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Breaking Down Existing Aquariums for Relocation
by Tony O'Neal (a7oneal)

If you have to move to a new house, moving your aquarium(s) requires special attention. This article is provided with the hope that it will reduce the stress associated with this portion of the move. The methods described below have been repeatedly used safely for shorter moves, though neither I nor Cichlid-forum can guarantee safe passage of pets or equipment 100%. While this article pertains to moving your aquarium to a new home, the process outlined here could certainly be applied to smaller scale moves, such as room-to-room moves or within a single room.

Prior to the Day of the Move:

As with anything, planning is the absolute best way to avoid any problems. Typically, I would recommend moving the aquarium as the last or only item to move that day. The reasoning behind this is that if it is packed last, it will be unpacked first, which means that your fish will be spending less time, which, in some cases, may be hours of difference if the tank were stowed early on in the moving process. While they may still be fine, it is best to reduce the amount of time as much as possible.

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Once you determine when the tank is to be moved, it is time to put the plan into motion. A few days prior to the move, the fish should be fasted. No food (or less food) means that there is less waste being excreted from the fish into the water in their temporary housing. This is not a hard or fast rule, but some folks recommend it. At least one day before a move, treat some tap water in the temporary containers and heat it to temperatures close to your tank water. This is the water intended to house your fish during the move. New water is used instead of tank water because once you separate the bacterial colonies from the water, the nitrogen cycle is broken. Any ammonia currently in the water will stay ammonia, while fish waste added will only add to the ammonia level. Since new tap water should not have any ammonia, the concentration of ammonia in the moving facilities will only be from fish waste.

Concentration of Ammonia in Tank Water vs. New Tap Water:

  • [NH3]move = [NH3]tank + [NH3]new fish waste [NH3]move = [NH3]new fish waste

The effects of build-up of ammonia in the system are the direct result of how many fish are in the holding tank, how long they have been there, and how much waste they release. This comes back to reducing the amount of time they are kept in these containers, as well as the reason for fasting the fish. Stocking levels will be discussed later. This is also essentially a way to reduce your nitrate levels in the new tank down to 0 ppm.

The Day of the Move:

Now that you have everything prepped, you are prepared to make the move. As stated earlier, the tank should be the last thing loaded, so be sure to leave enough space for everything.

The first thing I do is remove all of the outside equipment, such as the lights and the filters. The filter media needs to be kept damp, and I usually keep this in some tank water, my thoughts being similar to above. If the bacteria need a food source, and there is free ammonia in the water, then they still have something to feed on. It is reasonable to believe that your bacterial colonies will need time to be jumpstarted once the tank is set back up, which is why the tank water and detritus is removed as completely as possible from the system prior to setting it back up. I do not want to overwhelm the bio-load. The structures within the tank (i.e. rocks, plants, etc.) are also removed, and those that must be kept moist (I do not typically include rocks or driftwood) will be placed in appropriate containers.

With all of that clutter out of the way, I drain the tank down about half way, discarding all of the tank water. It is not essential to keep any of this, as it does not contain any beneficial bacteria, but, as stated above, it does contain waste material and other organics. Putting your fish in this water, with no bacteria to convert it through the Nitrogen Cycle, could be putting them at risk. I DO NOT siphon through the substrate at this time, as any detritus or other organic material will get stirred up, and I want to keep the water as clear as possible to catch fish. I also try to keep the sizes of containers manageable, as the weight can quickly become difficult to handle. I have used 5 gallon Rubbermaid containers, though bagging your fish like they do for the ride home from the store will work, as well.

With the water drained down, I net the fish and place them in their holding containers. Since I use containers that contain a larger volume of water, my stocking levels are a bit higher than if I were using bags. Individual bagging is best, if possible, but for reasons stated earlier, keeping the stocking levels as low as feasible. For those of you with multiple tanks, bagging and boxing fish in Styrofoam boxes as if they were being shipped works great. With my containers, I keep the lid on them to keep them from jumping (and splashing out when in transport), and hopefully, the dark will also keep them calmer. Some experienced aquarists advocate netting fish, putting them first in one holding container for a few hours to excrete anything left in their systems, and then transferring them to the moving containers with the treated water next. It really is up to you. I prefer to keep handling to a minimum.

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With the fish out, I will agitate the substrate to get as much organic material into the remaining water column, which I then siphon out. Those with sand that holds this material on the surface can remove it before catching the fish, but since I have almost exclusively used gravel or crushed coral in instances when I have used this technique, I wait until after. The purpose of separating the detritus from the substrate again serves to reduce the amount of waste in the tank after setting it back up.

I drain the water down as far as possible, and discard it. This leaves just the substrate and what little water is left that I can not get to. At this time, I take a newly purchased dust pan (no chemical residues or other "stuff" on it), or one dedicated to fish room use, and I start scooping the substrate out, with most of the water draining out of the dustpan. I put the substrate into a separate transport container (my usually fits in a standard sized bucket, but anything large enough will work), keeping in mind that this can also be heavy, as some of us have perhaps 100 lbs. or more in our very large tanks! I am careful to try and not scratch the bottom of the tank when I am doing this, hence I move a bit slowly.

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Once all of the substrate is out, there is mostly just residual water left. I take a plastic cup, and remove as much as possible. When there is only very small amounts left (not even up to the lip of the cup), I either remove some more with paper towels or, if levels are small enough, I just dump it. No water should in the tank while moving it, as this can cause an unbalance and cause the tank to crack, it could cause the weight to shift and then force you to drop it, or it may just be too heavy to move.

I load everything up in the moving vehicle, taking care to load it so nothing falls on the aquarium and that it does shift enough to cause it to slide into something and break. I typically pad it with blankets and to provide extra cushioning.

At the New Home:

I then move it to the new destination, where it is among the first things I try to set-up. I set the aquariums back up in the same manner as if they were new. The substrate is replaced, as well as the décor. A plate is put on the bottom to prevent splashing and then new treated tap water is added (again, starting over with 0 ppm of nitrates), with care taken to get the temperatures close. I finish by putting the lights and filters back up. The fish are then added. I would monitor the water parameters to ensure that any damage to the Nitrogen Cycle during the transfer is under control. It is possible for some die-back of the bacterial colony to occur when the ammonia levels build back up to their highest levels, but it should be minimal, as there should be enough bacteria to handle these lower concentrations at all times.

So, next time you are dreading a move, try to take some of the suggestions provided here to make things run a bit more smoothly. There are many ways to safely move your aquariums, so if you come up with any new methods, feel free to contact a staff member here at Cichlid-forum so we can consider adding it to this article.
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