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How to Move an Aquarium

Moving an aquarium can be a daunting task, especially larger tanks. With proper planning, it is certainly feasible to safely move an aquarium and its contents from one room to another, across town, or to a location up to a few hours away.

If you’re moving across country, consider re-homing your fish and purchasing new ones when you get settled, or check with your local fish store to see if they will board your fish and ship them overnight once you have your aquarium set up in its new location. Every move is unique, but the information provided here is designed to help you complete yours successfully.

Equipment Needed to Move your Aquarium

Assemble the equipment you’ll need to move your fish tank at least a week before the actual move:

  • Siphon hose, fish nets
  • Containers to transport water, livestock, gravel, décor and equipment such as:
    • Clean buckets or plastic tubs with secure lids
    • Coolers or Styrofoam shipping containers with liners
    • Individual fish bags and rubber bands (ask your local aquarium shop)
  • Wire strainer or colander
  • Water Conditioner/Slime Coat Replacer
  • Battery-operated aerator/air pump
  • Tarps or appropriate floor protection
  • Blankets, bubble wrap or other padding
  • Wet/dry vacuum
  • Hand cart or dolly
  • Leveling shims

Fish Tank Transfer Preparation

  • Make sure the floor in your aquarium’s new location can support the weight and is level.
  • Make sure there is an electrical supply nearby.
  • For large or uniquely shaped aquariums, make sure doorways and stairwells are wide enough and you have sufficient turning space in tight corners and stairway landings.
  • Check the water supply in the new location to compare pH, alkalinity and other water chemistry parameters.
  • Plan a separate day or multiple days for moving large aquariums and make sure you have ample help and vehicle space for transport.
  • Check the weather and avoid moving an aquarium from one address to another during extreme heat or cold, if possible.
  • Perform a 25% water change and lightly vacuum the substrate two weeks before the move.
  • Lightly clean the filter two weeks before the move but avoid disturbing biological media.
  • Set up clean, conditioned water at the new location – at least 25% of your tank’s volume – a day or two before the move.
  • Refrain from feeding fish for 24 hours before the move.

The Move: Moving Your Fish and Plants

The most important thing to do if you plan to take your fish, live plants or reef inhabitants with you, is to save and transport as much of the water as possible -- about 75% to 80% of the tank water is best. This will minimize stress to your tank inhabitants and help re-establish the biological balance quickly after you set your aquarium up in its new location. This is best done in 5-gallon buckets with snap-on lids. If you use tubs to transport water, gravel or rockwork, make sure they are sturdy and you can pick them up when they’re filled.

Small to medium-sized fish can be transported in fish bags placed in coolers or Styrofoam shipping containers to maintain proper temperature. Large fish and other creatures should be transported in buckets, tubs or coolers.

Fish Transferring Tips

  • Use battery operated air pumps in containers with large fish, moves over long distances or in hot weather.
  • If using fish bags, fill 1/3 with water and 2/3 air, or 50% water and 50% pure oxygen. (Some local fish stores will pack your fish in oxygen for a small fee.)
  • Never blow into a fish bag to inflate it.
  • It’s best to double bag to prevent punctures, and lay bags on their sides to increase swimming space and surface exposure to the air or oxygen inside the bag.

The Move: Moving Your Fish Tank

To begin, unplug the heater and allow it to cool for 30 minutes before removing it from the aquarium. This is a good time to check the heating tube for algae and mineral deposits and remove them while the heater is still wet. Remove filtration equipment and circulation pumps. Keep biological media wet by placing it in aged aquarium water or a sealed container.

Next, siphon the tank water you intend to take with you into transport containers, then gently remove décor items and artificial plants and pack them appropriately. Inspect décor to make sure no fish are hiding in a cavity or crevice. Do not place rocks or heavy objects in containers that will house fish or other livestock, as they may shift and injure your animals. Live rock (saltwater) and plants can be transported in water or wrapped in wet newspaper or paper towels and placed in sealed containers.

If you choose to remove décor before draining the aquarium, allow stirred up dirt and debris to settle before filling transport containers. (It’s easier to catch fish in a mostly drained aquarium with hiding places removed.) Once all livestock has been removed and packed, drain and discard the last 20 – 25% of the water. Remove gravel or sand using a net, wire strainer or colander and pack in buckets or water-tight containers. Gravel should be kept wet to keep important nitrifying bacteria alive. Once the tank is empty, use a wet/dry vacuum to do a final cleaning. It’s time to move!

  • NOTE: Regardless of size, NEVER lift or transport an aquarium with water or gravel in it. The weight and/or sloshing water can damage the aquarium, compromise seals and present a potential safety hazard.

Once loaded in your vehicle, wrap the tank in blankets or other protective material. Fragile items such as covers and lights can be placed inside the aquarium for protection. Place water, gravel and rock containers around the tank to stabilize it and keep it from moving around. Don’t leave containers with fish or other livestock in direct sunlight as it may cause the water to overheat.

Setting Up Your Aquarium in a New Home

Place the stand in its new location and use shims to level it, if necessary. Make sure it’s stable and doesn’t wobble. Re-tape or replace background material on the tank if needed before placing it on the stand. Make sure there is enough clearance behind the tank for filters, overflow boxes and other equipment. Once the tank is positioned on the stand, add the gravel or sand, rockwork and other artificial decorations.

Install power strips, heater and filter(s) but don’t plug them in yet. Fill the aquarium approximately halfway with “old” water, pouring it onto a plate or shallow bowl to avoid disturbing the gravel. Add plants and other softscape items. Add remaining “old” water and gently introduce the fish and other livestock. Finally, top off the aquarium with “new” conditioned water and plug in filters, circulation pumps and heater. Install covers and lighting but leave the light off for a few hours to give your fish a chance to adjust to their new surroundings.

Do not feed fish for 24 hours after a move. Feed sparingly at first and don’t be alarmed if some fish refuse food for a day or two, this is to be expected after their moving experience.

Fish Tank Care After the Move

Even though your aquarium may have been established for years, after a move it will most likely experience “New Tank Syndrome” because the biological balance has been disrupted. You may experience temporary cloudiness, as well as ammonia and/or nitrite spikes.

If the water turns cloudy:

  • Cut back on feeding.
  • Place additional carbon in the filter until it clears.

Test for ammonia and nitrite 3 to 5 days after the move and take appropriate action if levels are elevated. Check the temperature daily for the first few days and adjust the heater if necessary. Observe your fish for signs of fish ick or other diseases.

If you’ve moved to a new town, check out the local aquarium shops in the area. Look for filter cartridges, media, food and other supplies you use. Get to know the staff and their level of expertise, as well as the variety and health of their livestock selection.

Moving an aquarium is a little more complicated than most other household belongings, but with a little planning and some help from friends, you can make it as stress-free as possible for yourself and your fish!

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