Aquarium Management: How to Automate Basic Aquarium Functions While You're On Vacation
Veterinary & Aquatic Services Department, Drs. Foster & Smith

Establish an emergency backup plan for the safety and well-being of aquarium inhabitantsYou have pampered your fish and plants, and now it is time for a well-deserved holiday vacation. But what about your aquarium? How can you leave for three days or longer and be sure your aquatic life will be fine when you return? Relax. With the right equipment, and a little help from a friend, things can go smoothly.

Anticipate situations

What could go wrong while you are away? Here are the top five vacation emergencies you should plan for:

  1. Overfeeding: The person you asked to watch your fish may accidentally overfeed them. Unfamiliar with the chemistry of your aquarium, they will often over-feed your fish, even when forewarned.

  2. Power outages: If an electrical power failure occurs while you are gone, your equipment stops working, which means oxygen will quickly deplete, possibly to dangerously low levels. And depending on the season, water temperature could easily climb, or drop, from the fish-safe range.

  3. Heater failure: No piece of equipment lasts forever. Aquarium heaters sometimes crack and fail.

  4. Stress: Breaking any maintenance routine can quickly cause stress in your fish. For example, light needs to be provided on schedule to maintain their internal time clock.

  5. Sick or dead fish: A fish in your aquarium that looked perfectly healthy the day of your departure, for example, could roll over and start a deadly chain reaction among all of your fish.

Make sure all five of these basic needs are covered

Battery-operated air pump, heater, and battery-operated automatic feederWe recommend that you take advantage of the advancements in automated equipment to reduce the amount of mandatory daily maintenance. Instead of replacing your care, these tools will help you fine-tune your efforts. They will also free you to take time off, and simplify demands on your helper. While there are many excellent devices for automating aquarium functions – dosers, water-fills, alarms, and so on, here are the basics we believe you should have, whether you are on vacation or not.

  1. Auto-feeder: Battery-driven automatic feeders deliver food reliably, work right through power failures, and will not overfeed like a well-meaning, but inexperienced helper. Because of their ability to deliver pre-calibrated amounts of food, and in the most natural of ways, many aquarists prefer to use them full-time. If you intend to make occasional use of an auto-feeder, we recommend that you test it at least two weeks in advance of your trip, for three or more days. This will accustom your fish to the feeder, and assure you that it is operating properly.

  2. Battery-operated air pump: If there should be an unexpected power outage, the first priority will be to maintain oxygen levels in your aquarium. Several styles of battery-operated pumps are available. For vacation back-up, select a unit which switches on automatically when there is a power outage. To ensure reliable operation, always insert fresh batteries in this and all your devices before your trip. Be sure to have extra batteries on-hand for your helper as well.

  3. Heater: You know the importance of maintaining uniform water temperature. Unfortunately, heaters sometimes break, often when you least expect it. We recommend adding a back-up heater to prevent damage broken heaters may cause.

  4. Light timer: Because the health of your fish and plants depends upon the quality and duration of the light, we recommend that your aquarium lights be regulated by an automatic timer. When selecting a timer be sure that it is rated to meet the demands of your particular light set-up. The timer means the life in your aquarium will not be stressed, and will enjoy normal days and nights.

  5. Isolation: Create a safe haven for sick or injured fish by installing a convalescent home or an aquarium divider before your trip. Your helper will have a place to move fish if he or she spots a problem.

Stick to your routine

Fish are very susceptible to stress, and too much anxiety often takes its toll on their immune system, making them more prone to disease. To ensure your fish stay healthy when you are away, lower their stress levels by keeping feeding, lighting, and all other activities on schedule.

Make sure any necessary maintenance is done well before you leave. Do not wait until the last minute to test the water, clean filters, or do a water change. Nor is it a good idea to add new fish, plants, structures, or anything else that would increase the bio-load or alter the pH of the water just prior to departure. If anything in your aquarium reacts adversely to these activities, you will not be around to correct them.

Arrange for backup

As an aquarist, you understand the nitrification cycle and practice a number of techniques to maintain water quality and equipment. This is a lot to expect from a helper, unless they share your hobby too.

The primary role of the helper should be to check that your automated equipment is functioning properly, and to inspect the aquarium for signs of sick or dead fish, removing them immediately. This person will also utilize the back-up equipment you should have at-the-ready. Thus, the more the helper knows about aquarium management, the better.

Ask your helper to check on your aquarium daily, even if you have everything on "auto-pilot." If there is any kind of failure, and your friend is an experienced aquarist, he or she can diagnose and correct it. If not, leave your contact number with your helper, as well as the number of a local fish store or professional consultant.

With proper planning, the right equipment, and assistance from a conscientious helper, you will be able to enjoy your time off, and return home to a healthy aquarium and thriving fish.

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