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Help! Ammonia Problem

This is a discussion on Help! Ammonia Problem within the Beginner Freshwater Aquarium forums, part of the Freshwater Fish and Aquariums category; --> There have been a couple of very serious issues raised in the last few posts since my previous. I will start with the most ...

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Help! Ammonia Problem
Old 01-09-2013, 11:10 AM   #21
 
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There have been a couple of very serious issues raised in the last few posts since my previous. I will start with the most serious, that of relying on plants to deal with high ammonia.

Ammonia at any level above zero is harmful to all fish. This is now scientific fact, so there is no argument. Even a level as low as 0.25 ppm has been proven to cause gill damage in fish. And this damage is irreversible. At best any level of ammonia will stress the fish and weaken them internally, and down the road they usually succumb to some health issue that would not otherwise have occurred. And as far as we have evidence from careful observation, the fish die prematurely.



Ammonia will cause one or more of these symptoms:
  • reddish gills, with the gill cover usually held further out from the body;
  • clamped fins, later torn and jagged fins;
  • red streaks (blood) on the body, which is tissue damage;
  • fish gasping for air at the surface;
  • lethargy, difficultly swimming, wobbling, or often just lying on the bottom respirating faster.
During any of the above, internal damage is occurring to the brain, organs, and central nervous system. The fish begins to hemorrhage internally and externally, and eventually dies.

As you can see, some of these symptoms occur from other issues too, which is why exact diagnosis of fish disease can be tricky. Preventing disease is therefore much wiser than waiting for it to occur and then attempting to treat whatever it is. And preventing ammonia is key in this.

As I commented previously either in this or another thread, live plants do take up a considerable amount of ammonia. They use this as their prime source of nitrogen, but they also take it up as a toxin. Obviously there is some limit to how much they can take up, and I don't know what this limit is. When I discussed this issue with Tom Barr, a trained botanist whose name some of you will know from his extensive work in the area of planted tanks, his advice was that in most cases the plants, if heavily planted and fast growing, would be able to deal with most usual rises in ammonia such as in tap water at a water change or from a dead fish. But this is minimal; when we are testing levels at 1 ppm or higher we are far beyond this.

So, an immediate water change of no less than half the tank should always be performed if ammonia is determined to be above zero, and this continued daily until ammonia is zero. But the damage is already being done to the fish.

The pH is also significant. In acidic water, with a pH below 7, ammonia is changed into ammonium which is basically harmless. Plants and bacteria take this up. But in basic water (pH above 7) ammonia remains ammonia and is toxic to all life forms, be it fish, plant or bacteria, as levels increase. Most ammonia detoxifiers on the market work by changing ammonia to ammonium (in basic water) but they may have a limited effectiveness, say 24 hours or whatever. Water conditioners like Prime work this way.

Moving to pop's question on corys and other fish showing signs of ammonia poisoning. Corys have a low tolerance to ammonia before they begin showing the above signs, and usually if they do show signs they will be dead within a few weeks if not days. This is why new shipments of corys in the fish store frequently have high losses. I remember a local dealer telling me once of losing all the corys in shipment after shipment until he convinced the supplier to ship them in larger bags with only a couple fish in each. The ammonia poisoned them fast. Molly have the same intolerance. But "intolerance" is rather pointless, since any level of ammonia is harming the fish somehow, and they will not recover.

Byron.
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Last edited by Byron; 01-09-2013 at 11:21 AM..
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Old 01-09-2013, 11:38 AM   #22
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Quote:
Originally Posted by Byron View Post
When I discussed this issue with Tom Barr, a trained botanist whose name some of you will know from his extensive work in the area of planted tanks, his advice was that in most cases the plants, if heavily planted and fast growing, would be able to deal with most usual rises in ammonia such as in tap water at a water change or from a dead fish. But this is minimal; when we are testing levels at 1 ppm or higher we are far beyond this.

Byron.
I'm still new to all this, first to admit it so bear with me a moment.

OK, It is good to clarify that the water changes at the first sign of ammonia are paramount. Plants are a great buffer but not a cure in the case of already high ammonia level.

Assuming that a tank is live planted with a lot of plants... enough to handle normal ammonia production by some dead vegetation and fish byproducts and perhaps even a dead fish, the pH levels are reasonably stable and the tap water has no trace of ammonia what else could cause a tank to spike?

Die off of the bacteria would be a factor in a plantless tank but I can' t think of anything that would cause a spike in ammonia other than the already mentioned things in a planted tank.

So what would put us "far beyond this"?

Jeff.
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Old 01-09-2013, 12:01 PM   #23
 
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I'm still new to all this, first to admit it so bear with me a moment.

OK, It is good to clarify that the water changes at the first sign of ammonia are paramount. Plants are a great buffer but not a cure in the case of already high ammonia level.

Assuming that a tank is live planted with a lot of plants... enough to handle normal ammonia production by some dead vegetation and fish byproducts and perhaps even a dead fish, the pH levels are reasonably stable and the tap water has no trace of ammonia what else could cause a tank to spike?

Die off of the bacteria would be a factor in a plantless tank but I can' t think of anything that would cause a spike in ammonia other than the already mentioned things in a planted tank.

So what would put us "far beyond this"?

Jeff.
This is a good point. There is a difference between new tanks and an established tank. And in the latter, a major disaster is all that will cause a rise in ammonia beyond what plants/bacteria will handle. And I would suggest that in every case, such a disaster is solely caused by the aquarist who has for whatever reason failed to heed advice. And be clear, I am talking established tanks; the new tanks are a different issue.

I have set up I don't know how many new tanks over the years, including re-sets of tanks when I change out the substrate which is much the same thing because I always replace all filter media when doing this re-set. I have never had ammonia above zero. And to be honest, I stopped testing for it some time back. I plant the tank well, and cover the surface with floating plants. I use wood that has been in an established tank for a long time (as have the plants usually) so both carry bacteria anyway. Fish can be added and there will not be ammonia levels detectable.

When I do my water changes later this morning, I will be cleaning the canister on the 115g tank as well--under the tap as I always have. You can rely on plants and substrate bacteria more than some realize.

In an established tank, with or without plants, ammonia should never be above zero. As to what can cause it to rise [I've never had this happen to my knowledge], I would suggest it goes back to inexperience on the part of the aquarist. If one follows the advice given by so many with respect to fish load, filtration, feeding, compatibility of species, and in planted tanks live plants, ammonia should never be an issue.

Byron.
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Old 01-09-2013, 02:48 PM   #24
 
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I don't know what to do! i just lost two albino Cory catfishes today and now my two platies seem to be gasping for air and are on the bottom of the tank. As of right now I have 3 platies 5 neon tetras and 1 albino Cory in a 20 gallon tank The tank was cycled..I have had my tank for over 3 months now, and everything was fine.. but just yesterday two of my catfishes died, and today my platies look like they aren't doing to well. I think they might have had an ammonia poisoning because i checked my levels today and my ammonia levels were at 2ppm and everything else was zero. I did a 50% water change and used prime. Is there anything else i can do to prevent my other fishes from getting harmed?

Ok all you "water change the minute I see ammonia" people.

1) plants will consume that level of ammonia in hours while sucking out co2 and returning oxygen.

2) fish gasping for air-----Hmmmmmm could be high CO2 not letting the fish exhale CO2.

3) How does anyone here know that (after the prime treatment) the ammonia is now totally lockedup and the api test is reflecting 100% "safe" ammonia?.

If three is the case then IMHO the only thing to do is add plants. Massive water changes will serious degrade the environment and put the fish at risk. By contrast I have had rank beginners with similiar symptoms in new tank that reported the fish recovered literally in a few hours after adding anacharis.

Still just my .02
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Old 01-09-2013, 03:18 PM   #25
 
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IMHO I think I'd have to go for a combination of BBs and byrons answer.

Yes the plants would suck it up, but the water change would also lower it too. And they can only work best as a combo of both- water change = less AM for the plants to take up = faster 0 level.

So why would you do anything other than both when the fish's lives are quite literally at stake?!? I'd be doing anything and everything I could for them!
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Old 01-09-2013, 03:40 PM   #26
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IMHO I think I'd have to go for a combination of BBs and byrons answer.

Yes the plants would suck it up, but the water change would also lower it too. And they can only work best as a combo of both- water change = less AM for the plants to take up = faster 0 level.

So why would you do anything other than both when the fish's lives are quite literally at stake?!? I'd be doing anything and everything I could for them!
I don't think anyone is really saying "don't do this" or "don't do that" It's more an exercise of ideas between which might be the most appropriate response to a high ammonia situation if you had to pick one... and this is a personal choice based on individual's comfort levels with their particular setup and doing BOTH is an option.

Having said that, I trust that my tank is stable enough to not have a high ammonia issue in the first place BUT I know what steps I could take to fix the problem.

Oh, had to add this "3) How does anyone here know that (after the prime treatment) the ammonia is now totally lockedup and the api test is reflecting 100% "safe" ammonia?."

You don't. You have to trust that it does something. At this point it comes down to another comfort level factor with a product and it's claims.

Jeff.

Last edited by JDM; 01-09-2013 at 03:46 PM..
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Old 01-09-2013, 04:10 PM   #27
 
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'if you had to pick one'

That's my point though, you don't.....

If this was your daughter and the blue pill could save her, but so could the red, yet you were more inclined to the blue, would you only give her the blue? I think not.

Surely the same applies and a discussion over which method is better/which one youd pick is completely pointless as surely both are. Neither have negative effects as long as done at safe levels so there's only benefits to be had....
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Old 01-09-2013, 04:34 PM   #28
 
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I don't think anyone is really saying "don't do this" or "don't do that" It's more an exercise of ideas between which might be the most appropriate response to a high ammonia situation if you had to pick one... and this is a personal choice based on individual's comfort levels with their particular setup and doing BOTH is an option.

Having said that, I trust that my tank is stable enough to not have a high ammonia issue in the first place BUT I know what steps I could take to fix the problem.

Oh, had to add this "3) How does anyone here know that (after the prime treatment) the ammonia is now totally lockedup and the api test is reflecting 100% "safe" ammonia?."

You don't. You have to trust that it does something. At this point it comes down to another comfort level factor with a product and it's claims.

Jeff.
With respect of course.

IMHO you should at least use a test kit like the seachem multitest ammonia kit which measures the free and total ammonia or the seachem ammonia dot which measures just the free ammonia. Most especially after treating the tank with Prime or other conditioners especially dechlor and ammonia blocks.

If the api and other test kits measure 2ppm ammonia and you treat that ammonia with prime you sill still measure the ammonia because they cannot differentiate.

So it is entirely possible after Prime the 2ppm ammonia is .01 free ammonia and 1.99 the "safe" ammonia.

Doing a 100% water change with water that has (or will have shortly) 1.0 ppm free ammonia will be more dangerous to your fish then locked ammonia at 1.99 and free at .01.

In a new cycling tank or a tank that has a shock you're probably right it is the dangerous ammonia. But in systems treated with things like Prime not so.

my .02
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Old 01-09-2013, 06:03 PM   #29
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There you go, I didn't know that a test kit was out there that could differentiate between ammonia and ammonium.

Jeff
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Old 01-09-2013, 06:05 PM   #30
 
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All of this back and forth about plants and ammonia is fine, but some of you have forgotten the initial issue. The OP's fish are dying from ammonia poisoning. Tossing a bunch of plants in the tank is not going to save them. First, he/she probably doesn't have the plants and has to go and buy them (hopefully) from a fish store. Second, the fish are dying now, they are not going to sit there waiting for relief from a bunch of stem plants.

Please be sensible. The OP asked for help in an emergency. The answer is not to speculate on plants' abilities and how long.

There is absolutely no other option for this situation except massive water changes to get the ammonia to zero now. The fish will die otherwise.

As for Prime doing what they claim it does, with all the experience world-wide on using this I think we can safely assume it does what it claims or we would all have heard differently long before now.
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