My Experiences Weathering Winter Storms with Aquariums


Once again, wintertime is upon us. That means cold weather, snow and ice. However, this cold weather mix doesn't always mean a winter wonderland. Winter weather can also bring about the dreaded sleet and freezing rain. That in turn brings about power outages that can last for hours, days or even weeks! While many of us are able to bundle up and find heated shelter, what is a freshwater fish to do? Without heat, fresh oxygen and filtered water, freshwater fish in a home aquarium are more or less trapped in their own little chambers of death! However, freshwater fish keeping isn't a seasonal hobby. With the correct information and a little preparation, your freshwater fish can survive all four seasons, including the harshest of winters.
Winter Weather

When I was a child, winter was my favorite time of the year. Wintertime meant snow, which meant no school! Even as an adult, I grew to like winter because it then meant no work! However, once I got into the freshwater fish hobby, winter has quickly become my least favorite time of the year!

Many places around the world receive lots of snow throughout the winter. In those places, residents have become accustomed to this and are able to go on about their lives in a somewhat normal fashion. However, I am one of those unfortunate people who lives in an area that rarely gets snow during the winter. While my area is lucky to get a couple of snowstorms a year, we are usually the recipients of the much worse ice storms.

When an ice storm hits an area, the first thing that happens is the highways become too slick to travel upon. That's not the worst of it. The next thing that happens during an ice storm is a power outage. Depending on how much freezing rain has fallen in an area, these power outages can last anywhere from an hour to weeks! While in most instances we are able to bundle up or head to another heated shelter, our fish aren't so lucky.

I have had the unfortunate luck to have gone through three severe ice storms in the past three years. During the first two ice storms, I was lucky enough to have only lost one fish, an adult bumblebee cichlid. However, it's with a very heavy heart that I write this article after this past week's ice storm. During this ice storm, I lost over half of my freshwater fish. Out of my 10 aquariums, only 5 aquariums still contain fish. All of the empty aquariums now make our house look even emptier.

After our first ice storm, I grew frustrated by the lack of information to be found regarding how to care for freshwater fish during such harsh conditions. So after talking to our personal marine biologist and a lot of self experience, I hope some of these tips will help others, and prevent any heartbreaking losses of fish like we have suffered.

When the power first goes out, it is always a good idea to call your electric company. Not only can you report your outage, you may also get some idea when the power might be restored. Keep in mind that immediately after a power outage, the electric company may not be able to give you an adequate power restoration time. Our electric company told us the power would be restored 8 different times over three days! And four times, the electric company insisted that we already had power! Truth be told, our electric company restored power to our entire town except for two streets, including ours! The electric company left town, assuming that the entire town had power restored. If we would have known that ahead of time, our fish could have been saved.

Regardless of how long your power will be out, it is always a good idea to wrap any aquariums with a thick, heavy blanket or towel. Make sure it covers all of the glass on the aquarium. Make sure to cover any aquariums that are near outside walls first. Covering the aquariums this way will hold in as much heat as possible. Some fish are able to survive in colder water, but there are a lot of fish that can't survive the temperature drop. With the covered tanks, the temperature drop will be slowed somewhat.

Many fish will be okay with a slow temperature drop. However, if the power is out for a couple of days, the temperature drop can become quite dangerous. Most of my fish live within a temperature range between 72 to 80 degrees. After a couple of days, the water temperatures began to dip below 66 degrees. At that temperature, the fish became sluggish, and sank to the bottom. The fish actually went into a coma-like state, slowing down their activities and living off of their body's reserves.

Another result of a power outage will be the lack of tank filtration. Not only will this keep the water from circulating, it will also prevent the fishes' waste from being filtered out of the water. Not only will this make the water toxic to the fish, it will also quickly use up all of the aquarium's oxygen, which will kill the fish quicker than the temperature drop. 

The quickest way to give your fish fresh oxygen may come as a surprise, especially under the winter conditions. The quickest way to give your fish their much needed oxygen is to add a few ice cubes to the troubled fishes' aquarium. You don't add enough ice cubes to lower the water's temperature any quicker. You just add a one or two ice cubes to each tank every hour. When these ice cubes melt, the fish will get their much needed oxygen. In many instances, as soon as you add the ice cubes to the aquarium, your fish will swim right beneath the cubes. Some people will add oxygen to the water by simply taking a straw and blowing bubbles into the water. However, these are only temporary solutions. If your power is out for days, something else will have to be done. 

If you have a gas water heater or a gas stove, you can do partial water changes to give your fish their needed oxygen. With the heated water, you can add warmer water to the aquariums, providing the fish with not only oxygen, but also a warmer water temperature. However, if you are one of the unfortunate folks like me who has an all electric house, you and your fish are basically at the mercy of the electric company and Mother Nature. And neither will give any priority to saving schools of fish.

Never assume that your hardiest or largest fish are safe from power outages. In many instances, it all depends on how many fish are in an aquarium. If there are more fish in an aquarium, the oxygen will be used up quicker, and the waste will increase faster. These are usually the fish that will perish first.

Even after the power is restored, your troubles aren't over. If at all possible, you will need to do immediate water changes on your aquariums. The poor water conditions caused by the lack of filtration can and will give your fish any number of infections that may kill them after they have survived the power outage! Be careful not to increase the water's temperature too quickly. In many cases, if the water temperature changes too quickly, your fish will then develop a bad case of ich. It's also a good idea to add some type of preventive and stress reducing medicines to the aquarium with the water changes. 

During this most recent ice storm, in our largest aquarium, we lost a mbuna, 9 full grown black sharks, 2 full grown tiger oscars, 2 full grown albino oscars and two mid-sized red oscars. The only surviving fish from this tank were 3 plecos, our oldest tiger oscar and her mate. And the latter two fish are still fighting for their lives. Both oscars now have a biological infection from the poor water conditions. Their eyes are clouded over and their fins have become frayed on the ends. However, a tank with 1 mid-sized albino oscar, 1 mid-sized albino fantail oscar and 3 small fantail tiger oscars made it through the ice storm with out any trouble or illness. And these oscars had a tank that was closer to an outer wall!

I had assumed that since pacus were so hardy, they would be among the survivors. However, our entire pacu tank went belly up. We lost 7 full grown red bellied pacus and their tank mates, 5 silver dollars. Two other notoriously hardy fish, a jaguar cichlid and a salvini, survived the power outage, only to die from biological infections. 

Even some of the cold water fish weren't able to survive the lack of oxygen. In our shark/loach aquarium, we lost a skunk loach and a dwarf loach. Meanwhile, our dojo loach and orange finned loaches survived unscathed. Other survivors of this tank included three full grown red finned cigar sharks and numerous corys. However, our most devastating losses came from this tank. The power outage claimed the lives of our expensive and beautiful arowana and my personal favorite specimen, our peacock eel. While many so called experts will tell you that eels cannot be tamed, I raised this eel from 4 inches to an over two feet long eel that would readily accept food from my hand, and beg when hungry. This peacock eel did its best to survive, climbing out of its aquarium four times before finally running out of oxygen.

In a smaller aquarium, we lost a kribensis. Meanwhile, the krib's tank mates survived with no problem at all. Two Senegal bichirs and two dragon fish made it through the power outage without any trouble or later infections.

There is one solution to all of the lack of power and oxygen problems in your aquariums. However, it is a very expensive solution: a power generator! I was lucky enough to have an uncle who had a large gas powered generator that he let me borrow the second day of the power outage. Through my uncle's generous donation, I was able to save the rest of my fish. If I had only contacted him earlier, I could have saved all of the fish. However, our electric company led us to believe that the power outage was only a short term problem.

In addition to the above solutions, a few of our friends have offered a some other solutions. If you want to keep fresh oxygen in your aquarium, try using an air pump, like the kind that you use to air up basketballs and bike tires. Another way to keep oxygen in an aquarium is to have a planted aquarium. When the power goes out, you can shine flashlights on the plants, and they will continue to provide oxygen for the fish to breathe.

Many people may read this and wonder how someone could be so concerned about the welfare of some lowly fish. Others will wonder how someone can become so attached to these fish, and become heartbroken when these fish needlessly die. All I can say is that these people aren't true freshwater fish hobbyists. These people have never raised fish from fry to adulthood. These people aren't true blue friends. Fish can become somewhat exotic and strange members of a family, with their own personalities and habits. And if you have children, like my young son, these fish may have their own individual names. How can you not feel sad when you lose pets like that?

Someone asked me a day or so ago if I was going to give up on freshwater fish keeping altogether. Without hesitation, I said, "No!" It may take awhile and a lot of money, but I will continue doing what I love to do best: raising young fish to adulthood, appreciating their beauty, their personalities and their habits! And I will continue to share this love with all of the friends around the world! I may be down, but I'm not out. And hopefully, fellow friends can learn from my experiences and avoid attending a chilly, wintry mass fish funeral.

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