Aquarium Misadventures: Beware the Overflow

If you have ever working in the aquarium industry, you have, at some point, overfilled a tank. You turn on the water and start to work on something else, even for a moment, and suddenly, water is running over the sides and spilling onto the floor. If you have yet to or claim to have never overfilled a tank, it will happen one day. I guarantee it.

While working at Mystic, I participated in my share of cleaning up spills and causing them. Thankfully, my worst offenses were all in quarantine, a place designed with many floor drains. I even drained a 3 tub system, well over 2000 gallons, until the pump ran dry. You do not ever want an aquatic pump to try and pump air. They will die faster than any warrantee can cover. In my aquatic career at Mystic, I probably overflowed maybe 4 systems total, and I only worked there for 4 years.

Some of my colleagues did far worse overflow jobs. Some of which were not their fault at all. Mystic had a big jellyfish tank at one entrance that used to be full of moon jellies. Last I checked, it had been re-purposed to hold Mono fish. Probably a good idea, because a couple of times, a few jellies would casually drift over the intake screen to the pump and get stuck, acting like a big, sticky drain plug. As the water current increased over a smaller area, more jellies would drift to cover the drain. In the end, the drain was completely covered. So no water was draining out of the tank, but the water kept coming in. It kept filling until it started spilling right over the edges and onto the main floor of the aquarium, less than an hour before we were supposed to open. Grabbing every shopvac and squeegee in the aquarium, our entire department, and staff from several others, attempted to remove the squish of water from the carpet.

Squeegeeing carpet is no easy task. Especially when it’s sticky salt water. Everyone was soaked from the knee down from all the spray. And since it had been a long time since the carpet had been deep cleaned, we were also covered in the debris from a million pairs of shoes.

It took over an hour to get the floor sufficiently dry. The next day, you could see the salt rim on the floor from where the water had spread. If you were to look closely at the floor today, provided they haven’t replaced it, you might still be able to see it.

The jellies were just fine by the way. When we turned off the pump, they all floated back up into their watery home.

And then, there were the overflows that were someone’s fault. If you look at where Mystic is on a map, you might think, ‘you’re so close to the ocean, I bet you can jump pump in sea water to your collection tanks.’ This is a common practice in many other aquariums, but unfortunately, our location is just far enough away where we have to make our own seawater. It takes a lot of chemistry, but we can make synthetic seawater that makes every saltwater creature very happy. It would take our whole fish and invertebrate crew to make a giant vat of saltwater. And when I mean giant vat, I mean giant. Probably the size of two swimming pools at least. We’d pour in all the different chemicals and then fill it up with regular tap water. It can take a couple hours to fill, and it’s up to just one person to keep an eye on it. This tank can take hours to fill. Hours in which you do other tasks, you have lunch, your attention starts to wander, and then… OH NO! Sprinting to the tank, you check to look at the horror you’ve unleashed.

In the 4 years I worked at Mystic, there were at least 2 saltwater vat overflows by 2 different people. No squeegeeing required, since it sat over a giant drain, but then you have to fix the now dilute saltwater and no body can use it until then. Running a sample over to the lab, they can tell you what you need to fix it, but then you need to test it again to make sure you didn’t screw it up again. It is a very important responsibility and I am glad I never had to do it.
Of course, now I run my own mini-aquarium, and yes, in the first few months we were open, I flooded our hospital room at least 3 times. Thankfully I was prepared with my shopvac and I knew putting in a floor drain would be a good idea. Over the years, I have developed a trick to making sure it doesn’t happen again. When I’m working, I keep my long hair up in a ponytail to keep it from sticky to my sweaty face. Well, when I’m filling a tank, I take it down and keep my hair band on my wrist, a constant reminder that I am filling a tank. So, if you ever stop by and my hair is down and suddenly I sprint out of the room, hope that I am in time to prevent an overflow disaster from occurring.

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