Ammonia Level Problem

  • #1

I am a new member to Fishlore and a beginner to tropical freshwater fishkeeping. Before I explain my issue, bear with me as I provide a bit of background: I have had the tank (20 gallons) for about three weeks. It is one of those starter fish tanks that comes with instructions on how to set it up. Per the instructions that came with the start up kit, I spent the first full week without fish, allowing the water temperature to adjust and adding the water conditioner. At the beginning of the second week, I took a sample of the water from the tank to my local pet store. A salesman in the fish department tested the water and informed me that the water was suitable for new fish. I purchased three Striped Danios, which are still alive and seem to be doing well to date. I have since purchased a water test kit, am checking the water chemistry daily, and doing partial water changes.

Now that I have provided some background about my tank and fish, here is the problem. Since I purchased the test kit, I have noticed that the ammonia level is too high. The ammonia test strips on the bottle I purchased indicate that the ammonio level is at the 'stress' level for the fish. I have been performing partial water changes since I first tested the ammonia on my own and noticed the problem. Unfortunately, no matter how many water changes I perform the ammonia level is still too high for a healthy environment for the fish. Am I doing something wrong? Is there a special chemical I could use in the water to lower the ammonia to a safe level for the fish? Any help would be greatly appreciated. Thanks.

- Tropical Freshwater Fish Newbie
  • #2
welcome to fishlore!

Please read - your tank is cycling and will have high ammonia at first as good bacteria establishes.

- i'd recommend this for testing. The strips are infamously unreliable and more expensive per test.

- since you'll be cycling with fish, this would be a conditioner to look for - it will help your fish with the higher toxin levels.
  • #3
Hi, Jim. Welcome to the hobby! You are actually doing a lot of things right, and have just been the victI'm of bad information, or rather a lack of complete information. It is great that you are testing the water and performing water changes to protect the fish. Those 2 things are the most important you can be doing. Keep it up!

What is going on in your tank is the nitrogen cycle, which all new tanks go through and few fish stores like to tell you about for some reason. The cycle does not (can not) start until some source of waste, more specifically ammonia, is introduced into the tank. The common sources of ammonia are your fish (their waste produces ammonia) and excess fish food. As that ammonia builds in your tank, bacteria in the water will begin to feed on it and reproduce. As that bacteria colony grows, it will eventually catch up with the amount of ammonia being produced by your fish and you will see the ammonia levels come back down, eventually to zero. The catch is that the bacteria themselves also produce a waste product, nitrite, into the water. Nitrite, as ammonia, is deadly to your fish. As the nitrite begins to build, a 2nd form of bacteria will again begin feeding on it and reproducing and will eventually catch up and reduce the nitrite back to zero. The waste of that process is nitrate, which is not as problematic for your fish as long as you do not let the levels build too high.

As I said, all tanks must go through that cycle, one way or another. The preferred way is with no fish in the tank, which is accomplished by adding ammonia to the water yourself, by feeding the tank fish flakes, adding drops of liquid ammonia, or dropping in a piece of shrimp. The best thing for you to do would be to return the fish to the store and continue the cycle by one of those means. If you do not wish to do this, or the fish store will not take them back, you can cycle the tank with the fish in it, but you will need to be on top of the tank daily in order to keep them from dying off on you.

Here are some suggestions if you must cycle with the fish in the tank:

1) Forget the test strips and get a liquid test kit. The strips are notoriously inaccurate. Here is a very popular liquid kit:

2) Test the water daily. Your ammonia levels will continue spiking for a while, then will begin to decline. The important thing at this time is to not let
the ammonia climb above 1.0 ppm (liquid kit will give you that level of detail). If the pH of your water is higher than 7 (that test kit also lets you
determine that), then you should not let ammonia climb above .5.

3) When ammonia levels approach those marks, change out 50% of your tank's water. Be sure to dechlorinate your tap water before putting it in the
tank, as chlorine will kill the very bacteria you are trying to grow. I highly recommend one called Prime, because it will not only remove the chlorine
but will also detoxify the ammonia without interfering with the cycle, giving your fish an extra level of protection.

4) As the ammonia begins to decline, keep an eye on nitrite levels. They will begin spiking next. Same deal with not let them above 1.0.
Once the nitrite spike is over and returns to zero, you have completed the cycle and will be safe to reduce your water testing and chainging to
weekly instead of daily.

5) After ammonia and nitrite are back to zero, what you will be regularly concerned with is nitrate, which you will only be able to control through water
changes. You want to keep the nitrate level below 40, and below 20 is even better. Doing a weekly water change of 20-25% should be sufficient
to accomplish that.

This time is going to be the highest maintenance period you have to deal with, so don't be frightened by it. Once the cycle is over, you will be able to spend less time maintaining the tank and more time enjoying it! The time it takes to cycle varies widely. On average is takes 4-6 weeks as long as there is a constant ammonia source in the water. With fish in there, it could go slower as the water changes you will need to do to keep the fish alive will slow down the process.

Good luck, and keep asking questions!
  • #4

You are already getting the right information from the posts above...I just wanted to say keep up the good work and be patient. It's all worth it in the end!


  • #5
I was new a year ago and it seems mind blowing I know. All has been said above, take time to read it. Ask as many questions as you like, we have all been there even our 2nd/3rd/4th tanks can bring up new questions!

I agree get a liquid test kit, water change, monitor readings, nitrite will rise this is normal and one day you will have Ammonia 0 nitrite 0. if you stick to you danios ( sound like zebra ones) don't add any more until zero readings.

As I say I was new and learnt so much from here NEVER be afraid to ask the smallest of questions!
  • #6
I really have nothing to add except when you get your liquid test kit, check your water for ammonia and nitrates straight from the tap. Some water systems contain one or the other, and it may be an issue you can resolve by simply using amquel plus or prime as your water conditioner. You are in great hands here as you can already see. Glad to have you with us!

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