Ammonia Ammonium

What is ammonia?

Ammonia (NH3) is the most toxic nitrogenous compound formed in an aquarium. It is able to quickly kill fish or cause them various diseases. Ammonia occurs as a result of the decomposition of organic waste, which is produced during the life of aquarium aquatic organisms as waste products (emissions, carbon dioxide, dead tissue discharged), or as a result of decomposition of the aquatic organ after death. In fact, the vast majority of ammonia is produced by the gills of aquarium fish.

Why is ammonia so dangerous for fish?

Ammonia(NH3 ) burns gills and fish scales, causing them to produce an extremely large amount of mucus for protection. Excess mucus covers the gills, thus reducing the ability of the fish to absorb oxygen in the fish. Ammonia is also toxic in that it reduces the ability of hemoglobin in the blood of fish to carry oxygen.

How does ammonia neutralize naturally?

When biological filtration is properly established, beneficial bacteria in the filter use ammonia as an energy source and process it into nitrite, which is slightly less dangerous for fish. Other bacteria then use nitrite and oxidize it to nitrate, which has limited toxicity to fish. Nitrate is removed from the water with partial changes that you need to do on a regular basis (replacing about 20 – 30% of the water once a week with clean dechlorinated water).

Symptoms of fish poisoning with ammonia?

  • Lack of oxygen and difficulty breathing
  • Lack of coordination of movements and attempts to jump out of the water
  • Body color darkening
  • Gill damage

Due to the fact that ammonia primarily strikes the gills of fish, you will notice difficulty breathing. The fish can “hang” on the surface of the water, where the oxygen level is greatest, or lie at the bottom of the aquarium, saving energy, but breathing heavily. You can also notice how the fish press their fins tightly against their bodies, rub against objects in the aquarium, or if you see the problem too late, you will see clear manifestations of diseases on the fish.

How to find out if ammonia is present in water?

Using the appropriate test kit is the only way to help you find out the ammonia concentration. Develop the habit of testing aquarium water weekly to accurately determine the pH, ammonia, nitrite, and nitrate levels, and do not be lazy to double-check again if, in your opinion, the fish look and behave strangely or unusual.

What causes an increase in ammonia?

There are many different reasons why ammonia levels can rise. Listed below are some of the most common ones that you should look for if higher levels of ammonia are detected by the test results.

  • A new aquarium with an underdeveloped colony of beneficial bacteria
  • Fillers and aquarium sponges were washed under running water
  • The death of bacteria in the filter after treatment with drugs
  • Overpopulation
  • Inadequate filtering
  • Incorrect or insufficient water treatment (chlorine or chloramine are present in the water)
  • Incorrect stocking of the aquarium (too many fish added to the new aquarium in a short time)
  • Dead fish decomposes in an aquarium
  • Unprepared (driftwood or stones with residues of natural pollution) or unsuitable decor added to the aquarium

What is ammonium?

Ammonium (NH4) is a less toxic form of ammonia. When ammonia is present in water, part of it will always be in the form of toxic ammonia NH3, and part in the form of less hazardous ammonium NH4. The number and ratio of forms directly depends on the pH level and temperature of the aquarium water. Ammonia is oxidized to ammonium at pH <7.

ill fish

Differences between ammonia [NH3] and ammonium [NH4 +]

Ammonia in water can be present in two forms – as ammonia itself [NH3] and as an ammonium ion [NH4 +]. Ammonia [NH3] is extremely toxic to fish; even when it is contained in the water at about 0.05%, chronic gill damage occurs in fish. The toxicity of ammonium [NH4 +] is significantly lower. That is, if there is mainly ammonium in the water, then the fish will not be poisoned, but if there is the same amount of ammonia, then the outcome is likely to be sad.

The percentage of ammonia and ammonium in the water directly depends on the acidity level (pH) of the water. At pH = 6.5, the ammonia content is approximately 0.1%. At pH = 7 – 0.5%. Far with increasing pH, the value of ammonia begins to grow in catastrophic proportions. At pH = 8, it is already 5%, and at pH = 8.4 it is already 10%. At pH = 9, ammonia may already be all 40 – 50%.

How to decrypt test results?

Oddly enough, most manufacturers of tests exclude some important details from the instructions, apparently in order to make them less complicated and confusing. It is worth noting that all aquarium test kits measure the level of Total Ammonia Nitrogen (TAN), not just ammonia.

Total ammonia nitrogen is calculated in total for ammonia and ammonium, the proportional content of each form depends on the temperature and pH level of the aquarium water. To determine the real level of ammonia, you need to use a special table, which is also for some reason not provided with most kits. Using the table, data on TAN, temperature and pH of water, you can find the desired value.

What level of ammonia is safe?

There is no “safe” level of ammonia in aquarium water, just as any form of water should be disturbing. You must definitely find the reason why ammonia is present in the aquarium, and as soon as the reason is found, take measures to eliminate it as soon as possible.

What should be done if ammonia is detected in the aquarium water?

The solution to the problem directly depends on the root cause. You may need to be a little detective to find out what you did wrong. But initially, replace most of the water immediately. Make sure that the replacement water is free of chlorine, that its parameters and temperature match the aquarium water.

If the ammonia level continues to increase, carefully monitor the tank with a test kit, perform additional water changes to keep the ammonia concentration low.

Nitrite levels can also rise due to ammonia problems, so be prepared. An effective solution is to add drugs to neutralize the ammonia in water or in a filter.

How to reduce the toxicity of ammonia?

The fastest and most reliable way is to replace a large part of the aquarium water with fresh (dechlorinated) tap water. Someone may note that replacing more than 35% of the water at a time can negatively affect the well-being of the fish, but not in the case of ammonia poisoning. In such circumstances, ammonia must be disposed of as soon as possible! In critical situations with ammonia, you can replace 50% or even more in order to solve this problem at least temporarily.

What is zeolite, and how can it help?

Zeolite is a natural crystalline mineral (hydrated aluminosilicate), formed millions of years ago as a result of the deposition of volcanic ash to the bottom of alkaline lakes. More than 40 different species are known, but clinoptilolite is used in the aquarium. It is able to remove certain ions from water, such as ammonium, phosphate, and calcium, using two processes: adsorption and ion exchange.

As a result of ion exchange, ammonium is absorbed by zeolite and replaced by sodium ions, ammonium is “securely locked” inside. When the zeolite is completely filled, it must be removed from the aquarium and soaked in a solution of sodium chloride. Thus, zeolite is regenerated, and it becomes usable again.

Zeolite also absorbs ions through adsorption, but as a result of the same process, after some time, part of the absorbed ammonium will begin to fall back into the water. Therefore, zeolite is not an eternal material and needs periodic regeneration or complete replacement.

Zeolite is an effective solution in emergencies related to ammonia. But do not forget about regular water changes and periodic testing, since the zeolite does not absorb free ammonia, only ammonium. The use of zeolite becomes less effective with increasing pH and hardness. Also, zeolite will not work in water containing salt.