How to prepare for vacation in this hobby ...
by Bobby Moser aka Reef Keeper of TalkingReef.com
This article is going to, hopefully, help everyone in this hobby to actually be able to take a relaxing vacation. Everyone knows that if you are in the marine aquarium hobby, well ... there is no such thing as a relaxing vacation. Why ?? We all have way to much time and dedication in our tanks (not to mention the money we have spent on them) !! When we have to have someone else take care of something that we are so passionate about, well ... we get a little stressed about it. Can you really blame us ?? I am actually writing this while I am ON vacation, so anything that comes up while I am here will be added, because we all know that there are all kinds of unexpected circumstances that arise while we try to relax.
I will have my sister going by my house, so I have a little less to worry about. She use to keep a 29 gallon reef and when we shared a house, she saw pretty much everything that I did to my systems, (Not to mention the fact that she is a science teacher at a local middle school). Now that they (my systems) are combined things are a little different, but I think she is up to the challenge. The things that I do everyday are minimal because my system is pretty much all automated. The only things that I have to do manually are feed the fish, and clean the glass. Cleaning the glass will be done by the cleanup crew I am buying when I get home. One less thing to do is gonna be great !!
SO ANYWAY ... the things my sister is going to do for me are ...
1) Feed the fish (I do this every other day to keep nutrients down). I have pre measured the food and stored it in the freezer in a separate Zip Lock baggie. It is better to be safe than come home to an overfed tank with a massive algae outbreak.
2) Check specific gravity with my refractometer (if you don’t have one of these, I highly recommend you spend the $50 or so and pick one up). I have shown her how to use it and where the line should stay. Even though I have an auto top off (ATO) system to keep my parameters where they should be, I check this every day. The ATO keeps it pretty much on the money, but the one day that I don’t check it ... something will happen and it will be all messed up.
3) Check the tank AND sump temperature. I run 3x250w metal halides on my display and they can get pretty hot, so it is always good to have a thermometer in the display (mine is in the overflow toward the bottom), and one in the sump. With two thermometers you will have slightly different readings, so I usually go with the middle of the two readings. If the temp gets above 81 degrees, my sister is to float some baggies of ice in the sump, call me (so I can talk to my buddies when they get there), and call one or both of my “on call” reefer buddies to come assess the situation, and help to make it OK again.
4)Check the skimmer ... I have my skimmer set to a pretty “dry” thick skimate, but it has gone a little crazy from time to time. The usual causes of this are cleaning supplies, cigarette smoke, and air fresheners (this is my opinion), or the skimmer is simply not set up right. Show you fish sitter how to clean out the skimmer (just in case).
5) I have left a couple of phone numbers for my sister to call if something comes up that she can not handle. IMO, the BEST phone numbers to leave are the ones of some friends of a local reef keeping/marine club. The two I have left are with my local club (Louisville Marne Aquarium Society or www.LMAS.org. Both have been to my house several times and know how I run my system. This way when I am gone and something goes wrong, in a sense I am still there, because these guys know my system inside and out.
6) Topping off the tank is a very important job of the fish sitter. Even though I have the ATO , a lot of people don’t. So when topping off the tank or sump it is important not to overfill the system, this will cause a low salinity reading and to much of a sudden drop in salinity, to fast, is very stressful on the fish and corals.
It is just as important not to under-fill the system. This will cause a higher than normal salinity reading, and again is very stressful to the inhabitants of the system. With something this important I have to, again, highly recommend getting one. For the $50 or so that it will cost, it will make life in this hobby a lot easier for you. No more lugging buckets of water around the house to top off or mix new saltwater, and no more topping off. Not to mention that it will also help to keep your water parameters where they should be (along with regular water changes).
7) To do number 6 you are either going to have to have enough fresh RO/DI water made, or when the RO/DI water runs low, your sitter is going to have to know how to make more water. In my setup, all I have to do is turn a valve on the washing machine cold water in line and let it run until the garbage can is full again. If you do not have it so easy, then you are going to have to show your sitter the step by step process you go through to make your water.
While you are at it you might as well go ahead and show the sitter how to mix saltwater to your desired specific gravity. All of this pretty much goes hand in hand, so I am going to leave the water making at that.
8) Timers and controllers are also important in our systems. We are trying to recreate nature, so the more automated or controlled that you are the better. Timers are used mostly for lighting of a reef system, but there is more to it than just turning on the lights. I use my timers to turn the lights on and off in a certain order. This creates a sunrise and sunset effect in the tank and helps to make the corals feel like they are in a more natural environment.
Some people also use controllers, such as wave makers, for a more natural flow in a tank. These are equally important to our systems, again for the natural effect they produce in a captive environment. Random flow in a tank, no matter the size, is a great thing to have. Not only does it make it more natural, but it also helps to keep the corals healthy by keeping the flow random. Random flow helps to keep detritus in the water column and does not let it settle to the sand bed, leading to a cleaner tank and healthier inhabitants.
In short, the sitter will need to have been shown how to operate all timers and controllers, and how to switch out pumps if something happens to one of them, which leads to number 9.
9) All of the electric power cords on my system are labeled. I recommend doing this for one reason. If something needs to be unplugged it will be a lot easier for the sitter, not to mention you, to identify the plug and remove it from the surge protector. All of my power heads are plugged into the same surge protector, this makes it easier to know which plug goes to which power head and eliminates the start and stop problems with power heads created when they are turned off and on a lot.
10) Do you dose your tank with any additives ?? What about calcium and alkalinity ?? Your sitter is gonna have to know how to do this too. They are going to have to know what to dose and how much of it to dose. If you do dose, I would recommend making a list of the additives and how much, of each, to add to the system. I would also leave these additives out and next to the list. This would make it a little easier for the sitter and not be so confusing to them. I would also recommend placing all other additives in a place where the sitter is very unlikely to accidently add them to the tank. KEEP COPPER HIDDEN because accidents happen !!
11) If your power goes out all is not lost, necessarily. There are a lot of way to save your inhabitants. I recommend having a few battery powered air pumps available at all times. I try to keep at least 4 in my fish room, two for my 125 gallon display tank and two for my 100 gallon frag tank. Both of my tanks are plumbed together, so all of the air pumps are helping the same system, but in different areas. I only have a few fish, but am pretty heavily stocked with corals and frags.
Another option is having a sort of DIY generator. You can go to Home Depot or Lowes and pick up a power inverter for $50 - $100 with enough amps to run your pumps for quiet a long time. To do this you will need a marine battery or two, a power inverter, and a surge protector. It is a pretty primitive way run a tank, but hey, it works. I have ran my return pump (Gen-X pcx40), two Hydor Koralia #4's, a Sieo 1500, and a modified Maxi-Jet for around 12 hours on one battery, I recommend two batteries for extended outages.
You can also go “All Out” and supply your system with a natural gas backup generator that has to be connected to your homes gas line. When the power goes out, the generator kicks on after 5 minutes or so and will run EVERYTHING in your system (and house) for an unlimited amount of time. Where I am from, the power never goes out for more than a couple of hours, so I use the power inverter option.
12)Lastly for this article ... introduce you sitter to www.talkingreef.com or your local fish clubs web site forums, so they can post questions or concerns if something looks out of the ordinary. Web forums are an invaluable tool in our hobby. Everyone wants to help and be helped and the Internet is, in my opinion, the best place to get help in a hurry. When something just does not look right other hobbyists are far more likely to give the right advise if the correct description of the problem is givin to them. Sure a LFS can help, but I trust the answers givin by my fellow reefers than a school kid who has no experience in the hobby that I have spent so much of my blood, sweat, tears, time, and money building. It is nothing personal against the kid in the LFS, just my preference.
I really hope this helps a lot of people to prepare for a vacation. This article will probably be updated in the coming months, to include the more advanced reefers needs, but this “basic” to do list will get anyone through a vacation, without the stress of thinking that your system is going to crash if you are not there every day to take care of it. There is a thread on www.talkingreef.com titled “need help here (nothing serious)” here is a link ... http://www.talkingreef.com/forums/general-marine-discussions/4583-need-some-help-here-nothing-serious.html … where you can post anything else that you can thing of that might be helpful in an updated version of this guide. Until next time ... Happy Reefing !!