Sudden ammonia spike

David C
  • #1
I'm not sure what caused it, but my ammonia spiked to .5ppm and I have no nitrite readings at all. The tank cycled a couple of weeks ago so my only guess is my crusade against snails (killing a dozen or so every morning) I'm not sure if what the fish don't eat is spiking the ammonia. Nonetheless I got scared so I detoxed with prime and ran to the LFS and bought safestart and treated. That was three days ago. Still no nitrite readings and ammonia is staying strong at .5ppm. I removed the albino cories and put them in my 10gal because I heard they are the most fragile, I used safestart on that tank and got nitrite readings overnight (purchased from the same LFS).

So my question is, should I retreat with safestart on the 55gal or should I just keeping detoxing with prime and using stability while doing 50% water changes daily. I thought maybe I got a bad bottle of safestart, not sure... I s'pose that's why I'm asking the pros

ammonia .5ppm
nitrite .0ppm
nitrate 10ppm (holding steady)
temp 78*
  • #2
Did you stir the substrate that day or day before the testing?

You should consider the idea that you may be overfeeding the tank, possibly. A lot of people do overfeed their fish/tanks.
  • #3
Have you tested your water from your tap? Believe it or not some cities do have ammonia in their water. When I get an ammonia spike I start changing water and adding a bunch of fast growing floating plants. I do 50% WC once a day for several days until it gets under control
  • #4
I agree with Chief about the over feeding... or maybe you have an over socked tank? How old is your filter?
David C
  • Thread Starter
  • #5
I have two filters a month old totaling 700gph. I feed the fish while watching them to make sure they eat it all and I remove anything they don't eat. My tap water is ammonia 0ppm, nitrite 0ppm, nitrate 5ppm. I have 6 mollys and 2 cories in a 55g, so not overstocked. I appreciate any ideas, but I'm quickly getting confused. I'm going to the LFS today anyway (my filter and heater went out on the 10 gallon after being stored for a month, go figure) so I might try to pick up the fast growing plants and see if they help. I wasn't sure if I should try the safestart again since ill be at the LFS anywayz... but I didnt want to waste the money if it wouldnt help.

I hate days like this, when nothing seems like its working
  • #6
Dont be ridiculous... You're working =P the only last thing I can think of (I'm fairly new to this) is that do you have any live plants that have died/dying? I think that can cause ammonia? but I'm not sure
  • #7
David C: You're doing good. What's your pH? if it's below 7.0, and stays below 7.0, this shouldn't be a major concern (your ammonia readings might be reflecting ammonium). If your pH is above 7.0, disregard this info, you have toxic ammonia.

This might be a question out of target, but I'll ask anyway:
Have you rinsed/cleaned your filter media?
Both extremes could explain a reading of 0.5ppm -which by the way I wouldn't call a spike, but a red light: a real ammonia spike would killed every fish in your tank, which means you are taking good care of them.
a) if no maintenance has been provided, even though your tank is less than 1 month old, you might indeed have clogged filters that have a bunch of bacteria that is not doing its work or is dying, due to poor dissolved O2;
b) if you over-cleaned/rinsed or replaced all filter media, you ran out of enough bacteria to handle the bio-load.

Dead snails would create a problem in a small tank -5gal 10gal 15gal, but your tank size -55gal seems to rule this out, unless we're talking of massive snail death (with visible rotten remains all around)

Keep partial water changes and hopefully this will be done in a few days. It took me almost two weeks of partial every-other-day water changes to keep nitrites in check in a temporarely overstocked tank that entered a mini-cycle. Even though nitrites are finally steady at zero, I keep doing the partial water changes, for the sake of the fish (and my peace of mind)

Santo Domingo
David C
  • Thread Starter
  • #8
I haven't cleaned the filter media, ph is around 7.6 steady... and the snails are around 10-15 dead a day, maybe an issue. the tanks are planted, but I've checked all the plants for decay and found none, they seem to be doing good. Thanks for the help, I'll keep an eye on it with water changes for the next few days and see if there's any improvement.

One last idea, I started using API root tabs a few days ago and I noticed they contain urea as an active ingredient, urea comes from urine so maybe it has ammonia and they're leaching into the water??? its an idea, maybe someone else has had the same results, not sure and I'm simply grabbing at straws here, lol
  • #9
I think it is the snails ...whats killing the snails?

I wouldnt spend any more money on chemicals and just stick with the old fashion water changes of at least 50% a day to finish it off...what test kit are you using? goodluck I hope it cycles fast for you!!
  • #10
In the human body, your sweat (perspiration for you ladies) contains urea, As urea breaks down, it converts to ammonia amoung other things. That is why many people when exercising experience an ammonia smell. So I suppose the urea could be causing your ammonia.
  • #11

After hearing about the root tabs that is 99.999% surely what it is, in my opinion. You have successfully diagnosed your tank issue with minimal help from us, good job.

An extra waterchange the day or two after using the tabs wouldn't hurt, but you should be okay.
David C
  • Thread Starter
  • #12
I'm the one killing the snails, with my finger every morning and cleaning the eggs outta the tank. I use the API master test kit with liquid reagents.

Thanks for the info about the urea jdhef, I knew it was something along those lines, I'm no chemist I'll just stick to the daily maintenance and ride this out, hopefully it clears up soon. I'm thinking about using the flourish excel by seachem instead of the root tabs, maybe it'll prevent this from happening again (assuming this is the problem)

Thanks again for the help and encouragement, my fishies appreciate it
  • #13
In the human body, your sweat (perspiration for you ladies) contains urea, As urea breaks down, it converts to ammonia amoung other things. That is why many people when exercising experience an ammonia smell. So I suppose the urea could be causing your ammonia.

We don't perspire, we glisten.

Back on topic, that's good information for anyone using the root tabs to know.
  • #14
We don't perspire, we glisten.

Back on topic, that's good information for anyone using the root tabs to know.

  • #15
The root tabs shouldn't be causing a problem if they are buried where they won't leech into the water column. Do you have anything that might be digging them up?
I know your being careful how much you feed and making sure it's being eaten but what goes in does come out and the more you feed the more comes out. So overfeeding can cause a problem in this way. A fishes stomach is the size of one eye, this may kind of help guide you in feeding
water changes are the very best way to control ammonia- Keep up the good job.
David C
  • Thread Starter
  • #16
I think the problem with the root tabs is I put them in at the proper depth and everything, but then when I vaccummed the tank the day before the ammonia spike, I hit one of the tabs and had a plume of the dissolving root tab shoot up the vacuum tube. I think that's how it got into the water. The ammonia is dropping slowly now with the water changes, but I'm still curious why I didnt get a resulting nitrite spike after the ammonia spike... but I'm pretty new to all of this so I'm just going with the flow and heeding everyones advice... x
  • #17
Hi, all,

I've had quite a few problems over the last few days and was looking partially for a diagnosis but more for a route of action.

I currently have:-

65l tank with powerhead filter

7 x WCMM
3 x blue variegated guppies
8 x red cherry shrimp (although I rarely see more than four or five at a time)

2 x anubias
1 x umbrella plant
4 x vallisneria
2 x java fern
2 x unknown (large, light green bushy plants)

1 x airstone

To give you some background: I set up a planted freshwater tank in October and did a fishless cycle. I'd used Nutrafin Cycle for a couple of days before reading that I'd be reliant on it forever, so abandoned it. I used both fish food and household ammonia.

I didn't test in the first few days but, by the time I did, ammonia was 0 and nitrites were up. When nitrites went down to 0 and nitrates went up, I took that to mean the tank was cycled. I added three white cloud mountain minnows first and, with the ammonia and nitrite still at 0 a week later, added the other fish (the shrimp were added in late December).

All was pretty much well - other than discovering my tap water comes out at 40ppm - until Sunday, when one of the four guppies I had appeared to have had half its tail ripped off.

I picked up some Melafix and dosed as said on the bottle as well as removing the carbon tray from the filter. The tail began growing back, but when I came home from work on Tuesday, more tail had gone and the fish was vertical, resting in the valisneria. I put it in a breeder box, but it died a few hours later.

I was keeping a keen eye on the tank afterwards, for obvious reasons, and noticed one of the white cloud mountain minnows swimming erratically, jerking around. A Google search suggested ammonia may be high and, although I've been testing every week and not once seen it rise above 0, it was at 4 ppm.

I performed a 50% water change, which brought it down to 0.25, and added some more Nutrafin Cycle as, with shrimp in the tank, I was desperate to reduce the levels ASAP.

Today, when I came home from work, it was 0.25 again. I did another 30% water change and readings as of now are:

Ammonia: 0.25
Nitrite: 0
Nitrate: 0-5 (thanks to NitrateMinus)

I'd like to know the following if anyone has any ideas:

a) What caused the ammonia spike? Removing the carbon filter? Melafix? Could the Nutrafin Cycle have created a mini-cycle that has lasted almost three months but has now expired (I hadn't used it since mid-October)?
b) Could the ammonia have gone up shortly before the guppy attack and prompted a change in their behaviour (they're usually calm)?


c) The best course of action

I'm guessing the Nutrafin Cycle should bring the ammonia down to 0 again in a day or two, and I can keep up the daily water changes. Will the proper bacteria grow alongside the Cycle if I've dosed twice this week or am I reliant on it now?

I've got some Prime coming in the post as my LFS don't stock it, but I plan to pick up some Ammo-Lock in the morning.

Also, would replacing the carbon part of the filter now be a help or a hindrance? My assumption is that I'd lose any good bacteria that's built up on there, but equally there could be benefits to carbon that outweigh that.

I don't have any other tanks, by the way, so moving the fish/shrimp to a safehouse isn't an option sadly.

If you've managed to make it through all that, any help would be very much appreciated.

  • #18
Welcome to FishLore!

Ammonia can make calm fish aggressive.

It is possible that the bacteria in the cycle led you to believe that the tank cycled thru the ammonia phase.

Rather than using more "Cycle" I think you would be better off doing daily 50% water changes. And once you get the Prime or Ammo Lock start using it immeadiatly. Keep these water changes up until you get zero ammonia and zero nitrites. I would also say and some nitrates, but since you have it in your tap water, that will be no help.

I would replace the carbon.

Also, you didn't ask, but I would highly recommend that you switch to Amquel+ & NovAqua+ (they are designed to be used together.) Amquel+ has the ability to remove nitrates from your water.
  • #19
Is MelaFix (or any of the other treatments) an antibiotic? That would have killed off some/all of the beneficial bacteria and re-started the cycle, which would be why the ammonia is up. Daily water changes will help until it stabilizes itself.
  • #20
Many thanks for the advice. I've just changed the carbon and I'll pick up the Ammo-Lock in the morning and work with that, as well as keeping up with the water changes.

One quick Ammo-Lock question: I know it converts the ammonia into a different form for 24 hours, but does it become 100% harmless during that timeframe? The concern is for the shrimp more than anything given that I've heard they're particularly susceptible to ammonia/nitrite.

As for Melafix, it says on the bottle that it won't affect the bacteria, but I'm starting to learn to be a little more cynical about advice on bottles! I'm pretty certain nothing else would have had an antibiotic effect.

With the nitrate, the NitrateMinus seems to be making a really strong impact after just one use, and I've read good things, but I'll certainly take the advice if it starts to fail me.

Thanks again
  • #21
Here are my thoughts on what happened, IMO. You added the shrimp which increaded the bioload on the filter then removed part of the filters good bacteria when you removed the carbon filter media. Your tank then more than likely went into a mini-cycle.

You can use Seachem Prime or Ammo-Lock to help detoxify the ammonia and nitrites for 24 hours. At that time you need to do a large water change and treat again with which ever product you have picked to use. Yes they should detoxify everything ok for 24 hours only. You can not over dose with Prime so you can put extra in the tank to help.

As for Melafix it is safe to use and has never bothered my readings so I am sure it don't kill any of the good bacteria. Melafix is organic and not chemicals but you should do a large water change when your done treating with it to remove it from the tank before putting back in the carbon filter media. It does give the tank a smell like Ben Gay.

As stated above when the ammonia or nitrites go up in a tank it can have wild effects on the fish. Some normally peaceful fish can become over aggressive which is more than likely why you had fish with damaged fins to start with.

Good luck getting your tank back to a healthy tank.
  • #22
Oops...sorry. Your post was kinda long, and I was at work so I read it pretty quickly and missed the part about using Nitrate Minus.

I think ammo lock turns the ammonia into ammonium (but I'm not 100% on that), but daily 50% water changes should keep your ammonia levels pretty low. But if they aren't dropping fast enough you could do 2 water changes a day until you get to a fairly low level. I would hope that if you kept your ammonia level at around .5ppm and used the ammo lock that your shrimp would survive
  • #23
I am thinking that you're bioload is a bit heavy on the tank. you should stick to frequent water changes and get like jdhef some ammo lock. works like a charm.
  • #24
Regarding the bioload comments, I'd read that shrimp have pretty much zero bioload in a few places before buying them and that you can keep hundreds in, say, a 10 litre tank. Is that not the case? I realise they must have some bioload, but I'd thought it was negligible.

The ammonia was still 0.25 this morning, and I did another 30% water change because I'd read that if you change too much of the water you'll remove more bacteria and slow the cycle. As I plan to get some Ammo-Lock shortly, I'd figured speeding the cycle would be the priority rather than removing the ammonia, but let me know if I'm making a mistake here.

As my cycle has clearly been disrupted now, does it definitely follow that eventually I'll get a nitrite spike as well? It's still at 0 for now, as it has been since the original 'cycle' was completed.

One other thought occurred to me: I don't have any other tanks, but could you fill a bucket with gravel, water, an ammonia source and a sponge and develop the good bacteria in there before transferring the sponge? The theory would be that you could add high amounts of pure ammonia and not bother with water changes to help it develop faster. I wasn't clear on whether you'd require a filter/heater to do it - I know warmer water cycles faster.

Thanks again for all the advice and apologies for the fact my posts seem to all be slightly too long!


UPDATE: Ammo-Lock now applied. With the API Master Test Kit, am I right in thinking my ammonia readings are going to look the same or higher?
  • #25
Doing water changes does not remove bacteria from the tank. The bacteria is not feel swimming. It attaches itself to hard surfaces, such as gravel, glass, plants etc. But an especially good home for bacteria is the filter media, and that is where the vast majority lives.

As the water which contains ammonia travel thru your filter media, the bacteria in that media starts eating the ammonia (and nitrites). As the bacteria becomes fed it starts to reproduce until finally enough bacteria grows to consume all of the ammonia (and nitrites).

But the water changes do slow cycling down some because there is less ammonia in the water, so the bacteria isn't as well fed and takes longer to reproduce. But having higher ammonia levels will kill your fish, so your trying to keep your ammonia low enough to do minimal harm to the fish, but still grow bacteria. That is why fishless cycling is faster, since you can keep higher ammonia levels since there are no fish that will suffer.

Now that you are using ammonia lock, you can let your ammonia levels get a little higher and still have the fish be safe. The bottle should tell you what level of ammonia it can detox, and as long as you stay below that level, I would think your fish would be safe.

Yes, your theory about cycling in a bucket is correct. Just remember, higher temps will help speed things up, as will having a good oxygen supply.
  • #26
Ah, thanks for the bacteria information. Good to correct these bits of misinformation!

I think I should be fine to continue with the 30% changes from what you've told me as it was 0.25 ppm this morning before using the Ammo-Lock (which can handle 3.0 ppm according to the bottle) and was about 1-2 ppm not long after applying it (presumably an artificially high reading).

Things seem better in the tank - I've seen one of the shrimp happily swimming about this morning, and I never seem to see them swimming when there's any significant ammonia/nitrate. The Prime's coming in the post tomorrow too.

The plan now is to return the three guppies to the LFS to decrease the bioload (and to spare me worrying about tail-biting!) and to try to cycle a bucket in the morning. Not sure I can do much about the temperature and oxygen, but I'll leave it near a radiator if possible...

Thanks again
  • #27
Yes you will need to wait 24 hours after a water change with treated water to test your tank for ammonia.
  • #28
Nitrites were up this morning - ammonia at about 1.0 ppm and nitrites at 2.0 ppm - so very fortunate that the bottle of Prime arrived promptly.

Any ideas how long this cycle is likely to last under the circumstances?
  • #29
I would guess probably 3 to 4 weeks, but it could be less.
  • #30
Good to know - I was hoping it would be something like two to three weeks given that there must be some bacteria already there in the sponge etc.

UPDATE: My latest test is showing 0 ppm for both ammonia and nitrite. I'll test again in the morning, and it might be the Prime affecting the readings, but that's a bit more encouraging!
  • #31
Sounds like you have a control on your tank.

One question: when the removed the carbon, was it part of a cartridge that also included the filter floss?

The reason I ask is that the filter floss is where the majority of your bacteria are.

Good luck!
  • #32
It sounds like you may have hit upon the problem...

I removed (the Aqua One (1C) Carbon & Wool Cartridge if the link doesn't work). I hadn't thought that would be a problem since you're supposed to replace that part every six to eight weeks, although I would expect there would be plenty of bacteria on there.

I also removed the plastic filter intake part quite recently and added a sponge fitting as a couple of shrimp had somehow squeezed through the slits and got themselves killed. I wouldn't have thought there would be a lot of bacteria on there, but I did give the pipe a clean as well, so anything on there would have gone as well.

For future reference, how do I go about replacing the carbon cartridge without jeopardising the bacteria colonies?

Many thanks
  • #33
Yeah, you are using one of those carbon-floss combo cartridges. I cut a slit in the back to remove the carbon. Then, you can either stuff more in, or pick up a small media bag and add a tiny bit to continue using carbon.

Personally, I remove the carbon and do not replace it. The only time I add carbon back is when I need to remove impurities from the tank, such as removing meds or tannins from driftwood. Then, I rinse the floss cartridge each week to remove any debris that may have become lodged.

When the cartridge is falling apart, I stuff 2 cartridges into the filter, if it can hold it, or remove a large portion of the floss and stuff into the filter with a new cartridge. Just find a way to add the colonized floss to help the bacteria re-establish on the new cartridge.

I have 2 tanks that use these types of cartridges. In the 12G tank, I may replace the entire cartridge only 1-2 times a year. And, in my 5G tank tank, I stopped using the cartridges. This tank holds my Ghost Shrimp. I bought a large sponge, cut a slit into the middle and put it over the intake tube. The bacteria will colonize the sponge as well as trap debris. Then, while doing my weekly water changes I rinse the sponge to remove trapped debris, if needed. As the shrimp remove most of the debris, the sponge gets a rinse very rarely.

Your tank will have some bacteria, but the colonies must grow to be able to process the waste. It shouldn't take too much time. Definitely keep up on the water parameters and do daily, or every other day, water changes to help avoid fish loss.

The only other thing I could suggest is to replace the cartridge when needed, but do not do a gravel cleaning or otherwise disturb the filter. Bacteria exist on every surface, but are mostly on the floss due to its abundant surface area.
Hope this helps.
  • #34
That all sounds excellent advice, and is very much appreciated - it definitely seems like removing that part twice in two weeks has caused this.

I've never actually questioned what the carbon part does (other than remove medicines). Is it just the manufacturers looking to make money by saying it has to be replaced every two months? Can I ask why you remove the carbon rather than just leaving it after it's expired?

Also, if I do cut the floss off the top and add that to a new cartridge, does that stay in for the life of the new cartridge or a set period to allow the bacteria to move across?

I've got a sponge this one on the end of the intake pipe now, which hopefully will build up a nice supply of bacteria soon enough. Can't say it looks very clean, but the water's still flowing through powerfully enough a couple of weeks on, and, as you said, I don't want to disturb anything till the levels come down!

Thanks again - I think you may well have diagnosed the cause of my problems here.

UPDATE: Just tested all levels again, 24 hours after using Prime, and still getting 0 ppm for ammonia and nitrite and 5 ppm for nitrate. I know Prime can last 48 hours so maybe not out of the woods yet, but things do seem to be looking good.
  • #35
As you are getting 0 ammonia and 0 nitrite, I'd say you've got your cycle back on your tank. Testing too soon can give you a false positive reading for ammonia. If you continue to get the same readings in a couple of days, then you can be positive this is true.

The reason carbon must be replaced every 6-8 weeks is due to the fact that around this time, it begins to leach the trapped impurities back into the water column and the trapped debris will decompose which also adds ammonia, putting more stress on the cycle. You do not, however, need to replace the filter floss/media/wool until the water cannot flow through it or when it becomes too thin to trap debris. Yes, it is my opinion that these all-in-one cartridges are a marketing ploy to keep you coming back for more.

When I add the used floss with a new cartridge, I leave it for a couple of weeks, then toss it. By that time there should be sufficient bacteria on the new cartridge. Your sponge pre-filter will also hold much bacteria and will definitely help to reduce throwing your tank into a mini-cycle the next time you replace the cartridge. If your pre-filter sponge looks dirty and has a lot of trapped debris, you may want to rinse it off in dirty tank water the next time you do a water change.

Glad I could help, Robin. Good luck with your tank!
  • #36
Unfortunately, I had a slight nitrite return - 0.25 - this morning, so looks like I may be on the daily water changes a while longer!

I'll certainly cut the wool off and add that back in the next time the cartridge needs replacing, and I plan to rinse the sponge as soon as I'm convinced the cycle is fully back on track - I'm still getting a fairly powerful flow through it.

Thanks again. You're a lifesaver (hopefully literally).
  • #37
You are welcome Robin.

The bacteria that processes nitrites is much slower to colonize, when compared to that used for ammonia. So, you may be correct in that your tank will need daily or every other day water changes for a few more days.

You had also mentioned that the sponge was starting to look dirty. If it has trapped a lot of debris, then I'd try rinsing the sponge in some tank water on your next water change to knock off any trapped particles, such as fish food.
  • #38
I actually suspect I had readings very slightly higher than 0 ppm over the previous two days - I compared a tap water sample to the tank water with the ammonia today and, in some lights, there was a noticeable difference even though they were both what I would normally consider pure yellow.

I'll give the sponge a wash during the water change tomorrow. Will washing it in the tank water cost me any bacteria though? Any idea how long can the bacteria survive out of water? I know it only needs to be out of water a matter of seconds, but it would be useful to know what sort of timeframe you've got there.

  • #39
By rinsing the sponge in dirty tank water, you are saving the bacteria while cleaning off the sponge. Just swish the sponge around in a bucket of water to dislodge the debris.

A short time out of water does not affect the bacteria. Just think of a biowheel. The wheel is partially out of the water, but remains wet and bacterial survive.

Once your tank has stabilized, you may want to consider rinsing either the sponge or the filter cartridge with your weekly water changes, but never both at the same time.
  • #40
Great stuff. I'll get onto that in the morning - it's filthy in all honesty even if the water is flowing through okay!

Similar Aquarium Threads

  • Locked
  • Question
Top Bottom