In your tank hides an invisible assassin.
It hides in every aquarium and, if left unchecked, will soon kill all your fish.
I’m talking about ammonia.
And today I’m going to teach you everything you need to know about it.
What is ammonia and where does it come from?
Ammonia is an invisible chemical that is highly toxic to your fish. Unfortunately, it also occurs naturally in every single aquarium…
As organic waste begins to break down, it will release ammonia.
These wastes include:
- Fish breathing
- Fish pee and poop
- Uneaten fish food
- Dead pieces of plants
- Decaying algae
- Dirty filters
As you can see, the only way to avoid ammonia is to not own a fish tank.
Fortunately, in a healthy aquarium, nature will take care of ammonia for you….
You remember when you cycled your brand new aquarium?
Well, that was done to introduce good bacteria into your aquarium – bacteria that eats ammonia.
This process forms part of the nitrogen cycle.
Don’t remember how the nitrogen cycle works? Here’s a quick recap…
1. As waste breaks down it produces ammonia
2. Good bacteria, called nitrosomonas, break down the ammonia into nitrites.
3. A second bacteria, called nitrobacter then feeds on the nitrites and produces nitrates.
Nitrates are then removed from your aquarium each time you perform a water change.
In high enough numbers, these beneficial bacteria will break down ammonia as quickly as it is produced, keeping your tank ammonia free.
What Ammonia Levels are acceptable in your aquarium?
The acceptable level of ammonia in your tank is…
Yep, you read that right…
If ammonia levels are higher than zero, you will need to find the cause of the problem, and fast. The lives of your fish depend on it!
There is just one exception to this rule:
When you are cycling a brand new aquarium.
You see, in a new tank, bacteria does not exist in large enough numbers to break down the ammonia as it is produced.
This is actually a major part of why you cycle – to allow bacteria that live in your biological filter to grow in number until they can break down ammonia as quickly as it is produced.
So, if you are cycling a new tank, high levels of ammonia are to be expected. But in an established aquarium, a spike in ammonia can indicate major problems.
What happens if your ammonia levels are too high?
Once your ammonia levels exceed zero, that’s when problems start to occur.
At low levels, ammonia will burn the gills of your fish, placing them under incredible stress.
As ammonia levels rise, it will damage the brain and organs of your fish, until it eventually dies.
This entire process is known as nitrate poisoning – What a horrible way to go!
Some fish have a higher tolerance to ammonia than others.
If your fish can tolerate elevated ammonia levels, it doesn’t mean that he is happy. Your fish are likely under an incredible amount of stress.
When fish are stressed, they are more likely to develop diseases, lose their color, suffer from stunted growth or even become unable to reproduce.
It’s simple – Keep your ammonia levels at zero for happy and healthy fish.
What causes high Ammonia levels?
If you can associate any of the following with your aquarium…
- Too many fish (overstocked)
- Over feeding
- Weak filtration
- No nitrifying bacteria in filter
- Not performing regular maintenance
Then your tank is at risk of elevated ammonia levels.
How do you test for Ammonia?
Unfortunately, detecting high levels of ammonia can be difficult – it’s invisible. And by the time you notice the effects of ammonia poisoning on your fish, it’s often too late.
That’s why it’s important to regularly test your aquarium for ammonia.
And my by far the most popular way to do that is with an aquarium test kit…
Lasts up to 130 tests
If you walk into your local fish store, chances are that this is the test kit that you will find on the shelf….
And that’s not a bad thing. API ammonia test kits are cheap and work well enough, allowing you to confidently determine if your Ammonia levels are higher than zero.
If you already purchased an API Master Test Kit, this test will be included in the box. If you don’t have one of these, go out and buy one now! Not only does it test for ammonia, but also pH, nitrites and nitrates – other essential test kits at a much lower cost than buying each one separately.
Best of all, these test kits are dead simple to use. Simple add some aquarium water to the test tube, add a few drops of testing solution and shake. Once the water has changed color, match it up with your color card to determine your ammonia levels.
Pretty simply, huh?
Test strips are another product you can use determine the ammonia levels in your aquarium. However, don’t expect any degree of accuracy. If you want to use test strips, I recommend confirming the results with a test kit before taking any action.
Check out my test strip guide for more.
How do you reduce ammonia levels?
Just used a test kit and discovered that the ammonia levels in your tank are dangerously high?
I am going to talk you through everything you need to do in the event of an ammonia spike.
1. Water Change!
The first thing you want to do is perform a water change – at least 50%.
What you are doing here is swapping out ammonia filled water for water that is ammonia free.
By performing a water change, you are effectively diluting the amount of ammonia that has built up in your aquarium.
2. Add cycled filters
As I touched on earlier, two different types of good bacteria will turn ammonia into nitrates – which are relatively harmless to your fish.
In large enough numbers, these bacteria eat ammonia as quickly as it is produced.
And these bacteria just so happen to live in your filter.
By adding another cycled filter to your aquarium, the bacteria will eat the ammonia, lowering the levels back down to zero.
But if you don’t have multiple tanks, tracking down a cycled filter can be difficult. If you have a good relationship with your local fish store, or a good friend in the hobby, they may allow you to take one.
3. Water conditioner
In an ammonia emergency, water conditioner can be used to render ammonia harmless.
By binding the ammonia, the water conditioner gives your bacteria the opportunity to catch up and remove it from your aquarium.
And when it comes to https://fishlab.com/aquarium-water-conditioner/
water conditioners, it’s no secret that Seachem Prime is one of the best on the market…
Not only does it detoxify ammonia, but it also deals with nearly any other water quality issue that may arise!
I highly recommend keeping a bottle on hand, just in case of emergency.
And trust me, an ammonia spike is definitely an emergency.
You should note that water conditioners only bind ammonia for up to 48 hours, after which they will be released…
So you will want to find the cause of your ammonia outbreak fast, otherwise you will need to continuously add water conditioner to your aquarium.
4. Ammonia removing filter media
Is fixing the cause of your ammonia issues going to take some time?
You can also add media to your filter that is specifically designed to remove ammonia from your aquarium.
One popular product is…
Simply add the Ammo-Chips to your filter (don’t forget a filter bag) and sit back as it removes ammonia from your water – like magic!.
How does it work?
Ammo Chips is just a branded name for zeolite – a mineral that naturally draws ammonia from water without any side effects.
However, zeolite is not a “set and forget” solution to your ammonia problems…
Just like activated carbon it will keep absorbing until it is “full”. When this happens, zeolite will no longer remove any more ammonia from your aquarium.
In cases of extreme ammonia levels, zeolite might not even last two weeks. But you can always be replaced with a fresh batch.
Before I move on…
All these solutions can be used to effectively lower the ammonia levels in your tank. But…
These are only temporary solutions.
You see, while these may fix your ammonia problem, they do not solve the cause.
And that should be your primary goal, finding the cause of your high ammonia levels. After all, in a healthy and balanced tank, your ammonia levels should be zero without any extra help from you.
These treatments are best used to buy your tank some more time – as they will prevent any ammonia from harming your fish until you deal with the cause.
How do you prevent an ammonia spike?
Remember how I listed the common causes for ammonia spikes earlier in this guide?
Well, prevention is as simple as making sure each cause is kept in check.
Below I will cover how to prevent your ammonia levels from raising in more detail…
1. Double check how many fish are in your aquarium
How much room does a single fish need? Likely more than you think. Even a single betta needs at least a 5 gallon tank to be truly happy and healthy.
Overstocking your fish tank can lead to ammonia problems. Too many fish eating and pooping in a tank that is too small can quickly lead to an ammonia spike.
Keeping too many fish is a particular problem amongst beginners who do not know any better.
If you are still deciding which fish to keep in your tank, make sure you speak to someone experienced. There are numerous online forums where experts will happily advise on suitable fish for your aquarium.
2. Over feeding
Overfeeding can also be responsible for raising ammonia levels.
Okay, so you have the best of intentions, ensuring your fish don’t go hungry. But any uneaten food will begin to rot and as it breaks down it will release, you guessed it – Ammonia!
So take your time to figure out how much food your fish need…
The right amount of food will entirely depend on the type of food and the species of fish you keep in your tank.
3. Perform regular maintenance
We all know we should be performing regular maintenance on our tanks.
Water changes, using a gravel vac and cleaning the filter are all essential steps to keeping a fish tank in good working order.
But sometimes life gets in the way. You miss a week. Then another. And before you know it, all that uneaten fish food and fish poop is breaking down into ammonia.
You would be amazed just how many aquarium problems can be solved just by sticking to a regular maintenance schedule. Make a routine and stick to it – the lives of your fish are at stake!
4. Don’t kill your beneficial bacteria!
You know the good bacteria in your filter? Well, if they die, you will soon experience an ammonia spike.
Without the bacteria to eat the ammonia, it is free to increase to alarming levels.
I know you would never intentionally kill off your biological filter, but I now seen multiple beginners rinse their filter in tap water, because they don’t know any better. That chlorine is going to kill your filter bacteria quick smart.
Also, make sure you carefully follow the instructions when adding any chemical, such as medication, into your aquarium – this too can kill off filter bacteria.
While ammonia is certainly deadly, it isn’t something to be feared.
In a healthy balanced aquarium the good bacteria are going to be eating it as quickly as it’s produced.
And in the event of an ammonia spike, there are many different solutions to lowering your ammonia levels while you look for the cause of the problem.
How do you deal with an ammonia spike? Let me know in the comments below!