Ammonia is a silent, invisible killer in aquariums. Because it is clear and dissolves easily in water, even a clean, beautiful tank could be full of ammonia, and even low levels of this toxic byproduct are harmful, even fatal to fish. Unfortunately, by the time signs of ammonia stress are noticeable in fish – lethargy, appetite loss, gasping, inflammation of the gills, eyes or fins – it may be too late to take corrective action that can save the fish. So how can you safely monitor the ammonia levels in your tank to keep fish healthy?
Sources of Ammonia
Understanding where ammonia comes from in your tank can help you be sure it isn't being introduced to your aquatic environment. If you are aware of subtle changes that can lead to ammonia buildup, you can safely keep the levels down in your tank.
Ammonia comes from…
- Tap Water: Ammonia bonded to chlorine is a common additive in municipal water sources to disinfect the water. If you must add tap water to your tank, use a water conditioner specifically formulated to break down ammonia to treat the water first.
- Decomposition: Organic material such as dead plant leaves, leftover food and dead fish quickly decay, and that decomposition produces high levels of ammonia. Avoid overfeeding your fish, remove any dead fish immediately and prune aquatic plants to minimize decomposition.
- Digestion: Ammonia is a natural byproduct of fish digestion and is either passed out in their feces or excreted via the gills, particularly if there is too much protein in their diet. Feed your fish the appropriate food to minimize ammonia production.
Monitoring Ammonia in Your Tank
Ideally the best level of ammonia for your aquarium is zero. With proper care and monitoring, you can be sure your tank is not accumulating ammonia.
- Check Filters Regularly
Carefully check your biological filter to be sure it is operating efficiently to filter out excess ammonia. Be sure you are using the proper filter size for the community you host, and regularly look for clogs that can make your filter less efficient.
- Cycle the Tank Before Use
Be patient and cycle your aquarium thoroughly before adding fish to allow the water and filtration devices to establish the appropriate bacterial balance. The right bacteria in the water will break ammonia down to nitrites and nitrates.
- Test Water Often
There are different kits and sensors available that allow you to quickly and easily check for the presence of ammonia in your tank. Use these products liberally to keep apprised of your tank's condition so you can take corrective steps as quickly as possible if needed.
- Keep an Ammonia Journal
It may be helpful to keep a journal or notes about ammonia and other chemical levels in your tank, including pH, temperature, nitrates and more. When you make a change to the tank, you can include the details of how that change affects different chemical levels so you can more easily balance your tank in the future. These notes will be very useful as you learn more about keeping an aquarium and the needs of your unique aquatic environment.
Ammonia is a very common killer in aquariums, but if you understand this chemical and how to monitor and minimize it, you can keep your fish safe and healthy.