A beautiful marine Aquarium

Organizing Your Next Saltwater Aquarium Move

Aquariums almost inevitably become more complicated over time. In the course of months of operation, the “system” can incorporate more and more components. And, the livestock collection grows. Eventually, what started as a simple fish tank can develop into an intricate mess of plumbing lines and gadgets; what started as a fish and a few frags can become a sizable community of diverse creatures. All that, and a huge pile of rocks.

Indeed, even an average-sized reef tank is a real behemoth, and a delicate one. If moving a large, mature reef system might sound intimidating, it should! Just consider that you necessarily must capture, handle and reacclimate each and every specimen, pretty much all at once. As if dismantling, moving and rebuilding an entire aquarium system isn’t enough work for one day…

Needless to say, a task as big as this (and a time-sensitive one, at that) requires some planning.

Moving a tank like this can be a difficult taskReady for Action

Unless you enjoy the luxury of having a suitable place to hold the animals indefinitely, your system must be moved and put back into full operation in the shortest amount of time possible. This is why all required materials should be readied before the move is initiated. Such a check list might include:

  • Towels, drop cloths, etc.
  • A huge reserve of pre-mixed and, ideally, pre-heated saltwater.
  • A large number of buckets (more than you’ll think you need).
  • Packaging (appropriate number of insulated boxes, fish bags, etc.).
  • Aeration rig (air pump, air diffusers, etc.).
  • Acclimation rig (such as a drip acclimator).
  • Lots of snacks.

Put on your work boots, because this normally isn’t the sort of job that you can easily “just finish tomorrow.” The idea is that once livestock has been removed from the system, you must keep a steady work flow until the job is done. You’ll have little time for interruption. As long as the animals are sitting in buckets and bags, their oxygen is waning, the pH is dropping and ammonia is building up!

Order of Ops

The first thing to do (after ensuring that all of the above are available) is to prioritize steps in the break-down/rebuild of the system. Which parts are nonessential for the shorter-term survival of animals? Piece-by-piece, components such as UV sterilizers, media reactors, auto top-off units, etc. can be removed, serviced, cleaned and otherwise readied for reinstallation. Really, this stage can take place days or weeks in advance of the big move. But once you’re down to the sump, pump, biofilter, lighting, etc. (i.e. essential equipment), it is time to focus on the animals.

Even if you’re just moving the tank to another room in the house, you’ll need lots of fish bags and buckets. Each coral, sea anemone and fish certainly should get its own dedicated container for holding and acclimation. You should collect a good amount of transport water from tank now and set it aside; this will be cleaner than the tank water after things get stirred up pulling rock and chasing fish. We suggest removing/packaging livestock in the following order:

  • Macroalgae and mangroves.
  • Corals and clams.
  • Sessile invertebrates.
  • Mobile invertebrates (slow).
  • Live rock.
  • Mobile invertebrates (fast)
  • Fish.

Delicate Corals must be relocated carefully.Following the above, the relatively resilient macros and mangroves are packed first and unpacked last (and are thus placed in holding for the greatest amount of time). If macros are packaged loosely so that they do not suffocate, they will be just fine for days. They are best packaged moist, rather than immersed in stagnant water.

The next part, removing corals, is where you really need to pick up the pace. Start with the most difficult-to-remove colonies (the biggest ones, the ones that have firmly attached to the rock, etc.) and work your way down to the frag rack.

Sessile inverts such as tube worms, sponges, etc. can be tackled next. Depending upon the species and individual specimen, the animal might need to be removed from large rocks. Specimens attached to small rocks are best removed along with the rock. Then, mobile inverts can be removed. Start by targeting easy-to-catch creatures like snails and sea urchins; hold off on catching more flighty types like shrimp until more of the rock cover has been removed.

At this point, pretty much everything has been removed from the tank except for the live rock and the animals you can’t easily catch because of the live rock. So, it’s time to pull the hardscape! Plastic tubs work great for holding live rock. Like macros, rock is best stored moist rather than submerged.

Once all of the rock has been removed, it will be easy to catch the fish and mobile inverts. One can make this task a bit easier yet by draining down the tank water. When the last animal is removed (and the sand is combed just to be sure nothing is hiding in it), the remaining water can be emptied and the sand removed.

Again, lots of buckets is good. Live sand can go “bad” fast in a container. Partially filling numerous buckets with sand not only makes handling them a lot easier on the back, but it also reduces the amount of anoxia (and the resulting fouling) that can occur.

Together Again

The rebuild is a bit more simple. Though pretty much in reverse. Move the tank/cabinetry. Replumb the essential components. Place the sand and rock. Fill the rebuilt system with saltwater and fire it up. It’s definitely fine to get the corals and clams in right away, especially in warm weather conditions; just put the other animals in right behind them (i.e. before spending much time on final placement and gluing). In most cases, it’ll be best to save the macros for last.

With all of the livestock properly acclimated and reintroduced, you can finally relax as you turn to the task of reinstalling the nonessential equipment!

34 thoughts on “Organizing Your Next Saltwater Aquarium Move”

  1. I never realized how much work went into moving a reef tank. I’ll go ahead and refer back to this post in case I ever have to do so.

  2. I decided to change tanks during my most recent move, and ended up losing all of my SPS and a clam because of my poor planning. Which leads to my point, planning is the most essential and often overlooked phase of the move. Don’t just plan in your head, plan on paper and follow the plan.

  3. Just finished a large move (over 8 hour drives), Marine level coolers with pre warmed towels was awesome.
    We only lost a couple SPS which was less than we expected. Don’t want to move like that again anytime soon.

  4. Richard Gorelick

    Never moved a big tank mostly because when I moved, my tank was already quite old and I got a new one in my new house.

  5. We have a relatively large move looming in a few years. I’m dreading moving my 5 tanks- only 2 are salt though. I’m hoping to find someone that can “babysit” my stuff and ship it once I get there with my live rock and clean up crew and get that all set up first. I’m most nervous about corals.

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