Fish tanks: How Houston-area aquarium hobbyists can prepare, recover their tanks during cold weather

A male Crowntail Betta swims peacefully inside a 20 gallon aquarium tank (KPRC)

HOUSTON – You’ve heard of ways to protect your pets from the cold weather, but what about those who own fish tanks?

During the 2021 February freeze, many Houstonian aquarists found themselves rebuilding and recovering their aquariums after it brought widespread power and water outages.

While many tanks have survived the freeze, others were unlucky, which brought discouragement to aquarists who took great care of their fish for months, if not years.

Prosper DeBee, owner of Aqua Zoo on El Dorado Boulevard in Webster, knew the struggle. Back in February last year, the shop had to deal with power and water issues for two days during the freeze. As they suffered minimal losses, the shop was unable to provide aquarium water due to a burst pipe.

“We’ve been mostly lucky, but I know many other stores around Texas have lost a lot of their livestock,” DeBee told KPRC 2.

DeBee’s customers reached out to him regarding multiple tank losses, ranging from minimal to catastrophic, as water temperatures went way below the recommended threshold of 75-80 degrees for most tropical and marine fish tanks, which added stress to fish that couldn’t live in colder waters.

What needs to be done before, during, and after a cold snap?

Several factors go into play as many aquarists recover, such as previous water changes, the amount of fish, and the home temperature during the outages.

Owners are recommended to get their water tested to make sure it is optimized. Aqua Zoo, among other Houston-area aquarium and pet shops, can test your water for ammonia, nitrite, nitrate, chloramine, and water hardness for free.

A heater is also recommended, especially if you have fish that can tolerate warm, tropical-like waters. The recommended threshold for most tropical fish is 75-82 degrees.

If you have been out of power for a couple of days or more, DeBee recommends adding new beneficial bacteria. “Most of your bacteria will pass away, just like your fish,” he said.

DeBee recommends aquarists check for boil water notices if they are still in effect and perform a water change as soon as possible. If you are still under a boil water notice, hold off on the water change or purchase filtered water at a nearby aquatic store.

Your water system must be flushed before performing the change to eliminate harmful elements that can harm fish.

How to restart your aquarium after a loss?

When it’s time to start over after a full tank loss, DeBee told KPRC 2 it’s not too late to go back but also recommends patience when re-establishing your tanks again.

Discard dead fish and plants properly. According to Fish Tank Advisor, they can be unsafe for the environment.

After cleaning out all aquarium ornaments and plants with clean water, and vacuuming out substrate (sand and rocks) with a siphon, clean out the fish tank to minimize disease. DeBee recommends a 75 percent water change to keep the bacteria intact.

Before adding new fish, restart the nitrogen cycle to minimize ammonia and nitrite levels.

What can aquarists prepare for the next disaster?

DeBee recommends investing in a generator before the next power outage. However, there are a few ways to keep your fish tank stable when the power goes out.

Several members of the Greater Houston Aquarium Club on Facebook recommended a battery-powered air pump to keep your tanks oxygenated as a temporary fix.

“One way people can do this is to grab a cup, dip some water, and put it back in the tank. It brings some oxygen to the fish.” DeBee said.

When it comes to the cold weather, DeBee said putting a blanket over your fish tank can also keep the water warm. “Depending on how long you’ve been out of power, it is better to leave your fish alone.”

About the Author:

A graduate of the University of Houston-Downtown, Ana moved to H-Town from sunny southern California in 2015. In 2020, she joined the KPRC 2 digital team as an intern. Ana is a self-proclaimed coffee connoisseur, a catmom of 2, and an aquarium enthusiast. In her spare time, she's an avid video gamer and loves to travel.