Moving an Aquarium: Step-by-Step Guide

You signed the paperwork, now your family is moving.  With all the other crazy stuff you have to get done, moving an aquarium tops the list.  After all, you know how to put pots and pans in a box.  A box of water, on the other hand…a little bit challenging!

I’m going to walk you through the basic steps for moving an aquarium (of any size!) safely and effectively, and without losing your fish or liverock.  I wrote this post to help both fresh and saltwater enthusiasts, since the process is similar.

Moving an Aquarium:  A Step-by-Step Guide

The week before moving an aquarium:

If your new home is local to your old home, if possible, move the aquarium the day before or after making the full household move.  This lets you focus on nothing but your fish.  If the new home is hours or days away, pack your fish last and unpack them first.

Before moving, decide where the tank will live in your new home.  Use a tape measure and make sure the new home works.  Double check that direct sunlight doesn’t shine on it at any time, and that the floor can support its weight.  The larger the tank, the more permanent the home.

About a week prior to the move, do as large a water change as your tank can comfortably handle.  Retain the water in buckets or jugs.  You’ll be using this to safely set up your tank in its new home.  If possible, move this water over before you move the tank.

Buy or borrow enough buckets and bags to bag each of your fish individually, and any live rock or corals.  Also purchase a Styrofoam cooler or earmark a cooler for the fish. Make sure any buckets have been thoroughly cleaned with fresh, clear water, and that no residue remains.  Ask at your local fish store for bags.  Do not use ziploc baggies, use bags that can be tied properly.

If you move cross-country, make sure you have adequate heating and cooling for the trip, as well as supplies to re-bag any fish or liverock, and water to replenish along the way.  Fish ship reasonably well, so if you provide for their temperature and oxygen needs, they will usually survive.  Services also exist that will pack and ship your fish for you.

The Day of the Move:

If you are moving the whole household today, the tank must be last packed and first out.  Make sure you have enough help to make this happen efficiently.  Someone must be solely focused on setting up your tank.  Glass tanks are not strong enough to move loaded, not even small ones.  Always have a back-up plan that will keep your fish alive long enough to replace the tank.

Start by draining off enough water to fill your buckets and bags.  Bag your fish so that the air fills about 2/3 of the bag, and the water 1/3, and use bags that tie shut, just like the pet store uses.  Bag fish individually.  Multiple fish could injure each other if they are jostled.  Do not blow into the bag, but use regular air.  Once bagged, double-bag each bag separately.  Place them immediately in the cooler, to retain temperature.

Fish too large to bag go in buckets.  If you have large fish, like oscars and gouramis, purchase buckets or coolers large enough for them to sit in without touching sides or bottom.  Make sure all buckets with fish have lids.

Live rock and corals go in buckets or coolers.  Cover them with at least three inches of tank water.  Maintain their temperature carefully, as they are extremely fragile.  Live plants should also be bagged or bucketed.

Pack up the rest of the water in buckets or jugs.  Tanks should be moved with at least an inch of water over the sand or gravel, as many beneficial organisms live in the substrate.

Setting Up Again

After moving an aquarium, set-up must go quickly.  Place the tank and stand in the new home, and fill with the water from the previous water change if possible.  Check that the heater functions.  Ensure that tank temperature and water of any live rock matches.  Place the live rock in the tank as soon as the temperature measures up.

Float bagged fish in the aquarium for 30 minutes.  The move has been stressful, don’t rush this step.  Set up the plants and decorations as you see fit while they float.

Bucketed fish will be a bit more difficult.  Instead of floating them for 30 minutes, change about a quarter of their water every fifteen minutes, for an hour.  Carefully release them one by one into the new tank.

After 30 minutes, remove about half the water from the bag and add the equivalent from the tank.  After another 30 minutes, most fish can safely be set free in their new home.  Top up the tank with any remaining water, and power on your filter and light.

Because you are not introducing any outside water or fish to the tank, it’s OK if the old water mixes with the new.  If you use tapwater from the new home to maintain your tank, perform small (10% or less) water changes the first few weeks as the fish adjust.

My Fish Died.

Your family faces stress when moving, and so do your fish.  It’s reasonably expected that some fish will not survive the move, even if the move was quick.

If all your fish have died, something happened during the move that killed them.  Perhaps they became too warm or too cool (like if you left them in a hot car), or a bucket had chemical residue.  Perhaps the heater did not function properly in the new home, or you had to top off the tank with untreated water.

My Move Went Sideways.

If, during your move, something happened to delay the move, check our Disaster Planning post for additional ideas.  Sometimes fish stores will board fish short or long term in an emergency.

Have you moved an aquarium?

Do you have any additional tips or tricks to share?  How did your move go?


Tyler Smith

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