Does low pH make ammonia less toxic? Fish-in Cycle, need advice!
I'm still new here and new to fish keeping. I thought I read somewhere that your ammonia is not toxic if you have a low pH but now I can't find it anywhere. Is this true? And if so does it ensure the fish won't die from ammonia poisoning during the beginning of fish in cycle? (I tried doing a fishless cycle with fish flakes but I couldn't deal with the smell so I went to Petco and the guy told me there's too many phosphates in doing that and it's too advanced what I was doing. So I got a couple of little comet goldfish and he told me it should be enough to get the cycle going in 4-6 weeks). I wanted to do pure ammonia but got scared when I heard from some people (perhaps due to overdosing) it gave off fumes for them from the tank itself. Given that the fish tank is in my bedroom and I have birds in there also, I can't risk that. For my birds and for myself (I'm very sensitive to smells). So that's why I have the goldfish now. I've had them for 3 days and they are doing ok so far and are eating. Problem is we have ammonia in our tap water. I have 0 nitrites 0 nitrates but like 1.0 ppm ammonia in the tank. I'm hoping I can just bring the pH to like 6.8 and the fish will be okay :-? at least until the cycle gets going which seems like it is taking forever! I've been doing small 20% water changes to vacuum up uneaten food but can't bring ammonia down because it's in the tap water... I use Start Right conditioner for chlorine/chloromine and am gradually bringing pH down from 7.6 (because that was their pH from Petco and I didn't want to shock them). Now I have it right about 7.0 today and hope to get to 6.8 tomorrow or the day after. Does it sound like I'm doing everything OK? 20 gallon tank btw and I'm hoping to get barbs, tetras, danios, gouramis, paradise fish in the future.
got the pH to 6.8 today and ammonia is still a steady 1 ppm and the fish are okay and eating so I'm hoping they can tolerate this for ammonia. Still no nitrites but maybe I"m just being impatient.
To answer your initial question at face value, yes; in acidic water (pH below 7), ammonia automatically changes to ammonium. Ammonium is basically harmless. Nitrosomonas bacteria still consume ammonium as ammonia, so the cycle will establish normally. Live plants if you have them prefer ammonium as their source of nitrogen, so even better especially in new tanks [won't delve into this topic now]. Test kits like API's tread ammonia/ammonium as ammonia, so it will still show "ammonia" although it may be ammonium.
However, if you are fiddling with water chemistry to lower the pH, there is a real danger in this. If the pH should rise back above 7, the ammonium immediately changes back into toxic ammonia. This may be sufficient to stress the fish, or even kill them if high enough. This can occur during the next water change if the tap water is basic; the tank can shift up in pH quickly. Which brings me to the pH adjustment.
Unless this is done naturally, this is highly dangerous with fish in the tank. The pH of water is largely determined by the hardness. The carbonate hardness (expressed as KH) acts as a buffer to prevent pH shifts. Adding any chemicals to lower the water will temporarily lower the pH, but if the KH is sufficient to buffer the water it will rise back up again. Aside from the ammonia/ammonium issue, the fluctuating pH is very stressful on all fish, and should be avoided. Another issue is that the water can suddenly be overwhelmed with the chemicals and a pH crash can occur. This often seriously harms the fish internally, and also may kill them outright or down the road.
Safe ways to lower pH naturally will work, but the hardness of the tap water is a factor that must be addressed. This issue also i will not delve into here.
Once we know the hardness, it will be fairly easy to work out how variable the pH may be over time and how we can safely lower it.
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