Tanking: The Primacy of Power

Tanking: The Primacy of Power

We really can’t do this without power.

We keep our reef systems alive with an array of technologies that (mostly) use power. Even the simplest tanks require power for pumps, heaters and lights. Most systems are not so simple.

You Need Backup Power

Power outages are frequent for us, the team at Corals Direct. We’re based in Houston and have power outages from thunderstorms that roll through frequently, and from the hurricanes that visit us all too often, and sometimes for seemingly no reason at all.

You might be one of the lucky few people that have a source of primary power is rock solid. If you live right next to a hospital, for instance, you may be on a circuit that is a priority for your utility company. Or perhaps you live right next to a power plant. Most of us don’t have rock solid power.

Power outages are a fairly likely occurrence for nearly everyone.

Reef Tanks Are Life Support Systems

It is not enough to have power most of the time. You need it nearly all the time.

When conditions deteriorate in reef system, the life they sustain can die rapidly. All systems have some amount of momentum that should keep them from crashing for some period of time. How long is that? Depends on ambient temperatures, how crowded your tanks are, how they are plumbed together… Anywhere from a few hours to a day without power can be too long. Probably ballpark 12 hours is the limit that most systems can go without crashing if you have no interventions at all maybe? Maybe 24 hours if you're able to circulate the water a bit but nothing else? This is a risky game to play.

By the way, tanks are not portable. (Ask us how we know… We are speaking from experience). You will not be able to move a tank during an extended power outage or other disaster. Even the smallest tanks cannot be moved without smashing everything together, spilling water everywhere and breaking things. Water is very heavy. Glass and acrylic Tanks are fragile all the time and especially fragile when full of water.

You should have a plan or be prepared to lose your tanks.

The Best Idea

Have a whole-house generator. Easy peasy. No interruptions to any life-support system for your tank. No need for you to do anything (except to pay for the generator and its ongoing maintenance).

The Second Best Idea

Buy a portable generator for the tank(s) in your life.

Relatively inexpensive (can be purchased for around $400 for the generator, for instance, plus extension cords and gas cans).

Annoying to use: loud, smelly, and requires constant refueling to run for extended periods of time.

An Alternative Idea

Battery systems: There are multiple options here:

  • Off-the-shelf pump backup battery
  • Computer-style UPS
  • Commercially-available power wall
  • DIY battery array.

Batteries are excellent because they give you extra time to run basic life support before a system starts crashing, BUT the power to cost ratio is high. They’re expensive. Meanwhile, reef systems can be big power hogs. Pushing water through pumps and running heaters to stabilize temperatures (not to mention cooling water with a chiller) demands a lot of energy.

Facing an Emergency Without Backup Power

So what are your options if you don't want backup power, or can't get backup power, or just find yourself without backup power. Here are some strategies:

First things first:

  • Keep the tank water moving somehow.
  • Keep the tank water oxygenated somehow.

These two things have a lot of overlap – for example keeping the water moving will oxygenate the water if there is surface agitation. Also, by example, a battery powered pump and air stone will oxygenate the water AND will cause some movement of water in the tank from the rising stream of bubbles.

A tank can survive with just flow and no other life support systems for a while. Maybe 24 hours or more depending on the ambient temperature around the tank and other factors contributing to stability.

     Additional steps you may wish to take

    • Chill the water, or heat it, with bags of ice or warm water.
    • You can insulate a tank to reduce temperature fluctuations by packing insulation of some kind (like blankets) around the tank.
    • Water changes: If you have premixed saltwater on hand you might take this opportunity to do a few big water changes which will oxygenate the water, move the water around and remove pollutants that may be building up.

     Some Last-Ditch Efforts to Save your Reef:

    • Give it away: Call everyone you know and ask them to take what they can
    • Move it!
      • Glass or acrylic boxes full of water don’t really move (see above). The tanks themselves don’t move and moving all the stuff attached to tanks is painful. But moving the tank in bits and pieces can be done.
      • Throw everything you care about in buckets: fill up 5 gallon buckets with live rock, corals, fish and as much water as you can carry. (don’t forget the tops). You can use totes or trash cans too…
      • Then set up a tank, or a container, somewhere that does have power.


    It’s Worth It: Get the Generator

    Do the cost-to-benefit analysis for yourself:

    • What have you spent on your reef system, and how much of that may die during a power outage?
    • What is the life of the living biosphere you’re caring for worth?
    • Are you willing to roll the dice and maybe lose your reef systems?
    • If you are willing to bear the financial hit, and mortality to your organisms, what kind of time and energy will it take to rebuild your reef?
    • What will it cost to provide some kind of backup power?

    Does it pencil out?

    We’re presenting this as a clear choice. And it is… Except we should note that each of us at Corals Direct has gone years (decades at a time, actually) without reliable backup power. We’ve made it through outages of various lengths by hook and by crook. When outages have struck we’ve used battery-operated pumps, we’ve arranged to borrow power from other people that do have generators, we’ve wrapped tanks in blankets to keep them warm, we’ve added plastic bags of ice to keep tanks cool, we’ve broken them down in a hurry, we’ve abandoned tanks and we’ve suffered crashes.

    It is possible to keep tanks without backup power. But it makes sense to have the extra power. Battery backups are a great start. And if you’re on the fence, get the generator.


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