How to remove ammonia from a saltwater aquarium

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    Victoria Smirnova

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  • Updated on: 17/04/2020

Ammonia (NH3) is the most toxic nitrogen compound formed in an aquarium, which can quickly kill fish or cause diseases. It is formed as a result of the decomposition of organic substances, as well as a byproduct of fish metabolism. 

Ammonia (NH3) can be found in water in two main forms: free ammonia and ammonium ion (NH4+). An ammonium ion is formed when a hydrogen ion (proton) combines with ammonia. 

how to remove ammonia from saltwater aquarium@svitlini / FreePik

In a well-established reef aquarium, the problem of high levels of ammonia usually do not occur because of the significant amount of bacteria and algae present, which contributes to the rapid removal of ammonia from the water. However, new aquariums, therapeutic aquariums, quarantine tanks, transport packages and aquariums containing dead organisms may contain rapidly increasing amounts of ammonia approaching toxic levels. Against the background of low oxygen levels, ammonia can become the main cause of aquarium death. When something in the aquarium dies, ammonia is released as a result of rotting; increased levels of ammonia, in turn, can lead to the death of other organisms. As a result, the process is growing uncontrollably and the main cause is ammonia.

Why is ammonia dangerous for fish?

Ammonia affects the gills and blood of fish. To be protected from the ammonia, the fish produces more mucus to soothe its burns from the ammonia. Excessive mucus clogs the gills and reduces the fish’s ability to absorb oxygen from the water.

Toxic ammonia can reduce the ability of hemoglobin in fish blood to carry oxygen.

Under normal conditions, with good filtration and the right biological environment, the beneficial bacteria in the filters use ammonia as an energy source and process it into nitrite. Then other bacteria already use nitrite and process it into nitrate.

What are the symptoms of ammonia poisoning?

Since ammonia primarily affects a fish’s gills, the first symptom is difficulty breathing. In this case, the fish can either grab air from the surface, where the highest concentration of oxygen lies, or lay the bottom, try to conserve energy, while at the same time, breath deeply.

Also, fish can tightly press the fins to the body, itching about objects in the aquarium.

How do determine that water contains ammonia?

The only way to determine the ammonia content is to use the appropriate test kit. It is necessary to check the content of ammonia, nitrite and pH in the water on a weekly basis, as well as pay attention to how the fish look and behave.

The norm of ammonia in a saltwater aquarium

Normally, the concentration of ammonia level must be zero. It is necessary to carry out checks and determine the cause of the increase in the content of ammonia as soon as possible and immediately take measures to remove or dilute it.

Reasons for increasing ammonia levels

The level of ammonia in a saltwater aquarium can increase for many different reasons. Below is a list of the most common causes that should be checked if ammonia is detected in the aquarium:

  • a new aquarium with an insufficient population of beneficial bacteria;
  • impurities in the composition of sea salt and other additives;
  • after cleaning the filter, ammonia may remain;
  • measures to treat diseases have killed the population of beneficial bacteria in the filter;
  • excessive feeding;
  • fish overpopulation;
  • lack of filtering;
  • incorrect cleaning of tap water (chlorine or chloramine content);
  • adding too many new fish in too short a period of time;
  • decomposition of dead fish in the aquarium;
  • placing an untrained breed in the aquarium;
  • calcium and magnesium supplements can be a significant source of ammonia (especially when aquarists are trying to save money and use less expensive sources of calcium or magnesium chlorides).
removing ammonia from aquariumPhoto by Adli Wahid on Unsplash

Removing ammonia from the aquarium

The way to solve the problem depends on its cause. It may take a little investigation to determine why the ammonia appeared. 

There are several ways to reduce the level of ammonia in a soda water aquarium: 
  1. Water change. This is the easiest and fastest way is to partially replace a large amount of the aquarium’s water. If the level of ammonia is at a dangerous level, it is necessary to get rid of it as quickly as possible and to make sure that the water topped up in the aquarium is free of chlorine and has the same composition and temperature. If the level of ammonia continues to increase, it is necessary to monitor its level with a test kit and continue to replace the water in order to maintain the concentration of ammonia at a low level. Along with an increase in the content of ammonia, the level of nitrite may also increase, so it is necessary to prepare salt for adding to the aquarium, which reduces the toxicity to fish.
  2. Filtration by algae. Many organisms consume ammonia for the production of protein and other biomolecules required for the construction of its tissues. Micro – and macro-algae readily use the ammonia present in the water. When they have a choice between nitrate and ammonia as a nitrogen source; most algae will prefer ammonia. 
  3. Application of bacterial nitrification. In marine aquariums, nitrifying bacteria includes the species Nitrosomonas marina and Nitrosomonas europaea. For most aquarists, knowledge of the bacterial species responsible for converting ammonia to nitrite is completely optional, but this information can be useful when choosing products that, according to the manufacturer, accelerate the establishment of the nitrogen cycle by adding a culture of live bacteria. 
  4. The use of substances to neutralize the ammonia. It is quite effective to add some substance to the water or filters to neutralize the ammonia.
  5. The use of crystalline minerals. – e.g. zeolite. These minerals can remove certain ions from water, such as ammonia, phosphate and calcium, through two processes: adsorption and ion exchange. As a result of ion exchange, ammonia and other ions are absorbed from the water and are replaced with sodium from the zeolite. When filling the crystal, it must be removed from the aquarium and soaked in saltwater. The ammonium and other ions are replaced with sodium from the salt, and after washing, the crystal can be used again. You need to recharge the crystal every day, so you should buy two and use them in turn.

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