Power Failures: Preventing Catastrophes

Aquariums and Murphy’s Law go hand-in-hand:  “What can go wrong will go wrong.”  As someone whose SPS-dominant reef aquarium met a nine-day power outage due to a hurricane in the middle of the United States, I’m a long-time friend of Murphy.  Power outages may arise from ice accumulation, fallen trees, brownouts, a drunk driver hitting a pole, or even a “lost bill in the mail”.  Regardless of the cause, the effect is still the same:  panic!

In September 2008, Hurricane Ike hit the U.S. with winds up to 145 mph and up to 600 miles in diameter.  As a resident of Ohio at the time, I had no worries.  Hurricanes don’t hit Ohio, right?  Turns out, I was wrong.  My neighbor called in the middle of the day asking if I was ok.  Of course, I answered yes…followed by “why?”  A 50 year old Fir tree knocked over by the wind was laying in the yard.  Shortly after, the power went out.  I had no generator, no battery-powered air pumps, nothing. 
Maintaining Flow:

Corals can survive short excursions to cooler temperatures, but they can’t survive without oxygen.  Therefore, maintaining flow is the priority if power fails.  Since my outage occurred in September in the Midwestern U.S., temperature stayed at about 76 degrees with no issues.    

The least expensive option is a battery-powered air stone available through most online aquarium stores.  These run about $15 each plus batteries.  Many brands turn on by themselves once power is lost, so there is no need to worry about physically turning them on.  I try to use at least one per every 20 gallons (don’t forget the sump, refugium, etc.) but that could be considered overkill.  If the aquarium is heavily stocked, especially with large messy fish, then more may be needed.  Plan on using one set of batteries per day, but this varies by brand.  Better safe than sorry!  In the case of the nine-day outage, a couple of these pumps actually burnt out, so have a couple extra on hand.  At $15 each, these are only a good option for smaller aquariums or for areas where power outages are rare (but remember Murphy!)
The mid-range price options cover proprietary backups like Vortech’s battery backup, uninterruptible power supply units (UPS), portable power supply units, power inverters, etc.  UPS units are available at office supply stores, and, depending on capacity, will only run small powerheads for a short while.  Portable power supply units are usually found at automotive/hardware stores.  As someone who used to work at a chain automotive supply store, I can tell you these units are returned all the time as defects.  In fact, I returned one during my ordeal.  Power inverters are a pretty good option, especially if there’s a car battery lying around (hint – remove it from the car, use it, then place back in the car to recharge…but don’t let it get too low to where it needs a jump).  There are also some solar-powered options, but since a fair amount of power outages are due to poor weather conditions, I’m not sure how well the recharger would work. 

A more expensive option is the generator.  These are typically gasoline-operated, and if a larger model is chosen, then it can power personal comfort items as well (let’s face it, the aquarium always comes first!)  Right now, Harbor Freight Tools has a small 800W generator for $140 – not a big price to pay.  In the $300 range, generators will usually cover powerheads, heaters, lights, and maybe even the refrigerator. 

The most expensive option is to not plan ahead for disaster and have to replace an aquarium full of livestock.
Maintaining Heat:

When I moved from Ohio to Utah, I didn’t think much more about my emergency aquarium procedures.  Murphy struck again.  In December 2011, Utah suffered a severe windstorm with winds over 100 mph, and I was without power for 32 hours.  My aquarium was in the basement, and by the time the power came back on, the aquarium temperature had dropped below 40 degrees Fahrenheit.  Astonishingly enough, several corals survived, but I lost all my fish and most of my corals.  Aquarists in more extreme climates should be prepared with generators due to the heavy draw from heaters/chillers.  In a pinch, sodium acetate packs help heat and ice packs/bottles help cool smaller aquariums.  The sodium acetate heat packs are frequently used by scuba divers as they are waterproof, reusable, and rather inexpensive (~$20 depending on size).  They release heat at about 130 degrees Fahrenheit for about 30-45 minutes depending on size.  Due to this heat release, I recommend placing an airstone near it and keep corals away from it.  Placing insulation (Styrofoam sheets, blankets, etc) around the aquarium also helps. 

Maintaining Life:

In most cases, fish can survive just fine without feeding for a few days.  Reducing/eliminating feedings will reduce the amount of waste in the aquarium, which will also help reduce the amount of oxygenation required.  Photosynthetic corals are fine as well without light for a few days.  Corals in the wild are used to storms that cloud the water for days on end, so this lack of light is not unfamiliar.


There are lots of options to save a reef tank during a disaster, but those options require a bit of forethought.  Have a plan and be prepared.  I wasn’t.  I had to use a cordless drill with a bicycle rack hook to “stir” the aquarium every hour for several days until a friend loaned me his generator once his power returned.  Don’t let Murphy win.

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