Please help. High NH4, low NH3, 0 nitrites, 0 nitrates

LBetta

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Hello, I want to do the right thing and would hugely appreciate any help.

I bought a Betta (on a whim) on February 28. I knew very little but per the pet store employee all I needed to do was wait 24 hours before adding the fish to his (6 gallon) tank. I learned about tank cycling shortly after, but not before the Betta had been added to the uncycled tank.

Over approximately the last 6 weeks I’ve tested for nitrites and nitrates every couple/few days using Tetra Easy Strips. Nitrites have always been ~0. Nitrates have been showing at ~10 on the testing strips, but then I bought the AVI Master Test Kit a couple days ago, and it is showing nitrates as 0.

I started testing for ammonia about three weeks ago and the reading was in the “safe” range (using the “Jungle” strips/test kit) until less than 48 hours ago. When it jumped to “stress” range I purchased the AVI Master Test Kit. That test is showing ammonia somewhere between .5 ppm and 1 ppm, I think.

I bought/was ready to add Seachem Prime to detoxify the ammonia but then learned about and decided to try Seachem’s Ammonia Alert (which measures only NH3). Ammonia Alert is reading free ammonia at <.02 (safe). From this, I’m concluding that I have high NH4 but low NH3. Is that correct?

Tank details:
6 gallons
Ph approximately 7.4
Aqueon filter
Heated to ~78 F
Betta and plants only (no other fish or snails, etc.)
Plants: One Anubis Nana, One Amazon Sword, four Marimo moss balls (though three of them are very small)
*Recently pulled out some Anachris which may have been rotting.

I’m weighing basically three options:
  1. Assume the tank never cycled. Add Seachem Prime every other day starting now (in anticipation of ammonia/NH4 being converted to nitrites). Also add Seachem Stability every day for the next week to hopefully start building BB colonies. Zero or minimal water changes during the next week to allow BB best opportunity to grow.
  2. Start adding Seachem Stability. Do not add Prime now, but monitor ammonia and nitrite levels daily and start adding Prime every other day at the appearance of any significant free ammonia or nitrites.
  3. Do nothing at this time. Hope that tank has already cycled and/or that plants and moss balls will consume any nitrite as it is formed. (Of course, I’d add Prime at the appearance of NH3 or nitrites).
The more I think about it option (1) seems to have little downside, but I guess I’m trying to avoid crossing the Rubicon into regularly putting chemicals into the tank.

Thank you for reading all this!

Any help appreciated as again I’m new and still learning. If my thinking is completely off somewhere please let me know it.
 

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LBetta said:
Hello, I want to do the right thing and would hugely appreciate any help.

I bought a Betta (on a whim) on February 28. I knew very little but per the pet store employee all I needed to do was wait 24 hours before adding the fish to his (6 gallon) tank. I learned about tank cycling shortly after, but not before the Betta had been added to the uncycled tank.

Over approximately the last 6 weeks I’ve tested for nitrites and nitrates every couple/few days using Tetra Easy Strips. Nitrites have always been ~0. Nitrates have been showing at ~10 on the testing strips, but then I bought the AVI Master Test Kit a couple days ago, and it is showing nitrates as 0.

I started testing for ammonia about three weeks ago and the reading was in the “safe” range (using the “Jungle” strips/test kit) until less than 48 hours ago. When it jumped to “stress” range I purchased the AVI Master Test Kit. That test is showing ammonia somewhere between .5 ppm and 1 ppm, I think.

I bought/was ready to add Seachem Prime to detoxify the ammonia but then learned about and decided to try Seachem’s Ammonia Alert (which measures only NH3). Ammonia Alert is reading free ammonia at <.02 (safe). From this, I’m concluding that I have high NH4 but low NH3. Is that correct?

Tank details:
6 gallons
Ph approximately 7.4
Aqueon filter
Heated to ~78 F
Betta and plants only (no other fish or snails, etc.)
Plants: One Anubis Nana, One Amazon Sword, four Marimo moss balls (though three of them are very small)
*Recently pulled out some Anachris which may have been rotting.

I’m weighing basically three options:
  1. Assume the tank never cycled. Add Seachem Prime every other day starting now (in anticipation of ammonia/NH4 being converted to nitrites). Also add Seachem Stability every day for the next week to hopefully start building BB colonies. Zero or minimal water changes during the next week to allow BB best opportunity to grow.
  2. Start adding Seachem Stability. Do not add Prime now, but monitor ammonia and nitrite levels daily and start adding Prime every other day at the appearance of any significant free ammonia or nitrites.
  3. Do nothing at this time. Hope that tank has already cycled and/or that plants and moss balls will consume any nitrite as it is formed. (Of course, I’d add Prime at the appearance of NH3 or nitrites).
The more I think about it option (1) seems to have little downside, but I guess I’m trying to avoid crossing the Rubicon into regularly putting chemicals into the tank.

Thank you for reading all this!

Any help appreciated as again I’m new and still learning. If my thinking is completely off somewhere please let me know it.
Welcome to Fishlore :)

First, I'm really sorry your having problems, but hopefully we can get started on the right track. A few recommendations, not in any particular order...

Stop listening to the employees at your LFS or big-box store. They rarely know anything about fish keeping.

Only use the liquid tests if you have them, not the strips, and definitely don't mix testing with both. The API liquid ammonia test has a history of reading .25 ppm ammonia even though the ammonia is zero. This is within the acceptable error for this test, so don't panic, just keep it in mind when testing.

When testing for nitrates, be sure to follow the instructions...shake solution #2 for 30 seconds before adding it. Shake the tube for one full minute, then wait five minutes before checking the color.

Don't trust the Ammonia Alert! It's just that, an alert. It's not a substitute for testing your water for ammonia. IMHO, it should not be used until after your tank is cycled. Then it can alert you to a potential problem and you can test your water to see what's really going on. Test your water every day until you read zero ammonia and nitrites, and you read positive for nitrates. One day may be a fluke, so I advise three or four consecutive days with these readings. Betta fish have a low bio-load, so you may never see a high reading for nitrates, but unless you have a lot of plants, they should be at least 5 to 10 ppm.

Prime is first and foremost, a water conditioner, used to remove chlorine and or chloramines from your source water. It should be used to treat your fresh water before adding the water to your tank, with every water change. No other conditioners are needed. It has a secondary benefit of detoxifying ammonia and nitrites from 24 to 48 hours, but that's not it's primary purpose.

Stablilty is a bottled bacteria. It is used to help start, and to supplement your beneficial bacteria until your tank is cycled. Follow the instructions on the bottle, and once you're cycled, it's no longer needed. Bottled bacteria is not necessary, but it may help.

Do 25% to 50% water changes, once a week minimum. That's the best way to keep the ammonia and nitrites at safe levels while cycling. Only use prime to treat high ammonia or nitrites as an emergency measure. When your combined ammonia and nitrites read 1 ppm or more, do a water change to lower them, then test again the following day.

Take a quart or liter sample of your tap water, and let it sit for 24 hours, then test it for pH, ammonia, nitrites and nitrates. This will give an indication of what you're adding to you tank, and is a good reference.

Now, for the anecdote... When I cycled my tank with fish, I tested my water every day, and I had to do water changes at least every-other day, sometimes every day. I used Prime and Stability, and it took 4 weeks.

I hope this helps, and best of luck to you and your fishy friend :)
 
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Mongo75 said:
Welcome to Fishlore :)

First, I'm really sorry your having problems, but hopefully we can get started on the right track. A few recommendations, not in any particular order...

Stop listening to the employees at your LFS or big-box store. They rarely know anything about fish keeping.

Only use the liquid tests if you have them, not the strips, and definitely don't mix testing with both. The API liquid ammonia test has a history of reading .25 ppm ammonia even though the ammonia is zero. This is within the acceptable error for this test, so don't panic, just keep it in mind when testing.

When testing for nitrates, be sure to follow the instructions...shake solution #2 for 30 seconds before adding it. Shake the tube for one full minute, then wait five minutes before checking the color.

Don't trust the Ammonia Alert! It's just that, an alert. It's not a substitute for testing your water for ammonia. IMHO, it should not be used until after your tank is cycled. Then it can alert you to a potential problem and you can test your water to see what's really going on. Test your water every day until you read zero ammonia and nitrites, and you read positive for nitrates. One day may be a fluke, so I advise three or four consecutive days with these readings. Betta fish have a low bio-load, so you may never see a high reading for nitrates, but unless you have a lot of plants, they should be at least 5 to 10 ppm.

Prime is first and foremost, a water conditioner, used to remove chlorine and or chloramines from your source water. It should be used to treat your fresh water before adding the water to your tank, with every water change. No other conditioners are needed. It has a secondary benefit of detoxifying ammonia and nitrites from 24 to 48 hours, but that's not it's primary purpose.

Stablilty is a bottled bacteria. It is used to help start, and to supplement your beneficial bacteria until your tank is cycled. Follow the instructions on the bottle, and once you're cycled, it's no longer needed. Bottled bacteria is not necessary, but it may help.

Do 25% to 50% water changes, once a week minimum. That's the best way to keep the ammonia and nitrites at safe levels while cycling. Only use prime to treat high ammonia or nitrites as an emergency measure. When your combined ammonia and nitrites read 1 ppm or more, do a water change to lower them, then test again the following day.

Take a quart or liter sample of your tap water, and let it sit for 24 hours, then test it for pH, ammonia, nitrites and nitrates. This will give an indication of what you're adding to you tank, and is a good reference.

Now, for the anecdote... When I cycled my tank with fish, I tested my water every day, and I had to do water changes at least every-other day, sometimes every day. I used Prime and Stability, and it took 4 weeks.

I hope this helps, and best of luck to you and your fishy friend :)
Thank you very much sir.

Let me make sure I’m understanding your post correctly. Please correct me if anything I write below is a misstatement.
*I want to perform partial water changes (using new water treated with Prime, right?) to lower ammonia and any nitrites.
*I shouldn’t add Prime to the tank itself (excepting in the new water I add during changes) unless ammonia/nitrites rise above 1 ppm.
*I should start adding Stability to the tank now.

One more question as well. The Aqueon filter includes a sponge as well as a cartridge covered in cloth which I believe includes carbon. During my last water change (about 2.5 days ago) I rinsed the sponge as well as the cartridge in tank water and returned both. Is it okay to replace the cartridge now if I leave the sponge? I tried my best to clean out the cartridge but it’s not really possible to squeeze it because it has a plastic frame. I got a bunch of junk to come out (much of it from the anachris, I think) but I’m not sure whether the water is flowing at the full rate through the filter. I’ve also read some concerns about leaving carbon in the filter too long but I’m not sure what to make of those.

Thanks again!
 

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LBetta said:
One more question as well. The Aqueon filter includes a sponge as well as a cartridge covered in cloth which I believe includes carbon. During my last water change (about 2.5 days ago) I rinsed the sponge as well as the cartridge in tank water and returned both. Is it okay to replace the cartridge now if I leave the sponge? I tried my best to clean out the cartridge but it’s not really possible to squeeze it because it has a plastic frame. I got a bunch of junk to come out (much of it from the anachris, I think) but I’m not sure whether the water is flowing at the full rate through the filter. I’ve also read some concerns about leaving carbon in the filter too long but I’m not sure what to make of those.

Thanks again!
Let me make sure I’m understanding your post correctly. Please correct me if anything I write below is a misstatement.
*I want to perform partial water changes (using new water treated with Prime, right?) to lower ammonia and any nitrites.
Short Answer, YES.

*I shouldn’t add Prime to the tank itself (excepting in the new water I add during changes) unless ammonia/nitrites rise above 1 ppm.
Short Answer, You can, but probably not the most recommended way to do it. See below.

*I should start adding Stability to the tank now.
Short Answer, YES. There is a debate on whether bottled bacteria does any good, but it can't hurt, IMO. Just follow the instructions on the bottle :).

Do you have a small gravel vacuum? That can help with picking up the debris from fish poop and decaying plants.

How long has the filter cartridge been in use? Generally, you don't want to replace the cartridge until it's absolutely necessary. If it's been over one month, cut the fabric, and dump the carbon out, and put the carbon-less cartridge back into your filter. Carbon isn't necessary, and after three or four weeks, it can start leaching contaminants back into your tank. Usually the only time you want to use carbon is if you've had to use meds to treat something, then the carbon will help remove the meds when the treatment is complete. The fabric will normally last several months, and only needs to be replaced when it starts falling apart, or is so clogged that it severely reduces (starts to back up) the flow of water through it. When that happens, cut the fabric from the frame, and put the fabric in your filter behind the new cartridge for about a month. In addition to the sponge, the BB also colonize the fabric of the cartridge, and you don't want to throw away the BB that you've been trying so hard to develop. You can also try lightly scraping the fabric with your fingers to dislodge more of the gunk in it. Also, when you rinse the sponge or cartridge, only use dirty water from your WC, don't rinse it under tap water. The general consensus it the chlorine/Chloramine in the tap water can/will kill off the BB. Some people say tap water is ok, but I say, "Why Take the risk?"

*I want to perform partial water changes (using new water treated with Prime, right?) to lower ammonia and any nitrites.

When you do a water change, you can add the Prime directly into the tank, before adding the water, but if you do, you need to dose for the full capacity of the tank, 6 gallons, even if you are only replacing 2 or 3 gallons. For such a small amount of water, it only takes one drop of prime for each gallon, so you're better off treating the water before adding it into the tank. You could add Prime to the tank, rather than doing a WC, buy why? Replacing two or three gallons should only take 10 or 15 minutes, and it's much better for the fish. Your water contains other vital nutrients and minerals that get depleted over time, so it's in the best interest of your livestock to replenish these with fresh water on a regular basis. Having said that, when you do a WC to remove ammonia and nitrites from the tank, it reduces the amount available to your BB, so it may take longer to to build the colonies of BB necessary, and that's where the Stability comes in. It will help with the development of beneficial bacteria. In the case of delaying your WC for a day, you can add Prime to detoxify the pollutants (ammonia and nitrites), but I would only do it for a single 24 hour period, then do a WC anyway. The Prime will only detoxify up to 1 ppm, so if your combined ammonia and nitrites are 1 ppm or more, do a WC to get them down to safer levels.

As you gain experience, you will see that there are a lot of differing opinions on what is the "Right" way and the "Wrong" way to do something. In most cases, there are several ways to do almost anything, with no "right" or "wrong" way, just alternate ways. There are as many opinions as there ways to accomplish the desired goal. Some will completely agree with the advice I've offered, and others will vehemently disagree. What I offer is based on how I've learned to do it, and it has (almost) always worked for me.
 
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Thank you again. I’m going to perform a partial water change (probably about 25%) and remove the carbon from the cartridge today.

If ammonia + nitrites stay under 1ppm how long would you recommend waiting before the next water change?

One more- - let’s say I add two gallons of new water during a partial water change. Would I add enough Prime for two gallons to the new water, or should I add enough Prime for the full tank?
 

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LBetta said:
Thank you again. I’m going to perform a partial water change (probably about 25%) and remove the carbon from the cartridge today.

If ammonia + nitrites stay under 1ppm how long would you recommend waiting before the next water change?

One more- - let’s say I add two gallons of new water during a partial water change. Would I add enough Prime for two gallons to the new water, or should I add enough Prime for the full tank?
As long as the combined ammonia and nitrites are under 1 ppm, I would just 25 to 50% once a week, but I'm also a hypocrite, lol. I test my water once a week, and as long as ammonia and nitrites are zero, and nitrates are under 30, I go another two or three days. But, My tank has been cycles since Mid August, and it fairly well established. While cycling and for the next two months, it was 75% at 4 to 7 days.

If you add Prime to the new water before you put it in the tank, you only need to treat for the amount of new water. If you put the Prime into the tank, then add the fresh water, you need to treat for the entire tank volume. I usually do 50 to 75% (two or three buckets) and add prime to my first bucket as it's filling, but I treat for the full 20g of my tank, not the 10 or 15 gallons I'm adding. Here's the instructions from their web site. I bolded and underlined the pertinent part :).

Directions
Use 1 capful (5 mL) for each 200 L (50 US gallons) of new water. For smaller volumes, please note each cap thread is approximately 1 mL. May be added to aquarium directly, but better if added to new water first. If adding directly to aquarium, base dose on aquarium volume. Sulfur odor is normal. For exceptionally high chloramine concentrations, a double dose may be used safely. To detoxify nitrite in an emergency, up to 5 times normal dose may be used. If temperature is > 30 °C (86 °F) and chlorine or ammonia levels are low, use a half dose.
 
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Thank you again for staying with me. I retested everything today with the API Master Kit, and it may be good news:

I believe I may have nitrates (reference picture below). I tested 1) tank water and 2) spring water with the nitrate test so I could compare the colors. It’s not much, but I don’t think there’s any doubt that the test of the tank water resulted in at least some orange coloration (as compared to the spring water test). I see you mentioned above that Betta have a low bio load, maybe that’s as much as of a color change as I should expect. It is fair to assume I have at least some nitrates? Or could the difference in colors from the two tests be attributable to something else, like Ph or water temperature?

Nitrites are still at 0.

Ammonia looks like .5 ppm, which I believe is a slight drop from yesterday.

My optimistic take based on the above is that my tank may have already cycled, and I’m experiencing an ammonia spike based on the decaying anachris I mentioned above and/or the pieces of that anachris gumming up my filter enough to throw things off. (I had lots of dead anachris ‘leaves’ in the filter, as well as floating around the tank during my last WC about three days ago).

At this point I’m thinking my top priority is to clean out the carbon from the filter along with a partial WC (which will give me some tank water to soak the cloth around the carbon). I’ll also start adding Stability tonight.

Any thoughts or suggestions? I think mostly I’m excited that I might have nitrates and would really appreciate your analysis on that.
 

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Mongo75

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Mongo75 said:
As long as the combined ammonia and nitrites are under 1 ppm, I would just 25 to 50% once a week, but I'm also a hypocrite, lol. I test my water once a week, and as long as ammonia and nitrites are zero, and nitrates are under 30, I go another two or three days. But, My tank has been cycles since Mid August, and it fairly well established. While cycling and for the next two months, it was 75% at 4 to 7 days.

If you add Prime to the new water before you put it in the tank, you only need to treat for the amount of new water. If you put the Prime into the tank, then add the fresh water, you need to treat for the entire tank volume. I usually do 50 to 75% (two or three buckets) and add prime to my first bucket as it's filling, but I treat for the full 20g of my tank, not the 10 or 15 gallons I'm adding. Here's the instructions from their web site. I bolded and underlined the pertinent part :).

Directions
Use 1 capful (5 mL) for each 200 L (50 US gallons) of new water. For smaller volumes, please note each cap thread is approximately 1 mL. May be added to aquarium directly, but better if added to new water first. If adding directly to aquarium, base dose on aquarium volume. Sulfur odor is normal. For exceptionally high chloramine concentrations, a double dose may be used safely. To detoxify nitrite in an emergency, up to 5 times normal dose may be used. If temperature is > 30 °C (86 °F) and chlorine or ammonia levels are low, use a half dose.
LBetta said:
Thank you again for staying with me. I retested everything today with the API Master Kit, and it may be good news:

I believe I may have nitrates (reference picture below). I tested 1) tank water and 2) spring water with the nitrate test so I could compare the colors. It’s not much, but I don’t think there’s any doubt that the test of the tank water resulted in at least some orange coloration (as compared to the spring water test). I see you mentioned above that Betta have a low bio load, maybe that’s as much as of a color change as I should expect. It is fair to assume I have at least some nitrates? Or could the difference in colors from the two tests be attributable to something else, like Ph or water temperature?

Nitrites are still at 0.

Ammonia looks like .5 ppm, which I believe is a slight drop from yesterday.

My optimistic take based on the above is that my tank may have already cycled, and I’m experiencing an ammonia spike based on the decaying anachris I mentioned above and/or the pieces of that anachris gumming up my filter enough to throw things off. (I had lots of dead anachris ‘leaves’ in the filter, as well as floating around the tank during my last WC about three days ago).

At this point I’m thinking my top priority is to clean out the carbon from the filter along with a partial WC (which will give me some tank water to soak the cloth around the carbon). I’ll also start adding Stability tonight.

Any thoughts or suggestions? I think mostly I’m excited that I might have nitrates and would really appreciate your analysis on that.
It is a very, very slight tint of orange, but being the result of two different tests, I would consider it more a variance between the tests solutions, and not really nitrates. If you look at the color chart, you'll see that the low range pH, ammonia, and nitrates all have yellow as their lowest readings, but they're all three slightly different shades of yellow.

Just curious, have you ever had nitrite readings above zero? Generally speaking, you're not going to see nitrates until a week or two after seeing your nitrites spike which means you're going to see a nitrite reading greater than zero for a week or more, until the bacteria can convert the nitrites to nitrates. If they've always been zero, then it's very unlikely that your tank has cycled. At this point, I would continue your assumption that your tank is uncycled.
 
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Mongo75 said:
It is a very, very slight tint of orange, but being the result of two different tests, I would consider it more a variance between the tests solutions, and not really nitrates. If you look at the color chart, you'll see that the low range pH, ammonia, and nitrates all have yellow as their lowest readings, but they're all three slightly different shades of yellow.

Just curious, have you ever had nitrite readings above zero? Generally speaking, you're not going to see nitrates until a week or two after seeing your nitrites spike which means you're going to see a nitrite reading greater than zero for a week or more, until the bacteria can convert the nitrites to nitrates. If they've always been zero, then it's very unlikely that your tank has cycled. At this point, I would continue your assumption that your tank is uncycled.
Ugh, no, to the best of my knowledge I haven’t had a measurable amount of nitrites in the tank. How long does it generally take for nitrites to appear after ammonia is detected? Is it possible my plants and moss balls are removing all the nitrites before I detect the presence? For whatever it’s worth I’ve had the tank for almost two months.
 

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LBetta said:
Ugh, no, to the best of my knowledge I haven’t had a measurable amount of nitrites in the tank. How long does it generally take for nitrites to appear after ammonia is detected? Is it possible my plants and moss balls are removing all the nitrites before I detect the presence? For whatever it’s worth I’ve had the tank for almost two months.
And now, we're getting out of my comfort zone. I've never kept a Betta, or any fish with a low bio-load. I've always had a good source of ammonia to create a good colony of BB. My tank, a 20g, had one angel, 4 mollies, and 4 snails when I cycled it. I keep a log of everything I do with my tank, so it's easy to go back and look. I started it last July 18, and on July 22, I was seeing .25 nitrites and nitrates both. The nitrites spiked on August 3 at 5 ppm and stayed there two days even with 75% water changes. On August 5, they were down to 2 ppm, and from August 8 through the 17th, they were between .25 and .5, I called it 3 ppm because it was closer to 2.5 than .5. Since August 18, they have always been zero.

It may be possible that the combination of the plants, and low bio-load are all that's needed in your tank, and everything is good. It wouldn't be the first time. If you look around on the forum here, you'll see others with almost the same results.

Though swimming and being alive, doesn't mean fish are thriving, or healthy, unless you're seeing obvious distress, I think you're good. Just keep up with dosing with Prime when you do your water changes, only replace the filter cartridges when they wear out, or start clogging, and watch out for signs of stress, or any abnormal behavior, and I think you'll have a healthy fish for quite a while :).
 
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Thank you again. Aqueon sure doesn’t make it easy to remove the carbon from the filter cartridge. Due to the way the cartridge is constructed I had to slice the fabric in three or four places and pull each of the cuts apart to get out even most (95%+, I’d say) of the carbon. Fortunately, almost all of the fabric is still attached to the frame. If I’m reading you correctly that shouldn’t present a problem, at least in the short term? Is there any reason to be concerned about a few remaining carbon pellets that might be tied up in the fabric/frame of the filter?

If you have any advice on how I might upgrade the filter going forward (either through modifying the current filter, or through purchasing a different filter) I’d appreciate it. I guess another option (which you mentioned above) would be to change cartridges every month but slice out one of the panels from the old filter and put it behind the new filter. Which would be best? I’ll do whatever is best for the tank but I really don’t want to try to remove the carbon from these cartridges again if there’s a better option.

Another question-I have a UV light in the top of the tank but haven’t been using it the last few weeks because it apparently causes the Betta to see his reflection in the glass and repeatedly flare. I don’t want him to spend 8 or 10 hours a day flaring or stressed (especially if the water isn’t close to perfect). The room where the tank is located has an overhead light which I leave on 12+ hours a day. I’m hoping the non-use of the tank light isn't a problem (though I’m guessing it’s why my anachris didn’t thrive). Any suggestion on how to deal with light?

For whatever it’s worth the Betta is active during the day and seems to almost immediately settle to sleep when I turn off the room lights.

Do you have a favorite charity? I value your time and advice and would like to make a donation to recognize it.
 

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