So this morning I woke up to the sound of the filters in my goldfish tank turning off. I muttered a few four-letter words and got out of bed early. The beeping of my fire alarm let me know the power had indeed gone out. No big deal for me; just a minor annoyance in the day. But I’ve dealt with power outages before. For those of you who haven’t, here are a few tips to get you through them with your fish and sanity intact.
First thing: Don’t panic.
It’s usually not as bad as it seems. Trust me. Fish are amazingly resilient, and unless you are keeping and breeding a very rare and sensitive species, you’ll probably come out just fine. Take a breath and reach for a flashlight.
Second: Assess the situation
Why did the power go out? You don’t have the find the exact cause, but often the weather will give you a hint. If it’s snowing or icing, that’s probably your cause right there, and conserving heat will be your main focus. If you hear thunder, the storm probably caused it. While you are doing this, think about your safety first and foremost. Never do anything to endanger yourself. If you’re gone, who will take care of your family and fish?
The two things you need to take care of are conserving heat and saving the beneficial bacteria in the filter. When your house temperature will drop take care of the heat first. Wrap your tanks in blankets or towels and secure them with string, tap, or clothespins. This will help keep the heat in. It may sound and look funny, but think of how a warm blanket on your lap keeps the heat contained.
Taking care of your good bacteria is more difficult and gets harder the longer your power is out. The beneficial bacteria live on your filter media (filter cartridge) and will be fine just sitting in your filter for about three hours. If your filters have a nasty habit of draining when they are turned off (like mine today) just take a few scoops of tank water and fill the filter. This will also prevent your filter from running dry if the power returns and you aren’t there to fill it. It’s a good idea to do this once an hour to keep feeding your good bacteria.
Once your power outage has gone beyond 3 hours, leaving the filter media in your filter is going to cause the bacteria to die and the tank to have a mini cycle when the power comes back on. At this point you are going to want to put the filter media inside the tank. This is a double-edged sword because both the bacteria and your fish need oxygen to survive. Here is where the need for a battery-powered air pump comes into play. There are some sold specifically for aquariums, but you can also find ones made for bait-buckets at an outdoors store. You can either just insert a bubble wand into your tank or set the system up with a sponge filter. This isn’t something to make when you power goes out, but something to have ready before hand. I will go into further details about it in the next section.
If your power outage persists for a few days and you have access to clean water, doing a water change on the tank earlier than normal is a good idea. To be safe, ad a double dose of your de-chlorinator. If you cannot access clean water, don’t just take water from outside as you have no clue what organisms are growing it in. The risk of infecting your fish is too great. Always remember, think of yourself first.
While the power is out, don’t feed your fish. Again, they are hardy, and a healthy fish can easily go a week without eating. Keeping waste down is a priority during times like this. This may mean removal of plants. Without a good light source to photosynthesize, plants actually compete with the fish for oxygen and start to die, releasing ammonia into the water. If you just have a few plants, remove them and place them in a clean (never been used with chemicals) bucket with tank water near the window. With a heavily planted tank, you are best just leaving the plants where they are as removing them would do more harm than good.
Since I also have a pond to worry about, I thought I would add a few more notes for people with ponds. The single most important thing you need to worry about is water movement. It’s what keeps the pond oxygenated in the summer and prevents freezing in the winter. A large battery-powered air pump is going to be best for this. If the power goes out in a storm, the rain action on the surface should be sufficient for a few hours, but after the storm if the power isn’t restored soon, you could be in trouble. For lightly stocked ponds the danger is going to be much less than heavily stocked ponds.
Fourth: Be prepared for this to happen again
If you weren’t ready at all during your first outage, don’t worry. Now is the time to think about gathering supplies for the next one. If you live in an area where long power failures are common, you should consider getting a backup generator for your tanks and house in general. You won’t have access to the internet or any guides on your computer, so it’s best to write this stuff down.
Three most important things are blankets for warmth, battery-powered bubbler for oxygen, and flashlights (headlamps are my favorite). We usually rely on the tank light to observe our fish, but without electricity this is impossible. You will need to keep an eye on them to check for indicators of stress. Always keep extra batteries on hand to operate these electronics. You should always have a good supply of dechlorinator, too.
Another important piece of equipment I keep around is a home-made sponge filter. It serves the purpose of both oxygenating the tank and preserving the good bacteria. I followed this man’s tutorial, and made two filters, one for each of my tanks that uses a power filter. All told it took me about an hour per filter. The supplies were readily available at local chain pet stores and only cost me about $10. A worthy investment in my eyes. In the event of a power outage lasting longer than 3 hours I would set these sponge filters up in my tanks using the media from my filters. The catch about them is, they were difficult to make, and I don’t believe making them during a power outage would be a good idea. So get them made beforehand and put them with your emergency tank supplies. It’s a great idea to keep them all in the same place.
If you are aware of an approaching storm that will probably knock out your power, there are certain things you can do before an outage to help minimize damage. Perform a large water change and stop feeding the fish. Again, these are steps taken to reduce the waste in the aquarium. If you have tropical aquariums, acquiring a few heat packs or thermal blankets isn’t a bad idea, either. Set up everything including the battery-operated pumps, so you won’t be fumbling in the dark when the power does go out. If you have the space, fill old but clean milk jugs and buckets with treated water in case you need to make a water change.
Now I hope you have a better grasp of how to handle a power outage. Just remember: don’t panic and carry a towel. They come in handy for keeping tropical tanks warm and cleaning up those pesky water spills! ;)
"Emergencies and your betta: how to prepare." BettaFish.com. Updated 3 March 2012. Retrieved 26 April 2012.