Moving your aquarium when moving house

Moving an aquarium when moving house is often a source of worry for fishkeepers, after all, moving a tank to the other side of the room can be quite stressful enough let alone moving it to an entirely different building. But fear not, our guide is tried and tested and has been used a number of times and with a little planning and adapting for specific set ups should help ease at least a few of your moving day stresses.

Some removal companies may offer specialist fish moving services, so if you’re at all worried about doing it yourself then it’s worth seeking advice. Removal companies are well used to handling heavy furniture and objects so with a bit of collaboration – you on the fish and them on the hardware – things should go smoothly. You can also ask at your local fish shop for advice as the staff there will be experienced in packing and transporting fish.

Whatever you choose to do it’s best to plan everything out well in advance. Our generic plan outlined here may seem rather detailed but the devil is in the detail and by anticipating and planning for as many things as possible there will be fewer issues on the day. We’ve added some rough timings to the plan based on a large tank to give you an idea of how long it might take. If you replace these timings with your own estimations then the calculations will adjust for you.

You can adapt the plan for moving any size of tank. The plan has details of (hopefully!) everything you might need to think of, prepare for and do, so this article won’t go into minutiae on all that. The article is designed to help you think through all the things that you might encounter when moving, and help you tailor the suggested plan to suit your own situation.

The plan shown here has not been used for moving marine set ups; you may be able to use it as a base for planning a marine tank move but there will many things to consider that are not included here.

Fish moving plan – INJAF Fish moving plan (spreadsheet for download)

Moving the fish tank straight in, or moving to a temporary location

If you can move the fish to a temporary location while you sort the new house out that can often be less stressful, although you will need to move them twice. If you need to do a lot of decorating, building or DIY at the new place then it’s often easier to do this before the fish are moved in.

If you have friends or family close by that would be willing to house them for a while you could move the tank before you have to move house. That way you’ll have one less thing to worry about on the day, and can then move the fish in once you’ve got settled into your new home.

If you are moving from rented accommodation you could consider having a few days overlap to enable you to move out in stages.

If you have multiple tanks then you’ll need to assess how long it will take you to move all of them, and whether or not you think that can be achieved in one day. The size of the tanks will have some bearing on this; larger ones take longer to move by virtue of the fact they take longer to drain and refill. You may be able to move five 30 litre tanks on one day, but five 300 litre ones would take a lot longer.  Experience tells us that moving three tanks in one day is about the limit for getting it all done without giving yourself a nervous breakdown!

If you decide you have too many tanks to move all on one day it would be wise to try and move some to a temporary location at friends or family before the move day.

If you have no option but to move the fish on the same day as moving house then there are plenty of things you do to make it easier it on yourself. Pack everything into labelled bags and boxes, and only put fish stuff in these boxes – you don’t want to be rootling through boxes of crockery trying to find the airpump!

A month before the move

  • Call in any favours and round up any helpers you might need. Make sure anyone roped in to help knows the date, time, addresses and routes.
  • It’s a good idea to check the water parameters at your new home if possible. If you can’t get hold of an actual sample you can check the postcode on the water provider’s website. If you use tap water for your water changes (rather than RO for example) then you need to be sure that the water at the new place is similar to your current water supply. Moving fish to much softer or harder water can be extremely bad for their health and you may need to plan how to provide them with the water conditions they need if the water supplied at your new home isn’t suitable for them.
  • Find out where the nearest fish shop is to your new home and make a note of opening times and telephone numbers.

Two weeks before the move

  • Remind any helpers of the date, time and addresses
  • Make sure you have enough fish bags, polystyrene fish boxes, insulated carriers, plastic boxes, bins, elastic bands and any other required kit

The week before the move

  • Make sure you know exactly where your aquarium will go in your new home, or in its temporary home
  • Make sure you are familiar with the route from the vehicle to where the tank will go – check for any tight corners and make sure you can get the tank through any doorways, round any corners etc.
  • Make sure there are enough power sockets within reach; you may need to buy additional extension leads and RCDs
  • Stock up on water conditioner and consumables such as fish food etc.
  • Prepare a moving day pack (see excel file for suggested kit list)
  • Prepare and print out at least two copies of your plan and checklist
  • Practice filling and tying any fish bags, tying the tops securely is quite an art and you won’t want any leaks! This is a good time to make sure the bags don’t leak

The day before the move

  • Don’t feed your fish if you can avoid it. This means there will be less poo from them to pollute the water in their bags and containers.
  • Run through the timings of everything, it will probably take longer than you are expecting so be prepared for this and make sure someone will have enough time to set the tank up. This is where helpers come in handy – they can haul boxes around and make tea while you sort the fish out!
  • Your fish will have to sit around for a while when you get to your new home as you’ll need to set up the tank for them. Make sure you have airstones, airlines and airpumps packed separately so that you can aerate the water in their containers on arrival if necessary.

Breaking down the aquarium for the move

It’s a good idea to photograph the tank from a few different angles to help you remember where everything goes when you go to reassemble all the hardware and décor. You may have seen it daily for the past ten years but you can be sure you’ll end up wondering where something went, or how the piping was set up!

How you break it down really depends on the set up you have. If it’s a high tech heavily planted one which will take a long time to dismantle then you might want to think about transferring the fish to a large plastic tub and put their filter, airstone and heater in with them. They can then stay in there for a day or so while you take the tank apart.

Lights: switch the lights off the night before so they are cool when you need to take them out. Coil up the cables and secure with cable ties. Once the tank is in the vehicle for the move you can put the lights back in it, this will keep them safe during the trip.

Heaters: switch the heaters off when you start to dismantle the tank but don’t take them out of the water until they’ve cooled down. Pack glass heaters carefully in bubble wrap to keep them safe.

Filters: leave the filter running for as long as possible. When it comes to removing it, switch it off and close any valves on external filters.

Internal filters: if you can fit the filter in a bucket or plastic box and keep it wet that would be ideal. If not, take the media out and bag it securely to keep it wet.

External filters: dismantle the pipework (now’s a good time to run a cleaning brush through it all) and bag it all up together so you know where all the bits are. Leave the water in the canister and transport it like that.

Plants: plants can be bagged, you don’t need to put water in with them; as long as they’re a bit damp and won’t dry out they’ll be fine. You can wrap them in damp paper or kitchen towel if you think they need a bit of extra protection. Pack them in boxes so they can’t get crushed.

Aquarium wood: this can go in a plastic box, or strong plastic bag. Try to keep it from drying out so it won’t try to float when you put it back in. If you have fish that like to hide out in the wood make sure they are not still hiding out when you remove the wood and bag it up – this has been known to happen.

Decorations: decorations can be bagged, or put in a plastic box. Check that no fish are hiding in them. If you have pipes or caves for catfish etc. check them carefully.

Substrate: how you deal with this depends on what the substrate is. Gravel and sand can be left in until you’ve taken all the water out then shovelled out with a clean dustpan. If you’ve got a soil type layer under the substrate, you can siphon out the top layer of sand/gravel while removing the water, then shovel out the soil type substrate. Gravel and sand can go in buckets, soil too or else you can bag it to help keep it damp. If you have Malaysian Trumpet Snails in the tank they will most likely have dug themselves into the substrate and should be fine being packed up with it.

Emptying the aquarium

If possible try to take some of the old tank water with you to refill with at the other end, then it will be more like you’ve done a large water change than swapped out all the water in one fell swoop. Plastic jerry cans can be bought quite cheaply in a variety of sizes, although anything over 25 litres is going to be quite a weight to carry! You can also use the old tank water to refresh the water the fish have travelled in if they are to be in their containers for a while at the other end.

If you are taking some water with you, siphon it out into jerry cans and check that no fish/shrimp/fry have been siphoned out with it. If you do, then they will probably be ok in the jerry can for the journey but do take care when pouring the water back in at the other end and make sure no one is left out! Check and check again that all your fish have been removed from the aquarium. To speed up the emptying process you can use wider bore tubing than you would usually use for siphoning, this moves the water out much faster.

Once you’ve got out as much water as possible by siphoning you can use a large clean sponge to remove the last few millimetres. Just squeeze the sponge and allow it to soak up the water, then squeeze it out into a bucket. Repeat until the tank is empty. It’s a good idea to dry the tank as much as possible to avoid watermarks on it, and to help you get a better grip on it. Carrying wet glass is never a good idea!

Transporting the aquarium

If you’re planning on taking the aquarium in your own vehicle make sure it will fit in. Ensure there is enough space to wrap protection around the tank, such as old blankets or duvets and make sure you have room for any bits and pieces if you are also transporting the stand, filter etc. in the same vehicle. If you are using a van, check where any tie down points are and make sure you have enough ties and straps to secure the aquarium and anything other items in place. Ratchet straps are a great bit of kit for this as you can tighten them up safely and prevent things sliding about. Make sure the tank is on as even and level a surface as possible, pad it out if need be as you don’t want to stress the joints and seals. If a van has tie down points or an uneven floor you can put lengths of wood along the floor to sit the aquarium on and keep it above anything. Be careful of metal ratchets and fastenings; pad them to keep them off the glass.

The aquarium needs to be empty before you move it. Don’t try and pick it up with any water or décor in it. Even small tanks or a small amount of water can be very heavy and the last thing you want is any breakages. Aquariums are designed to hold their load while stationary and fully supported. They are not designed to cope with carrying a load while being carried themselves; you may stress the joints which could prove disastrous. Remember that one litre of water weighs one kilogram. A normal sized bucket of water weighs about 10kg. Even if you’re super-fit and can bench-press 100kg this does not make it a good idea to try and move your aquarium while it’s full of water!

Make sure you have enough people to move the aquarium. Big tanks weigh a lot even when empty (my own 200cm tanks weigh over 15 stone/100kg when empty!) and once you’ve picked it up and started moving it you really don’t want to have to put it down halfway to the van. If you’re carrying very big tanks for quite a distance you might want to set up a couple of builder’s A frames or sawhorses along the way to allow you to rest the tank down for a moment. It’s much much easier to pick them up from a height than it is to try and pick them up from ground level if you’ve put it on the floor.

If you have to take a heavy aquarium up or down stairs bear in mind that the majority of the weight will be borne by the person at the bottom, so make sure they are up to the task! If you have to go backwards up any stairs whilst carrying a heavy tank be aware that this is not easy; climbing stairs backwards at the best of times is not as easy as climbing them forwards, let alone while carrying a fish tank. It’s not so much about not being able to see where you’re going; it’s more about the fact that your leg muscles are designed to be more efficient when going forwards.

Transporting the fish

The way you choose to transport your fish will depend very much on the species in question. Some species shouldn’t be bagged as they can puncture the bags. Certain catfish for example have sharp spikes on some of their fins and should be packed in plastic tubs with watertight lids. Be sure not to pack any aggressive or incompatible fish together as you don’t want any casualties during the journey.

Whenever the vehicle changes speed or direction the water in the containers will move in the opposite direction as a result of the momentum. Bear this in mind when filling containers or putting on lids – water is very adept at finding its way out of things! Lids should be watertight.

If you can keep the fish in the dark that can sometimes help reduce stress levels.

Bagging the fish

If you use bags for transporting your fish ensure that the bags are suitably sized. You should use only proper fish bags as these are very tall so you have plenty of bag to make the knot with, and the plastic is strong enough to hold water and fish. You should only fill the bags about a quarter to a third full of water; bizarre as it may sound it’s more important to have a good amount of air in the bag than to fill it up with water.

Put some tank water in the bag, and put a piece of tape over the bottom corners of the bags to round them off and stop any smaller fish getting caught in the corner when you pack the bags in the box. Add your fish and then top up if required.

To secure the tops, twist the top section of the bag tightly and the bag will puff up. Twist until the bag is firm and not easily squashable. Tie the top of the bag in a knot. If you can’t get a knot don’t worry, double the twist over itself and secure tightly with elastic bands. Place this bag inside another fish bag and secure the second in the same way.

If you have a lot of bags of fish you can pack them tightly together in a strong cardboard box, or plastic tub. Packing the bags together will help keep any heat in the water. A polystyrene fish box would be ideal; your local fish shop might be able to help if they have any left over from deliveries.

Other containers for the fish

If your fish aren’t suitable for bagging you can use plastic boxes with well fitting lids instead. The lids do need to be very well fitting to prevent any water sloshing out during the journey. Your local fish shop might have some empty marine salt buckets; these are bigger than the average bucket and have tightly fitting lids. If you can acquire some of these and rinse them out well they make excellent fish moving buckets. Always ensure that any plastic boxes are capable of holding the weight of the water when you lift them.

Larger fish can even be transported in a clean dustbin (a clean one, not the one you’ve been using for rubbish!). Rinse the bin, then fill a quarter to a third full with tank water and add your fish. The height of the bin means that water shouldn’t slop out unless you’re driving like Lewis Hamilton! Nonetheless it’s a good idea to put a bin liner over the top and tie it round tightly with some string to avoid any splashes, and then put the bin lid on top of that. If you have any jumpy fish they should never be transported in an open topped container. The bin will be heavy so make sure you’ve got someone to help carry it. Some makes of bin have plastic clips that secure the lid on, don’t mistake these for handles. The handles should be moulded into the shape of the bin.

Placing the fish in the vehicle

The most stable part of a vehicle is the middle i.e. as equidistant as possible from the wheels. If you can put your fish close to this area they will have a smoother ride. If you have large fish that won’t be able to turn around once packed you should make sure that they are placed in the vehicle facing sideways. If you put them in facing forwards they will bang their noses on the container whenever you brake!

Keeping the fish warm

Tropical fish need to be kept warm during their journey. If they are bagged they can be placed inside polystyrene fish boxes, or inside insulated picnic boxes. You can put the bags into plastic tubs or strong cardboard boxes and then wrap them in blankets or layers of bubble wrap to keep the warmth in. Coldwater fish won’t be so affected by a slight drop in temperature as long as it’s not drastic or sudden. You can buy heat packs which are specially designed for being put in boxes with fish bags, ask your local fish shop for information or look online for them.

Powering heaters in vehicles

If you’re travelling a long distance you may need to be able to use aquarium heaters, especially if you have large fish that are being transported in plastic bins rather than bags. You can buy power inverters to transform the 12v power from a cigarette lighter socket to 240v power for a standard plug. These should only be used when the vehicle is running, not while it’s switched off. They should not be used for filters though, there is no need for this. Do not attempt to put an aquarium heater in a fish bag!

Aerating the water

The water in the bags relies on there being a good amount of air in the bag for gas exchange. Other than that it’s not really possible to aerate water in bags. If you are transporting your fish in a bin you may be able to set up a battery powered airpump to aerate the water if required.

Keeping the filter bacteria safe

Contrary to popular belief, filter bacteria won’t die the second the filter is switched off! If you have an internal filter that can fit in a bucket or bin you can run a battery powered airstone in the bucket to keep a flow of water over the media inside. If you can’t keep an internal filter wet then your best bet is to take the media out and bag it securely to keep it damp. Set the filter up and running as soon as possible, even if it’s only in a bucket or bin – do remember to use tank water though and not water straight out of the tap.

On arrival at the other end – setting the aquarium up again

This is by far the easiest bit! Check the fish for any signs of stress. They may need a refresh of their water or a bit of aeration. Keep them in the dark and put them somewhere quiet and out of the way. You can leave them in the vehicle unless it’s very cold, in which case they would probably be better off being brought indoors.

If you have any concerns at all about the tank having been damaged in transit, you can always fill it up with tap water in the garden to check for leaks. Empty it again before taking it inside though!

If you have a high tech set up which will take a while to reassemble, you might want to put the fish into a temporary set up until their tank is ready for them. If you can do the tank on the same day as the move then set up the stand, aquarium, filter and any other bits of equipment.

Make sure you’ve got everything cabled and able to be plugged in before you add the water. It’s not good to discover that you can’t get a plug between the stand and the wall once you’ve filled the tank with water.

Add the substrate and carefully add as much old water as you’ve got. Pour it onto a plate set on the substrate to avoid clouding up the water. Top up with fresh water to about three quarters full. Make sure that the water you are adding is suitable for your fish and adjust accordingly if required.

Set the filter, heater, airstones etc. going and make sure everything is working properly. Add your décor and try to make it as similar as possible to how it was originally. This will help your fish settle in and reduce stress on them. If you have territorial fish, or one that’s claimed a particular cave as his home, then try to ensure that the territories and caves are where your fish will expect them to be. They are likely to rush off in search of their safe place so they need to be able to find it still! However, you may wish to take the opportunity to rearrange the tank as it’s not often you get the chance to redo it from scratch. If you decide to rearrange things bear in mind the needs of any territorial or aggressive species as you don’t want any fights breaking out while you’re in the middle of upheaval!

Check the temperature and compare it to the temperature of your fishes’ water. Once the tank temperature is the same as the fishes’ you can start to carefully put them back in. Treat it as if you’d just bought them and were acclimatising them for the first time.

Don’t feed them until the following day if you can avoid it, this will reduce pollution and give the filter a chance to catch up in case the bacterial colony suffered a little during the move. Leave the lights off until the following day, then revert to your normal routine.

Check the water daily for a few days to make sure everything is as it should be, and keep an eye on the fish for any signs of stress induced illness or other problems.

Hopefully our article has given you some ideas for making moving day as easy as possible, at least where the fish and aquariums are concerned!

Author: INJAF

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