Back Pain and the Big Marine Aquarium

Lifting water often means back strain

Lifting water often means back strain

Somewhere around age 40, I passed a point of no return with respect to bodily aches and pains. In my younger, carefree days, when the various jobs I worked demanded a lot of heavy lifting, I could pretty much tell my body what I wanted it to do and it would comply of necessity. Nowadays, the roles have reversed. If I try to override my body’s limitations and make it do what it doesn’t want to do, I’m sure to pay a heavy price.

You see, I have a disc issue in my cervical spine that flares up from time to time, causing severe pain that radiates down my right arm. Chiropractic care and physical therapy have helped me keep the pain and nerve damage under control and stave off surgery, but the problem still puts limits on how well I can function—including my ability to perform routine maintenance, such as water changes, on my marine aquariums.

Since there’s no getting around these chores—and I’m not about to give up my tanks—I’ve had to find ways to compensate so I don’t re-injure my back and end up right back in traction. Here’s how I keep my back pain at bay while keeping up with water changes. If you’re in a similar dilemma or deal with another physical limitation that makes lifting difficult, consider doing the following:

Ban the buckets

Having moderately large aquariums (75 and 125 gallons), I’ve traditionally used 5-gallon buckets to haul water around and pour it into my tanks or the sink. Now, with the potential of excruciating back being ever present, that’s no longer a viable option.

To ban the buckets:

  • Use an appropriately sized water-change hose that connects directly to a faucet (available from various manufacturers) to transport fresh water to a heavy-duty plastic storage bin placed next to the tank. Use this bin to mix and store clean salt water for your water changes.
  • If you’re using a reverse-osmosis unit, simply run the product-water line to the storage bin (assuming it’s long enough to reach) and the waste-water line to the drain or a separate collection vessel.
  • When it’s time for a water change, use the water-change hose and the suction created by your faucet to siphon dirty water and detritus out of the tank and into the sink.
  • Then, to refill the aquarium, all you have to do is pump the salt water from the adjacent bin to the tank, using either a dedicated submersible pump and a length of hosing or your (temporarily repurposed) aquarium’s sump pump.

Get help or “take small bites”

If a water-change system isn’t in your budget right now and you still need to rely on buckets for hauling water, at the very least, elicit the help of a family member when it’s time to haul or empty the buckets. Older children can often be pressed into such service, or you might be able to persuade your spouse to lend a hand.

If you don’t have a spouse and/or kids (or they somehow always manage to make themselves scarce during water changes), consider under-filling the buckets so they don’t present such a heavy load.

Also, any time you need to empty a bucket of water into your aquarium, avoid the temptation of lifting the whole bucket over the tank. I know this is the fastest way to get the clean water in there, but if you should experience sudden acute back pain while the bucket is suspended above the tank, you risk dropping the bucket onto the glass with potentially catastrophic results. At the very least, you could end up dumping a bucketful of water on the floor. Instead, scoop smaller volumes of water out of the bucket with a small plastic container—at least until the bucket is light enough to lift easily.

Put it on wheels

A four-wheeled garden cart or kids’ wagon with a long handle is a great option for hauling buckets or bins of water around the house without breaking your back (if you don’t have to navigate stairs, that is). Or, if you’re even marginally handy, you could easily build your own wheeled bucket cart out of lumber scraps and a set of casters.

What’s your suggestion?
If you have back issues or other physical limitations to overcome when maintaining your tank, we’d love to hear how you do it in the comment section below.


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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.


  1. Paul Baldassano says

    I also worked construction all my life and am now retired. Those five gallon buckets of water used to be light, but now in my 60s water has gotten much heavier. I can still lift them but as you said, the aftermath may not be pleasant. I use a powerhead with a hose attached. I siphon water out of my tank into a plastic garbage pail then put the powerhead into the pail with the new water in it and pump the new water back into the tank. Then I put the powerhead in the pail of old water and pump that into a sink. I still have trouble when I collect Natural water from the sea and I still use five gallon buckets, but I just don’t fill them up and I carry two buckets, one in each arm to even me off. It takes a lot of strain off your spine.

    • Jeff Kurtz says

      Ah, proper load distribution to minimize stress on the spine! That’s an important consideration.Thanks Paul!

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