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  • Surviving Extended Power Outages

    Christopher Marks

    Step 1: Equipment

    Since I literally lived on the coast, I had additional equipment that most hobbyists would probably consider unnecessary, but could find helpful should they ever experience an outage. Common items that you should have, or may already have:

    • Battery Operated Air Pumps

      Available from most hardware stores, sporting goods stores, or online from various pet vendors. I purchased a waterproof version that ran for 36 hours on 2 D cell batteries. Don't forget extra batteries, or even better and more environmentally friendly, rechargeable batteries and a charger. A battery operated air pump shouldn't set you back more than about $15, although there are some that will automatically turn on in the event of a power failure that cost more. A battery operated air pump is invaluable, both for oxygenation and water movement, and they're very efficient.
    • Uninterruptible Power Supplies

      Often used to prevent computer data loss during a power outage, a UPS will provide AC power via a battery for a limited amount of time. Very handy for periodically running pumps, filters, heaters, or running low wattage air pumps for days or weeks. They usually run $50 to $200 depending on the size of the battery in the unit. A UPS will be useful every day for protecting your computer or other sensitive electronics. Keeping your aquarium pumps on UPS battery backup can also help prevent brief power outages from disrupting your system or overflow siphon.

    Less common items that will help in the event of a long term power outage:

    • Generator

      Gasoline or butane powered, a generator (depending upon the size and wattage) will run anything from a small aquarium system to your entire house. Their downfall is they are expensive to run (especially with gas prices these days), require fuel (something that was in such short supply I usually couldn't run one), are usually quite expensive ($400+), and have to be run outside to prevent dangerous carbon monoxide buildup. For me, it turned out that it simply wasn't practical or possible to keep my nanos powered by a generator due to fuel shortages and other necessities. Generators can be purchased at hardware stores or through online vendors.
    • Portable Power Supply

      These nifty items are usually sold for cars, and often have a built in jump-start capability, tire inflator, emergency radio, or some combination thereof. However, many also have AC plugs and function identically to a UPS. I discovered their usefulness to aquatic hobbyists during the hurricane outage by using one to power two small water pumps in our nano reef aquariums, and it could be recharged via our solar charger. I bought my portable power supply from Wal-Mart for $100 for auto emergencies, and have seen them for sale in other warehouse departments and at hardware stores.
    • Solar Trickle Charger

      A small solar panel that trickle charges up to 12 volt batteries. I used this to charge the portable power supply, and an extra car battery I had. Best $20 purchase I've ever made, and they can be found from specialty battery and electronics vendors online. 

    Many of the above items, or combination thereof, can be used to charge D-Cell batteries for your air pumps, which is generally the most efficient use of your limited power.

    Step 2: Prepare
    Forewarned is forearmed, so they say, and this is no exception. If you know a power outage could be immanent, it's time to prepare! Our goal is to minimize waste buildup, keep oxygen levels high, prevent temperature swings, and in the case of marine invertebrates, provide at least some water movement.
    Prepare your nano for a power outage if you know it's likely to occur (storm, blizzard, hurricane, etc.):

    • Clean!
      Clean all filters thoroughly and vacuum detritus if you can. Perform a large (50%+) water change with water of the same pH, temperature, and salinity. Set aside freshly mixed saltwater in case you need it.
    • Stop Feeding
      Most healthy aquatic animals can go a week or more without eating with no ill effects, and usually longer. Less food means less pollution, more oxygen for your animals, and less fish waste.
    • Temperature Control
      If possible, insulate your aquarium with household insulation available at hardware stores before the outage. Blankets work well too, especially during an unexpected outage. You may not be able to prevent temperature changes, but you should be able to prevent rapid temperature changes, which is essential if you want your animals to survive. Depending on how the temperature will shift, prepare with ice or frozen water bottles, battery or gas heaters, oil lamps, or fans if you have a generator.


    Step 3: Outage
    During the outage there are a few things to watch for, and steps you can take (besides nail biting) to prevent loss of life. Consider the following:

    • Oxygen
      The amount of dissolved oxygen will depend on a number of factors, including surface area of the aquarium, stocking level, temperature, dissolved organics, and activity of the inhabitants. One battery operated air pump should be more than enough for all but larger or more heavily stocked systems. If your fish are 'gasping' at the surface, oxygen levels are critically low.
    • Water Movement
      Water movement is very important in a reef aquarium. The simplest way to accomplish this, and the least power hungry, is to use battery operated air pumps. In a nano, you should be able to provide enough water movement to keep the inhabitants alive with an air pump or two. A little elbow grease and a pitcher should work on corals that are overly 'sliming'. If you have any of the nifty power supplies listed above, turning on a circulation pump or powerhead for a few minutes every hour will help greatly. Small pumps could possibly be run for the entire outage, depending upon the duration.
    • Water Quality
      Ammonia neutralizers like Seachem's Prime or Kordon's Amquel will go a long way towards keeping your fish and inverts alive, especially if an evacuation is necessary. I managed to keep large marine and freshwater pufferfish alive in 5 gallon buckets by dosing Prime every day, and feeding very little. If your fish are still in the aquarium, refrain from feeding, and perform water changes frequently if necessary. Remember, these additives will drop oxygen levels, so be careful!
    • Lighting
      Not necessary for fish, but eventually necessary for photosynthetic animals. If your outage lasts less than a week, you have nothing to worry about. If you're without power longer than a week, try for opening a window (even indirect sunlight carries a lot of energy) or plugging in fluorescent lights into a battery backup for a few minutes to an hour a day. This is when a small solar charger and portable power pack can save your corals, as I found out.


    Step 4: Recovery
    Let's hear it for power! I'm sure you're ready to bask in the newly restored air conditioning, or heat if you're up north, but take a few minutes for your aquariums first. You should clean out the filters again and perform another large water change. After that you should be good to go! Hopefully all your animals survived, maybe in part from the information you learned here.


    - Mike Maddox

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    Another way to maintain flow is to use a drill and a paint stirring bit. Gives great flow in addition to air pumps, and is especially good for large tanks.

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    VERY HELPFUL! I had an outage about 2 months ago on a good weather sunny sunday afternoon. It lasted 5 hours and was due to a bird flying into something at the power station or something. We have a generator for camping but fuel pumps were out of commission all over town so we had limited fuel (something people with generators should consider keeping around- like 10+ gallons).


    I had an Asian 'no name' battery backup air pump, and for Christmas 'Santa' brought me an UPS backup. I had just my heater plugged into the backup side as I had tested the system before and it would keep my heater going for an hour and a half before it was drained of power. I wrapped my tank in foam I had collected from insulated foil shipping packages (it was the perfect size for wrapping my nano cube). We have two wood sources of heat- an insert (which is not as effective w/out running the built in fan) and a wood stove on the other side of the house. Filled them both up and got the house nice and warm. Heater lasted 1 hour 45 minutes that way- even though the house was warm, my tank location is close to a window and it was winter. Had the battery air pump going in the tank. I fired up the generator when the UPS ran out to start recharging it. Plugged in a power strip to the generator's other outlet and got the whole tank going for an hour or so until the UPS was recharged and then back to just using the UPS for heater and the battery air pump.

    When the generator took over on the strip for the whole tank, we had lights, circulation pumps, filter, air pump, and heater all up and running. We could have done this for a couple days although I would have needed to set alarms to get up and swap things around throughout the night- ugh. My tank was completely unfazed! Nothing was affected! During daylight hours I had opened all the curtains (usually closed because the house will get cold or hot- season depending) and let the indirect light in and all my corals opened up and seemed happy with even just that. Later in the afternoon (outage was from 3pm until 8pm) the sun did shine directly on my tank and temp stayed stable so I allowed it but it bleached out a couple paly heads. Makes one realize how intense the sun can be.


    All in all, it was stressful but not unmanageable. The generator was the most expensive piece of equipment that we just happened to have and would have NOT invested into for my aquarium hobby because of cost. We don't live in an area with severe weather. The solar panel would be a great substitute for trickle charging a UPS. The UPS would be a definite good investment to anyone who doesn't have one.

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    I have had very good luck using a deep cycle marine battery I keep on the charger in the garage and attaching a basic power inverter into it. Gives me plenty of juice to run heater and a power-head on each tank for about 20+ hours...


    20 hours is about the longest I have went without power and it worked great for both my 20 long and 15 frag tank. both were still on when the lights came back on.


    The whole set up cost me less than $100 ($70 for 101amp hour battery at walmart and $15 for inverter at Harbor freight)


    I even have taken this with us camping to charge phones and batteries for flash lights, ran my wife's laptop well when she had to work a couple days of a camping trip as well.

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