Contaminated water/nitrAte spike
Hi all, and thanks in advance for any advice you can offer. I started this particular tank over a year ago, and this site has been a valuable source of information. This is the only time I haven't found an existing thread to answer my question, and I appreciate your help.
This morning after my normal weekly pwc (20%) I noticed all my fish were agitated. I tested the water first thing (API master) and came back at 0 ammonia/0 nitrite/80 nitrate. Thinking I'd just stirred up extra crud from the substrate I did a slightly larger water change, vacuumed across the top of the gravel again, and got on with the housework. About two hours later I found out we had a water line break, and we're under a boil advisory. I immediately thought of my poor fish, and when I tested their water again, nitrates were off the chart. My tap water normally tests under 5ppm for nitrate, but this afternoon it was close to 40, and it could have been higher before they started working on the main.
I did an emergency 75% water change with the spring water I keep for my amphibians and a bit of RO water from my sister who brews her own beer. (She didn't have much on hand.) I stirred up the substrate pretty hard as I was removing the contaminated water. Then I added 5 clean gallons (verified 0/0/0), waited ten minutes, and took 5 back out. What remained in the tank tested at 15ppm nitrate. I rinsed out my filter in that diluted water and then filled my tank back up to its normal 30 gallons with the rest of the safe water. Another test showed nitrate below 10ppm. Right now, 8 hours after the first contaminated water change, the water tests between 5-10ppm nitrate, still 0 ammonia and 0 nitrite.
My fish seem tired after their ordeal, but not distressed. Now my concern is for what this has done to my tank's bacteria colony. I have 3 pictus cats, and I know they're extremely sensitive to spikes at any point of the nitrogen cycle. Also, the city can't or won't tell me what contaminants might have been in the tap water, so I just have to hope I've diluted any harmful materials.
I don't normally use Prime during my weekly water changes, but I included a partial dose with my normal water conditioner to help bind up some of the nitrates remaining in the water until they can be filtered and/or changed out. I also included Nutrafin Cycle to try to help whatever remains of my beneficial bacteria population. Is there anything else I can do to stabilize my tank? Also, is there anything I should watch for to indicate there might be some further problem with the water? Is it better to do a couple more big water changes this week, or to return to my regular 20% weekly schedule?
If there's anything else I should worry about in this situation, please tell me. I'm still feeling guilty about putting contaminated water in their tank...twice. Under normal circumstances my tank parameters are as follows:
3 pictus catfish
3 spotted corydoras catfish
4 black mollies
Tank has live plants growing in .5 inches of flourite under 1 inch of gravel, has been cycled for over a year. 20% water changes done weekly. Water consistently tests at 0 ammonia/0 nitrIte/20 nitrAte/6.8 pH. Average temp of 74 while the light is on (about 6 hours daily) and 72 otherwise. I know pictus can sometimes bully corys, but there's plenty of cover, and we've never had issues.
Welcome to Tropical Fish Keeping forum. Glad you joined us.:-D
I wouldn't worry about the nitrifying bacteria in the tank. Bacteria live on hard surfaces in biofilms, and all the water changing you could ever do won't remove them. Normal siphon vacuuming of the substrate won't either. The substrate digging might cause some ammonia, but you have live plants and they plus the bacteria will easily handle that.
The nitrate increase so suddenly may have been the problem for the fish. Nitrates at any level do affect fish, regardless of what one often reads about high levels being OK. Nitrates may not kill fish outright like ammonia and nitrite will, but it does affect them. But that seems to be back under control.
We don't know what other contaminants may be in the water, but many of these can be taken up by plants, plus the Prime. Smaller water changes might be advisable until you have a better idea of these.
I would be more concerned over the pH and hardness for the molly. Do you know the GH (general hardness)? A pH of 6.8 is slightly acidic, which is not good for molly, but the GH is even more crucial as these fish do need mineral in the water.
I don't add aquarium salt to the tank because of the pictus, but the gent from my LFS said the mineral salts in a balancing product (he recommended Tetra EasyBalance, but said anything of that nature would work as long as it listed mineral salts in the ingredients) included during the weekly water change would be adequate, if not ideal. I've always assumed he was right, since those were the first fish I got for the tank, but is that just the mollies' natural hardiness rather than the balancing product?
Forget the salt, meaning regular sodium. Mineral salts may be OK depending what they are. The substances one can buy for rift lake cichlids and presumably livebearers are fine, they are minerals like calcium, magnesium etc that are what these fish need. "Salt" as sodium is not what any freshwater fish needs, and can do much harm long-term. Read more here:
Having said that, I do not consider Easy Balance such a product. I can't find out much about it from Tetra, but what they do say bothers me. Anything that messes with the bacteria in an aquarium is risky. I would not use it myself, ever.
Molly need hard water, plain and simple. I can guarantee they will not live a normal lifespan in soft water, simply because nature has designed them for living in water with high alkalinity and that is how their physiology is meant to work. There are other safer and less expensive methods. Some of this is covered here:
Of course, if the GH is at 16 you won't need any of this; anything above 12 dGH is OK. But you still want the pH above 7 for livebearers.
Wow, it's a good thing I asked for help reading this. GH is currently 250ppm (so 14dH according to my handy conversion app). This is with most of the water coming from alternative sources. Our normal tap water, when not contaminated is 320ppm, so almost 18. City water is hard since it's sourced from artesian wells.
Now that the big emergency has passed, I don't want to shock my fish by altering their environment too quickly, so I'll keep an eye on water quality and do pwc's on the normal schedule. I wasn't prepared to mess with water hardness within the tank, and after reading the article you referenced it seems like it would have been ultimately futile anyway.
A quick Google check revealed a wide range of pH and hardness parameters for molly, pictus and cory. They overlap in my tank's normal conditions, but it sounds like especially for the mollies I can't trust the stated range. With the hardness normally so high, are they going to be okay?
One has to be careful with internet "wisdom." As you've seen, there can be a wide variance, and common sense tells us that they cannot all be correct. We have fish and plant profiles here, second tab from the left in the blue bar across the top of the page. If the common or scientific name used in the profile of a species is typed the same in a post, it will shade, example Common Molly and Sailfin Molly and Pictus Catfish. In the profiles it mentions water parameters, tank sizes, numbers of the species, compatibility, etc.
You can trust the data in our profiles, most were written by me. And I carry out exhaustive research of reliable scientific sites. These are not amateur fishkeepers, they are ichthyologists, biologists, chemists, botanists who have spent years studying fish and plants. Not surprisingly, they tend to agree on the scientific side (water params) but if I do find a variation from reliable sources, I mention it. This rarely happens, proof again that the data is accurate.
Thanks for helping me through the crisis. My kids with fins are doing fine. My husband and I spent a pleasant evening going over their info pages, and decided we might want to convert our old fry tank to a separate home for our mollies. After all those water tests I was running low on supplies, and it's nice to look around the lfs for ideas, so we visited the lfs. Their water testing kit is much more extensive than mine, so I brought along a sample to confirm my tests and see if they might find anything harmful that might have lingered from the bad water.
Their tests came back radically different from mine. Over 8 on pH, nitrite over 2 and ammonia close to 7, nitrate over 80ppm. Everything but my nitrate and ammonia tests from home are older, and they told me my older stuff may have expired. At that point I wasn't going to argue. I grabbed a new master kit (which I was going to buy anyway) and rushed home (thank god no cops, because I would have been ticketed for sure) to test for myself.
As you might imagine, their readings were a false alarm. I don't know if there was cross contamination in their test tubes (another customer at the store when we arrived was complaining that he'd lost the entire population of his marine tank, including the snails), or if using a ziplock bag rather than my normal mason jar for the water sample somehow skewed the readings, but the new kit confirmed everything I read with the old one. My water is like it used to be, except nitrates holding steady at 15ppm rather than the former consistent 20.
I'm returning to the lfs at noon today with a sample of my tap water, a sample of tank water, and the kit I just bought. We're going to do our tests side by side and see what we get. I recorded tank and tap results from last night and again this morning for comparison.
Up until now I've never questioned the advice from my lfs. You mentioned the balancing product is unlikely to function in the way they described, but that might just be a bit of salesmanship at work. Inaccurate testing isn't harmless, though.
The kit they use had all the labels peeled off, but it's the $95 Nutrafin test kit that comes in a little suitcase. Is that kit likely to be more accurate than the $40ish kits I've bought? One of mine was API, and one was Nutrafin. I wouldn't be suspicious if we disagreed on pH being 6.8 or 7, but this is insane. If I'd followed last night's advice, I would have dumped in PH corrector and cycling chemicals on top of yet another water change, and done god knows what to my tank. I'm hardly an expert, but at what point does my common sense overrule the store employees' advice?
It is true that test kit regents may become unreliable with age, but I would certainly question their numbers, if they are ppm (which they should be). Ammonia at 7 would kill the fish, period; so would nitrite at 2. You would see the effects of either.
Some people have colour issues reading these tests, so you being there will sort that out. See what the new tests today reveal, but I see no reason to doubt your API test numbers now.
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