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How to Move a Reef Tank Successfully

Just moving an aquarium from one side of a room to the other side can be extremely stressful and catastrophic to the aquarium inhabitants.  But what about moving a 150 gallon SPS-dominant aquarium 2000 miles across the country??  Oh yeah, we did it, and here’s how:

Several days before moving the tank, you’ll need to start doing some homework.  You’ll also need to stop feeding your fish for about two days prior to the move.  This will cause them to produce less waste during shipping (which could otherwise lead to deadly ammonia).  Don’t worry – they won’t starve if they’re healthy (and there should be plenty of pods in the tank for food too.)

Homework:
Before starting the process, estimate your time backwards. If you have to get everything to the post office or an airline to ship before they close, give yourself at least a two-hour padding.  The last thing you want is to be holding a box of your babies standing in front of a “Closed” sign.

Here’s a list of things you may need to schedule time for (add or subtract from this list):

Driving to the shipping location, waiting in line, etc.:
Driving to and having the local fish store add oxygen to fish bags (if available):
Physically moving stands, tanks, and equipment:
Disassembling equipment and cleaning:
Draining the aquariums:
Removing rocks and letting them drain (yes, they can take forever to drain):
Removing sand (grab a wet-vac!):
Catching and bagging fish:
Removing and bagging coral:
Catching all the little stupid snails, crabs, etc.:
Getting supplies:
And don’t forget to add a bit of time for some tears after you accidentally break that gorgeous huge coral colony…:

More homework:  how do you plan to move the corals?  If you are just going to move them across the room, just set up a huge rubbermaid tub with saltwater, a powerhead, and a heater.  Easy.

If you plan to move them 2000+ miles, then I suggest calling an airline cargo company.  They will place the boxes in an area designated for animals on the airplane, then fly them to the destination.  Someone will then be able to pick them up at the airport in a few short hours.  This is often a much cheaper and faster route than through the post office (although it never hurts to get quotes from several places.)

Last bit of homework:  Grab your supplies a few days in advance.  Keep a pile of what you’ll need.  You’ll think of more things you’ll need in the next few days.

Getting Started:

First up…grab coffee…lots of it…(or whatever will give you a good kick-in-the-pants to get going.)  Here, I chose a lovely three cups of iced black coffee (ok, you’re allowed to say “ew”.)  You may also want to have some easy-prep food available…pizza is good for this…especially as a bribe for friends to help.

Supplies:
Thick styrofoam boxes with lids, a surrounding plastic bag, and outer box…however many you need.  Your local fish store should have some available at a low cost, if not free.  Label them before you start so you aren’t rushing at the last second to find addresses, etc.  You’ll also need shipping tape.

Depending on the weather conditions, you may need heat or ice packs if you plan to ship.  Extended time packs can often be found at sporting/outdoor stores.  Tape these to the top of the styrofoam lid so that they are not too close to any of the bags.

If there are corals involved, grab fragging supplies:
Bone cutters of various sizes
Hammer (for those big pieces attached to rock)
Chisel (to go with the hammer)
Safety equipment (gloves, safety glasses, etc.)
You may also want to grab super glue for any fragging accidents

Towels…lots…can’t stress this enough!!
Rubber bands
Extra-thick bags and/or well-sealing Tupperware containers
Permanent marker
Scissors
Pipette or a turkey baster
Siphon and tubing to drain the water
Febreeze or other good smelly stuff – let’s face it…this is going to stink!

Also, grab lots of buckets…and protect your flooring.  If I had to do this again, I’d get some of that sticky plastic roll to cover the carpet then cover it with towels.

Oh yeah, and if your tank is 31″ deep and you have short arms like me, then I highly recommend a pair of tongs (those were $3 at Harbor Freight).
Before starting, make note of what your aquarium parameters are.  There’s no point in shipping fish/corals that are in bad water already.  If the aquarium is too low or too high on any parameter, correct it before bagging the coral and fish.
Getting Started with Livestock:
After gathering all the supplies, take a deep breath.  It’s time for the real work.  Don all safety gear needed.  First I grab coral to bag and box as they are likely to last the longest in a box.  Soft corals came out first, then LPS, then SPS corals.  Often it’s easier to remove the entire rock in order to break the corals off.
I placed each coral in a labeled bag with minimal tank water.  I recommend labeling the bags with the name of the coral as many corals will “brown out” during shipping and become hard to identify.
Next, I set up a few Tupperware containers with saltwater.  As I pull out the rocks to let them drain in the Rubbermaid tubs, I pick off the snails and crabs and place them in the Tupperware containers.
Once the corals and rocks are out of the aquarium, the fish should be rather easy to catch.  They should be bagged in two to three 3mil bags, size dependent on the size and energy of the fish.  Oxygen should also be added to the bag.  If you are not comfortable with bagging fish, speak to the experts at a LFS that you trust.  They should be able to guide you on your fish needs and may even bag them properly for you.
After the corals, fish, and inverts are bagged, tagged, and ready to go, place them in the box.  Put on the lid (ensuring the heat/ice packs are adequate) and tape it shut.  Secure the bag around the box to prevent any water leaks from damaging the outer box.  Tape the outer box shut.  Use caution in lifting the box as it will be quite heavy from all the water.  If shipping, delivery it carefully to the shipper.  Make sure someone is available to receive the shipment at the appropriate time.
Once you return to the aquarium, the rocks should be adequately drained.  They can be placed in styrofoam boxes as well and surrounded with wet butcher paper.  I’ve used wet newspaper, but it tends to fall apart too easily.  It’s not much fun to pick out wet paper from rock.  Obviously, if the rocks need to be shipped with the fish/corals, then do that…in a separate box.  But, they can usually be shipped a slower route (i.e. cheaper route) as die-off will not be as severe, especially if they are kept damp.
Once the corals, fish, inverts, and live rock are out of the tank/sump, the water can be drained.  This is usually a slow process, but using a pump can help speed it up.  Make sure to turn off and/or disconnect all electrical devices that may have issues with low water (heaters, powerheads, etc.)
When moving an aquarium, I don’t reuse sand.  It causes more problems than it’s worth.  It usually contains so much microfauna that massive die-off is next-to-impossible to prevent.  Instead of throwing it away, I rinse it out well (which is beyond time-consuming and gross) and let it dry.  I reuse it in a future aquarium, but not in the one I’m re-setting up.  I use all new, dry sand to prevent problems in the new setup.  Regardless, it can be easily removed from an aquarium with a wet vacuum.  If you plan to reuse the sand in the future, make sure the vacuum interior is clean prior to use.
Equipment:
Of course, turn off all electrical equipment that needs to be off before messing with it.  I use this time to give my equipment a good, thorough cleaning since it’s out of use.  I soak everything in a hot water/vinegar mixture for a few hours…or as long as I have to wait.  I’ve found that using zip ties or twist ties is great for electrical cords.  It’s never any fun to move a mess of wires.  I also keep the original manufacturer boxes for the weird or expensive components, such as light fixtures, Vortech powerheads, etc.
If you have pH probes, you’ll want to have extra calibration fluid on hand to calibrate them after the move.  I usually remove light bulbs from fixtures, but I seem to have about the same breakage rate whether they’re in the fixture or packed separately.
Moving the tank/stand can be physically exhausting and dangerous if not done correctly.  Make sure you have more than enough people to help move (this is size/weight dependent on the tank/stand).  If the stand has any delicate pieces (like fancy trim work), use painters tape to mark off that section and write something like, “Do not lift by this piece”.  Tape all doors shut so they do not open during the move.
Stands should be wrapped in moving blankets if they are large (otherwise they may fit into boxes).  Our 150g aquarium was professionally crated in a plywood crate the company made on site.  This is not necessarily a requirement, but it was what our moving company required.
Reassembly:
Reassembly depends on the length of the move.  For our move across the country, I was in Ohio packing and shipping everything.  My husband was already in Utah with our new house.  He set up a very…sketchy…40 gallon breeder “holding tank”.  He cycled some rock and sand before I shipped the corals/fish out to him.  He picked up the boxes at the airport, brought them to the new tank, and acclimated them.  When the equipment arrived with the moving company a few weeks later, we set the tank back up and started moving things over.
Lessons Learned:
1.  There is never enough time.  If you plan for 8 hours, it’ll take 10.
2.  Don’t ship in extreme weather.  We shipped in the middle of a heatwave and lost some things.
3.  Some cargo companies have live animal shipping insurance.  Get it.  It’s like 1% depending on the company.  Well worth it if that purple tang dies.
4.  Things happen.  Our cargo company “lost” our box, and it took 4 days to arrive in Utah.  We lost a few corals and a purple tang (hence insurance).  No amount of preparation will fix that.

2 comments

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  1. Kenneth Scott

    Great info! Im getting ready to move cross country with two tanks of my own, one predator tank (120 gallons) and one reef tank (90 gallons). I plan to fly with the fish and corals as carryon(s) after my LFS bags them up for me since TSA now allows bagged fish. I also am going to try and check the live rock / if not checked baggage then I’ll ship. I’m already at the destination and my wife is with the fish. I plan to setup a few small tanks and cycle them here a few weeks in advance of my move. Once your equipment and tank arrived did you have to wait for everything to cycle or did you just move everything from the 40G into the 150G and then the fish and corals? Any other tips you could offer…please. Thanks!

    1. admin

      Hi! I’m copying the email I sent you:

      Your plan sounds pretty solid, but I do have a few suggestions. First, I’m nervous about your plan to take all livestock to the LFS the same day your flight leaves. I don’t know how many corals you have, but bagging it all, etc. will take quite some time. I always recommend budgeting 2-3x the amount of time you think it’ll take. You don’t want to be left with livestock in your tank in order to make your flight…or miss your flight entirely. If you can bag everything late the night before, it may be worthwhile.

      Check with your airline’s cargo department (it’s usually in a separate building from the actual airport). Often you can place your livestock in the “live animals” section of the cargo area of your flight for much less than mailing (and it’s safer for livestock than checking bags since that area is unheated). The livestock cargo area is warmed to some extent, so your livestock will have a greater chance of survival (it’s where they keep dogs, etc.).

      Also remember how heavy water is…and therefore, how much of a pain it will be to carry-on all those fish (recommend cargo for them instead). Your large fish will need a large volume of water and air in order to stay healthy. I would stop feeding them about 1-3 days ahead of your flight so that they won’t create as much waste during the trip.

      The same goes for your live rock. It may be easier and cheaper to place it in cargo than to mail it. It was for me. Plus, it’ll be out of water for less time, so you’ll have less of a cycle. If you mail your LR on 15 April and don’t arrive until 19 April, I imagine the package will smell pretty bad. You could also arrange to have your LFS in Cali to set the live rock in your tanks. Plus, many airlines offer livestock insurance. For my several boxes, insurance was only like $2 for several hundred dollars insurance.

      My husband and I had a similar arrangement as you and your wife. He setup the tanks in Utah, and I shipped everything out of Ohio to him. He then flew back to help pack and tear down the tanks. He had the 40G cycled before I shipped everything out to him, and then he had the LFS keep an eye on the corals/fish while he was back in Ohio with me. Once we had all of our belongings in Utah, we set up the 150g again and cycled it with some of the LR out of the 40g. Once it was fully cycled, then we added the fish/corals.

      Hope all that helps! If I think of anything more, I’ll let you know. At least you’re moving during a good time of the year…not too warm/cold! Good luck!

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