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What Causes Ammonia and How to Control It Pt. 1

Ammonia is a naturally occuring compound in a freshwater aquarium. In Part 1 of this two-part article you'll learn how ammonia enters your tank and what problems this can cause if left unchecked.


ammonia xs 6651783Ammonia, or NH3, is a chemical compound formed by the combination of nitrogen and hydrogen atoms. This compound occurs naturally in the home aquarium but, in high doses, it can be extremely toxic to fish. If the ammonia level in your tank gets out of control, your fish could suffer from ammonia poisoning and may even die as a result. In order to effectively control the ammonia level in your tank, you first need to understand where ammonia comes from and how it can affect your tank – then you can begin to learn how to keep it under control.

How Ammonia Enters Your Tank

water xs 19498791There are two different forms ammonia can take in the home aquarium: free ammonia (NH3) or ammonium ions (NH4). The amount of each of these compounds, as well as their level of toxicity, depends on various environmental factors in your tank. The first way ammonia can enter your aquarium is through your tap water. Most tap water has been treated with either chlorine or chloramine to make it safe for human consumption but, as you may be aware, both of these chemicals are toxic to fish. What you may not know is that chloramine is formed by binding chlorine to ammonium. Thus, using tap water that has been treated with chloramine can increase the ammonia content in your tank. While most water conditioners effectively remove chlorine and chloramine from tap water, the ammonium bound to the chlorine atoms may also be released into the water at this time. To prevent this from causing problems in your tank, look for a water conditioner that treats both chlorine and ammonia.

Another way in which ammonia enters your tank is through the decomposition of organic matter. As organic materials like uneaten fish food, fish feces and decaying plant matter break down, ammonia is released into the water. The more organic waste you allow to accumulate in your tank, the higher your ammonia levels are likely to be. As part of the nitrogen cycle, the beneficial bacteria in your tank will work to break down the ammonia that results from decomposition into less harmful substances like nitrites and nitrates, but these bacteria can only do so much. If the amount of organic waste in your tank exceeds the capabilities of your beneficial bacteria to handle, you may experience problems with high ammonia levels.

eating puffer xs 7396601The final way in which ammonia can enter the tank is through your fish. As your aquarium fish eat and digest protein, their bodies absorb the amino acids that serve as the building blocks of those proteins. These amino acids are then distributed throughout the bodies of your fish as needed where they can be synthesized into a new protein to foster healthy growth. Any excess amino acids are returned to the liver where they are broken down, or they may be rejected into the blood and the ammonia left over from these processes is excreted through the gills. If your fish are given more protein than their bodies can effectively use, it could result in the rejection of a large quantity of amino acids and thus the release of high quantities of ammonia into the tank.

Problems Caused by Excess Ammonia

mbuna cichlid xs 14182042Even if you are a novice aquarium hobbyist, you probably know by now that too much ammonia in the aquarium is bad. What you may not know, however, is exactly what kind of problems excess ammonia can actually cause in the home aquarium. The major problem with excess ammonia is that it leads to a decrease in water quality. Maintaining high water quality in your tank is essential for maintaining the health of your aquarium fish – if the water quality in your tank declines, the health of your fish may decline as well. Another problem caused by excess ammonia is ammonia poisoning. Ammonia is a toxic chemical for aquarium fish and it acts as a tissue irritant, targeting exposed tissue like the gills. Excess ammonia can lead to hemorrhaging in the gills along with a condition called hyperplasia which may reduce the ability of fish to absorb oxygen from tank water. Additionally, the damage to the gills caused by ammonia can inhibit the ability of fish to excrete ammonia from the body, thus leading to internal damage as a result of high ammonia levels in the body. Ammonia poisoning is a very serious condition, one which can be fatal to fish, so it is important to monitor the ammonia levels in your tank and to take steps to control excess ammonia.

Continue to Part 2 of "What Causes Ammonia And How To Control It"

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