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How to fix a very low pH?


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Hi all! I’m a beginner aquarist hoping for a bit of advice. I’m sorry, I tend to be wordy (which is one reason I love forums and hate facebook!). Please bear with me…

 

For background, I started this January with a new 10 gallon, then added an already fully set up 29 gallon I purchased second hand, and finally a 300 gallon front porch stock tank pond. 

 

This question is specifically about the 10 gallon (although it’s application will spill over to everything else). The 10 gallon is lightly planted with some baby Java Fern’s and an unknown variety of moss. 

 

I have surface spring water. Out of the tap parameters are:

 

pH: 6.0

GH: 3-4

KH: 1

 

(A note here, I’m not color blind but have a hard time distinguishing between subtle shades. The pH might be a little above 6, but it’s definitely no more than 6.4. My husband is no help, as he actually is color blind.)

 

This is the water I started the 10 gallon with. I have the Co-Op test strips, which only measure down to 6.4 pH. I knew my water was at least that low. GH and KH also registered 0 on the strips (best I could judge, see note above). I later picked up API test kits to obtain the above numbers. Anyway, at the beginning, I didn’t understand those numbers very well. I was concerned with ammonia, nitrite, and nitrate. Once those 3 were good, I added (over a few weeks) 6 zebra danios, 8 ghost shrimp, and 2 nerite snails. I also have trumpet snails that came with the Java fern (started with 2 and now have MANY!).

 

I continued to learn and became worried the pH was too low in general, and the GH was too low for snails and shrimp. I started with a quarter size piece of cuttle bone. It dissolved quickly (think days) and left an ugly mess of grit on the floor and aquarium walls. I repeated a time or two but did not like this method at all. I watched more YouTube, and tried adding some oyster shells & crushed coral (the mix feed stores sell for chickens). I only added maybe 1/4 pound sprinkled on top of the gravel substrate, which brought the 10 gallon’s parameters to:

 

pH: 7.6

GH: 10-11

KH: 3

 

Over the last 5 months I’ve lost 2 danios. Both isolated themselves from the rest and hid toward the bottom of the tank before one disappeared (I still had a few shrimp then and maybe they ate him that fast?), and the other passed on. I don’t know what caused the deaths, but it was nothing obvious to me like ick or fin rot. It was several months between the two deaths. The shrimp are all gone now as well. All my stock comes from PetCo (it’s all I have access to within an hour’s drive), so I chalked it up to survival of the fittest. The losses aren’t really my question, though perhaps they are relevant. 

 

I’m ok with the look of the oyster shell. But I feel like I have 2 problems now. 

 

First, the parameter change seems very dramatic for no more oyster shell than I added. I am under the belief it will dissolve over time and I’ll need to add more. How do I know when to add more and how much? Will it dramatically increase parameters again? Even more so as I add more? How do I know how much to add? I did not expect it to have such an effect on the pH. The co-op videos recommend a pound per 10 gallons. I did a fraction of that and feel like even that was almost too much.

 

Second, what about the difference in parameters when I do water changes? This is my biggest concern. Am I shocking these poor fish and causing harm? I was water changing a gallon once a week or so, but for the past few weeks I’ve been gravel vaccing about twice a week, at closer to 2.5 gallons at a time in an effort to reduce food for the snails and thus the snail population. It didn’t occur to me at the time about the parameter difference between the tank and my added water (which was straight out of the tap). Now that it has, I’m struggling to understand how best to deal with it. 

 

I have read that parameter swings are harder on fish than outlying ones that remain steady (to a point, of course). Am I trying too hard here? Should I go with my spring water as is and just find the things that can do well in it as is? Or is it just too low for pretty much anything to thrive? I’m not particular in wanting rare or fancy fish. I like beginner friendly and hardy (and inexpensive). Community tanks are my favorite. I’d really like to add some shrimp eventually (cherry or crystal, I don’t really care), and I do like my snails. 

 

I normally use a gallon pitcher to refill from water changes. I’m ok to add a few chemicals to the pitcher before I dump it in the tank. But what? There are so many options and so many opinions, I’m feeling a bit overwhelmed by it all. 

 

My life is extremely busy and these tanks are my stress relief. As such, I need them to be easy and routine. I don’t want to have to buy water (I only get to town every 3-4 weeks). I do have access to city water (which I have not tested), but it would be a pain to use it (it’s 100 yards away in the barn) and I really don’t want to if I have another, fairly simple option. 

 

For those that made it through all this, thank you! Any suggestions for how to move forward?

 

~Katie

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Dear Katie. Bless you. This is such a responsible post! Thanks for taking time to care about your fish and water parameters.

I agree with your assessment that stability between water changes is preferable to chasing a certain pH.

The tragedy is that some fish may not do well in your soft, low pH water. African Cichlids, Rainbowfish, and perhaps some Livebearers may always struggle.

But . . . you can do these like nobody's business . . .

My main thought is something I learned from reading Karen A. Randall's book Sunken Gardens: don't try to chase water parameters. Work with what you have! Many aquarists would die to have your water.

Edited by Fish Folk
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I agree with Fish Folk, find things that like your water and there are plenty things that will do fine. I have fairly low pH and have corydoras, white clouds, hillstream loach and one amano shrimp (I dont know how it is still alive), my shrimp and snails never did well. I have found the same goes for plants, some work well with my water/care (anubius, amazon sword) and some do not (vallisnaria & java ferns).

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I agree with the above, if you're looking to make this as stress free as possible choose fish that can thrive in low PH. 

I live in an area with soft, low PH water. Crushed coral meant for the aquarium trade is what many folks in the area use to help buffer the water and keep the ph stable. Aquarium Coop is nearby and they add it to all their tanks. People in the area successfully raise all types of fish including those that prefer harder water with a higher Ph. For me that means live bearers, snails and Neocardina shrimp. 

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I agree with everything above *and* I am going to add some things (since your question was for your 10 gallon specifically, and others may be reading along)

  • For smaller tanks, it's easier to establish a water parameter vastly different from our source water, as long as we aren't doing the chemistry in our tank (we can... fish and other living things will rightfully voice protest)
  • What is in the tank needs to be for maintenance of parameters
  • Crushed coral, oyster shell, etc, will dissolve faster the more acidic the water. So 1 lb/10 gallons in my tank of source water that is 300+ GH, and pH of 7.4 doesn't affect pH or GH much, but does bring my KH up from 0-40 ppm (tap) to 120-180 ppm (tank) which stabilizes *everything*
  • I used to live on a farm, 2 hours away from anything (except more farms, even if I crossed the border to Canada)
    • I had to schedule all purchases in advance, based on avaiable space for storage/needs/cost/affordability/space in vehicle (once a month trips to town)
      • It's much easier to use Cory's 1200 MaxiJet on a hose to pump pre-treated water into a storage container, and less stressful on plants and animals to pretreat water
      • Dropping an airstone and oyster shell (cheaper than the crushed coral, same effects) in the pretreatment will get all the swings done in pretreat container. Shell in the tank will keep it stable after it gets there
      • Can still use the gallon container to refill, from a pretreatment, or see my current solution below
      • Initially, water will erode oyster shell rapidly. Once it hits homeostasis, it will only erode when you add fresh water to the system. This can happen in your tank (swings) or an external storage container
      • More acidic the water, the more oyster shell is needed to maintain stability
  • Choosing what one wants long term, sitting with:
    • What do I want?
    • Is this sustainable?
    • Am I willing to do what is needed to keep it sustainable?
  • This is how I maintain diffeent parametrs in different tanks now that I can't keep a 55 gallon Rubbermaid trash can of prepared water on hand:
    • I have a ZeroWater (pH 7.0, 0 GH, 0 KH, 0 TDS) for top offs in my tanks. I prefill 5 gallon jugs (I intially bought 10) with ZeroWater, and the rest with a 50/50 blend of ZeroWater and Pur filtered  tap (my tap is liquid calcium, with jet fuel that has dissolved other minerals, but insufficient KH for stability). and crushed oyster shell (I don't measure, I just make sure it's in there) plus 1/2 teaspoon pure epsom salt (took a bit of trial and error, but plants, snails, fish and shrimp are all looking better, so this is the right balance) and depending on chlorine content 1 drop up to 10 drops of Prime. These jugs stay uncapped until needed, and if too much has evaporated, I top off with Zero Water.
    • When I top off, I top off with zeroWater.
    • When I do a water change, I measure how much I take out, replace *exactly that much* with pre-treated water, and *then* top off tank (if it needs more water) with ZeroWater.
    • 20220623_163050.jpg.7a04e25caa3b12d5e6cc005021a31cbc.jpg

Hope all of that helps! It reads like a lot of work, and initially it was (to set everything up, initial purchase and carrying that many gallons in from the car, etc). Short term expenditure bought long term gains: When I had surgery, when I have a flare, I know my tanks are stable. I can visually see how the oyster shell in tanks is doing, and add more when we get down to half. Water stays stable between water changes if I get sick. I no longer get worn out when I do a water change, because water is already prepped.

 

So, just something to think about, if you like shrimp, snails or livebearers. You can commit larger tanks to discus and soft water fish, and your 10 gallon to what doesn't thrive in your "straight from the tap" water.

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Rather than adding crushed coral,  uttlebone and the like, I prefer using Seachem equilibrium to my tank.

 

the reason is specifically the ability to dial in the GH of the replacement water to match the tank water.

 

ie,1 tablespoon of Equilibrium raises GH 3 degrees for 20 gallons of water.  As such, depending on how much water you are adding, and how much you need to raise GH you vary your dose.

 

I usually add my dose to a 5 qt stock pot and fill with quite warm water and stir the day before doing a water change.  This way it is pretty much dissolved when I add it in, add my water dechlorinator and top off with tap water.

After my water change, the whole tanks water GH is pretty much the same as before.

 

I also adda measured amount of Baking Soda to ensure water ph and KH remains as before the water change..

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On 6/23/2022 at 7:58 PM, Ken Burke said:

Look at @KatieF go!  0 to 300+ gallons in 6 months! That’s gotta be some kinda Nerm MTS record.

If I'd been drinking I'd have spit it on the keyboard. 😂

 

First, thank you all very much for the replies!

 

OK, so with everyone saying the same thing, I concede to the wisdom of going with the soft water I have and figuring out what will do well with it. Certainly any future fish will be selected with the parameters I have in mind. But I'm already pretty far down this rabbit hole, so what do I do now with the fish and setups I already have?

 

The 10 gallon has the crushed coral/oyster shell sprinkled throughout the substate. If I'm dedicated, I could pick most of it out. Is that the best course? It houses the 4 zebra danio, plus 2 nerite snails and trumpet snails. I wasn't having any ammonia/nitritre issues before I started gravel vaccing. It was just that suddenly there were lots and lots and lots of trumpet snails. I like the snails, but it seemed like perhaps too many. That said, I can quit the gravel vaccing, go back to a 1 gallon water change every week or two, and wait for things to slowly balance back out. I'm inclined to think that the danios have a chance to adapt to my lower pH.

 

The 29 gallon there isn't much I can change. I brought the water home with it in buckets so the fish wouldn't experience a huge change. I've been doing 10% water changes in it every week or two, and I'm thinking that over time it will just gradually change over to my parameters at that. The way the plants and decorations are, I don't gravel vac it and don't see how I really could without really disturbing everything. I test weekly and don't seem to be having any issues with ammonia/nitrite/nitrate increases of any kind. It houses zebra danio, siamese algae eater, skirt tetra, and clown pleco. The clown pleco I'm afraid are iffy, but I think the danios and tetras might be ok. It also has 4 amano shrimp, 1 nerite snail, and lots of pest snails.

 

My 300 gallon pond has the coral/oyster shell in those mesh aquarium bags in the filter. Should I go ahead and take it out? Given it's in bags that would be very easy to do.

 

Thoughts?

 

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On 6/23/2022 at 6:51 PM, KatieF said:

If I'd been drinking I'd have spit it on the keyboard. 😂

 

First, thank you all very much for the replies!

 

OK, so with everyone saying the same thing, I concede to the wisdom of going with the soft water I have and figuring out what will do well with it. Certainly any future fish will be selected with the parameters I have in mind. But I'm already pretty far down this rabbit hole, so what do I do now with the fish and setups I already have?

 

The 10 gallon has the crushed coral/oyster shell sprinkled throughout the substate. If I'm dedicated, I could pick most of it out. Is that the best course? It houses the 4 zebra danio, plus 2 nerite snails and trumpet snails. I wasn't having any ammonia/nitritre issues before I started gravel vaccing. It was just that suddenly there were lots and lots and lots of trumpet snails. I like the snails, but it seemed like perhaps too many. That said, I can quit the gravel vaccing, go back to a 1 gallon water change every week or two, and wait for things to slowly balance back out. I'm inclined to think that the danios have a chance to adapt to my lower pH.

 

The 29 gallon there isn't much I can change. I brought the water home with it in buckets so the fish wouldn't experience a huge change. I've been doing 10% water changes in it every week or two, and I'm thinking that over time it will just gradually change over to my parameters at that. The way the plants and decorations are, I don't gravel vac it and don't see how I really could without really disturbing everything. I test weekly and don't seem to be having any issues with ammonia/nitrite/nitrate increases of any kind. It houses zebra danio, siamese algae eater, skirt tetra, and clown pleco. The clown pleco I'm afraid are iffy, but I think the danios and tetras might be ok. It also has 4 amano shrimp, 1 nerite snail, and lots of pest snails.

 

My 300 gallon pond has the coral/oyster shell in those mesh aquarium bags in the filter. Should I go ahead and take it out? Given it's in bags that would be very easy to do.

 

Thoughts?

 

I would probably remove from the pond, and watch the goldfish. I never kept goldies, comets or koi, so I don't have any first hand knowledge on what they need... therefore I would defer to someone like Cory who keeps koi regarding how soft their water can be. My daughters are thriving with endlers, so I know they can adapt to harder water.

Zebra danios are incredibly resilient fish, and can handle *slow* changes. Like months. That being said, you like your snails, and soft acidic water will erode their snails. I would keep oyster shell in the 10 gallon. Malaysians give live birth, so population control is a little harder. You can't just get rid of eggs. A single assassin snail will keep them in a state of balance. The assassin will also ned the calcium in the water, so 10 gallon might be worth keeping at different parameters *if* you have 2 to 4 gallon water jugs you can keep oyster shells in with water, so it's ready for both top offs and water changes.

I found a really cool video while doing research for another project, that may explain in a different perspective why we all see problems after we disturb soil outside, or substrate in our tanks. Not telling anyone what to do, just dropping a video here I'm about to post in my journal, that might keep things in perspective:

Everything is interconnected, and disturbing one thing may disturb things we can't see. So, slow really is the fastest way to reach stability.

 

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@Torrey That was a great post about how you deal with your water - thank you! I missed it before I posted my last response. I'm still trying to understand the crushed coral. Because it has to dissolve to work, I still feel like I'm doing more harm than good if I can't match the water I add during changes to what's already in the tank. I can do jugs pre-treated with coral, but I'm still confused about how to get them to match. The concept of hitting homeostasis I get. But when does that happen? And how do I know how much coral to add to the jugs? Perhaps I  just need to start experimenting. I'm the type that wants to measure everything and have a formula I know works every time. I love math and hate abstract things.  

 

@Pepere I do like the idea of precise. I've researched some on the baking soda, and actually did order some equilibrium, though I started second guessing and haven't opened it yet. I went to bed thinking I'd best leave the water alone, but lay awake half the night continuing to ponder and this morning I'm back to undecided. But if I'm going to play with water parameters, this route doesn't seem like one perhaps more suited to me than the coral. I'm still thinking.

 

I did find this thread on some baking soda numbers, which I'm linking here so I can easily find it again. 

 

Again, I continue to thank everything for your responses. It's given me a lot of great information and much to think about!

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I wish I had your tap water! 

The easy solution is to choose soft water stock. Simple! 

Do not use coral or shells, they all raise both GH and KH. And as you say, every water change is altering those numbers. Just pick soft water stock!

Now, if you do want to increase these numbers, then buy the salts you need. MgSO4, CaSO4 and K2CO3 are all that's needed and you would front load those on water change day. What is front loading? If you change 5 gallons, you build that 5 gallons to the parameters you want. Then use that 5 gallons for the water change. This changes values and maintains the most stable scenario in the tank. 

The MG and Ca will run you about 6 bucks and the potassium carbonate about 12 bucks. All will last you several years.

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The thought of just keeping livestock that will like your parameters does hold some appeal, but it does sort of make it hard to keep shrimp and snails with your parameters.  And plant life would also suffer.

I think it is far easier to add minerals with Equilibrium to soft water than it would be to lower hardness and PH if you had hard alkaline water.

 

I personally would be more inclined to submit to only keeping livestock that suited my tap water if I had hard alkaline tap water.  Especially on larger tanks.

 

when I do water changes on my 29 gallon either 25%, 30% or 50%, I dont bother getting a tank full to that parameter.  I simply fill from tap, and add in a gallon of water that has been enriched with equilibrium.  My tap has 3 degrees GH and KH.  My tank is set to 6 degrees GH and KH.  Tap ph is 7, tank is 7.4.

I check tank ph, gh and Kh a few hours after change and it is spot on…

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On 6/24/2022 at 9:22 AM, Mmiller2001 said:

The easy solution is to choose soft water stock. Simple! 

Yes, simple! Even through this afternoon I have been vacillating on what to do. I have dug through pages and pages to find water parameters on everything I currently have, and what I hope to have in the future. I think it's likely everything but the nerites and possibly the amano shrimp will adapt ok. Anything new I get I will make sure is ok with soft water. It is, as you say, so much simpler and won't leave me pulling my hair out. Hopefully anyway.

 

On 6/24/2022 at 11:54 AM, Pepere said:

The thought of just keeping livestock that will like your parameters does hold some appeal, but it does sort of make it hard to keep shrimp and snails with your parameters.  And plant life would also suffer.

Just when I had my mind made up, you remind me I have plants to consider! 😭 Take that with a smile, as I am grateful you reminded me to consider that aspect too. I researched the plants I have. I have some pearl weed, anubias, and java fern which I believe should all be ok in my soft water. So as with the fish, I think I feel ok to pick plants suited to soft water.

 

The goldfish in my porch pond are my wild card. I have read that goldfish need hard water and then I have read that they can do ok in soft water. My husband says if you google long enough you can find any answer you want! But as someone stated up thread, it's not so bad to play with parameters in smaller tanks. Trying to balance anything but what I have in the 300 gallon porch pond is, I think, more of a challenge than I am up to. So, I believe I will take the coral out and see how they seem to do. 

 

In my ponderings I kept thinking of that one line in a Jurassic Park movie (one of the earlier ones... #2 I think? The one where a kid parasails onto an island). Why hire an expert if you're not going to listen to him? Everyone is telling me to go with what I've got, and at least for now I feel like that is the best advice. Perhaps down the road when I have more experience under my belt I may feel more confident to try adjusting things. So for that, I've really appreciated all the advice I've gotten on this thread and may well refer back to it in the future.

 

So far the only thing I think I'm giving up is a mystery snail (which I don't have but had thought to get eventually). I think there's a chance shrimp would do ok in my water, especially some type of caradina. I have a 10 gallon tank I was thinking to set up as a shrimp tank, and I really, really want to get a 20 gallon for some khuli loaches (my son's pick), cherry barbs, and a betta (my oldest daughter's pick). From my hours of googling, I don't think I'd be afraid to try any of those and see how they do.

 

So thanks again to everyone very much. This thread was so helpful to help me think through everything, and I very much appreciate that everyone has been so kind. Y'all are awesome! 😁

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The caradina will like your water with minimal adjusting. I just picked up my Salty Shrimp from The Fish Room yesterday during the podcast for my 2.5 gallon tank. It's my only tank I seriously play with numbers, everything else get's a water strip test before the water change, and the degree of variation between the tap/gallon jugs and the tank determines the max amount of water I'll take out. Keep It Simple Sweetie is a fabulous motto to live by!

(I don't keep any softwater fish, like discus, because I now live in the desert, and that's not the water I have).

Mmiller is a godsend (or would it be a tanksend🧐) for learning how to frontload. I took his information, looked at my lived reality, and adjusted formy living experience.

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