How to Arrange a Vacation Sitter for Your Saltwater Aquarium

If you're leavin' on a jet plane, you can leave your tank in good hands.

If you’re leavin’ on a jet plane, you can leave your tank in good hands.

You’re getting ready to depart on a well-deserved summer vacation, and everything is falling into place nicely. You’ve purchased airline tickets, made all your hotel reservations, and packed everything you could possibly need at your travel destination. You’ve even made all necessary arrangements to keep things humming along on the home front while you’re away—from stopping newspaper and mail delivery to watering the flowers. What’s left to do but hit the road and commence relaxing?

But wait! What about your saltwater aquarium? What about the myriad little chores you do every day to keep the livestock fed, your water parameters in the optimal ranges, and the system operating properly? How will all that be accomplished while you’re gone?

You’ve been planning to automate many of these processes, but you haven’t gotten around to it just yet and there’s not enough time to do anything about it before you leave on your trip. Looks like you’ll need to arrange for someone to take care of your aquarium until you return.

A perilous prospect

Ah, but asking someone else to feed and maintain your marine aquarium is a prospect fraught with peril and can actually do more harm than good—especially if that person isn’t well acquainted with the ins and outs of marine systems. Here are several factors you should consider when arranging a vacation “sitter” for your saltwater aquarium:

Experience wanted

If possible, ask someone with prior aquarium-keeping experience to come in and feed your livestock and tend to other daily chores while you’re away. A fellow hobbyist will have a common frame of reference so there’s less chance your directions will get muddled or misinterpreted. Even someone who has kept only freshwater tanks is a much better bet than a total novice.

Short trip? Forego feeding!

If you’re leaving for only a few days or a long weekend, it will actually be better for your fish if you skip feeding them altogether—that is, unless you can get a commitment from an experienced hobbyist. Most fish can go many days without eating before their health is adversely affected, but the heavy-handed feeding typical of inexperienced fishkeepers can very quickly pollute the water, potentially overwhelming the biofilter and causing a deadly ammonia or nitrite spike.

The same applies to any additives you might be using in your tank, such as calcium and alkalinity supplements in a reef system. The consequences of overdosing or otherwise misapplying these or other additives can be dire, whereas a few days without them is unlikely to do your system any harm.

Demo your directions

If a picture is worth a thousand words, a visual demonstration is worth a million. At least one day prior to your departure, arrange for your aquarium sitter to stop by so you can personally demonstrate chores such as:

  • Feeding the fish and/or invertebrates
  • Topping off the tank with fresh water to compensate for evaporation
  • Emptying and cleaning your protein skimmer’s collection cup
  • Dosing any supplements
  • Checking the system for leaks or other problems

During your demonstration, briefly explain the system components and show your sitter what they look like when they’re operating properly so any malfunctions that might occur in your absence will be more apparent. To ensure freshwater top-offs are conducted properly, it’s a good idea to put a clearly visible indicator, such as a marker line or strip of masking tape, at the desired level on the outside of the tank or sump.

Get it in writing

Despite having demonstrated all the daily feeding and maintenance chores, it’s the wise vacationing hobbyist who leaves behind a written, explicitly detailed checklist of what needs to be accomplished. After all, even the most astute aquarium sitter can have a memory lapse!

Be sure to include your contact information so your sitter can reach you in the event of an emergency. It’s also a good idea to leave behind the phone number of a trusted local dealer who can talk your aquarium sitter through a problem if one should arise.

Pre-apportion foods

Author H.G. Wells is credited with having said, “No passion in the world is equal to the passion to alter someone else’s draft.” If that’s true, the passion to overfeed someone else’s fish comes in a very close second. As I’ve alluded, overfeeding is the quickest route to poor water quality, so leave nothing to chance when it comes to the amount to be fed to your fish.

Your best bet is to apportion the foods—in the exact amounts desired—ahead of time. Here are some tips that you might find helpful:

  • Organize daily servings of frozen foods, such as mysis shrimp, plankton, or chopped clams, in an ice cube tray. Simply put each pre-apportioned serving in one of the compartments and then put the tray in the freezer, covered with plastic wrap or aluminum foil. All the sitter has to do at each visit is take out a daily serving, thaw it in a small amount of aquarium water, and then feed it to the fish.
  • A pill organizer is a great tool for pre-apportioning dry foods, such as pellets or flakes.
  • Sheets of dry marine algae for feeding tangs, rabbitfishes, and other grazers can be precut into servings of an appropriate size and number and stored in a plastic sandwich baggie.
  • Monitor from abroad

    Once you have a trusted vacation sitter in place, hopefully you can relax without worry. However, should you want added peace of mind, aquarium monitoring from aboard is relatively easy to implement. Using various devices you can view the system, review current parameters, and even receive updates when values move beyond predetermined ranges.

    What’s your tip?
    I’m sure other salties out there have some good suggestions to add to this list. How do you make sure all your marine aquarium bases are covered before you head out on vacation? Let us know in the comments section below!

    Photo Credit: ChicagoKoz

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About Jeff Kurtz

Jeff Kurtz is the Co-founder/Editor of Saltwater Smarts, former Senior Consulting Editor for Tropical Fish Hobbyist Magazine, and the aquarist formerly known as “The Salt Creep.” He has been an aquarium hobbyist for over 30 years and is an avid scuba diver.

Comments

  1. I’d recommend just portioning out everything that needs to go in the tank daily/weekly, including the top off water if that isn’t automated. Just take all the room for error out of it. And I’d clean all the pumps and whatnot that become clogged from time to time a few days before leaving so the chance of that happening while your away is as low as possible.

    • Jeff Kurtz says:

      All good advice, Kevin! I especially like your recommendation for cleaning the pumps, etc. “a few days before leaving.” I’ve learned the hard way not to postpone this chore until the last day. According to Murphy’s Law, pumps prefer to break down late in the evening (when no stores are open) and when you absolutely must depart early the following morning.

  2. To make things simpler, the fewer things a helper has to do, the better. Ironically, the most important tasks can be automated, leaving your helper very little to do, other than to check to make sure things are running properly. The major tasks that can easily be automated are: Topping off the tank, feeding and turning the lights on and off. Thanks for the post and keep posting!

    • Jeff Kurtz says:

      So true, Angela. Even the little chores that are second nature to us aquarists can be confusing to tank sitters. The more you can automate, the better!

  3. Paul Baldassano says:

    I recently went to Hawaii for two weeks so I bought an extension cable for the camera on my computer that reached my tank. I could see my tank from Hawaii and the tank sitter could aim the camera at anything she had a question on. It worked out great and I could tell the pumps were running, the lights were on and the water level was correct.

    • Jeff Kurtz says:

      That’s excellent advice, Paul! I wish I would have thought of that last summer when I was in Florida and my father-in-law, who was aquarium-sitting for me at the time, was trying to describe a problem with one of my tanks over the phone. Turns out the return pump died, but he had a hard time explaining what he was seeing. I could have diagnosed the problem in a second with a simple visual.

  4. Paul Baldassano says:

    Jeff, sometimes when I go away to a tropical place I bring the fish with me as they love to visit their old haunts and re connect with their good friends.

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