Fish Out of Water: How to Pack Up Your Aquarium


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Gotta move your fish? Here’s an experiment for you. Try picking up your aquarium, full of water and fish, just an inch or two off the table it’s currently on.

On second thought, don’t. Just leave it there and take our word for it: moving your aquarium across the room, forget about across town or across state lines, simply will not work if it’s full.  (Yes, packing aquariums seem so daunting people actually attempt this.)

You’ll damage your aquarium. You’ll kill your fish. And you’ll get water and a vague fishy smell all over everything.

Packing a fish tank requires a lot of care. But we can’t pack that tank until we take care of what’s inside. So let’s touch on that first.

The Process of Moving Fish

Whether freshwater or salt, moving your tank is complicated and fraught with pitfalls. If you are moving locally and can reintroduce your fish to their tank in a couple of hours, you might be able to successfully transport your fish in a sealable bucket filled halfway with aquarium water. Even so, once in your new home, the process of getting the water in the tank to a level where the fish won’t die of shock or biological reaction involves a high level of fish-smarts.

These experts suggest a few things to help your fish survive the move, including:

  • Transporting them in aquarium water, in separate sealed bags.
  • Keeping them in a dark or shaded environment.
  • For any move longer than one hour, adding pure oxygen to the water and keeping the fish, already inside of their bags, in a closed cooler or other heat-resistant container.

Likewise, it is best to transport your aquarium accessories – the fake plants, the colored gravel, and the little scuba diver blowing bubbles out of his helmet – in the same aquarium water they have been sitting in for weeks and months. This is because there are aquatic bacteria on these items that help maintain proper water quality. Transport these things, along with as much aquarium water as you can, in watertight plastic buckets.

Live plants should definitely be transported in aquarium water (not fresh tap water!). Same for the filtration parts that normally rest underwater. Drying everything out does not equal the end of the aquarium (just the end of those live plants). But doing so will require a complete restart of the cycling process that readies the water for reintroducing your fish. Make sure to read up about that at that link!

Bottom line, the closer to their regular environment you can keep your fish, the better they will be throughout the move and in your new home.

Now let’s take care of their home.

Packing the Tank

Grab yourself a carton big enough to provide a minimum of 3-4 inches extra space on all sides of your aquarium – including the top and bottom. This space will be filled with crumpled packing paper, densely packed to keep the aquarium in place and provide the necessary protection against exterior pressure and inadvertent impact. A dish pack offers double-walled strength. A wardrobe box would also work well if your tank is that big.

Line the bottom of your carton with several inches of densely-crumpled packing paper. Center your empty tank in the box and surround it on all sides with enough packing paper to keep it from shifting in transit. Such shifting alone may not cause your tank to crack, but if your tank ends up pressed against the inside wall of your carton, it might not take much exterior impact to break that glass.

Now we have to protect the top of the tank. Does this mean we fill our empty tank with massive wads of packing paper so we can in turn pad the top of the inside of the box? We could, but to save time and paper, we can instead place a flattened carton (or some other piece of cardboard of usable size) and lay it over the top of the tank. Not only does this save us a tank’s worth of paper, but it helps provide better, more even support for the dense layer of crumpled packing paper we are putting on top to hold that tank firmly in place.

Note: It may be tempting to pack pumps, heaters and certain other accessories inside your aquarium. This may save you some space, but the risk of damage is too great. Pad and pack them carefully in a separate carton, labeled appropriately.

After securely taping your carton, grab a thick black (or red) marker and start drawing big arrows pointing toward the top of the box. Why? Because fish tanks are not meant to be placed on end. Even without the water pressure, a fish tank can begin to twist and torque under the uneven weight of being transported (read: bounced around) on its side. Draw twice as many arrows if you are packing it in a dishpack or wardrobe carton that will need to be loaded and transported on its side. Write “Fragile” and “Fish Tank” on every side. Heck, draw pictures of your fish if you think that will help. And if you are loading up your car or truck by yourself … yeah, make sure no book boxes get tossed on top of it.

All things considered, it may seem getting your fish safely to your new home will be harder than transporting your fish tank. But don’t take packing that tank too lightly. You may be excited to move into a brand new home, but your fish will be happiest in their same old place.


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