Aquarium Water Testing and Maintenance

Aquarium Water Testing and Maintenance: The day that the aquarium was set up you should have tested the pH of the aquarium water. Even if the initial water test showed an appropriate pH it is advisable to test the pH again prior to adding fish. It is always best to achieve the proper pH before adding any fish, since changing the pH once fish are added can be stressful on the fish even when it is necessary. As mentioned previously you will need to get the appropriate chemical to raise or lower your pH as needed. It is important to note that you need to make sure that the chemical(s) you choose should be appropriate for the type of tank you have set up. Not all of the chemicals you might use in a freshwater aquarium are safe in saltwater aquariums.

Aquarium Water Testing and MaintenanceIn some cases it is difficult to adjust the pH of your aquarium after adding the appropriate chemicals to raise or lower it. Often this is due to hard water. When there are many dissolved minerals and heavy metals in water can lead to hard water, and can be very difficult to adjust the pH. If you are experiencing problems with a high pH in a freshwater aquarium you may want to purchase a water hardness test kit. This will tell you if hard water might be your problem. Also it is important to make sure that you have added nothing to the aquarium that may have induced the pH problem.

A freshwater aquarium should contain NO seashells, coral skeletons, or carbonate based rocks as these items are all composed of calcium carbonate that can slowly dissolve and lead to an increase in water hardness and pH. As a general rule if something has come from an ocean or other saltwater environment you should not placed it into a freshwater aquarium. If you find that you have hard water there are several things that you can do to deal with this problem. One is to find an alternative source of water, this could mean using bottled water or bringing water from a different location.

Another option is to purchase water-softening agents. There are chemical resins available that can soften the water, these come in various sizes and can work well on aquariums less than 75 gallons. If you have a very large aquarium or many aquariums and have a problem with hard water you may want to consider a water conditioning system such as a de-ionizer or reverse osmosis (RO) system. Although the water was tested prior to adding fish and the pH was adjusted to the appropriate level this is only a small part of water testing. Once living organisms are added to an aquarium the chemistry of the water will change and we will need to test the water more extensively. Of course living animals eat and therefore secrete waste, this waste takes the form of nitrogen, and can actually be toxic to the fish.

The primary waste product of the fish is ammonia (NH4). Ammonia is extremely toxic to fish and would eventually kill all of your fish if it continued to build up in the aquarium. However, in your aquarium as in nature a bacteria population (Nitrosomas sp.) will form that will convert the ammonia into a less toxic substances known as nitrite (NO2). While the nitrite is toxic, it is not nearly as toxic as the ammonia. Although like the ammonia if nitrite were to continue to concentrate in the aquarium, it could quickly reach toxic level, resulting in nitrite poisoning. As was the case with the conversion of ammonia to nitrite bacteria (Nitrobacter sp.) convert the nitrite into a less toxic substance known as nitrate (NO3). The nitrate resultant from this process is approximately 200 times less toxic than the initial ammonia waste product. This process we just described is known as nitrification. Although the nitrate is not very toxic, if it were to build up for a long period of time it could pose a threat to the fish, this is one of the reasons that regular partial water changes are so important.

Aquarium Water Testing and Maintenance: This process of nitrification is exactly what happens in the natural world. However in nature no one does regular water changes on our lakes, river and oceans. How then is nitrate prevented from building up to toxic concentrations in nature? The first way in which nitrate is prevented from reaching high concentrations is due to live plants. Live plant use nitrogen as a fertilizer; therefore live plants help to prevent nitrate blooms in nature. Additionally in nature another process called denitrification occurs. De-nitrification occurs in anaerobic (without oxygen) conditions such as the mud that forms a riverbed where there is very little oxygen. Anaerobic bacteria actually convert the nitrate to nitrogen gas (N2) and nitrous oxide (N2O2), which are both gases that rise up through the water column and are diffused into the atmosphere. Combined the processes of nitrification and de-nitrification form the nitrogen cycle (see figure 1). This concept of the nitrogen cycle is one of the most important concepts to understand when it comes to successful aquarium management.

aquarium nitrogen cycle

Since nitrogenous waste (ammonia, nitrite and nitrate) can be toxic to fish it is important to monitor and control these chemical waste products. Test kits can be purchased to test for all of these. It is especially important to test these parameters while the aquarium is in the initial break-in or “Cycling” phase after being set up. When the aquarium is first set up there are no bacteria to aid in the conversion of the nitrogenous waste from very toxic material to an almost non-toxic state. Therefore it is very important to test the water in a new aquarium for ammonia while the bacteria population develops.

Once the initial ammonia begins to dissipate, as the bacteria begin reproduce, you will begin to see nitrite build up finally the nitrite will begin to decrease and nitrate will start to build (figure 2). This initial phase of an aquarium is often referred to as the “Cycling” period. Cycling is the process in which bacteria reproduce to sufficient populations to breakdown the nitrogenous waste produced by the fish. Cycling also occurs every time you add new fish to your aquarium you increase the amount of waste secreted and hence the bacteria populations must increase to keep up with the increased level of waste. During the first few weeks after setting up your new aquarium you should test for ammonia at least biweekly and once the ammonia begins to drop begin testing for nitrite and nitrate. aquarium nitrogen waste.

There is of course just one type of aquarium upkeep that needs to be done on a daily basis, and that is feeding. Ideally fish should be fed daily, however fish can survive for weeks without eating so don’t worry about the weekends your fish will be fine. When it comes to fish nutrition there are many good well balanced prepared foods on the market. Most of these foods are fine as a staple diet, however I do suggest occasionally offering you fish some variety. Generally fish with more diverse diets will show greater coloration and better growth.

Many aquarium and pet stores carry frozen and live foods,such as brine shrimp or blackworms, these are great treats for you fish, but of course remember moderation is important. On the topic of moderation we should discuss how much to feed your fish. If you were to read the label on many brands of fish foods, you would see labels that read: “Feed your fish as much as they will consume in five minutes, two to three times daily”. What does this mean? Do you drop one flake or pellet in after another for five minutes? Well first of all the five-minute suggestion is very ambiguous, and could lead to trouble if one tried to feed such a quantity.

Overfeeding is a major problem to many new hobbyists, and anyone that tried to feed their fish as much as they could eat in five minutes could potentially have problems. Remember the nitrogen cycle, food even if uneaten breaks down into nitrogenous waste and could lead to problems for the fish. Basically the companies that produce fish food generally suggest feeding more than I would. The reason, they sell fish food, they would be happy if you fed a cup a day. My suggestion is that fish should eat once or twice daily. You should feed a reasonable quantity. Generally my suggestion on how much to feed would be dependent on two main factors: the number of fish and their sizes.

For most small (under 2 inches) fish I suggest three to four flakes or pellets per fish no more than twice a day. An extra flake or pellet per inch of length should suffice for larger fish. These guidelines I have given are just that, they are not designed to be rules only suggestions. You need to increase or decrease you feeding as signs suggest. If you realize you continually have a lot of uneaten food left in the aquarium, you will want to decrease the amount you are feeding. If your fish appears to be emaciated or losing body mass you should increase the quantity of your feedings. The key is to be sensible, and beware of overfeeding.

automatic fish feederOne last note on the topic of feeding that may be of significant importance, especially for teachers, is the automatic feeder. Automatic feeders are devices that attach to the aquarium that can feed your fish
automatically for several weeks. This makes feeding a breeze and is beneficial for those that cannot always be there to feed their fish. Of course regular water testing and feeding are two important aspects
of aquarium management. However, perhaps the most important aspect of maintaining your aquarium is performing regular water changes. Here I will provide some general guidelines for a schedule of maintenance, however every aquarium is unique and these guidelines may not apply to every aquarium setup.

Generally what I recommend to most aquarist are small monthly water changes. Generally speaking a 25-30% water change once a month is all that is necessary to ensure proper water chemistry. Water changes should be performed using an aquarium siphon, which will pull dirty water from the gravel bed where most of the waste accumulates. If you were to simply scoop water from the top of the aquarium you would be taking the cleanest water from the aquarium. So it is always best to siphon the water directly from the bottom, where you can remove a greater percentage of waste.

Prior to starting your water change, I suggest unplugging your heater (if the heater is not unplugged it may crack when exposed to air of a different temperature) and scrubbing the algae from the inside walls of the aquarium with an algae sponge. Simply use the siphon to drain 25-30% of the water out of the aquarium into a clean (chemical free) bucket.aquarium siphon

After the water has been removed from the tank, it is now a good time to check your filter. I suggest removing the biological media and rinsing gently in the bucket of water, which was drained from the aquarium. Why rinse the biological media in dirty water you may ask? Well simply to ensure that we do not kill the beneficial bacteria populations that inhabit the media. After all the primary purpose of a biological media is to provide surface area for bacteria. If you were to clean the media under tap water, you may lose a significant number of bacteria due to differences in water temperature, chemistry and perhaps the presence of chlorine. The idea when cleaning any biological media is not that it is perfectly clean, but that major debris is removed from the surface.

If your filter uses a chemical media, such as activated carbon, I would suggest changing this every two to three month or as needed. When you refill your aquarium make sure that the temperature and pH of the water to be added is close to that of the water in the aquarium. Of course if your aquarium is saltwater you will need to add the appropriate amount of salt to the water, prior to filling the aquarium. Also it is important to make sure that you use a clean bucket or container when adding freshwater or saltwater to the aquarium. You want to make sure that the bucket or container you use is used for nothing else, it should only be used to add water to the aquarium. The reason I stress this is that if you were to use the same bucket to fill the aquarium that you used for mopping the floors of your house, the bucket may have chemical residue that could lead to fish loss.

Anything that is used in or on your aquariums should be cleaned with nothing other than warm water or a very dilute bleach solution. Most household chemicals are toxic to fish and caution should be used when using any chemicals near your aquarium. After the tank has been refilled water test should be performed and corrective action taken as needed. One other word of caution regarding water changes; do not think if you miss a month of doing water changes that you should do a larger volume water change the next.

Remember the nitrogen cycle, it is always preferable to do less volume more often than more volume less often. As an excessively large water change (over 50%) will likely result in fish mortality, it is best course get on a regular schedule for performing your changes. Additionally do not think that replacing water that has evaporated from your aquarium constitutes a water change. During the course of the month between water changes, it is likely that you will need to add water to the aquarium, as water will evaporate. This does not accomplish the same thing as a water change. In fact when water evaporates, generally only pure water will evaporate. This means that chemical and biological waste (nitrogenous waste) will in fact concentrate in an aquarium if water is only added and not taken out through regular water change.

One other note on evaporation for those of you with saltwater tanks, when water evaporates the salt will remain in the aquarium so you can usually just add freshwater to top off the aquarium when filling to adjust for evaporation.

One final topic I want to address regarding the maintenance of your aquarium is algae. Algae can become a major problem in an aquarium if the tank is not properly maintained. However some algae in an aquarium is not a bad thing. In fact much like live plants algae will utilize nitrogenous waste as fertilizer and release oxygen. However, too much algae certainly will make the aquarium less aesthetically pleasing.

We have already discussed the importance of regular water changes and this is an important factor in preventing your aquarium from becoming overgrown with undesirable algae. Water changes help to remove nitrogenous waste from the aquarium, which essentially helps to eliminate a potential source of nutrients for algae. Algae require three factors for growth and survival: nitrogen, phosphorus and light. The nitrogen is a byproduct of living organisms, as it is produced as a waste product. Phosphorus is also a component of fish waste and fish food. The aquarium light, as well as from ambient sunlight that may reach the aquarium, supplies light to the aquarium. The key is to control the factors that cause algal growth. Light can be controlled by placing the aquarium lighting fixture onto a simple household timer, the timer can turn the light on and off at regular intervals.

I suggest a rule that you provide 8-10 hours of light per day to your aquarium, this is sufficient for the animals that reside in the aquarium without being so much that algae will over run your aquarium. As far as controlling the nitrogenous waste in your aquarium, you should take precaution not to overfeed your fish and also keep to a regular schedule of water changes. Additionally test your water at least monthly for nitrogenous waste (ammonia, nitrite, and nitrate) to ensure that it is not accumulating to high levels.

If you find that your nitrogen levels are high, then a series of small waters changes (<10%) should help to reduce the concentration. Additionally assess your feeding toensure that you are not feeding too much, as the break down of excess food contributesgreatly to nitrogen levels. Generally too much light and high levels of nitrogenous waste are easily prevented through proper aquarium management. However, phosphorus can be a bit more difficult to control. Phosphorus is often in the source water you use to fill your
aquarium. If the phosphorus in the water you fill the aquarium with, you may need to use a special chemical resin to remove it from the water.

Test kits are available to test for phosphorus, however, I would only purchase one if after reducing the levels nitrogenous
waste and the photoperiod (the amount of time your aquarium light is on) you still havean algae problem.
Other methods to control algae include: snails, fish that eat algae, and live plants. One of the most popular fish to help keep your freshwater aquarium clean and free from excessive algae growth (especially on the glass) is the Plecostomus or Suckermouth
Catfish. These fish are herbivores and do a great job on algae control.

However do not get one in a new aquarium until some algae growth has occurred otherwise there will not be adequate food for the fish. Also if there is little algae in aquarium you may need to
supplement the Suckermouth’s diet with other vegetable material (cucumber is a good alternative food). A snail is another good algae eater in the aquarium, but avoid putting them in aquariums that house aggressive fish. In a marine aquarium Asteria and Turbo
snails are commonly used. Tangs are a marine fish that can help to control some of the hair-type algae common to marine aquariums. Live plants are another great way to help control algae.

Basically live plants use the same things as nutrients (nitrogen andphosphorus) that algae require. By keeping live plants the plants in essence are able to out-compete the algae for the available nutrients. Remember though that live plants do have special needs such as the right type of lighting and micronutrients such as iron. Therefore I do not suggest the plants as a primary way to prevent algae. Only keep live plants if you are willing to put a little extra work into the aquarium, that is necessary to ensure that the plants will survive and thrive.

Aquarium Water Testing and Maintenance.

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