How to Get Rid of Ammonia and Nitrates in an Aquarium?

The ecosystem inside a fish aquarium is delicate and the nitrogen cycle is a very important part of it. This cycle functions by breaking down all the ammonia in the water into nitrates which are broken down into nitrites.

A colony of healthy bacteria helps perpetuate this in an aquarium whether it is a freshwater tank or a saltwater one.

This is also the reason why most tanks need to be cycled first before any fish are added to it. Cycling a tank allows the nitrogen cycle to get established.

When this is in place, the ammonia released in fish waste is broken down into nitrates and then into nitrites. Unfortunately, even if the nitrogen cycle is established, there can be certain times when it starts to falter and fluctuations can occur.

In such cases, you need to take active measures because ammonia is extremely toxic to fish and any live aquatic plants. Nitrate can also lower the quality of life of fish in an aquarium. The only byproduct that is safe for fish is nitrite —but that too not in high amounts.

Luckily, if nitrate levels increase, they can be lowered through weekly water changes.

However, when the ammonia and nitrate levels start rising, it is not as easy to lower them. It is also dangerous for your fish and plants.

Determining Ammonia and Nitrate Levels

Before you apply any measures, it is a good idea to test the aquarium water to determine how high the ammonia and nitrate levels are.

This will give you a better idea of just how dire the situation is. Testing for ammonia and nitrates can be done in the following manner:

Monitoring Fish Behavior

When the ammonia and nitrate levels are too high, the first sign of it can be seen in the fish. If they are exhibiting any of the following signs, it can mean that the fishing levels are too high:

  • Trouble in breathing – Fish could be coming up to the surface to gulp oxygen.
  • Redness of gills – Gills that are very red can be because of ammonia damage.
  • Fish deaths – If one or two fish die at random, investigate the cause of death.

This is not an accurate way to know if ammonia and nitrate levels are high but it can show you that something is wrong.

Also, don’t wait for fish to exhibit these signs. Sometimes, there might be no visible sign and your fish could just start dying for no reason.

Doing a Water Test

Once you have started getting suspicious about the ammonia and nitrate levels in your aquarium, you need to do a water test.

Keep in mind that a water testing kit for freshwater is different from a water testing kit for saltwater tanks. You’ll have to get the one that is meant for your tank based on this factor.

Then, all you need to do is take samples of water from the aquarium, add in the solution, and wait. After a few minutes, you will see the water take on a certain color. Using the color sheet, you can then figure out the levels of ammonia and nitrate that is present in the water.

  • The ideal levels of ammonia should be at 0ppm (parts per million).
  • For nitrates, the levels should be around 5 to 10ppm (parts per million).

Check your readings to see if they match the levels mentioned above. If your readings are coming higher then these, you know that there is an issue.

9 Ways to Lower Ammonia and Nitrate Levels

Even 2ppm of ammonia is enough to kill fish. This is why you need to figure out how to lower the ammonia and nitrate levels as quickly as possible. Luckily, there are plenty of different measures that you can apply to your tank.

You can safely lower the levels of nitrate and ammonia in water with the help of the following methods:

A Partial Water Change

A 30% water change can help to get rid of ammonia and nitrate levels. It can also help buy you some time until you figure out why the levels have spiked in this manner.

It is also a good idea to test the water levels again after a few days to determine whether or not the water change was successful.

Checking the ammonia and nitrate levels immediately after a water change will not give you proper results. Within a day or two, the nitrate and ammonia levels will either settle or increase again.

Remember though that this is not a permanent solution and if the main issue remains unresolved, the water change will not help.

Clean the Filters

Make sure that you are using biofiltration methods for your tank. This filtration method encourages the growth of healthy bacteria colonies in the water. As the water comes into the filter, the bacterium removes all ammonia and nitrates and sends clean water back into the tank.

However, sometimes, the filter media can become too dirty which means that the water isn’t getting cleaned at all. In this case, you should clean the filter media. Use some clean tank water and lightly squeeze the filter media to get rid of any debris or dirt.

If the filter media is older than 6 months, it might be time to change it.

Remove Decaying Organic Matter

Keep an eye on the tank and remove any decaying organic matter whether it is food, an aquatic plant or even a dead fish. Keep the tank as neat and clean as possible.

This will ensure that no organic compounds are rotting or decaying in the tank.

While fish waste contributes to the presence of ammonia in the tank, you can still keep the tank healthy and in good condition. Even when feeding your fish, make sure to give them food sparingly and scoop out any food that remains uneaten.

It will only rot in the tank and increase ammonia and nitrate levels.

Vacuum the Substrate

Fish waste is the number one cause of ammonia in the tank. Most of it tends to collect in the substrate which is why you should vacuum and clean it. Food debris can also collect in the substrate and contribute to releasing ammonia and increasing nitrate levels.

Cleaning can be done once or twice a week for a community tank whereas if you keep a single fish, you can opt to vacuum it monthly. Additionally, when doing water changes, look for signs of disturbed debris.

If there is too much waste in the substrate, it is time to vacuum it.

Improve Water Aeration

Ammonia also tends to become more concentrated in water that has low oxygen levels. It is a good idea to introduce aeration stones and pumps to the tank. This will ensure that all areas of the tank have a healthy amount of oxygen.

Keep in mind that this is also not a permanent solution to deal with the ammonia levels in your tank.

However, it can help to reduce the toxic effects of ammonia and nitrate. The thinking behind is that by aerating your tank, you can allow ammonia gas to diffuse from the tank.

Reducing the Number of Fish

Another reason why the ammonia and nitrate levels might be very high is that you might have overcrowded your tank. Too many fish in a tank can produce too much waste, all of which gets converted into ammonia.

Make sure that you have enough fish per gallon or just cut your number of fish down by half.

Additionally, if you are using a nano-tank or one that is smaller than 10 gallons, you will face difficulty managing ammonia levels. Small tanks have less space and can get polluted very easily.

The larger the tank is, the more easily you can manage the water conditions and ensure that they don’t reach levels that are dangerous for your fish.

Add Live Plants

Adding live plants to your aquarium can be one of the simplest ways to manage ammonia and nitrate levels. Aquatic plants will filter out the ammonia, nitrate, and nitrites from the water. They also use up the fish waste as a fertilizer and will support the nitrogen cycle in the tank.

However, you have to plant your tank heavily in order to get these benefits. Luckily, most fish love live aquatic plants as they give them plenty of hiding space.

Make sure to opt for variations like Marino moss, java moss, amazon sword, anubias, and even java fern. These filter the water effectively and are loved by many fish species.

Using a Neutralizer

If you’re still not getting any results and need to get the ammonia and nitrate levels lower quickly, you can use a neutralizer. This is a solution that is specially formulated to neutralize the toxins in ammonia. It won’t address the ammonia issue but will help you to keep your fish in the water safely.

Use it as a last resort and as a way to get more time in order to address the issue. These are usually found in most pet stores so you won’t have an issue finding them. Use only as needed and according to the directions on the back of the bottle.

Adding More Healthy Bacteria

If the ammonia and nitrate levels suddenly spiked because the healthy bacteria started to die, you will need more healthy bacteria. You can try to start the nitrogen cycle again but this can be stressful for some fish.

If you have delicate fish, you might want to put them into other tanks.

You can introduce healthy bacteria into the tank by adding some water, filter media or gravel from your other cycled tanks. Pet stores near you might also have cycled tank water available for you. It is also possible to buy tank starting solutions that inject a dose of healthy bacteria into your tank.

Getting healthy bacteria back is necessary so that your ammonia and nitrate levels are healthy and balanced again.

Checking the Levels Regularly

Once you apply any of these measures, give it a day or two and then test the water again with the test kit. This is the only way to know that the ammonia and nitrate levels are reducing and stabilizing.

Based on the readings, you can learn whether you are on the right track or whether you should try another strategy.

Remember that you should always monitor your ammonia and nitrate levels, even after they have become balanced. The nitrogen cycle is delicate and even one small action can result in some serious consequences for your fish and plants.

By following these methods, you can ensure that you effectively get rid of unhealthy ammonia and nitrate levels in your fish aquarium.

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