How to Move a Fish Tank and Keep Your Head Above Water

Moving Tips

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As early as high school, Pete Dowdalls learned to translate his love for the sea into a salt-water tank with a complex ecosystem of fish, coral and more, and he’s never looked back. He also realized early on that he would have to learn how to move a fish tank if he wanted his ocean-like reef to travel with him as he grew up, and stay healthy along the way. Three moves later, and he thinks he’s mastered the process.

“It’s relaxing and rewarding to see that you can sustain life outside the ocean in your own home,” he said. “But it’s no easy feat.”

Nearly 60,000 people in the U.S. share the same passion for keeping fish as pets, according to the American Veterinary Medical Association, and fish tanks are often seen in restaurants and stores around the country. But they likely weren’t built there, and many owners – like Dowdalls – have moved them at some point or will soon.

As a renter, Dowdalls has already transported his tank and will again. He shared some tried-and-true advice for other “reefers” looking to safely move their fish tanks into a new home or into storage.

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Make a Plan on How to Move a Fish Tank

To ensure fish, coral, and other marine life in the tank stays alive and well, be sure to create a plan on how and when you’ll remove the water and move the tank.

For example, before draining his 350-gallon tank, fish expert Arman Papikian planned when to unplug and move his equipment to make sure he had the right materials on hand and enough time to attend to all of the necessary details to make sure his fish survived the move.

“You’ll need to plan ahead and make sure you have tarps, tubs, buckets, towels and an air pump for tanks bigger than 100 gallons,” said Papikian, who owns UltraGem Fish & Coral in Burbank, CA.

“A move is like a tornado in your tank.”

To drain his smaller 25-gallon glass tank, Dowdalls used a siphon, or tube, to remove the water. In all, he sets aside at least a half-day to see to all of the steps needed to move his tank safely during each move.

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Remove Decorations From the Tank Before Catching the Fish

After unplugging a tank’s filters and pumps, start disassembling it by removing rocks and decorations first.

“It’s easier to catch the fish when all of the decorations are already out,” Papikian said. “You also want your fish out of the tank for as little time as possible.”

Dowdalls used large, lidded, plastic tubs to store his “live rock,” which hosts algae and more, during his moves. Local fish shops may provide customers with special boxes for extra protection for free.

Papikian often gives his customers foam-padded boxes when he has them on hand.

In addition, store sand or gravel and water, if you can, because reusing this water can be healthier for the complex marine ecosystem found in a tank, Dowdalls suggested.

“Keep as much as you can, if you’re moving within a day, because your tank is broken in,” he said. “You want to keep all those important trace elements.”

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Transport Fish with Plenty of Oxygen to Survive

Keeping fish and other sea creatures alive is possibly the hardest part of moving a fish tank, but it can be easily done if every living thing is secured and provided enough air to survive.

“Fish breathe oxygen just like us, they just take the oxygen out of the water through their gills,” Papikian said.

In the past, Dowdalls has taken his fish to local store experts for them to “bag his fish,” which means to pump extra air into plastic bags for transport.

This technique should only be used for short-distance moves that will take less than 4 hours, Dowdalls said.

For longer distance moves, Papikian recommends using an aquarium air pump and using a generator to power a temperature controller during a move.

“When you start moving, the temperature in the water starts dropping immediately,” Papikian said.

Letting the water get too cold is an easily-avoidable mistake to make when moving fish, one that is potentially fatal to pets.

If you’re planning to store your fish tank, or think your move is too far to safely transport fish, make sure to give them to fellow hobbyists, or your local fish store should be able to rehome them, Papikian added.

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Protect The Fish Tank During Your Move or Before Storage

Whether you have a glass or acrylic tank, it’s important to wrap it in bubble wrap or padding to avoid cracks and scratches.

“Set the tank on a tarp, mat or foam before moving because it can easily crack, and you don’t want to break your tank in the back of a bumpy moving truck,” Papikian said.

Since his tank is small enough for two people to carry, Dowdalls simply wraps it in bubble wrap before strapping it into the back seat of his car with seat belts.

“I avoid moving trucks altogether when it comes to my tank,” he said. “Not worth the risk.”

Before storing a fish tank, especially one that previously held saltwater, it’s important to thoroughly rinse and clean it to avoid corrosion.

If you have the cash (it’s not cheap), you can hire help from most local fish stores like Papikian’s to move your tank and contents locally, but Dowdalls said he’s always had luck moving his fish tank since he’s taken his time and great care during the process.

“Pay close attention for maximum success and minimum loss,” Papikian said.

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