Reefkeeping Basics by Greg Taylor

Going Out of Town without Losing Your Reef (or Your Mind)

Leaving your reef aquarium can be a traumatic situation, but there are some things you can do to minimize the danger of a major catastrophe. For short durations, a well-setup, stable tank can easily go without supervision for a few days. This article is meant to address longer trips, which would require someone to look after your tank for you.

Choosing a Tank Sitter

This is probably the most important step. You can hire someone that specializes in aquarium care, but this is expensive and there are no guarantees that they will take care of your tank the way you'd like. It is a good idea to choose someone you know and feel you can trust to follow your instructions to the letter, whether that person is a professional tank caretaker, or a complete aquarium novice.

The best choice is a friend that has experience with reef aquariums. If that is not a possibility, then choose someone that has shown consistent interest in the aquarium, and that you can trust to follow your instructions without improvising. If you don't feel comfortable with any of these suggestions, then contact an aquarium maintenance professional.


The more you prepare for your extended absence, the more likely it will be that your reef will be happy and healthy when you return. The best way to be sure that your tank is not overfed, or overdosed, is to pre-measure everything that will be added to the tank while you are gone. Flake food can be put into labeled sandwich bags with a day's portion in the bag. For reef tanks, two part additives can be put in cheap, small plastic containers labeled for each day, or for shorter trips (less than two weeks) they can be ignored altogether, a stable tank will not suffer from a few days lacking two part additives. Unless you have a very simple method of dosing kalkwasser, you would be better off discontinuing its addition while you are gone. It is likely that a mistake in dosing kalkwasser will cause a bigger problem than not dosing at all.

Food can be put into labeled sandwich bags with a day's portion in the bag.
Two part additives can be put in cheap, small plastic containers labeled for each day.

Be sure that any saltwater is well marked and is not easily accessible to avoid accidental evaporation replacement with saltwater. It would be advisable to explain carefully to your assistant that they should always replace evaporation with freshwater - not salt. Explaining why this is true will help it make sense to your assistant.

Have everything your assistant will need in a convenient location so that there will be no confusion. Be sure that anything they will need is properly labeled and cannot be confused with other items. If your assistant will need miscellaneous items, provide the proper ones in the same location as other equipment. For example, if they will need a bucket, make sure a bucket safe for use is with your other aquarium paraphernalia. This can prevent impromptu usage of other equipment (such as a bucket used for cleaning with chemicals), which may result in catastrophe for your tank.

Even more important, fix any broken or non-functional devices, so that your assistant won't have to deal with them. Get the tank operating smoothly long before you leave. Simplify all your chores as much as possible, not just for your assistant's benefit while you are gone, but also for your own. Do any major chores (i.e. water changes, major cleanings/maintenance, etc.) before you leave so that they won't need to be done while you are gone.


Create a simple checklist of tasks for your assistant to use each visit. This is where you tell them exactly what you want done on each visit. This needs to be as specific as possible. Without a checklist it will be very easy for your assistant to forget something, or do more than you have planned.

Demonstrate how to do everything on the checklist to your assistant. Have them do it at least once in your presence, so you can verify that they understand the process.

Log Book

Keep a logbook with the checklist. Ask your assistant to note anything out of the ordinary, and keep track of what they've done each visit. Dates and times are important required fields for each log entry. This can be useful for when you return to see how things went. Also, if something does go wrong, your assistant can read the logbook to you over the phone so you can determine what is amiss with the aquarium.

Sample checklist:
Date Time Water Feed Fish Feed Coral Clean skimmer Dose 2-part additive Health check Notes/ Comments
Temp Add fresh water (gal) Fish Coral
2-May 6:30pm 80 1/2 gal X X X X X X Couldn't find one of the gobies. Everything else looks good.
4-May 7:45pm 82 2 gal X X X X X X The goby came out tonight. Whiteish-green coral looks different.
5-May 5:20pm 78   X X     X X Didn't do everything because I wasn't supposed to stop by today. Will be back tomorrow.
6-May 8:00pm 82 2 gal X X X X X X White-green coral turning more green. Something wrong with it. Skimmer is making funny noise.
9-May 7:00pm 80 3 gal X X X X X X Fed twice as much today since I should have come yesterday

Click here if you wish to download this sample checklist in Microsoft Excel format. (You may have to right click and select: save target as... in order to save this file to your computer.)

Frequency of Visits

Depending on how confident you are of your aquarium's stability, you probably only need to have someone stop by every other day. If it will help your nerves, or if your aquarium typically needs daily attention (fresh water replacement for example), then certainly arrange for daily visits. Otherwise, your tank inhabitants will do just fine without daily feedings for a week or two.

Don't Make Major Changes

If at all possible, avoid making any major changes just before leaving. The first few days after making a change is when a failure is most likely to occur. Avoid the temptation of installing a neat new gadget right before you leave.

Keep It Simple

Don't overcomplicate things. What seems simple to you may confuse your assistant. Only do what is absolutely necessary to keep your aquarium going until you get back. Water changes can be postponed, additives can be skipped, and feedings can be changed from elaborate custom seafood mixtures to simple flake food. The more simplified you can make things, the better.


If it's possible, make regular contact with your tank sitter. This will reduce stress for both you and your assistant. Be sure your assistant understands that they are not to do anything that isn't on the checklist until they talk to you first. Of course the exception to this rule is if there is a leak or some other major problem that has an obvious solution. Let your assistant know that if they follow your direction on the checklist and call you if anything else occurs, they don't have to feel responsible if anything goes wrong. If possible, every few days have a short conversation with your assistant just to verify there are no problems. Be sure to give contact information to your assistant so that they can contact you if something does go wrong.

Provide an expert contact for the tank sitter to access if you are unavailable in the even of an emergency. Good examples of this would be your favorite employee at the local fish store, or a member of an aquarium club you belong to who may have in-depth knowledge of your system, or aquariums in general.

Document Basic Troubleshooting

Document anything that has gone wrong for you in the recent past and how to deal with the problem if it occurs. If it happened to you, it can happen to your sitter. Also describe how to deal with any problems that you feel are likely to occur while you are gone.

Relax and enjoy your trip. You've done everything you can to ensure the health of your tank.

If you have any questions about this article, please visit my author forum on Reef Central.

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Going Out of Town without Loosing Your Reef (or Your Mind) by Greg Taylor -