Saltwater Aquarium Blog

How to prepare your aquarium for a hurricane or winter storm

How to prepare your aquarium for a hurricane or severe winter storm or summer storm

It seems like severe storms are becoming the norm, rather than the exception around here. We’ve been hit with a severe storm of some sort, losing power for days at a time. As the intensity of the storms has increased (from my perspective) and the power outages have increased from a few hours to several days, in each of the last two storms, I’ve had to scale up my plans for dealing with these storms.

Recent damage from a severe storm resulting in loss of power

Lost power in May 2019

If you are like me, your saltwater aquarium is almost a member of the family–and if you are in the midst of a hurricane or winter storm, you will want to take a few steps to prepare yourself and your aquarium for an extended period without power. The purpose of this article is to provide some advice on how to prepare your aquarium for a hurricane or winter storm–essentially any situation where you may be afraid of losing power to your aquarium.

What you will find in this article

What can you do to prepare your aquarium for a hurricane or winter storm?

There is pretty much nothing you can do that will matter, if you take a direct hit. I hope and pray you and your family will remain safe. Here are a few things for you to consider and prepare for if you will be taking an indirect hit from a serious storm or hurricane.

Step 1–Establish the priorities

To be clear, your top priority (hopefully you don’t need me to tell you this), is to make sure you and your family are safe and healthy. Once you have that settled, and you have room in your mind to start triaging the fish tank, let’s talk about the top priorities when managing power loss for your saltwater aquarium.

1) Loss of power during a storm

Probably the biggest threat that a storm poses to the health of your saltwater aquarium is a loss of power. If the power goes out, all the life-sustaining equipment that you have running will stop operating. So let’s dig a little deeper into what that means for your corals, fish and other invertebrates–and what you can do about it.

coral dying from complications due to severe storm and power loss

Coral dying in 2018 due to lost power

2) Oxygenation (Water Circulation)

Loss of circulation, due to loss of electricity to your return pump (if you have a sump) and your powerheads is your number one issue to fight. The circulation pumps in your saltwater aquarium help facilitate gas exchange, essentially keeping your water well-oxygenated. Without adequate water movement, the water in your tank can become quickly depleted of life-sustaining oxygen—which will rapidly become your number one issue if you lose power.

3) Temperature change (heat loss or gain) 

The second biggest issue your saltwater aquarium will face, if you lose power due to a winter storm or hurricane is heat loss. Without power, your electric heater will no longer be able to keep your saltwater aquarium at a stable temperature—and while a big body of saltwater, like your aquarium, will hold its temperature well when compared with the air in your  house, the fact of the matter is that your saltwater aquarium will lose heat and get cold. If the water temperature drops too low, you WILL suffer losses. Of course, the risk of losses from a temperature drop is greater depending on how significant the temperature is in the room.

4) Filtration

The third biggest issue your saltwater aquarium will face, if you lose power because of a winter storm or hurricane is the loss of filtration. Your biological filter ordinarily turns poisonous ammonia and nitrite into less toxic nitrate. When the power goes out, you are no longer able to circulate water through your biological filter (or over your live rock, live sand, etc.) and the water quality will deteriorate.

5) Lighting

Probably the piece of equipment that consumes the most electricity in your saltwater aquarium is your light system, which likely consumes hundreds of watts of electricity every hour (when the power is on).  Having the lights go out above your aquarium during a power outage is actually a tiny blessing in disguise. Sure, your corals, clams, and anemones won’t be able to convert any light to energy, via photosynthesis, but with the lights out, many aquatic species slow down their activities conserve energy—a survival tactic that may just help them through any power outage you may face. Loss of lighting, while it may add some stress to the inhabitants of your tank, should not be a major concern of yours during a power outage.

Step 2-Think ‘minimally’

The next thing you need to do is think ‘minimally’. You don’t have a lot of time–and you don’t have the luxury of power–so you have to quickly identify what the most important things are that you can do to provide some water circulation (and oxygenation), maintain the water temperature, and (especially if you expect to be without power for a while) keep ammonia levels down. Hopefully, you noted that I didn’t mention feeding your fish or coral at all. At a time like this, your fish and corals can survive for a few days without eating. Adding food to the water is just going to foul it faster–so slow everything down and focus on first things first.

Step 3-Manage water circulation and oxygenation

Perhaps the easiest thing you could do to prepare your aquarium for a hurricane or winter storm is buy a battery back up air pump

Your primary goal with the battery backup air pump is to oxygenate your aquarium and create some water flow. It is possible to use an airline splitter if you want water movement in 2 areas of the aquarium—but I don’t recommend splitting beyond that—depending on the depth of your tank, the pump may not be able to overcome the head-pressure on the airline if you split it too many times.

Some of the battery-powered backup pumps will go on automatically when a power loss is detected, whereas other models need to be turned on manually. There are pros and cons for each style. The biggest benefit of the model that turns on automatically if power is lost—is that you don’t have to be there to turn it on. I consider this to be an awesome benefit if you are away from your home when the power goes out—you will know that the pump will go on without worry. However, in the event of a big storm—like the one about to hit the Eastern US this week, you will likely be home—and I, therefore, would want to be in control of turning on the pump when I want it on—in case I need to conserve batteries.

Of course, these pumps run o D-batteries, so be sure to have plenty of those on-hand—and always use a check valve on your airline to make sure you don’t start an accidental siphon when you shut the pump off.

If you want to add some additional filtration capacity, you can easily and inexpensively connect a sponge filter up to your battery backup air pump.

The sponge filter will increase the resistance on the airline—so if you are using a sponge filter—I recommend NOT splitting the airline at all—if you need water movement in more than one area of the tank—then I recommend getting 2 pumps, rather than just splitting the air from one.  If you have the luxury of planning for this in advance, I recommend you keep the sponge in your sump—in good times and in bad, so that it is already ‘seeded’ with beneficial bacteria when you need it.

If your saltwater aquarium has a sufficient amount of live rock, live sand, or another biologically active substrate, you may not need the sponge filter—especially if the power outage is short in duration. But if you are planning for a longer duration power failure, or if your tank does not have a lot of ‘natural’ biological filtration, then a sponge filter is a good consideration.

Step 4: Reduce heat loss

A great way to slow down and reduce the heat lost from your aquarium during a hurricane or winter storm is to insulate it. I bought a 10-pack of mylar emergency blankets from Amazon. If the power goes out, I plan to use duct tape to wrap around my aquarium. The Emergency Mylar Thermal Blankets work by reflecting thermal energy (heat) back and keeping it in.

Step 5: Establish alternate sources of power

Another tool you can use to supply power to your aquarium and run your electrical equipment (like an air pump and heater) normally is a  is a Power Inverter

A power inverter works by converting battery power into the type of electricity that comes from your wall socket. Of course, the other thing you need for this work is a car battery.

If you don’t want to hook up a car battery inside your house, another option is to use the cigarette lighter style Power inverter for your car

Then you can run an extension cord out to the car and plug it in there without having to worry about hooking things up to a battery if that kind of thing intimidates you. Here is a picture of what that looks like–note the cigarette lighter plug on the end of the electrical wire.

While this style of power inverter is most convenient (you don’t have much DIY work at all), it is risky–because you run the risk of depleting your car battery–which you will surely need if you have to evacuate–or just decide to drive away. So be sure not to drain your battery too much–and consider turning on your car before using it–to ensure you can start the car and allow the alternator in your car to recharge the battery. This is not the most efficient means of converting energy to electricity, but it will get you through in a pinch.

I recommend you use the power inverters to run your heater periodically to keep the water at a suitable temperature.

Backup generator

Of course, you could get a Backup electrical generator  –this is a piece of equipment that will not unlike the system I concocted in the section above. The generators typically work on diesel or gasoline fuel. Energy from the combustion engine is converted into electricity. Backup generators can create a lot more electricity and can be used to provide power for your refrigerator and other essential electrical items in your home.

My favorite type of generator is the dual source variety, that will run on propane or gasoline. I bought one like this, here:

It runs on either propane or gasoline. Since gasoline ‘goes bad’ over time, it’s tough to make sure you always have some backup gas to run the generator with. Propane, on the other hand, doesn’t go bad. It will store very nicely in the containers.

When my power failed this storm, I simply hooked up our backup propane and instantly had power back.

How to prepare your aquarium for a hurricane or severe storm: Summary

Thanks for reading this article on how to prepare your aquarium for a hurricane or winter storm. I think you have seen that involves a little bit of planning/preparation, finding alternate sources of power, and some down-sizing to use only the most critical life-sustaining equipment in your aquarium. I hope the information contained in this article helps you prepare your aquarium for a hurricane or winter storm.

Do you have any tips you can share? Please leave a comment so that others can benefit from your experience.

Written by Albert B. Ulrich III.

prepare aquarium for a hurricane

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