What to do When the Power Goes Out

The tanks you have put together mean a lot to you. Obviously, as no-one would spend an average of $20/gallon for something they care nothing about. Aquariums can relieve your stress levels, educate and fascinate children, make a decorative statement, or just provide enjoyment to their caretaker. Think about all the effort that goes into the tank, picking the stand and tank, filters, lights, covers, substrate, decorations, pumps, and finally, the occupants. A lot of thought usually goes into preparing the tank setup and choosing livestock. People would want to make sure that every need is cared for in their investment of time and money, and as long as there is power, every need usually is. But what about when the power goes out?

CandleUsually not much thought goes into the aspect of power loss until it finally happens and livestock is lost. But if it is planned for beforehand, the chances of keeping all the critters alive is much greater. Think about what is needed for a tank to operate. There is the need for heat, cold, light, air, water movement, food and filtration. This is what is normally needed to keep a tank happy and healthy. Now think about what is needed to just keep the tank going. For different tanks, the list of priorities may change, as light can be more important for reef tanks, while fish only tanks may just need a little water circulation. The main focus of this article is what to do if the power goes out, but most of the methods can also be used when equipment breaks down and a ready replacement is not available. In this instance (hopefully) power will be available and can be used with the alternative process. Whatever your needs may be, I hope that the below will spark a few ideas for you in times of trouble.



This would provide short term power for your tanks, usually in the span of hours and not days, unless you buy the big, extendible UPS units that can be daisy-chained and you run only the bare minimum of equipment to keep the tank going.

This would be a good long-term source of power, as long as you have enough fuel to keep it running! Don't forget to check that the unit is functional every so often if you do have one, it would be a shame to learn that it doesn't work in the midst of needing it.

12VDC to 120VAC power converter
This could be a good alternate for those without UPS or a generator. They can usually be found in a camping/outdoors catalog or store. You can idle your car and string the power into the house, but don't forget to check the level of gas and re-fill the fuel tank every so often (assuming, of course, that the local gas stations pumps still operate)!


Loss of use of a heater could take many forms, of course a power outage being one, or the heater breaks the evening before a holiday, etc.. Depending on your climate, time of year, and type of tank will dictate how you may need to handle the loss of a water heater.

Insulate tank
You could try and slow down the heat transfer of the tank by insulating the sides of it as much as possible. Try some blankets or even the blanket for a hot water heater (if your water heater is electric and the power is out, you won't be needing it anyway!)

Space Heater
You could always heat the room with a space heater of some sort, until you can get normal heating methods back in place.

Coleman Gas Lantern
If you've ever owned one of these, you know that they can throw out some heat. It could be possible to keep a smaller tank well heated with one of these.

Gas Stove to heat water
If you have a gas stove, you could always heat water and fill containers with the heated water and place them in your tank/sump area. It would be important to mind the temperature of the water and not to use boiling temperature water since it may crack or pop open certain containers when placed in the tank AND you wouldn't want your fish to swim into a 100 degree celsius tidal wave.

If you're in a really hot time of the year when the power goes out, or you have a chiller that breaks at an inopportune time, some of these methods may help you.


Insulate the tank

Once again, keeping the tank insulated will slow the heat transfer of the tank. Keep the tank dark and the tank will stay cooler longer.


Simple mechanical methods (shade tank, open top of tank, blow air across tank)

Keep the tank shaded from light as much as possible. Open the top of the tank so that the heat can rise easier from the water. Also, if possible, blow cool air across the tank to remove heat by convection.

Using Ice

If there is ice in the freezer, or there is ice outside, you could place the ice in ziplock bags or some other container and float them in your sump or tank to cool the water. Another alternative is to coil some tubing in a bucket and fill the bucket with ice cubes, salt, and water. Then, pump the tank water (preferable) or air (better than nothing) through the tubing and keep an eye on the temperature.


Flashlights, Portable Car Spotlight, Coleman Lantern

The light given off form a Coleman Lantern isn't exactly what you would want to run over a reef, but may do for a short time. Other items that can be used are flashlights or you can wire one of those spotlights that plug into your cigarette lighter to reach from your car to the tank.

This can be as simple as opening the shades in the room the tank is in, or as complex as setting up a bunch of mirrors or an internally reflective tube (for example, http://www.suntunnel.com) to direct light on the tank. Anything that will direct the natural sunlight on to the tank will be better than nothing.


Bait Aerator (battery operated)
These are wonderful little devices, but usually the sound is more annoying than Ted Kennedy at a microbrewers convention. If you hang the thing off of your tank, it may add to the stress of the fish. Try insulating the sound of the device as best you can from the tank. If you have an Underground Filter, this may be the only way to go as you can keep air & water circulation going as well as keeping the filtration running nicely.

Air Tanks
If you have a local scuba shop and a dive card (or know someone who does) you can get a hold of some air tanks and jerry-rig an air-release method of some sort (an airstone placed on the end of a cut hose or a broken regulator with the tank set to a low air release level). The time that the air will last will depend on the size of the tank, how filled it is, and what rate of dispersion you have it set to. To give you a sense of equivalence, an 80 Cu Ft tank (fairly standard) can be set to run like a 120 liter/hour air pump for 18.9 hours (for reference, 1 Cu Ft = 28.32 liters = 28317 cc).


Battery operated whisk
You could use, on an intermittent basis, one of those small battery operated whisks in an area of the tank that the critters can't get to (it would be a shame to have "Damsel Souffle" by accident). This could keep the water moving for short periods of time.

Elbow Grease
Theres alway good 'ole elbow grease, grab a spatula from the kitchen and start churning every so often. Stirring it for a minute every half hour or so during the day will probably keep the water mixing well until the power comes back on.


With the aquarium system as a whole either entirely down or on life support for whatever reason, it may be best to consider lightening up on the feeding or stop feeding entirely to lessen the possibility of a nitrogen cycle imbalance due to less biological filtration occuring. There are natural cycles of less food in nature so an adjustment in feeding such as this shouldn't have much ramification.


Deciding what alternative sources you would want to supply during a power outage will really need to be a individual choice. As I said before, each tank may have different requirements and needs determined by the type of tank you keep.

To help aid the average aquarist with the average tank, think about the following:

In nature:

There are the cloudy days (no light)
There are colder and warmer days (fluctuations in heat/cold)
There are periods of scarce eats (less food)
There is always filtration occurring
There is (in most environments) water movement
There is some degree of aeration

Based on the above, the average tank will need aeration, filtration and water movement as priorities. All three can be accomplished nicely by using a powerhead with good air flow enabled, pushing the water into to the intake of your filter. This will accomplish aeration, water circulation and filtration in the most energy-efficient way possible (running on just one electric unit, assuming you have alternate forms of power)

The next best alternative would be keeping alternate forms of aeration going, as this will provide aeration and water circulation (to a lesser degree). The critters in the tank will be thankful for this system and it may keep the bacterial filtration in the tank going for a good number of days.

Some of you may be wondering exactly what plans I have in place for when the power goes out. After all, am I all talk and no walk? Briefly, I have an APC 450 UPS for short-term power outage. The only components driven by the UPS when the power fails are my filter (a biowheel 330) and a protien skimmer, powered by a maxi-jet 1000. This will provide aeration, water circulation, and filtration for about 5 hours. This is based on a real life test that it went through just recently. If the power outage lasts longer than the UPS does, the battery operated bait aerator would come out and be attached to a 6" long air stone. That should keep my tank surviving for a couple of days at least. If indications are leaning twoards a longer outage, lets say 4-5 days or more, I'd probably evacuate the inhabitants and drive them out of the area after hiring a not-so-local fish store to babysit my livestock for a fee, or maybe lean on a fellow aquarist who has room in his running tank. Say buddy, can you spare a 20 long 'till Tuesday :)?