Surviving a Power Outage

Starting and keeping a marine or reef tank requires considerable investments in money, planning, and time – cleaning, water testing, feeding, and equipment maintenance….the list is ongoing. But have you ever thought about what you would do or need to have at hand to keep that tank going in the event of a power outage? We bet the thought has crossed your mind and like most unpleasant thoughts it was pushed aside to deal with later or just outright ignored.

The stark reality is this: what in your system does not run on or require electricity? Lights do, pumps and powerheads do, filters and skimmers do, media reactors do, chillers and heaters do, monitoring systems… outside of maybe a refractometer or simple thermometer your entire system depends on a steady, ready supply of electricity. It is your tank’s Achilles heel so let’s spend some time thinking about the unthinkable happening and what you can do to increase the chances of you both surviving a power outage.

Preparing For and Getting Through a Power Outage

Will you always know you have a power outage? You may or may not be home when the interruption occurs. Some outages are scheduled (routine maintenance, line upgrades) and you can plan for this but the raccoon climbing into the transformer isn’t. Fortunately MOST tanks can survive an hour or two without power unless you have a large fish population or some very sensitive invertebrates. That said, with nothing running your concerns become: aeration and water movement, maintaining temperature, controlling water quality, and then light.

Because every tank is different it is impossible to have one single plan. What this article offers are options to address each of these concerns, offering them from low tech / low cost to high tech / most cost.

Aeration and Water Movement

Moving water provides aeration which promotes gas exchange which affects pH as well as removing waste products. When circulation pumps and powerheads stop, your tank oxygen levels will begin dropping. The amount of dissolved oxygen in a tank depends on its surface area, temperature, dissolved organics, and the type, number, and activity of its inhabitants. Getting water moving will provide aeration; providing aeration will produce some water movement.

No Tech /
No Cost
• If you have absolutely no back up device to provide air you can stand on a chair and use a pitcher to repeatedly dip up water and pour it back into the tank. This will help oxygenate the water and move it. There is no set time interval to do this per hour but a suggested starting point would be five minutes every hour. If your fish start coming up to the surface gasping for air, shorten the time between sessions. You can place a small glass or ceramic saucer in the tank to pour into to avoid disturbing substrate and stirring up detritus.
Low Tech /
Low Cost
• Battery-powered air pumps are an inexpensive solution. Some are manually controlled and you have to be there to turn them on / off. Some pumps have a battery backup or accessory option that kicks in automatically if the power goes out. Others types plug into an outlet and monitor the flow of power. When they sense electricity flowing, they don’t pump any air; when electricity flow stops, they begin operating from the battery. These are nice in that you may not be home when the power goes out. How many you need depends on tank size. One pump for every two feet of tank length should keep oxygen levels in a healthy range for all fish and invertebrates in the average tank1
• A cordless drill with a paint stirring bit can be used to provide flow.
• A battery operated air pump ending in an open pipe can generate additional turbulence.
Some Tech /
Moderate Cost
• A UPS (Uninterruptable Power Supply) will provide AC power via a battery for a limited amount of time. It can be used to periodically run pumps, filters, heaters, or run low wattage air pumps for longer.
• The portable power supplies, often sold for cars to jump a dead battery, inflate tires, etc. for emergency use, often have AC plugs and will function similar to a UPS.
• An inverter for your car, called by some a ‘poor mans’ generator, plugs into the cigarette lighter and can provide a power source to continuously run or cycle your pumps and powerheads. You will need to keep the car battery charged by running the car every few hours.
• 12V batteries can be use to power a portable power supply.
• Solar trickle chargers can be used to charge up 12V batteries or a portable power supply.
High Tech /
Most Cost
• A generator, depending on size and wattage, can provide power for a few devices or the entire set up. They range from portable to permanent “whole house”.

At minimum it would be best to have on hand some type of battery powered air pumps and back up batteries for them – they will provide both oxygen and some water movement. Make sure to check the expected operating time and aquarium size specifications and consider having one for every compartment of your sump as well as the display tank. Your most efficient use of a limited electrical supply will be to charge the batteries to keep your air pumps running.

Temperature

Saltwater and reef tanks oxygen levels are tied to temperature; the warmer the water gets, the less oxygen it holds. Fish can generally handle temperatures fluctuations while they can severely affect corals and other reef inhabitants. Stabilizing your tanks temperature may mean keeping a tank warm or preventing it from getting too warm depending on where you live and the time of year the outage occurs.

Low Tech /
Low Cost
• Don’t disturb and fish or corals who have moved and found warmth against rock and sand areas.
• Wrap the tank glass with (warm if possible) blankets or similar emergency thermal Mylar blankets if heat retention is the concern.
• Adjust the amount of natural light hitting the tank by either opening or closing blinds and drapes. Be careful about direct sunlight in a reef tank as bleaching corals is a possibility.
• Float an alternate heat source in the tank. Products like fisherman’s hand warmers in a Ziploc bag floated in the tank or rock/ brick warmed,  secured in a Ziploc bag and placed in the tank.
• For cooling, keep a supply of frozen water in bottles that can be floated in the tank. Ice in a Ziploc can do the same.
• Battery operated fans placed inside the tank hood or blowing across the surface with the hood removed to enhance evaporative cooling. The larger your tank, the larger the fan needed.
Some Tech /
Moderate Cost
• A power inverter to run a heater or chiller periodically to maintain suitable temperature.
• Solar trickle chargers can be used to charge up 12V batteries or a portable power supply to run equipment as needed.
High Tech /
Most Cost
• A generator, depending on size and wattage, can provide power for a these devices or the entire set up. They range from portable to permanent “whole house”.

Water Quality

Stop feeding. Less food means less animal waste, less organic load, and more oxygen. Most aquatic animals can survive several days to a week or more without food!

Low Tech /
Low Cost
• The nitrifying bacteria in the tank (on the live rock, tanks walls, etc.) will live and continue to process ammonia, nitrites and nitrates if oxygen is supplied at least periodically.
• A back up sponge filter (that you kept in your sump) can add additional filtration capacity when hooked up to a battery powered air pump.
• Ammonia neutralizers can help keep levels in check but remember these additives will drop oxygen levels.
• Water changes if you have water on hand mixed and at the same pH, temperature, and salinity.
Some Tech /
Moderate Cost
• A UPS, portable power supply, or car inverter can also be used to power filters and their pumps either continuously or on a schedule to provide some filtration.
• Solar trickle chargers can be used to charge up 12V batteries or a portable power supply to run equipment as needed.
High Tech /
Most Cost
• A generator, depending on size and wattage, can provide power for a these devices or the entire set up. They range from portable to permanent “whole house”.

Lighting

For now, leave the lights off. Of all the electrical items your tank depends on, lighting is the biggest energy user of what may be very limited resources. Lighting is your least concern unless you are facing a long term (over a week) power outage. Fish do not need it but eventually your corals with their photosynthetic zooxanthellae will.

No Tech /
No Cost
• Open drapes or blinds to allow sun light in. Even indirect light provides solar energy needed for photosynthesis. Be cautious of direct sunlight as bleaching is possible.
Low Tech /
Low Cost
• Employ a battery operated light source; fluorescent and LED types can be found.
Some Tech /
Moderate Cost
• Use a portable power supply to plug in fluorescent lights for a few minutes to an hour a day.
• Use a solar trickle charger to charge that portable power supply.
High Tech /
Most Cost
• A generator, depending on size and wattage, can provide power for a these devices or the entire set up. They range from portable to permanent “whole house”.

Additional Considerations

  • Practice a power outage scenario and wee what works, what doesn’t, and make adjustments. A dry run or two will reduce the panic and stress level when that real situation occurs.
  • Make sure you have enough and the correct type of extension cords. Consider having a dedicated box that keeps them, additional batteries, back up pumps, flashlights, and parts all together.
  • Write out your plan of what to start / do/ plug, unplug, and keep near your tank(s). You might not be the one home or closest when the power goes out.
  • Make sure back up power equipment is maintained and check their function periodically. If your generator requires routing maintenance, do it; if you rely on 12V batteries make sure they are charged.
  • Make sure equipment you use is safe to use in the house! A 12V acid base car battery inside IS NOT SAFE (a normal car battery contains sulfuric acid and is prone to vapor leakage); a sealed deep cycle, dry cell battery is.
  • If you know a power outage is scheduled or likely to happen, clean all filters thoroughly, vacuum detritus, and perform a large (50 %+) water change. Set aside freshly mixed saltwater in case you need it.
  • Check to make sure your sump will handle the back flow from your tank when the pumps stop. Drill holes for siphon break, making sure no corals are exposed to air. Also check for overflows when the skimmer comes back online.
  • Monitor water parameters for several days after the outage and address concerns as they arise. Consider doing a regular partial water change as good just in case measure once electricity is back.
  • Invest in a surge protector to protect your valuable electrical when the power shuts off all at once and when it comes back on.
References

1 http://reefkeeping.com/issues/2006-05/gh/index.php)

Sources

Emergency Power for Aquariums / Adam Goldstein – http://freshaquarium.about.com/od/doityourself/a/aquariumpower.htm

http://www.captivereefs.com/forum/basics/reef-tank-recovering-after-12-hour-power-outage-29998/#.VW8kQkZJLTo

http://saltwateraquariumblog.com/how-to-prepare-your-aquarium-for-a-hurricane-or-winter-storm (biofilter)

http://reefkeeping.com/issues/2006-05/gh/index.php

http://www.fishchannel.com/fish-blogs/ebb-and-flow/2012/keeping-aquarium-fish-alive-during-a-power-outage-or-other-disaster.aspx

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