How to Lower Ammonia Levels in a Fish Tank

reduce ammonia in aquarium water

Ammonia is the biggest killer of fish in aquariums. Typically ammonia levels build up when you Nitrogen Cycle a new saltwater aquarium, but ammonia can also build up when the fishes are too many for the size of the aquarium and hence overloading.

Dead or decaying materials within the saltwater aquarium cannot be fully cleared away using aquarium filtration systems alone. Ammonia is formed when the excretion of fish in the tank, or any other waste material within the tank starts decaying and decomposing.

Decayed food and any other decaying organic materials will increase the concentration of Ammonia within a tank.

How to Lower Ammonia Levels in a Fish Tank

Testing Your Water

The first step in managing ammonia levels in your fish tank is to test your water regularly. You can find easy-to-use ammonia test kits at Petco or any aquarium supply store. These kits will give you a clear understanding of your tank’s current ammonia levels, allowing you to take action when necessary.

Regular Water Changes

Performing regular water changes is one of the most effective ways to reduce ammonia levels. By replacing 10-20% of your tank’s water with fresh, treated water each week, you can dilute the concentration of ammonia. Be sure to use a water conditioner to remove chlorine and chloramines from tap water, as these can also be harmful to fish.

Cycle Your Fish Tank

Cycling your tank is crucial for establishing beneficial bacteria that convert ammonia into less harmful substances, like nitrite and then nitrate. This process, known as the nitrogen cycle, is vital for a healthy aquarium. To cycle your tank, you can use a bacterial starter culture, which is available at Petco, to kickstart the process.

Control Feeding

Overfeeding is a common cause of high ammonia levels in a fish tank. Feed your fish only as much as they can consume in a couple of minutes, once or twice a day. Any uneaten food should be removed to prevent it from decomposing and increasing ammonia levels.

Use Ammonia-Reducing Products

There are various products available that can help reduce ammonia levels. Ammonia removers, such as zeolite or activated carbon, can be added to your filter to absorb excess ammonia. Additionally, live plants can naturally absorb ammonia and other waste products, helping to keep your tank clean.

Maintain Your Filter

A well-maintained filter is essential for controlling ammonia in a fish tank. Ensure your filter is appropriate for your tank size and that it’s cleaned regularly to prevent clogs. However, be careful not to over-clean or replace all filter media at once, as this can remove the beneficial bacteria essential for the nitrogen cycle.

Monitor Your Stocking Levels

Overstocking your tank can lead to higher waste production and, consequently, increased ammonia levels. Make sure your fish have enough space and that your tank’s biological filtration system can handle the bioload.

What Happens if You Don’t Lower Ammonia Levels in a Fish Tank?

The exact toxicity of Ammonia will depended on several factors such as water aeration, pH, temperature etc. If the concentration of ammonia can be detected in your aquarium it is said to be too high for your fish.

Controlling Ammonia concentration within the tank can be achieved by cycling your tank. The nitrogen cycle aims to create a colony of beneficial bacteria that will feed on the decomposing and decaying matter and will convert them into useful compounds.

Bacteria called as Nitrosomonas consume the Ammonia that gets mixed in water and converts this into Nitrites and therefore we go to stage two in the nitrogen cycle.

That is why it is necessary to cycle the tank before introducing fish in it. It is in the absence of such bacteria that the Ammonia levels start shooting up in a newly set up tank. These beneficial bacteria only need some organic matter and some time to make a colony.

Why Ammonia Poisoning Happens?

Ammonia poisoning happens for two reasons:

  1. Tank not cycled correctly– Introducing a large number of fish into the new tank will cause the Ammonia concentration to increase.This is because the fish will be producing waste and the beneficial bacteria is absent and hence can’t be converted. The ammonia will increase until the fish start to die off. Or if the population of fish is too high for the aquarium size the fish produce too much waste for the beneficial bacteria to handle and it will lead to raise in concretion of ammonia.
  2. Filter failure, lack of maintenance, over-feeding and use of medications– Sometimes over-enthusiastic beginners will also clean the biological filter media, thus killing the beneficial bacterial colony. When aquarium filters are being cleaned, it is important to keep the bacterial colony intact. After cleaning, the good bacteria will need time to recover and cope with the aquarium demands.

Symptoms of Ammonia Poisoning

Fish will show common symptoms if they have ammonia poisoning.

The fish start gasping for air and appear almost always at the surface of the water, or if the fish becomes very lethargic and spends a lot of time simply lying at the bottom of the tank, the fish may be showing signs of Ammonia over-dose.

Or maybe the fish shows a red streaking on its fins or elsewhere on the body. This too could be indicative of high levels of Ammonia in the aquarium water.

Loss of appetite is another common symptom. If the gills of the fish become red or purple, Ammonia levels need to be checked immediately.

How to Reduce Ammonia in Aquarium?

The best way to reduce Ammonia levels in a tank is through partial water changes. A new aquarium should always be cycled.

Any new fish should be added slowly maybe only two at a time to ensure no overloading of the aquarium. Proper maintenance of filters is also a must to keep Ammonia levels down.

Here are 5 practical solutions to help you lower ammonia levels in a fish tank:

  1. Water Changes: Regular partial water changes are one of the most effective ways to remove ammonia and other dissolved waste from your tank. Aim to change 25-30% of the water weekly, or more frequently if ammonia levels are high.
  2. Increase Aeration: Proper aeration and water circulation can help oxygenate your tank and promote the growth of beneficial bacteria that break down ammonia. Consider adding an air stone or increasing the flow rate of your filter.
  3. Optimize Filtration: Ensure your filter is appropriately sized for your tank and that you maintain it regularly. Replace filter media as recommended by the manufacturer to prevent clogging and maintain optimal biological filtration.
  4. Reduce Bioload: If your tank is overstocked or you’re overfeeding your fish, reduce the bioload by removing excess fish or adjusting your feeding schedule. Uneaten food and waste contribute significantly to ammonia production.
  5. Use Ammonia Detoxifiers: In cases of ammonia spikes, you can temporarily use ammonia-detoxifying products, such as Prime by Seachem, to bind and neutralize ammonia until you can address the underlying cause.

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