How to Move a Fish Tank (Safely): A Step-by-Step Guide

Moving fish and a tank are challenges you’ll rarely have to face. But when you do, you have no choice and want to get it right the first time.

There is a specific order you’ll want to follow to keep stress and the chances of damaging your aquarium to a minimum.

That’s why I’ve put together this guide on how to move a fish tank!


Tools You’ll Need

  • Medium (6″) to Large (6″+) Net
  • Small and large towels for gripping and placing decorations on
  • Fish Transport Bags
  • Tap Water Conditioner (dechlorinates and provides Stress Coat)
  • Aquarium Air Pump (for long moves)
  • Appropriately sized cooler for transport

First Thing’s First

When considering the how, your very first steps involve isolating all of the electrical elements within the aquarium.

Your lid, lights, heater, filter, and other devices should be removed first because they will not only get in the way but are easily damaged by a careless move.

Aquarium heaters require extra attention because they don’t immediately cool when you turn them off. They are essentially incandescent bulbs that use electricity and resistance to make heat; that heat continues to be released over time.

This also means you want to leave the heater submerged for a few minutes to an hour.

A smaller heater will cool faster than a large one. But suddenly unplugging and removing a heater can create a burn hazard for you. Or even worse, it can shatter if it dries while hot and gets splashed. And if it’s still plugged in when it shatters, it’s not an electrical hazard for you and your fish.

I usually unplug my heater first and then give it a chance to cool while leaving the other equipment running.

The aquarium’s own water volume will keep the temperature stable long enough for you to return and continue the process.

Once the heater has cooled, you’ll want to unplug the filter, remove the aquarium lid entirely, and use a siphon hose to reduce the water volume. Catching fish in a tank with full volume is a lot of work so make things easier for yourself by giving them less room to flee.

You’ll want to first prepare a bucket of fresh tank water. I always fill the bucket for my fish around halfway in order to minimize the possibility of fish leaping from the bucket.

Add a touch of Stress Coat as well to keep them calm and soothe any injuries they pick up from their struggles.


Removing the Decorations

Once you’ve reduced the water volume, you can start removing plants, rocks, and other decorations. This is not only for organization but makes your fish easier to catch.

I prefer to lay out towels to place decorations on. Hopefully, you haven’t let the gravel carry too much debris or the water will cloud from food, feces, and other material.

When planning how to move a fish tank be careful about lifting wet rocks; dropping even a small stone can easily shatter aquarium glass!

Driftwood should not be allowed to dry out and should be packed in a cooler unless you’re only making a short move.

Driftwood not only contains living microorganisms but sinks because of the water it holds. If it dries you’ll have to soak it all over again or it will float in your new aquarium.


Packing and Preparing Your Fish and Plants

There are a few ways you can move your fish: you can either bag them for easy transport and re-acclimatizing or you can place them in a cooler. For short moves across town bagging your fish works well.

If you’re moving across the country, you’ll need to have an appropriately sized cooler. I’ll get more into that shortly.

Now that you’ve drained your aquarium down to gravel and water, it’s time to catch your fish. Using an appropriately sized net (the larger the better), start sweeping up your fish and place them into your bucket of water.

Once you have the fish collected, you can take your plastic bags and start adding water to them and individually bagging your fish.

An important point – something that even pet stores don’t always know – is that you want more air than water in the bag. Air holds 100x as much oxygen as water does by volume.

You only need ¼ to ⅓ of a filled bag with water. On the other hand, you also don’t want too little water because smaller volumes of water lose heat quickly!

That’s why I never use the smallest 4″ x 16″ aquarium fish transport bags. Go for at least the 6″ x 12″ bags, several of which are available online.

Small schooling fish can be bagged together while larger fish should be individually bagged. You can either use atmospheric air or simply breathe into the bag; exhaled air is still ~16% oxygen so you won’t be killing your fish.

While live plants are usually shipped with wet newspaper and sealed containers, simply bag them as well with a small volume of water.

Finally, you’ll need a cooler to keep the temperature from falling too quickly. For a move within the house or to another house in town, you should have little difficulty making it for up to 12 hours with a standard foam cooler.

Adding some warm aquarium water will also help insulate your bags of fish. Every 2-3 hours you’ll want to refresh the air within the bag, so using rubber bands to secure them rather than knots will make things much easier.

It’s also a good idea to bag your filter media in the same manner (minus the Stress Coat). Transporting as much of your microorganism culture to the new location as possible will jump-start the cycling process.

Be sure to keep the plastic bag full of filter media bag warm and give it occasional sips of fresh air as nitrifying bacteria are aerobic!


Draining the Water

Once fish, decorations, and equipment are all secure, it’s time to remove the last of the water and gravel.

Siphon hoses are gravity powered and won’t remove every last drop of water so you’ll need a scoop of some sort to remove the wet substrate.

Your sand or gravel can be easily placed into buckets for washing and transport. If you’re reusing the substrate in your new aquarium, you should instead move it into a cooler to preserve as many microorganisms as possible, though it does become a bit more difficult to transport..


Moving the Aquarium

When we asked “how to move a fish tank,” you probably didn’t think the first question would be the last step! At least we’re ready to move the fish tank itself.

If the tank is light, simply lift by hand. Larger aquariums will probably necessitate helping hands as glass is heavy.

If your tank is large, it’s a good idea to use small towels for gripping the aquarium. Wet glass and plastic are slick and a single slip can mean a shattered aquarium.

If you’re using a flatbed to haul it across town, place cardboard, towels, or some other material in between the bed and the aquarium to prevent sliding. Drive gently!


Considerations for Long Distance Moves

If you need to drive long-distance, you’ll be needing to make overnight stays along the way. A cooler is the preferred method over using bags. The larger volume of water will insulate itself better against temperature swings.

How long you’re traveling also necessitates an aquarium bubbler. Your fish are stressed, which will increase their oxygen demands.

Whenever you make a long stop, find an outlet to plug in a bubbler to increase oxygen as well as a heater if necessary to bring the temperature up to a normal range.

Never feed while making a long move. Not only will the fish be unwilling to eat but you’ll foul the water. Once per day and as necessary, do small water changes with temperature-matched, dechlorinated tap water.

Be sure to add Stress Coat as well to stimulate and soothe their gills and slime coats.


Conclusion

Moving across a house, a city, or a country can be a logistical challenge the first time you attempt it. Fish add another dimension to the experience and there is no avoiding the stress factor for them.

How you go about planning and execution will ensure you cause the minimal amount of stress to your fish during the move.

As long as you follow these steps, you’ll have your fish set up and cycling in their new home in no time at all!

The Aquarium Handbook

The Aquarium Handbook is our premium eBook that contains everything you need to know about setting up and maintaining an aquarium the right way.

Click below to check out 90+ awesome pages of illustrated fishkeeping guides!

The Aquarium Handbook Cover

Leave a Comment