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Marine Aquarium Disasters and How to Prevent Them (Part 3) - Scott L. Moore

Posted by Chad , in Maintenance 19 January 2012 · 0 views

The Great Tank BurstPoorly constructed homemade tanks or tanks not placed on a level surface, when filled with water, will put undue stress on the joints and seals causing a burst. Also, the seals in some very old tanks can weaken. More than one aquarist has had to deal with a hundred gallons of salt water in their living room. Consider that one gallon of water weighs 8.5 pounds (2.2 liters weigh 1 kilogram).Prevention: Buy from quality tank manufacturers! There are too many cheaply made tanks on the market. Test used tanks by filling them with tap water, drying the outside and let them sit for several days. If possible weigh all live rock, sand and equipment before putting it in the tank. Know the total weight and ensure your stand will support it. Do the math! Make sure your tank is level and sitting on a completely flat surface! Do not trust standard manufacturer stands in an earthquake zone. Thick steel stands or stacked cinder blocks will be quite sturdy. Attach a nice piece of panel or wood to the front and sides if the cinder block looks too unsightly.AvalanchesRock is often stacked in dangerous ways in a tank. What many aquarists don't realize is that sand slowly dissolves causing even the most carefully stacked rock to come tumbling down and crack or bust the glass. Long before sand dissolves, livestock can burrow in the sand under the rock and cause an avalanche. Some livestock, such as octopuses, are very strong and can easily shift rock around causing an avalanche. True Tale of horror: One aquarist heard a loud crash followed by a wave of water as he lay in bed at 3am in the morning. A large rock had tumbled down and smashed through the front glass of the tank. The tank emptied in only a few seconds. The salt water hit electrical cords and surge protectors and destroyed his TV and other electrical appliances. His living room had substantial damage mostly to carpets and furniture. All this caused by 80 gallons of salt water.Prevention: Place rock gently on the bottom of the tank –then add sand. One fellow put the rock down too hard on the bottom glass of his tank and busted it –while it was full of water. Consider using aquarium safe concrete to cement most of the lower rock together. You may wish to leave some of the rock un-cemented until it has been aquascaped to your liking. Some aquarists drill holes through the rock and secure it together using strong rods or PVC pipe.Fast Stocking and Over StockingPlacing too much livestock in a tank all at once will cause a 'mini-cycle' that kills fish and invertebrates. When new fish are added, the beneficial bacteria must be given time to increase and deal with the added fish waste. Adding one fish will generally not cause a cycle but adding a dozen fish to a fifty gallon tank will cause a fish killing cycle. Also, adding more fish than your tank can handle will cause ammonia to spike and kill fish.Prevention: Determine how many inches of fish your tank can handle and add fish and other livestock gradually. Allow beneficial ammonia-eating bacteria time to adjust to the added fish waste.Bad Test, No TestMany problems that might snowball into major disasters can be prevented–if caught early. The most important tests are temperature, salinity, and Ph. If keeping invertebrates or expensive fish that require excellent water quality one must also test for alkalinity, nitrates, phosphates, calcium and magnesium. Keep in mind that for various reasons nitrates can spiral out of control in a day or two and start killing livestock. Old test kits can go bad and give bad results. Failure to test can also allow Ph to change drastically causing corals to begin dissolving because the water is too acidicPrevention: Test often. Check temperature every day. Use ammonia indicators to get a warning. If anything seems wrong in the tank, test water quality. The more stable water quality tends to be the less testing is needed. If water quality tends to be bad then test more often. If using instruments, ensure that they are calibrated. Paper strip tests are quick and easy.Bad SaltSeal salt containers tight. If moisture gets in the salt it can cause precipitation resulting in lower alkalinity and calcium. If salt has hardened into a large chunk, it is almost certainly in this condition. Although salt in this condition will still be usable, one must consider if anything else besides moisture was absorbed into the salt such as auto exhaust fumes from the garage. One person used 10 month old salt that had not been kept in a tight container. Two days later most of his livestock was dead.Posted ImageUse salt specifically formulated for marine aquariumsPrevention: Seal salt containers tight! Do not buy a year's supply of salt unless you are absolutely sure you can keep it moisture free. After mixing water let it circulate overnight. The water should be clear the next day. Shake salt containers if possible before each use.Rotting Fish & Toxic SlugsA large dead fish quickly becomes a nitrate factory. A large trigger fish or tang can be enough to push ammonia above a fish-killing threshold. Die-offs that occur for other reasons can also cause ammonia spikes. Some livestock such as Nudibranchs and Mandarin Dragonettes, when stressed, can release toxins into the water that kill fish and invertebrates.Prevention: Remove all dead fish quickly. Systems with excellent nitrate reduction may be able to handle the nitrates produced by a dead fish. If the fish cannot be removed, do water changes until nitrates and ammonia are low again. Determine whether livestock can release toxins before you decide to buy them.Oxygen DeprivationGood water quality requires good levels of oxygen. Some aquarists have used tight fitting lids on their tanks and cut off oxygen exchange with the water leading to a die-off.Prevention: Most oxygen exchange takes place on the water surface. Ensure good air flow over the water surface. Skimmers will help with oxygen exchange. Ensure that there is some vertical water movement in the tank. Do not use tight fitting lids on tanks.Attempting to Drill Tempered GlassIn order to connect sumps or refugiums with the main display tank, drilling glass may be required. If the glass is tempered, it cannot be drilled –attempting to do so will cause the glass to shatter. More than one aquarist has ruined a large tank by trying to drill tempered glass.Prevention: Contact the tank manufacturer or look at the manual to determine if the glass is tempered. With some tanks, only the bottom and back panes may be tempered.Vacation DisastersNot being home when a disaster happens will compound the problem. Many of the aforementioned problems have happened when tank owners were gone.Prevention: Choose your home and tank sitter wisely. Try to find someone who has experience with aquariums. School teachers and technical professionals are usually pretty good. Use ATOs and make sure the fresh water reservoir is full. Know how much food auto-feeders will drop into your tank. Do major maintenance several days before leaving town. Test your system: give your tank at least several days to run unattended while you are still home.Macro-Algae Die-offIf Chaetomorphia, Caulerpa or other macro-algae do not get sufficient light they will rot, turn white and die-off causing a potential ammonia or nitrates spike. Ensure that macro-algae gets strong florescent light with a spectrum of 2700K or higher. Also make sure the light is no more than a few inches from the macro-algae. Caulerpa can shoot out a mass of spores causing a die-off and subsequent ammonia or nitrate spike. This is why Chaetomorphia is in general a better choice.Kalkwasser OverdoseMature tanks with lots of corals or coralline algae will use more and more calcium and alkalinity eventually requiring the aquarists to dose for these two needed chemicals. Many tank owners will use something called kalkwasser which is usually made from calcium hydroxide. Kalkwasser can be used to raise both calcium and alkalinity. Because kalkwasser has high Ph the consequences of an overdose can be severe. Many aquarists have raised Ph dangerously high as the result of a kalkwasser overdose.Prevention: Use a digital timer to control dosing pumps. Dose for a short period and slowly lengthen the dosing period each day until just the right dose is added. Check and re-check the settings on digital timers. Take into account that water changes will raise calcium and alkalinity and therefore dosing right after a water change may raise calcium and alkalinity even higher. Dosing with kalkwasser does not eliminate the need for testing. Test and adjust dosing as needed.Prevent DisastersPrevent many disasters by developing a comprehensive maintenance list and schedule for your tank. Here are suggestions for a maintenance list:* Refill ATO reservoir* Replace filter floss* Empty skimmer cup* Scrape glass* Clean glass cover on lighting fixtures* Replace pump impellers* Trim Chaetomorphia, cut out dead parts* Clean Skimmer* Check, change bulbs before they burn-out* Add trace elements if necessary* Dose for Ph, calcium and Alkalinity if necessary* Clean outside of glass* Clean filtration systems* Replace old equipment* Clean and check your pump* Clean overflow teeth, grates and vents* Clean powerheads.* Clean air fans used to cool tanks* Soak pumps in vinegar overnight to break up calcium deposits* Check tank and equipment joints / connections for signs of leaks.Concluding AdviceCarefully plan changes and additions of any kind to your tank and most importantly go slow! Many of the disasters listed in this article can be prevented by making changes to your tank only after you fully understand the underlying issues and consequences. Bad advice is easy to come by on the Internet, so get advice from a consensus of experienced aquarists.



I have had a bad vacation disaster. I took a long trip to costa rica and panama and came back to find my tank crashing and half my fish dead. Those dwarf angels and not very hardy. My friend did not really understand the concept of water evaporation and filled the drip bottle up, but it was clogged and eventually the pump ran out of water and stopped. He was there when I got home and got to witness my panic and anger. He did help with the emergency water changes. Finding the right person/people to take care of your tank is critical.
I have not read part 1 or 2 or this article set, but this one has lots of good advice.

Watching fish behavior is one of the big clues that I have found to something going wrong in the tank. Keep an eye on your fish. If normally active fish are hiding in your rocks, swimming backwards, lying on the bottom, changing colors, you better start checking things. I have not gotten into corals so much, but I am sure they must look happy in good conditions and sad in bad conditions.

In the last couple of years, I have had two heaters go bad. One had the glass broken while it was in the tank and plugged in. Nothing bad happened from that. Another decided to go full on and I found my tank at 100 degrees one night before heading to bed. I was happy that I decided to feed them something and stuck my hand in the tank that night. All fish survived, but some of my coral died.
What you say about corals is absolutely true. There are a few that I always use as my "indicator species" that are always the first to not fully extend if something is just slightly amiss. (zoanthids for me, but could be just about anything) If you watch your animals, it usually isn't too hard to identify yours!

Also, if you want, you can find the older editions of the newsletter under the "archive" link on the newsletter drop down menu.

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