Oh no, this sounds really serious! Sounds like everything has failed, all pumps refusing to pump and the like. What a nightmare that would be. But no, the nearest thing to that would be a power failure as equipment nowadays is generally reliable.
What this is all about is the passage of time and the effects. Year in, year out all is well and the aquarist watches his/her beautiful aquarium and the changes occuring – fish grow, sadly perhaps one dies, corals change shape and even move by re-attachment. The reef becomes more like a miniature wild reef, tiny creatures scurrying about in the dark avoiding the dangers of predation. A fish only system also changes and matures, many of these systems use rocks as decor and these change colour and develop different coloured algae as the fish grow. The aquarist assists in this by maintaining the system – cleaning the viewing glasses, completing partial seawater changes, at the same time siphoning rubbish out as far as possible.
Now we get to it, it’s this rubbish that’s the problem after many years. We aquarists vary in how keen we are, some are enthusiastic and some carry out maintenance because ‘I have to’. I like the first version the most but it doesn’t really matter as long as the maintenance is properly completed. No matter how well the maintenance is done eventually a problem can arise. When the aquarist completes a partial seawater change usually the old seawater is siphoned out of the aquarium, this siphoning also removing debris which can then be discarded. Unfortunately, debris has an unhelpful tendency to gather in inaccessible places such as under and behind rocks and corners. Helpful though the siphon is there isn’t a way of reaching these hidden accumulations.
Well, that’s not true, there is. Eventually the debris has to be removed by dismantling the aquarium. Just thinking about that could cause an aquarist with a beautiful aquarium to tear his hair out! Remove all those rocks, sand, corals, fish and anything else kept. The stress on the aquarist and the livestock is high. But if the dirt is clearly excessive, and it is easy to know when it is, a clean up must be done. First, discipline – do it. Pick a time and day to do it when there isn’t going to be interruptions. Ensure there are enough containers in which to place rocks, sand, seawater and creatures. Mix plenty of new seawater to act as a top-up supply, none will be wasted as any excess can be used towards a later partial seawater change . Cloths need to be available to cover the floor area. A couple of beers could be standing by too! Take a photograph of the aquarium through the viewing glasses, if possible from both sides and the front, this should assist in re-construction.
There will be some damage to the view but it should be minimal. Grit those teeth! Ensure hot heaters are not exposed to air. Siphon some seawater into the container that is to hold rocks. Now take the top visible rocks out and place them carefully in the container. If it’s a reef aquarium there will be corals so these must be carefully placed to keep the corals on top. Now take the lower rocks out and place them on the rocks already there avoiding any corals – use a separate container if necessary. This puts them in the correct order – bottom and top – for putting them back.
Siphon out as much of the remaining seawater as possible, avoiding dirt. Running the seawater through a filter cloth could help. Ensure seawater goes into the container that will hold livestock. The seawater being saved will be going back into the aquarium. Leave a few inches of seawater in the aquarium for the fish and any other livestock.
It is a good idea to use two nets to minimise the time spent chasing fish around which causes more stress to the fish never mind the aquarist. When they are caught gently put them in a container. Siphon out all remaining seawater as far as possible avoiding dirt. Ensure the seawater in the livestock container does not cool excessively – use a heater if necessary.
Now the clean-up can commence. Remove the accumulated dirt completely and dispose of it. Work quickly but ensure that dirt, including that on the glasses not normally seen, is removed. Now things are progressing. No beer yet though. Thoroughly clean any sand that is in use. This can take some time. The use of tap water for this is acceptable, the sand can be flushed in a bucket until it is clean, just keep tipping out the tap water after each stir with the sand still in the bucket. Note: cleaning sand does not include any DSB (deep sand bed). Let the sand drain so that as much tap water is removed as possible.
Everything clean? Right, into reverse then. Return the lower rocks first trying to place them where they came from. This will not be completely accurate of course. When the lower rocks are in and stable, the upper rocks can go in. The tops of the upper rocks are evident by the different colour as they are exposed to the light and of course they could have a coral attached. To assist use the photographs if they were taken. Ensure the rocks are stable. Now place any sand required into the aquarium.
Return the seawater from the rock container to the aquarium, ensuring that any dirt is not returned. Return the seawater from any additional container that was used. Check the level and top-up from the new mix as necessary. Turn on the aquarium heaters and other equipment once the seawater is at the required level, but leave the lights off. Again using two nets if needed, catch the fish plus any other livestock and gently return them to the aquarium. Do not expose shrimps and similar to the air. There isn’t a requirement for the livestock to be acclimatised as they are essentially in the same seawater. Take this opportunity to check the rock structure once more, ensure it is stable. Leave the lights off until the following day, this will help the livestock to de-stress. In the same way, do not attempt to feed them. Let them have some quiet.
Put away all the bits and pieces and clean-up the area if needed. Now the aquarist can de-stress. Have a beer, you’ve done well! The aquarium scene will repair quite quickly as damage to the rocks and that on them should be minimal. Mother Nature will re-assert herself.
There is one advance on the system that can be made at a major clean-up time as described above. It’s also achievable when a new aquarium is being set up. This advance will delay the ‘total breakdown’ requirement considerably and is recommended. For more information go to the March 2011 Archives from the Home Page and click on the title ‘Keep It Clean’. I have this in my reef aquarium which has been running for 13 years, there is about 2 inches width of sloping debris at each end of the aquarium under the rocks and the rest is clean. No need for a breakdown, at least not for a considerable while.