Persistant ammonia (9 months). I've tried everything.
My new fish tank is cursed.
I’ve had a Convict Cichlid in the same 10-gallon tank for eight years with absolutely no problems. He is approximately the diameter of a softball, so I decided to upgrade him to a larger, 30-gallon, tank. That was nine months ago and he’s been swimming in ammonia ever since. I’ve done everything that I know to control this problem, and it still persists. Here are some of the details:
Ammonia and water chemistry:
The total ammonia levels are usually off the scale of my test kit (greater than 8 ppm). Sometimes I’ll test the water after a partial water change, and the level is still at the very top of the scale, which tells me it was over the scale before the dilution. Nitrate/nitrite levels are usually zero. pH is usually around 6.4 (even though I use a 8.0 powder buffer). There are times I’ve been able to get the ammonia levels as low as 0.5 ppm, but that was usually only after a period of very low feeding and several water changes. I have a color-strip meter inside the tank that indicates the level of only the harmful ammonia ion. According to this meter, although I have very high levels of total ammonia (as measured by several test-kit brands), the level of toxic ammonia is sometimes “low”, but usually “low-medium”. I attribute this to the slightly low (6.4) pH. I think this is the only reason my fish is alive (albeit rather ill). The temperature is the green zone, mid- to high- seventies.
I’ve tried different strategies over the past nine months. At one point I was doing 33% water changes daily. This sounds excessive, but was one of the only effective ways to keep levels low. I worried that may be too frequent…perhaps too frequent to allow beneficial bacteria to take hold. Therefore at other times I stuck to weekly 33% water changes in the hopes of not flushing out the colonizing bacteria before they took hold.
I started out with a bio-wheel filter designed for a 30-gallon tank. This was grossly inadequate, so I added a second filter also rated for a 30-gallon tank. The second filter was not a bio-wheel, but instead pushed water through three stages (mechanical, carbon and bio-substrate). The second filter eventually became clogged several months ago during a bacterial bloom—so clogged that it became inoperable, so I replaced the second filter with another bio-wheel. I therefore had two 30-gallon bio-wheel filters. The wheels eventually became colonized with a greenish film, which I assume was the beneficial bacteria. I would change the carbon filters about once per month. I actually only changed one carbon insert at a time so as not to remove too much biomass all at once.
At one point both bio-wheels became clogged during a bloom. The intake tubes, the carbon inserts and everything else became so clogged that the water flow was reduced to a trickle. The bio-wheels dried out. As I proceeded to clean the two filters I noticed a very disgusting orangish-brown slime in each of them. It smelled so horrendous that I instantly threw both of them out (more on this topic later). I decided that bio-wheel filters are useless and instead decided to go with the system I currently have. I removed all of the gravel and installed an under-gravel filter system (which is the type I had in my original ten gallon tank). I also installed a Fluval canister filter, which has several levels of filtration, two stages of carbon and one stage of those white ammonia-absorbing rocks. I’ve had this dual-filtration system for about two months now, and yes I still have at least 8ppm of ammonia.
When I first installed my Fluval canister filter, I decided not to touch it for 1 month, in order to allow it to do its thing and hopefully colonize. After one month, I opened it to check on things. I noticed that the white ceramic particles, which are meant for bacteria to colonize had begun to get some spots on them, but were definitely not saturated with colony; they were mostly still white. The first (mechanical) stage is a sponge, which was coated with a greenish-brown slime. I don’t know if that was colonizing bacteria or not, so I left it alone.
No solid waste or rotting food:
I also suck up any particulate matter or detritus from the bottom of the tank with a water vacuum whenever I do a water change, so I do not have any solid waste or rotting food in the tank. No live plants either.
My fish’s symptoms vary over time. Before I realized I had an ammonia problem he began to swim in circles and became spastic. At times he would remain at the bottom of the tank,listless. Most of those problems cleared—to an extent—once I began trying to manage this problem. At other times his fins have been eaten away (by some kind of pathogen I presume), and he has chronically had hole-in-the-head disease. I believe this is because his immune system has been compromised due to ammonia and malnutrition at times. At one point he lost most of his color and became really sluggish. I immediately increased his food amount. His color and behavior improved after this, but at a cost of soaring ammonia levels. I am constantly trying to toe the line between not giving too much food in order to avoid ammonia, but not giving too little in order to avoid starvation. As a result, his symptoms vary over time.
What do I add to the water:
With every water change, I add an appropriate amount of water conditioner, usually aquasafe brand. I also add an 8.0 pH buffer powder (an amount appropriate for this size tank). I previously used a 7.0 buffer of a different brand, but this factor seems to have no bearing on the issue. I also add the recommended amount of “Ammo Lock” chemical (about a capful every other day). If you are not familiar with Ammo Lock, it is a chemical that does not eliminate ammonia, but it binds it into a form that is harmless. Sometimes I add more than the recommended amount of Ammo Lock, particularly if the ammonia levels become drastic. I also add capfuls of solution that contains beneficial bacteria designed to speed up colonization. I’ve used a few different brands. At one point I also added a lot of those white rocks that absorb ammonia. I poured the rocks into filtration bags and put the bags in the tank. This did very little to help and I eventually stopped using them.
I’ve had a couple blooms, and I think they were blooms of beneficial bacteria. The water would become cloudy, my fish would start breathing heavily (low oxygen as the bloom is breathing a lot of it up), and shortly after that my filters became clogged. I also had some dark-green growth on all sides of the tank. I’m not sure if it was the beneficial bacteria or algae. It was the same color as the stuff that had colonized the bio-wheel, and I think it was around the time I had added an anti-algae tablet. The dark-green stuff would sometimes come off in sheets/strips; I do not know if bacteria will adhere that way or only green algae.
I was initially overfeeding him 2 or 3 frozen brine shrimp pellets per day (this is what I’ve been feeding him for the past eight years). Once I realized this was too much, I drastically reduced his feeding to one medium sized Bio-Gold brand dry cichlid pellet (the pellets are around 3 mm in diameter). I feel that this is not enough food. Sometimes I’ll give him two of those pellets per day, but if I give too much the ammonia levels go even higher, so I am trying to strike a balance…not so much food to raise ammonia, but not so little that he is undernourished.
I’ve never had problems with this fish in his old 10 gallon tank. I wish I had kept the tank, I would totally put him back in that one; I don’t know how much longer he can withstand this toxic tank from hell. It’s been nine months, and I’ve done everything I can imagine. So my question is simple. WTF?? Seriously, WTF?
I actually have a second question, which may be related to this, but it is too long to add to this thread. It is about an extremely horrible-smelling brown slime that I have found in the tank. I'll try to title that thread "brown slime, horrible smell", or something similar.
Brown slime, smells absolutely horrible
This thread is related to my other thread entitled, "persistent ammonia (9 months). I've tried everything". In addition to my persisting ammonia problem, a brown slime keeps growing in the tank that smells absolutely horrible.
At one point my two bio-wheel filters became totally clogged after a bacterial bloom of some sort. When I looked inside the filters I saw three colors. I saw the dark, greenish brown that you normally see in the filter and that smells like a lake-bottom. In addition to this however, I saw two other colors that just didn’t look right. There was a white slime. It wasn’t fuzzy like the white mold you get on food pellets that were left uneaten. It was a slime of some sort. Worst of all was the orangish-brown slime. It was somewhere between the color of peanut butter or perhaps caramel. It didn’t smell like either of those. The smell was so horrible that I literally gagged. It didn’t smell like the pungent lake-bottom smell that I’ve normally come to associate with fish-tank gook. It smelled like feces from a sick person. There is no way this can be good, I thought to myself, so I immediately threw both filters away and bought new ones.
That was a couple months ago. I now have my under-gravel filter (the kind that uses an air pump) and a Fluval canister filter. I’ve recently noticed that the bubble tubes of the gravel filter have become coated with dark slime, the carbon inserts at the top of each tube have also been coated, as well as the air stones. So I removed the bubble tubes in order to clean them and replace the inserts and once again gagged. That light-brown slime was in there (as well as the white stuff). Whatever it is, it seems to preferentially colonize areas that are well oxygenated (such as the air stone). The air stone and inner walls of the tubes were coated with this stuff and it smelled as awful as last time. I looked at some images online and it kinda looks a little bit like Diatoms, but I never read anything about diatoms smelling so god-awful. What is this horrible orangish-brown stuff? Is this the beneficial bacteria? Am I making a mistake by disposing of it?
Welcome to Tropical Fish Keeping forum.
First, stop using the pH buffer. Clearly it is not working, and this is very stressful to any fish. The natural hardness of your tap water may have its own buffering capacity and it will continue to counter the product.
We will need some more info.
Tap water: have you tested it for ammonia? What is the hardness (you can find this out from the water people, many have websites with water data posted)? And what is the pH?
You are correct in linking toxic ammonia to pH; in acidic water ammonia changes to ammonium. Test kits read ammonia/ammonium as "ammonia". [Your internal ammonia device is different.]
What are nitrates in the tank?
Although it doesn't seem to make a lot of sense, you report high ammonia, with zero nitrites and nitrates suggesting this 'new' 30g has never cycled.
Perhaps all the additives you've added to date have prevented the beneficial bacteria from developing???
Just my $.02, but now that you have both the UGF and the Fluval, discontinue all the additives except for the WC conditioner like StressCoat (I know you use another) that treats for chlorine, heavy metals and has aloe.
Discontinuing all the additives and just doing water changes and having patience may be your answer to getting the tank to develop the necessary beneficial bacteria and cycle.
I would switch to using Prime and do a very large water change. Add only the tap water and the Prime, nothing else. IMO something your adding is giving you a false positive with the test kit. Ammonia does not stay present for 9 months and despite it being a cichlid 8ppm is more then enough to be fatal.
33% water change done yesterday, these results were taken today...
Total ammonia: 4.0 ppm
Nitrates: 0 ppm
Nitrites: 0 ppm
pH: 6.0 (or lower; this was the bottom of the scale).
I was curious to see what contribution my various additives may be having on pH, so I did several tests.
Tap water only: 7.2 pH
Tap water + AquaSafe water conditioner: 7.2 pH
Tap water + API 7.0 buffer powder: 6.8 pH
Tap water + Ammo Lock ammonia detoxifier: 6.8 pH
Everything combined...tap water + AquaSafe + buffer powder + Ammo Lock: 6.8 pH
Just curious - but a pH of 6 seems low for convicts - don't most cichlids like their pH around 8?? So I'm not sure why you are using a buffer....
I agree with Bryon to stop using the buffer - most fish will adapt to your tap water pH anyway (I only said most - not all)
I'm not sure but I think the ammonia lock will give you a false reading - so I would repeat the tests of the ammonia levels in just your tap water - then with several water changes over the course of a couple of weeks - that should lower itself - but the readings do look like you have an uncycled tank.
Any chance you can get a water quality report for your county? Sometime they are available online. I'm interested in what water hardness is GH or KH. It almost looks like you are dealing with soft tap water that does not have enough buffering capacity to hold its pH.
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