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FAQs on Freshwater Aquariums & Ammonia:

Related Articles: Ammonia, Freshwater Aquarium Water Quality, pH, alkalinity, acidityTreating Tap Water, Freshwater MaintenanceFrequent Partial Water Changes Establishing Cycling, Freshwater Filtration, Know Your Filter Media, A Concise Guide to Your Options by Neale Monks, Setting up a Freshwater Aquarium, Tips for Beginners

Related FAQs: Freshwater Ammonia 1, Freshwater Ammonia 2, Freshwater Ammonia 3, & FAQs on FW Ammonia: Importance, Measure, Sources, Control, Chemical Filtrants, Troubleshooting/Fixing, & Freshwater Nutrient Cycling, FW H2O Quality 1, Aquarium MaintenanceEnvironmental Disease, Treating Tap Water for Aquarium Use, pH, Alkalinity, Acidity, Biological Filtration, Nitrogen Cycling, Establishing Cycling 1, Nitrite, Nitrate, Freshwater Algae Control, Algae Control, Foods, Feeding, Aquatic Nutrition, Disease

I'd recommend either buying or checking out from a local library a great beginner's book called "The Simple Guide to Freshwater Aquariums" by David E. Boruchowitz

ammonium reading in tap water  6/19/10
I searched and read much about ammonia and ammonium but never could find the exact answer to my question, sorry if this is redundant.
<Let's see...>
I have a freshwater 12 gallon Marineland Eclipse setup with the standard bio wheel, carbon/mesh replaceable cartridge,
<Carbon largely useless; would replace with more biological filtration.>
Ario light and aeration (I run maybe 50% of the time, especially great after water changes to help clear up the water quickly)
<Neons don't like turbulent water, and those Ario bubblers tend to be very vigorous; I wouldn't use it.>
My system has cycled and I have slowly added the following residents: four albino Cory cats, one male Betta,
<Neons nip Bettas, and Bettas also require much warmer water than Neons and Corydoras, so keeping them together makes no sense.>
three neon tetras. Oh I didn't mention that with such a small tank I decided to use plastic plants. I did add 3 marimo moss balls since they are low maintenance
<Better to say they die slowly.>
and I hoped they would help control nitrates (which have never reached 20ppm and usually under 5ppm)
<By definition, if a plant grows slowly, it won't help remove nitrates.
Think about this. Nitrates are removed proportionally to the rate at which a plant grows. The only plants that make a measurable difference are those that grow fast, like floating Indian Fern.>
Today's test results: pH 6.8, 20ppm KH, 15ppm GH, 0ppm chlorine, 0ppm nitrites, 5ppm nitrates. Last water change was four days ago. I have been doing 15% water change every 7-10 days. I feed once every 24-36 hours. I change the carbon/mesh filter every 4-6 weeks.
<Ka-ching! The prime reason for carbon is to extract money from the fishkeeper.>
See below regarding ammonia.
I have had aquariums before years ago in another state where the water out of tap was higher in pH and hardness. My current water supply, Portland Oregon, comes out of the tap between 6.6 and 7.0 pH most often at the lower
and as you can see very soft.
<Fine for Neons and Corydoras.>
This is why I decided on the fish that I did (had Platies, guppies and Corys before)
<Unacceptable for Platies or Guppies.>
So here is the main question...should I do something to reduce the ammonium in my system?
I bought a Multi-test for NH3 / NH4 because my 'stick' test kept reading ammonia in tap and tank water and yet all the fish seem happy and healthy.
I do use ammonia lock just in case before putting tap water in the tank but the tap water is testing 0ppm ammonia but 3ppm total ammonia/ammonium and so is my tank.
<If you are detecting ammonia in the tap water, either directly or via chloramine, then using an appropriate anti-ammonia, anti-chloramine water conditioner should neutralise it. Use a nitrite test kit to check water quality in the tank. If the nitrite level is zero, you can probably ignore the ammonia level in the water, if the ammonia level in the water is the same in the tank as in dechlorinated batches of tap water (i.e., the ammonia you're detecting came from the tap water, not the fish).>
I keep reading that ammonium is not toxic to fish but I hate having to do the 15 minute test required to be sure the ammonia is still 0ppm. Should I get some Zeolite to reduce ammonium?
<Pointless. A mature biological filter will remove ammonia just as well.>
Should I just not worry about it? If you suggest I not be concerned do you know of a better test strip for ammonia that wont read the ammonium or give separate reading on the stick for NH3 and NH4?
<All test kits will detect "safe" ammonia or chloramine locked up by your water conditioner. As I say, check the level is the same in the tank as the tap water, and if it is, then you needn't worry.>
The multi test that I have has small dot of what I assume is litmus paper to read the NH3 vs. NH4. It takes 15-30 min.s to fully test, a strip type would be nice as I like to test my water at least twice a week (with the pH starting this low I guess I fear it might fall below 6.0 and damage my biological filter). I have never seen such soft water out of the tap, with the fish I have chosen do I need to add anything to raise the hardness, buffer so the pH will be stable?
<Regular water changes should keep the pH stable if the tank is under-stocked and carefully fed. Otherwise use a pH 6.5 or pH 7 buffer.>
Since I am writing regarding the ammonium issue I would also like to ask if you think adding two to three more neon tetras would sound like overload.
<Probably safe.>
(smallest setup I have ever had) If so I may decide to add more Neons and move the Betta back to 5 gallon setup.
<Betta needs rehousing anyway. Neons do best at 22-25 C, as do Corydoras; Betta needs to be kept at 28-30 C.>
Hope not to do that as he seems so much happier with neighbors, he doesn't chase them but does like checking out what his neighbors are doing especially the active little Cory cats. They have all been together for about a month and doing well so I want to complete my 'neon shoal'.
<Need a group of at least ten for that.>
So in general my fish seem happy and healthy, acting normal with no signs of stress but I am tired of strip test for ammonia always reads 3.0ppm so then I have to do the multi test and it comes up 0ppm for NH3.
<What's the nitrite level? That's what I'd worry about.>
I appreciate your expert opinion my 3 basic questions, do I worry about the ammonium?
<Probably not, but see above.>
does adding 2 or 3 more Neons seem too much fish for the tank (water surface area is 231 sq inches)?
<In a 12 gallon tank, 8-10 Neons plus 4-5 Corydoras should be okay, though do understand that that's about the limit.>
and finally should I buffer, raise the hardness of the very soft tap water?
(the lowest I have gotten on pH reading in my tank was 6.2 prior to a water change but it worried me that it was so low)
<Buffering may well be useful if you find the pH drops noticeably between water changes.>
Thank you so much for your help!
<Cheers, Neale.>

Re: ammonium reading in tap water  6/21/10
Thank you for the reply to my questions.
<No problem.>
I will move the Betta to his own 5 gallon set up once I get one cycled, knew they needed heated water but didn't realize so much warmth needed, this tank runs 74f-76f .
<Oh, people debate this. One argument in favour of keeping them relatively cool is they supposedly live longer, and since their metabolism is slowed down, they pollute their bowls more slowly. On the other hand, keeping them
cool slows down their digestive and immune systems, so long-term health problems become more likely. In the wild they're found in relatively still and shallow, and therefore quite warm, ponds and ditches. So I tend to recommend a fairly high temperature, and all things being equal, they are less likely to get sick this way. In any event, they do need warmer water than Neons and Corydoras, though one might argue about precisely how much warmer Bettas need to be kept.>
Amazing any Bettas survive in all those bowls people put them in.
<Yes indeed. But then again, vast numbers of them DON'T survive. So just as with Goldfish, where you and I probably do know people with Goldfish that lived ten years in a bowl -- yet for every one that survives that way, a
dozen don't.>
In reply to your question about the nitrites in my tank, consistently testing at 0ppm.
Therefore as you said the ammonia that shows up in the tests of tap water is what is registering in the tank tests (getting the same 3.0 ppm of total ammonia in tap and tank).
<Ah, that makes sense.>
Will continue to treat tap water with ammonia lock and dechlorinator with water changes. Just never had tap water test positive for ammonia before.
Do you have a suggestion regarding the 5 gallon Betta setup...maybe add a shrimp? frog? my first Betta setup but want to treat him right :)
<Both these can work, though again, the temperature may need to be set "just so" to suit whichever frog and especially shrimp species you go for. I'd plumb for Cherry Shrimps as the best all-around Betta companions, the combination of red shrimps with blue Bettas working especially well.>
Thanks again!
<Cheers, Neale.>

Ammonia vs. temperature  9/17/08
Is ammonia less toxic at 69 degrees F. than it is at 74 degrees F. ?
<Makes no difference. Ammonia is dangerously toxic at any temperature. Cheers, Neale.>
<<Mmm, more so with elevated temperature, but do agree otherwise. RMF>>

Quick questions about recovering from ammonia poisoning, and necessity of gravel  (Neale's go) -- 04/22/07 Hi Crew, <Hello!> I have two quick questions--I had an ammonia problem a month or so ago (100% taken care of now) and I was wondering how much this has reduced the life span of fish that have survived...is the damage permanent or can they recover completely? Do the damaged cells regrow or are their gills permanently compromised? <In theory I suppose its possible that some damage was done, but don't worry about it. Fish are surprisingly good at healing damaged tissues, certainly much more so than humans. They routinely grow back fins and even quite substantial flesh wounds.> Also, do you have any resources I can look at regarding whether gravel is necessary for a fish tank? <Interesting question. Gravel as such isn't essential, and it is quite common not to use gravel at all in certain aquaria, such as breeding tanks and quarantine tanks. However, most fish object to having no substrate underneath them *if* the glass is left shiny and bare. Fish *do not* like light coming from underneath them.> I have a bio-wheel and bio-balls for the bacteria, but does your average Cory catfish need it to feel at home in the tank? <Corydoras far prefer soft non-calcareous sand. That's how I keep mine. They keep it spotlessly clean, and you only need half an inch depth. They plough into it, spewing the sand out through their gills while they hunt for food. It's adorable!> I think it's easier to keep the tank clean if you have no gravel to get the food stuck in, but I'd put it back if the fish actually miss it. <If you have a thin substrate of sand it won't get dirty. Sand is too compact for faeces and food to sink into, and the catfish will turn it over constantly removing any live foods that might wriggle into it. I find sand actually easier to keep clean than gravel. The downside is that it can get sucked into the filter if you have large fish swishing the sand into the water column with their big tails (my Panaque catfish does this all the time!).> Thanks for any help you can offer! <No problems. Neale> Allison

Quick questions about recovering from ammonia poisoning, and necessity of gravel (Tom's go) -- 04/22/07 Hi Crew, <<Hi, Allison. Tom with you.>> I have two quick questions--I had an ammonia problem a month or so ago (100% taken care of now) and I was wondering how much this has reduced the life span of fish that have survived...is the damage permanent or can they recover completely?  Do the damaged cells regrow or are their gills permanently compromised?   <<Good question, Allison. First, fish can certainly recover from a tangle with ammonia exposure/poisoning but, to hedge my bets here just a little, it would depend greatly on how big the problem was that we're talking about. A minor exposure would likely cause the gill tissues to become irritated and, perhaps, somewhat swollen. Stressful, of course, but not irreversible. Moderate exposure would certainly cause the gill tissues to swell resulting in hampered breathing and reduced excretion of ammonia -- through specialized gill tissues -- from the body. Skin, eyes and gills would likely be irritated to the point of potential damage. If concentrations of ammonia were to build up to significant levels, internal organs would be irritated/damaged. A major 'episode' would render the question, pretty much, moot. The fish would either die of suffocation or internal poisoning from ammonia build-up. Even if the fish didn't succumb immediately, the damage could be so severe that it would be best to euthanize the animal.>> Also, do you have any resources I can look at regarding whether gravel is necessary for a fish tank?  I have a bio-wheel and bio-balls for the bacteria, but does your average Cory catfish need it to feel at home in the tank? <<Sure! Us. To start, remember that nitrifying bacteria inhabit all parts of the tank and the substrate is no exception. Gravel will, of course, provide more 'surface area' for the bacteria so, from that perspective, it does provide a useful service. (One that shouldn't be under-emphasized, I might add.) Now, to what I think you're really getting at, no, you don't 'need' gravel/substrate in your tank. Corys are non-stop scavengers and will do so with, or without, gravel in the aquarium. In large part, its use is for aesthetic reasons only. People typically don't like bare-bottom tanks. Fish couldn't care less, by and large. Yes, there are some fish that lay eggs in 'nests' in hollows in the substrate but I don't think that's your point here.>> I think it's easier to keep the tank clean if you have no gravel to get the food stuck in, but I'd put it back if the fish actually miss it. <<Your fish won't 'miss' gravel, Allison. Corys will stay just as busy in a bare-bottom tank as they will in a tank with gravel in it.>> Thanks for any help you can offer! Allison <<I hope did help, Allison. Any more questions? You know where to find us. Best regards. Tom>>

Cycling....  Where's My Ammonia? - 02/11/2007 Hello WWMC: <<Hello, Barb. Tom with you.>> Wonderful site and I don't think I've seen a Q&A/Forum site for fish where the answers have been so non-judgmental and knowledgeable!  That is GREAT for beginners like me.  The hobby is difficult enough without having others shame you out of it when you're looking for answers or help.  So again, thanks for being such a great group :) <<Thanks, Barb. Speaking for all of us, we appreciate your comments. We do, indeed, try to bear in mind that what we sometimes take for granted isn't always 'clear cut' for folks new to the hobby.>> I did check your search engine but couldn't quite find what I was looking for.  I set up a 30 gallon freshwater tank at Christmastime and started researching the cycle, fish compatibility, etc.  Honestly?  I became terrified to do anything. <<Understandable. Kind of falls under the category of 'information overload'. So many things that you want to get right and not enough 'hands on' experience to know that what you're doing is correct. We've all been there.>> I knew that just running the water through the filter would not start the cycle. <<For what it's worth, Barb, a long way down the road, the tank would have, in fact, cycled doing just that. Airborne ammonia is more plentiful, from the viewpoint of scientists, than most people realize. In reality, it's one of most abundant nitrogen-containing compounds going.>> I didn't want to needlessly harm or even kill live fish.   <<Bless you for that.>> I searched my area but could only find ammonia with surfactants in it for cleaning and no LFS carries BioSpira :(   <<Raw seafood like shrimp or even regular old fish food would do it, as well, though not as quickly.>> 3 weeks ago, I put my son's Betta into the tank.  Alien Slug Fish (my son is 6) lived quite contentedly for 2 weeks.  8 days ago, I went to the fish store and picked up 6 gold Danios and 2 blue gouramis.  Into the tank they went with the Betta.  Everything is fine.  Too fine!  And herein lies my great confusion! <<Well, let's see if I can clear the confusion up!>> My father in law brought me 2 Master test strips to make sure parameters weren't too deadly.  However, they only showed PH, hardness, nitrite, chlorine, not ammonia or nitrate.  I tested with the first one on Day 3.  The nitrite showed at .5 ppm.   <<Bacteria have established themselves. No bacteria, no nitrites.>> I tested again on Day 5.  The nitrite showed at .25.  I did a 15% water change just because....  The fish were all happy and eating and not losing colour.   <<Sounds good so far.>> I became so paranoid about the veracity of the test strips, I took the day off work yesterday and bought a Hagen ammonia test and a Hagen nitrite test (the test tube type).  I checked the water yesterday afternoon, last night and this morning.  Ammonia has been 0 all three times and nitrite has been .1 all three times.  How is this possible?  Did the Betta kick start the cycle when I wasn't testing for the first two weeks?  Am I nearing the end of the cycle already???  Did I mess it up completely and the fish are in danger?? <<As I mentioned earlier, Barb, a tank will cycle by itself. Not quickly, typically, but it will cycle. The Betta provided an additional source of ammonia which 'fueled' the population increase of the bacteria already present. In short, you actually added Alien Slug Fish on the 'downward' slope of the cycle. My guess? The region you live in has higher concentrations of airborne ammonia than might generally be found elsewhere. Regions near large populations of livestock generally account for the highest levels but winds can carry ammonia for very long distances. There are a large numbers of other sources of ammonia as well.>> I've posted on some forums and I keep getting told that the Betta did nothing for the cycle as he's too small in a 30 gallon. <<Only partially true. He wasn't a huge contributor, certainly, but a source is a source, as it were. All fish produce ammonia so your other responders weren't completely correct in suggesting that the Betta 'did nothing' to promote the cycling process.>> But then, I also get that no one has a clue how I could have low nitrites without going through an ammonia spike.   <<The ammonia did spike, Barb. You just didn't see it. Nitrites are the by-product of the Nitrosomonas bacteria processing the ammonia. Like I said, no bacteria, no nitrites.>> I do NOT want to add any fish until I know this cycle is complete!  The tank was set up to home a blood parrot and 2 undyed jellybeans and being hybrids, I understand they don't do well in an uncycled or cycling tank.  Please help. <<Keep testing the water. When both ammonia and nitrites are undetectable and there are nitrates present, you're home free. Control the nitrate levels through regular water changes since the fish you've mentioned aren't particularly tolerant of high nitrate levels, either. Strive for readings below 10 ppm on these.>> Any and all suggestions or information is very welcome. <<I'd say you're in pretty good shape here, Barb. To keep the volume of information from overwhelming you, pick one area to research and concentrate on that. Lots of times there will be additional items of interest that are covered along with the primary topic. Just as a diligent reader will look up an unknown word in the dictionary, if you run across something unfamiliar, look it up. The more knowledgeable you become, the less intimidating things will seem.>> Thanks so much. Barb <<Happy to help, Barb. From all of us, welcome aboard! Tom>>

Re: nitrates & ammonia in well water ... Ammonias Converting to Nitrates  - 05/19/2006 Thanks Chuck. What I'm trying to say is...Will putting water that has measurable ammonia levels in an established, cycled aquarium cause a spike in nitrates? < Yes.> All I know is that when I do a 25% water change on my 75 gal freshwater. The water clouds up within 18 hrs. and the nitrates start shooting back up. Like stocking a new tank too quickly. I think I should try to remove the ammonia before using. Do you agree? < Absolutely. Ammonia is very deadly to fish. Converting it to nitrates is a very good idea.-Chuck> Thanks again...DR

Ammonia - de Jorie Having BIG problem setting fresh water tank up 45 gallon. I fill with water with air and underground filter running everything o.k. couple days then I start my outside filter running (whisper) starts smelling maybe like ammonia. No fish added yet. What's wrong I'm and going crazy with this, done this 4 or 5 times PLEASE HELP!! <Ok, take a big breath and relax! First off, I'm super glad to hear you haven't put any fish in the system yet - kudos to you in doing this the responsible way. Do you have a test kit, one to measure (at least) ammonia, nitrite and nitrate? I'd suggest you test your tap water as soon as it comes out of the faucet, then also test your tank. Take some time to do reading on what's known as the "nitrogen cycle" on WWM and other internet sites (you can search for that term on Google and come up with some helpful articles and diagrams). Also, I'd recommend either buying or checking out from a local library a great beginner's book called "The Simple Guide to Freshwater Aquariums" by David E. Boruchowitz - he, too, does a great job explaining the cycling process, as well as helpful tips to setting up a first aquarium. Good luck, and take your time - there's a lot of information to absorb! Jorie> 

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