips that may require overnight stays, or if you run out of time to set the tanks up after a long move.  I have successfully kept fish in tubs set up with established filters and properly covered to avoid any “jump outs” for several days after a multi-state move where I had to report to work the same day I moved. 

For containers without an air pump, some people use “minnow tabs” which fishermen use to provide oxygen to their bait minnows, to keep them alive longer.  These would be found at bait suppliers. 

If I have them on hand, I do like to put some live plants, especially bushy type stem plants, in the container when I move fish.  This gives them a sense of security and some cushioning against bumps.  It is true live plants will use oxygen and release CO2 if they are not exposed to light, and that is bad for the fish, but if you have an air stone running that will provide plenty of oxygen for the fish and plants. 

Moving Day

So it’s the big day!  You did remember to fast the fish for a day or two so they don’t pollute the water as much, right?  Good.  Now, how to get started.  It is often best to save your fish tanks for the last thing to move and the first thing to be set up at the destination.  This increases chances of the bacteria surviving the move and keeps the fish in water that has limited or no filtration in the shortest time possible. 

Usually the best approach is to remove all plants and decorations from the tank first and let the debris and silt settle.  Use buckets and totes to move these objects, you don’t want to leave them in the tank where they could slide and break the glass.  If you have live plants, you could place them in a bucket with tank water or seal them in ziploc bags wrapped in wet paper towels or newspaper.  You can pack up your filters and other equipment now as well.  It is a good idea to keep your filter media wet with tank water to keep as much bacteria alive as possible, and be sure to safely wrap up anything breakable such as lights, glass tops and heaters.  

If this is a saltwater tank, live corals should be removed and packed first in the same way described above for fish, although multiple bags are often required to prevent them from poking through... do consider those deli containers!  Live rock should be removed next and will need to be kept wet during the move, but it does not need to be fully submerged at all times.   Those Styrofoam shipping containers from the local fish store that we mentioned earlier come in handy for live rock too.

If you will be taking along any tank water for the new home, siphon it into your containers, buckets or water jugs, trying to avoid the dirtiest mulm and take the clean water with you.  It is best to do this now, before you stir everything up trying to catch the fish.  It is often not necessary to take your “old” water with you, but it saves money for saltwater setups and can help with acclimating to the “new” water supply.  Have your container or bags filled with the proper amount of water (dechlorinated if necessary) and placed near at hand.  You may want to use a product such as Amquel or Prime to counteract any ammonia that will build up during your trip.   

Now it's time to catch the fish and other livestock you may have.  Often it is easier to use two nets to catch fish, chasing them into a larger net with a smaller one.  Keep in mind some fish will do better caught in a container of some sort instead of a net.  Anything with spiny fins or barbles that can be caught in the net or puffer fish who can become ill from inflating with air fall into this category.   With all the décor removed and the water level lowered, you should be able to catch just about any fish, even elusive loaches, but it may be less stressful for both the fish and yourself to trap them ahead of time instead if you know they are hard to catch. 

Make sure you don’t overstock the bags or containers, as this will lead to faster water pollution and higher stress levels.  Give larger fish appropriate room, make sure you don't put docile fish with aggressive fish and, if necessary, split up the fish individually so they are not bickering among themselves.  Even a mated pair can harass each other to death if they don't have enough room, and a bag or container is a cramped, stressful situation. 

After the fish have been bagged up or placed securely in your chosen containers and any filters or pumps turned on, you can finish tearing down the tanks.  It is never recommended to move any tank with water or gravel in it, even something as small as 20 gallons.  You may be able to pick it up and carry it, but tanks are designed to hold the weight of gravel and water while evenly and fully supported all around the base, not while being carried.  Twisting and uneven pressure can make the bottom break out or loosen the silicone, so take no chances.  You don’t want a leaking or broken tank now do you?  Place the substrate in buckets or totes, remembering you will need to be able to carry the weight.  It isn’t a bad idea to keep some water in with it to help keep bacteria alive, and live sand will need to be covered in water. For marine tanks, keeping sand or gravel substrate can create significant problems since it is usually quite porous and hard to clean.  Also, once it is disturbed, much of the life in "live sand" is destroyed and will rot and pollute the tank if it is kept.  It is generally a good idea to keep a few cups of the old sand to use to "seed" the new substrate and discard the rest.

For carrying larger tanks, such as 55 gallons and up, it is often recommended to carry them placed on a flat board.  This supports the frame evenly all the way around, and prevents the people carrying it from twisting it, especially going up stairs.  You’ll want someone on the sides steadying the tank to keep it from sliding off the board, and nailing down some scraps of wood to frame it in and hold it in place will help a lot.  Remember to pack the tank safely and securely.  Make sure nothing can fall into or onto the tank, or slide into it, and that the tank itself won’t shift and slide.  Placing blankets, pillows or sofa cushions around the tank is a good idea. 

Try to keep the fish in the vehicle with you if possible, where the temperature is controlled and you can keep an eye out for any leaks or mishaps such as a fish trying to jump out.  If the fish must be transported somewhere where temperatures are not controlled, you will need to be very vigilant on keeping an eye on conditions and ready to do something to change them.  To lower the temperature, you can float a Ziploc bag with ice cubes or an ice pack in the water, but do not just dump ice cubes in to melt.  To raise the temperature, you can get some winter hand and foot warmers and float those in a Ziploc bag as well.  This can be a bit risky as you have to be careful that you don’t get any chemicals in the water, change the temperature too fast in either direction and you must pay attention, but if necessary it can be done.  Using as many insulated containers as possible (Styrofoam fish boxes, picnic coolers, etc.) helps minimize temperature concerns.

Now, make sure you have everything you need and everything is secure, and you are ready to go!  Safe travels to you and your fish! 

The Final Destination

Welcome home!  Now, its best for the fish to get them set up in their new home as quickly as possible, but if you have prepared properly, they can stay in their containers for a while if needed.  So, when you are ready, carry in your tanks, replace the substrate, decorations and begin filling with water.  Make sure you remember to dechlorinate if needed.  Get your filters and heaters running and any live plants planted.  Allow the debris to settle and the temperature to stabilize.  You can now begin acclimating the fish to their new tank.  Often the best way is to add some of the new water to their container, a little at a time.  If the water is drastically different than that of which they were used to, a slow drip can be set up by using a length of airline.  Place the fish in a bucket with the water they are used to on the floor under the tank, leaving plenty of room for added water.  Start a siphon from the tank to the bucket with the airline, but tie a knot in the line to slow the siphon down to a drip.  The knot can be tightened or loosened to slow or speed up the drip.  This will slowly add the new water to the existing water over a period of hours.  Remember to keep an eye on the bucket so it does not overflow.   

When you are ready, move the fish to the tank.  It is often best to keep the tank lights off for at least the first few hours to give the fish a sense of security.  If there is a lot of movement going on and the fish seem very nervous, you may want to cover the tank with a blanket so it is quieter for them, though be sure to avoid any electrical hazards.  If you’d like, you can add some Melafix to help with stress reduction and any fin tears or bumps the fish may have received during capture and transport.

For the next few days, keep an eye on all your water parameters and monitor the behavior of your livestock.  You may experience a small cycle, or at worst, a complete re-cycling of your bacteria.  So it is best to be prepared and monitor for anything unusual.  Now go have a seat by your beautiful tank and relax! 


Now, some of the recommendations in this article may be excessive for a short move across town, but they are complete enough for a move across the country.  Buying a DC to AC converter or bagging up with pure oxygen are probably overkill for a 20 minute drive, for example, but can literally be a lifesaver for an overnight or multi-day trip.  Everyone’s situation will be different, so use common sense and ask around for suggestions based on what kind of move you need to do if you are not sure which strategies to use on your move.

Good luck and good fishkeeping!

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