|arts & leisure|
So Long and Tanks for all the Fish
By Solveig Singleton
January 23, 1999
To most people, a blackout of more than twelve hours or so is a serious inconvenience. But to anyone who keeps tropical fish, a blackout is a catastrophe.
After a power outage, aquaria discussion groups become unhappy places, with dozens of fishkeepers mourning the loss of thousands of dollars worth of saltwater tropical fish and corals. Freshwater fish die too, and although the fish are less expensive than saltwater tropics, they are no less loved.
So what does Y2K mean for fishkeepers? Electric power plants, including nuclear plants, fossil-fuel burning plants, and hydroelectric plants relay heavily on embedded systems to distribute power over the grid, monitor safety and environmental functions, and other purposes.
Electric companies are working hard to fix their Y2k problems--but some are warning their customers to expect disruptions or to buy generators. If the power goes out and stays out over significant regions of the country, it could be a microcosm of disaster for fish lovers. And using the fish as a Y2k food source is out, however hungry family members get.
Modern fish-keeping depends heavily on electricity to operate filters, oxygenation equipment, and heaters. Most tropical fish are comfortable between 75 and 80 degrees (some, like White Cloud Mountain minnows, can accept much cooler temperatures if accustomed to them). And almost all need some kind of equipment to oxygenate their water (some species, like Bettas, can breathe from the surface if necessary). When the power goes out, some hobbyists stay up all night stirring their tanks to oxygenate the water. But if the heat falls too far too fast, the fish will die.
My investigation into fishkeeping practices in the nineteenth century turned up little helpful advice for possible power outages. Before electricity, the only fish kept successfully in tanks were fish that preferred cooler water, like goldfish, and a few hardy tropicals like paradise fish.
One old-time practice is useful: Shallow, wide tanks with more surface area of the water exposed to the air take in much more oxygen naturally than deep, narrow tanks.
Another option? Buy a generator. Most pet stores and aquariums have generators to operate the equipment they need, and insurance to replace valuable lost specimens. But the cheapest gasoline generators use a lot of fuel -- and no one wants barrels of volatile gasoline in their basement.
Besides, generators are noisy and without special ventilation cannot be operated indoors. Left sitting outside, they become prime targets for theft. If one's collection of tropicals is small, they seem like more trouble than they're worth.
One oddity is the lack of equipment in pet stores designed to help small-scale hobbyists weather a power outage (one would think that the equipment designers would have thought of everything, in an industry noted for selling dozens of useless products to newbies, like ammonia absorbers that only work for a few hours).
Battery-powered air pumps are available. Mine ran for about three days before the two D batteries ran down. These pumps are made by Hagen and retail for around $6.98, batteries not included.
But what about filters? Non-electric "filters" or "oxydators" are available; these products use hydrogen peroxide and other chemicals to add oxygen to the water and help convert waste into harmless substances. Sochting of Germany makes these. They start at $29.95 for the smallest size, and the largest is $79.95. I have heard that Meridian makes these as well, but have not found any for sale.
Heaters, though, are a problem. I haven't found any battery-operated heaters. The best advice so far: If temperatures drop, wrap your tank in a blanket or insulate it with sheets of Styrofoam (get them at a Home Depot in the insulation section).
You can also get a Coleman cook stove and some cans of fuel for it. When the power goes out, heat water and pour it into plastic milk jugs until they are half full. Cap them tightly and let them float in the aquarium. Replace them with new ones as they cool down. For smaller tanks, seal some of the chemical handwarmers sold in drug stores into baggies, and float them in the tank.
Don't feed your fish while the power is out, to cut down on the production of wastes. Most fish can go for a week without being fed. It's probably a good idea to keep the tanks extra clean in December 1999, just in case the lights go out in 2000 (and the fish will want their tank spiffy for New Year's celebrations anyway). And don't overstock. If the usual rule is one inch of fish (not counting tails) per gallon of water, stock the tanks at only 1/2 or 1/3 of that density.
If your fish do get seriously chilled, bring the water temperature up quickly. The general rule in all the books is that the temperature shouldn't be allowed to change more than two degrees per hour. But if the tank is at 45 degrees and you kept to this snail's pace in bringing it up to at least 65, the fish will be dead by the time you got it there.
Fish in the wild survive fairly wide temperature swings from downpours and other natural events, and, as one of my favorite fish experts says, "Fish don't read books." Finally, if a fish or a snail is floating around rigidly, apparently dead, don't flush it yet--wait and see what happens when it warms up.
And if you catch anyone tipping champagne into the tank on New Year's Eve, feed him to the piranhas.
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