Aquarium Tips

Thinking of moving your Saltwater Reef Aquarium?

Sometimes life changes. It can change in a way that requires your beautiful reef aquarium, that you have poured your heart and soul (and a lot of cash!) into, to be torn down and moved to a new home. It may seem like a daunting task, but a little thought and planning can ease pain and suffering. There are a few different approaches you can take that will just require you to make some decisions on what will be best for you and your livestock. I hope that this article can provide some insight into the mayhem that is moving an aquarium. So when you have to go through the same ordeal, you will be a bit more informed.

Live rock, fish and coral in temporary holding

Should you move it?

This is the first question you need to ask yourself.  There are times when moving your reef makes sense, and there are times when it’s better to just sell it off (partially or fully) and start fresh at the new location. If you have ever gone through a tank upgrade where you are staying in the same location and just transferring everything to a new system, you know that even that can be quite stressful, not only on the tank’s inhabitants but you as well. So imagine what it’s like trying to transfer everything across town.

My opinion?

Based on my own personal experiences with moving a tank from one house to another, I will no longer do it. At least when it comes to large aquariums. It becomes a very rushed event. It’s almost guaranteed you will lose some livestock or at the very least break coral. You will still go through a bit of “new tank syndrome” for the next few months as you wait for everything to settle in, bacteria to colonize, etc.

In my opinion, it’s just not worth it. I’d rather sell it all off, put that money away, and start fresh. You can keep equipment you think you’ll use again and you can see if any of your local stores or local reefers would be willing to temporarily hold livestock for you. This will help save you some cash and let you take your time in getting the system set up right. No rushing, no stress, better outcome.

For me, the biggest hurt is saying goodbye to all those large, beautiful coral colonies that I grew from small frags. But then again, growing them out is half the fun! And trying to place large colonies onto a fresh rock-scape can be very difficult. So even if you are able to hold on to pieces, I would suggest fragging off small pieces to keep and sell the rest. It will be easier to aquascape, you’ll put extra cash in your pocket for new coral… It’s a win-win! Even if you plan to use the same tank and equipment at the new location… Just hold on to it or put it in storage. But not having all your livestock to worry about is liberating.

I really do want to move it

You are now aware of the problems with moving a tank but you just can’t bear to part with it. Perfectly understandable. So the least I can do is offer some suggestions to make the move as smooth as possible. We’ll start with the basics and then move on to fish and coral.


Get rid of it. Old sand is NASTY! Yes, it’s chock full of good bacteria and creepy crawlies that help keep a tank stable and healthy. But it’s also full of junk that has been collecting at the bottom of your tank for however long you’ve had it set up. Stuff that isn’t going away. And trust me, when you drain the tank and you are down to just the sand, you will smell it.

You have the option of keeping it and rinsing it out before putting in back into the tank, but then you’ve washed away all the good stuff, too. And if you try to just transfer it straight over without cleaning it, you are in for a world of hurt. Don’t do it. So just bag it up and put it out on the curb, or give it to a local reefer looking to start with “dry” sand.

I prefer starting a tank with live sand, and I mean truly live, so I always place an order with Tampa Bay Saltwater. Fresh sand, fresh critters, tons of good bacteria and other organisms… it’s a great way to start off any tank and in my experience will help make a smoother transition when moving a tank.

Scarlet Hermit walking on sand from Tampa Bay Saltwater


There is a misconception that keeping your water will help prevent a cycle in the tank. Guess what… there is nothing in it besides dirty water. Bacteria isn’t free floating, it clings to surfaces. If you want to keep some water because you don’t have a way of making up enough fresh saltwater to fill the tank, that’s fine. But don’t go through the trouble if you think it’s somehow better for the tank because it’s not.

The only reasons to use old saltwater is to match your parameters or if you don’t have access to enough pre-made saltwater. If you do have enough fresh saltwater and parameters aren’t an issue, there is no reason to use the old water. You can also use some of each. In the end, do what you feel is best here.


Here is where the fun starts. You need to keep it wet. This means finding large containers you can fill with water (a good use for your old saltwater), place the rock in and transfer to the new location. One of the best things I’ve found for this is the large “Brute” trash cans commonly used in the hobby. These are NSF rated food safe. No worries about leaching anything harmful. Pay extra for the wheeled base. If this is not an option, look for large, sturdy, plastic totes with really secure tops.

Depending on what you are using, you may not want to completely cover the rock in water, so you can always lay wet newspaper or towels or something across the top. Fresh air is a no-no for things like delicate sponges so do what you can to quickly transfer the rock out of the tank, into the water, and kept wet.

If you are able to do the complete tank transfer within the same day, this should be all you need. If the rock is going to sit in these containers overnight or several days, you are going to want to have a powerhead in each container to keep the water moving, and possibly a heater depending on ambient temps. 

Live Rock from Tampa Bay Saltwater

Fish and Critters

More plastic totes. Or buckets with lids. Space will be tight and the fish will be stressed, so the more you can split them up into separate totes or buckets the better. Again, you will want powerheads and heaters if temps are cool and the move will be a long one. The fish will be one of the last things to go into the aquarium so keep that in mind. They should also be one of the last things out of the aquarium. I have found that snails, hermits, stars, cucumbers, etc can all co-habitat together without worry, at least if moving within the same day.

A Happy Purple Tang Fish


Yet more plastic totes! This is one of the most frustrating parts of the move. Large colonies are going to take up more space than you expected. There will be a lot of “accidental frags”. Some may pop right off the rocks, others may require more force or even require unorthodox tools like a hacksaw or hammer and chisel! Do what you need to do to get everything into totes and be mindful that you don’t want them touching each other. I’ve found that placing colonies in large ziplock bags and leaving the top open will allow water to circulate around the coral but keep it protected from neighboring corals. Once again, consider the need for a powerhead and heater.

Large colony of Red Planet Acropora

Go Time!

It’s time to scramble! You’ve gotten everything out of the tank but now you have to finish draining the water, dismantle all the plumbing, get the tank off the stand, load everything up and get it to the new place and do it all in reverse! Not an easy task, and you’re trying to keep everything alive in the process. Once plumbing is complete, fill the tank (check for leaks) and start putting everything back in the tank. Now you’ll have clean up to do, you’ll spend time re-arranging things, and you’ll begin watching and hoping everything makes it through the next few months as the tank settles in.

Empty tank, cleaned out and ready to move!

Conclusion… Or is it?

As you can see, this is a stressful and daunting task. Which is why I don’t recommend it. When I tore down my 200g I sold off everything I could. The new house is quite a bit smaller than the old house so I knew I couldn’t use the same tank and much of the equipment. It took a little while to sell it all but I wasn’t in a huge hurry and I ended up with a pretty fat PayPal account.

We finally made the move to the new house. Now I was able to concentrate on things there and get a few projects done, get all moved in, make sure every one was settled and happy, and I was able to do all this without thinking or worrying about an aquarium. As much as I love the hobby, the break was actually kind of nice! And while I was doing these things, I was silently scoping out available locations for a new aquarium. In my down time I continued to surf the online forums, research tank manufacturers, new equipment, and even some new methods of running a reef tank. FINALLY… about 3 months after the move… I was able to get started. I was free and ready to start fresh. And so it continues….

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