Test kits (part 2)

Since writing about test kits, I have been paying a bit more attention to where people go wrong and I have slightly revised my recommendations on the importance of various kits for beginners.

  1. Ammonia and nitrite

    Ammonia and nitrite are still top of the list because ammonia is harmful to fish and nitrite causes haemoglobin to convert to methaemoglobin, which effectively suffocates fish as they are no longer able to absorb oxygen.

  2. Water hardness

    GH and KH are general hardness and carbonate hardness respectively. Both types of hardness are measured in (German) degrees, where 1° is 17.848 ppm. 1 ppm of hardness is equivalent to 1 mg/l (and also one American degree, but this should not be used as ppm or mg/l are simple enough and considerably more common). Water hardness comes second because fast changes in water hardness are quite likely to harm or kill fish and this is something that many people are not aware of. One can avoid these changes by always drip acclimatising, especially if one is not able to measure them.

  3. pH and nitrate

    While nitrate in itself is unlikely to be lethal to fish in the concentrations that are most often seen in aquaria (up to 500 ppm), there is scientific research to back up the popular consensus that it is best to keep nitrate as close to 0 ppm as possible because it will harm the fish (for example, it will result in stunted growth). Nitrates will rarely rise above 50 ppm in a well maintained aquarium even if they are not monitored as they will normally be used up by plants and removed through water changes. pH is important, but not as much as as water hardness because a difference in water hardness will indicate that there is a difference in pH, but the KH also indicates how stable the pH is.

Most “master” test kits do not include the water hardness kits, so it is best to double check what you are getting if you buy a set. I am still working through the kits that I used for the 60 litre aquarium, even though I have been using them for all of my aquaria, so they really are not all that expensive at around £30 for the set and well worth the money to save beginners a lot of headaches.

Large water changes

When raising young fish, it is a relatively good idea to occasionally do large water changes to remove waste products from the aquarium, but this is not the commonly given reason for the large water changes; the more common belief is that fish release growth stunting hormones/pheromones, but I have been unable to find any scientific proof to back it up. It is true that fish release a growth hormone (GH) which stimulates growth, but they can also become resistant to the hormone if they are already stunted, for example, because the competition for food is too high. There are also other factors that affect growth, including higher nitrate concentrations. Of course, any ammonia and nitrite[2][3] are very high on the list, but this should not be a worry as neither should be present in an aquarium.

Before starting on the water change, I check the water parameters. I know that my tap water is quite hard, and the results below show lower water hardness, lower pH and higher nitrates. This means that my tank water hardness has drifted downwards from my tap water and not all nitrates are being used up, which indicates that I need to refill the tank very slowly after the water change so that the fish have time to adjust to the change in water parameters and do not go into osmotic shock.

Parameters before the water change:

  • KH: 8 ° (143 ppm)
  • GH: 16 (286 ppm)
  • ammonia: 0 ppm
  • nitrite: 0 ppm
  • nitrate: 20 – 30 ppm
  • pH: 7.5

Water change

As can be seen in the photo, the tank is really rather overgrown with Pistia stratiotes (water lettuce), so I regularly have a bag or so of water lettuce to sell. If you would like some, reply to the post or contact me for more information!

[1] John Colt, Robert Ludwig, George Tchobanoglous, Joseph J. Cech Jr. (1981), “The effects of nitrite on the short-term growth and survival of channel catfish, Ictalurus punctatus”. Aquaculture , Volume 24: 111–122

[2] Jane Francesa, Geoff L Allana, Barbara F Nowak (1 April 1998), “The effects of nitrite on the short-term growth of silver perch (Bidyanus bidyanus)”. Aquaculture , Volume 163 (Issues 1–2): 63–72

Test results and maintenance update

Almost two weeks ago, on Friday when I collected the loaches, I did a 20 litre water change on the tank because I wanted to acclimatise the loaches directly to the water they would have in the end, so I used the water from the 60 litre for the quarantine tank. The test results for the water from the 60 litre before the water change were (on day 113):

  • KH: 7 ° (125 ppm)
  • GH: 19 ° (339 ppm)
  • ammonia: 0 ppm
  • nitrite: 0 ppm
  • nitrate: 20 ppm
  • pH: 7.8

And today (day 124):

  • KH: 8 ° (143 ppm)
  • GH: 18 ° (321 ppm)
  • ammonia: 0 ppm
  • nitrite: 0 ppm
  • nitrate: 20 ppm
  • pH: 7.8

The temperature has been steady at 20 °C, which is perfect for these fish and fits in with the recommendation of the breeder from whom I bought them.

Following these tests, I performed an 8 litre water change (with the old water going into the quarantine aquarium that contains the loaches) and finished off by wiping the glass on the outside.

Current maintenance schedule consists of cleaning the glass and pruning the plants once per week. While normally I would recommend weekly water changes to beginners, in a well balanced aquarium such as this (which is lightly stocked and is planted enough that individual plants can not be counted) which does not contain young fish and where the fish are not overfed, the water changes are not as important because the plants can maintain the water quality. For the moment, I do water changes when I feel that they are needed or need water for the unplanted quarantine aquarium.

Methods of acclimatisation

Since I had the tests out and I also had some spare test tubes, I decided to test the water which the fish were coming from:

  • KH: 6 ° (107 ppm)
  • GH: 16 (286 ppm)
  • ammonia: 0 ppm
  • nitrite: 0 ppm
  • nitrate: 20-80 ppm
  • pH: 8.0

As can be seen from the above results, the difference between that and the aquarium water is quite significant! If I was to move the fish straight over, they would probably get quite a shock from the difference in hardness, so I would need to acclimatise them first.

My preferred method of acclimatisation is often referred to as “drip acclimatisation”. The process is simple, although time consuming:

  1. I start by gently tipping the bag with the fish and LFS water into a bucket (8-10 litres for small fish, larger for larger fish), have something ready for covering the bucket as many fish are able to jump
  2. If the fish has been in transit for any significant period of time, or you have any other reason to suspect that there is ammonia in the water, add a product which temporarily converts ammonia into ammonium
  3. Add some décor and/or plants to make the fish feel more secure and relaxed
  4. Add a heater and airstone if needed, for example, if the air temperature is cooler than the aquarium water or if the fish have been in transit for a long time
  5. Next, set up an airline with a knot tied in it so that the flow can be controlled, to drip 4-10 drops of aquarium water into the LFS water per second for a 9 litre bucket (depending on how sensitive the fish are and the difference in water parameters: the smaller the difference, the faster the flow), for larger buckets, a faster flow should be used, for example, 10-20 drops per second for a 20 litre bucket so it takes approximately the same amount of time to fill
  6. Once the bucket is full, which usually takes 3-6 hours, remove the airline
  7. Transfer the fish from the bucket, into the display aquarium using a net, trying to minimise water transfer by not even dipping the net in the aquarium
  8. Disconnect all equipment that was used
  9. Throw away the water in the bucket (I water house plants with it)
  10. Disinfect all equipment used and throw away plants which were used during acclimatisation
  11. Top up the aquarium with dechlorinated water

The more common method involves floating the bag in the aquarium for a short period of time and occasionally adding large volumes of water to it: this does not particularly help the fish become accustomed to the new water and can be as harmful as not acclimatising at all. From what I have seen, this is one of the most common reasons, after ammonia poisoning, for deaths in new fish.

Importance of acclimatisation

Fish are osmoregulators, which means that they regulate the water levels inside their bodies by means of a process called osmoregulation to keep the salt concentrations inside their body constant, regardless of the fluctuations of salt outside their bodies. The process differs in freshwater fish and marine fish because of the environment, I will write about the freshwater process as that is what concerns this aquarium.

Some species of fish, such as some Poecilia spp., are able to tolerate a very wide range of salt concentrations in water, all the way from fresh to marine water: these fish are called euryhaline. But most (common freshwater aquarium) fish are not able to tolerate changes in salinity: they are referred to as stenohaline.

Water hardness is made up of metal ions and carbonates, both of which form salts, so harder water contains more salts than soft water. This means that it takes more work for fish to maintain body salt concentrations in softer water and less in harder water: keeping hard water fish in soft water can affect their health as they would constantly be putting more effort than is usual into maintaining their bodily functions.

Most fish have a blood salt concentration of 9 ppt, while fresh water has a salt concentration of under 0.5 ppt, so freshwater fish tend to try to maintain salt concentrations in their blood at higher levels than the water is at, which is achieved by ion intake through food and gills and by excretion of excess water by means of a dilute urine.

Most fish are not able to instantly adapt between different water hardnesses, which is why moving a fish from one water type to another quickly can result in death or serious injury. To avoid problems, it is important to acclimatise the fish to the new water parameters over a long period of time and with only small changes in the water parameters. In theory, if the start and end water hardness, pH and temperature are same or very similar, acclimatisation can be skipped.

Long term exposure to water types the fish are not suitable for cause increased susceptibility to diseases, because of the extra work that hard water fish have to do in soft water and because many diseases do not do as well in soft water, so soft water fish are not always as able to resist them.

Daily tests: day 48 – 57 and adding wood

Test tubes waiting to be washed

I’m planning to do a large water change tonight, in preparation for the fish, and I would also like some clear readings for the record, so I know how much the wood will affect the water after it is added. This morning, the readings were:

  • KH: 9.5 ° (170 ppm)
  • GH: 21 (376 ppm)
  • ammonia: 0 ppm
  • nitrite: 0 ppm
  • nitrate: 80 – 160 ppm
  • pH: 8.2

I expect KH, GH and nitrate to drop after the water change because my tap water readings are lower.

Unfortunately, the diatoms are still there and getting worse, so hopefully, the water change will help improve the situation. I also have a Malawi aquarium, which, for those of you who do not know, is a Lake Malawi simulation, with a lot of rockwork and no plants because the fish which live in the lake naturally graze on algae and have a habit of mistaking plants for algae, which means that most plants would not survive for long. In this rocky and plant-free environment, I also often see diatoms, and as is currently the case with this aquarium, the Malawi setup also has high nitrates, so I assume, given that the general hardness is the only other common factor between the two aquariums, that the nitrate is responsible. I have also noted the appearance of cyanobacteria, an algae-like bacteria, today. I hope this is also related to the high nitrate levels.

I performed a clean of the aquarium, including glass and filter, and changed 36 litres of water, which was approximately 80%. The water readings after the maintenance were:

  • KH: 10.5 ° (188 ppm)
  • GH: 18 (322 ppm)
  • ammonia: 0.25 ppm
  • nitrite: 0 ppm
  • nitrate: 10 – 30 ppm
  • pH: 7.8

The results indicate that my tap water has changed since I took the original readings: my tap water pH has dropped, while the KH has risen.

I also added the wood, right after the water changes. It has now picked up the rich red which gives it the name of “red moor wood”, but is being slow to water log.

Daily tests: day 5

While cycling..

This morning’s test results were:

  • KH: 12 ° (214.8 ppm)
  • GH: 18 ° (322.2 ppm)
  • ammonia: 3-4 ppm
  • nitrite: 0.1 ppm
  • nitrate: 1-4 ppm
  • pH: 8.2-8.3

The results show an increase in the KH and pH, the two are related and most likely caused by the sand. This should not be a problem as both should drop with the addition of plants and wood.

I am not completely certain on the changes in nitrite and nitrate, but neither looks as clearly blue or yellow as they did in every previous test. Or maybe I am just getting overenthusiastic.. tomorrow’s results should show whether there really is a change in either.

The temperature is mildly fluctuating between 28 and 28.5 °C, which is not unusual, and I have had to top up with 5 litres of water, due to evaporation, because I am currently not using the coverglass (it is on another aquarium).

First water tests and ammonia dosing

Last night, while I was filling the aquarium with water, I also set aside a glass of the same, not dechlorinated, tap water. I did this because tap water readings are not reliable if tested as soon as the water is drawn from the tap. On the other hand, tap water parameters can be very useful as ammonia and nitrite is sometimes present in poor water supplies, it is also useful to know the pH and hardness, to better understand the buffering capabilities of the water. The results were as follows:

  • KH: 9 ° (161.1 ppm)
  • GH: 18 ° (322.2 ppm)
  • ammonia: 0 ppm
  • nitrite: 0 ppm
  • nitrate: 0 ppm
  • pH: 8.0

From those results, I can see that my tap water is quite hard but generally quite good quality. There are two pH tests included in the API kit: the “mid range” test gives a reading only up to 7.6 and the result was 7.6, while the high range test starts at 7.4 and the result was 8.0. From this, I can see that the value is higher than the mid range test will show, so I disregard that and use 8.0 as the correct result.

Next, I tested the aquarium water. I expected this to be almost identical, but with slightly higher ammonia. Test results were as follows:

  • KH: 9° (161.1 ppm)
  • GH: 18° (322.2 ppm)
  • ammonia: 0.25 ppm
  • nitrite: 0 ppm
  • nitrate: 0 ppm
  • pH: 8.2

My guess was correct: because my tap water contains only chloramine (NH2Cl), no chlorine, the dechlorinator will leave ammonia (NH3) and ammonium (NH4+) behind, after rendering the chlorine harmless. Ammonia is toxic to fish, so if doing large water changes, it is important to use a dechlorinator which will “deal” with it, leaving predominantly the less harmful ammonium. The pH reading for the aquarium water was higher than tap water, but I will still consider it to be no different because the kits are not particularly reliable.

Temperature is at a steady and favourable 28.5 °C, so I dosed the aquarium with 2 ml of 9.5% ammonia at 8:30, which has given me a 4 ppm reading.

Test kits

Test kits are one of the most valuable pieces of equipment for anyone new to fishkeeping or setting up a new aquarium from scratch. The most important test kits are for ammonia and nitrite because both of those are toxic to fish. The next two in line are pH and nitrate: pH can affect fish and toxicity of ammonia, while nitrate can also be harmful in higher quantities to some species. GH and KH are also nice to know as they can indicate potential problems for fish breeding, development and growth. KH is also an indicator of how stable the pH is likely to remain in the aquarium as KH acts as a buffer. There are a few other things which can be tested for, but most of those are not of much interest in freshwater aquaria.

Test strips are not particularly accurate, so most people will recommend the use of “liquid” test kits (which includes reagents in liquid and solid form, which are added to a sample of aquarium water. The other thing to watch out for is that some test kits will only work in marine water or only in freshwater.

Test kits

Although I have heard of some API tests being unreliable or difficult to read, I decided to try them anyway, mainly because of the price, but also to see how well they work for me. According to API (also known as Mars Fishcare Inc.), the freshwater master kit lasts for approximately 250 pH tests, 160 high range pH tests, 130 ammonia tests, 180 nitrite tests and 90 nitrate tests. I also acquired a GH and KH kit, but do not have an estimated number of tests for these ones.

I have written a follow-up to this post in August 2012.