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Help! Aquarium always has extremely high ammonia!


Mapper
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We have a 55 gallon tank that we've had set up for about 6 months now. We have 6 fish in it and all was good up until about a month ago when every time we'd take ammonia readings they were off the chart. We used to get slight ammonia readings but a 1/2 water change on a weekly basis would fix it. We have new media and sponges and everything in the filter and do 1/2 water changes, but nothing makes the ammonia go down. We put Prime and Stability in to change the toxic ammonia to non-toxic, but there's never any change in the reading. It is the highest that the chart reads at 8ppm. If this were true, the fish would be dead in a matter of hours. I've thought maybe it was giving a false reading, but when I measure the ammonia in our 20 gallon tank it's at 0.

 

What are we doing wrong and why did this all of a sudden start up after months of it being fine?

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We did have one Dojo loach die about a week ago, but it had been acting funny for a few days prior and not eating. We took a comet out 2 days ago due to a fungal infection and have her healing in another tank on her own. The other fish seem fine though and are eating normally and not darting about the tank or going to the top for oxygen.

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2 minutes ago, Coronal Mass Ejection Carl said:

Did you use Ammo Lock? What's the pH?

We used Ammo Lock up until a week or so ago when I did research and it said using SeaChem Prime and Stability were better, but no change using those. The pH has been low at 6 but I put in some baking soda to bring it up to about 7. Then read that if ammonia is high it's best to have the pH be lower so I've just left it where it's at.

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4 minutes ago, Daniel said:

That seems like a useful clue. Either your water change water has the same amount of ammonia as your 55 gallon aquarium or the results of your ammonia test are inaccurate. It doesn't seem likely your water change water has 8 pmm ammonia. Have you tested your water change water?

I've done a test on the water from our tap and it's 0 ammonia. And like I said, I tested the ammonia in our 20 gallon tank and it's at 0 as well.

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2 minutes ago, Mapper said:

We used Ammo Lock up until a week or so ago when I did research and it said using SeaChem Prime and Stability were better, but no change using those. The pH has been low at 6 but I put in some baking soda to bring it up to about 7. Then read that if ammonia is high it's best to have the pH be lower so I've just left it where it's at.

How many/big water changes have you done since using Ammo Lock? It can cause off the chart false positive ammonia readings and might take a few water changes to remove before that effect is gone.

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1 minute ago, Coronal Mass Ejection Carl said:

How many/big water changes have you done since using Ammo Lock? It can cause off the chart false positive ammonia readings and might take a few water changes to remove before that effect is gone.

We've done 1/2 water changes every weekend for the past month and have gotten the high readings every time before and after.

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1 minute ago, Mapper said:

But I've read that the Prime and Ammo Lock can create false positives too. We ordered the SeaChem Ammonia Multi-test kit that is supposed to be able to measure the ammonia but not take into account the Prime.

The API ammonia test can't tell the difference between ammonia, ammonium, and ammonia supposedly bound to Prime. It won't cause it to read ammonia that doesn't exist in some form though.

Ammo Lock is an amine and the salicylate ammonia method sometimes reads those as ammonia. It will read ammonia that isn't there.

Just now, Mapper said:

We've done 1/2 water changes every weekend for the past month and have gotten the high readings every time before and after.

If Ammo Lock is the problem and it's only been a week you might need to do a few more to clear it out.

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3 minutes ago, Coronal Mass Ejection Carl said:

The API ammonia test can't tell the difference between ammonia, ammonium, and ammonia supposedly bound to Prime. It won't cause it to read ammonia that doesn't exist in some form though.

Ammo Lock is an amine and the salicylate ammonia method sometimes reads those as ammonia. It will read ammonia that isn't there.

If Ammo Lock is the problem and it's only been a week you might need to do a few more to clear it out.

Well like I said we're getting this test kit tomorrow that is supposed to read the ammonia without any interference of other substances.

WWW.SEACHEM.COM

Will this give us a more accurate reading? 

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Just now, Mapper said:

Well like I said we're getting this test kit tomorrow that is supposed to read the ammonia without any interference of other substances.

Will this give us a more accurate reading? 

In theory, yes.

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1 hour ago, Coronal Mass Ejection Carl said:

Low-ish pH can make ammonia non-toxic as well.

Yes to what Carl just said. Here's a chart I found online that lists the toxicity level of ammonia as pH and temperature (°C) changes. At pH of 6.0, it seems that fish can handle an ungodly amount of ammonia. (Not sure how accurate this chart is, so you can check online for other sources too.)

image.png.e86c31cc130291b9f723c405bd0e5418.png

 

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Have you cleaned out your filters and given the tank a thorough look over to be sure nothing dead is hiding anyplace? Weird stuff can happen. A mouse can fall into a tank, drown and fall behind something and not be noticed. If you're using plant fertilizer, it's possible that's leaching ammonia into the water column. If you have a cat, it's possible your cat has taken to using the fish tank as a urinal. Cat urine is pretty much all ammonia. Something caused that spike a month ago, and while current readings can be off because of the chemicals used, that original spike had a cause that could still be in play.

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not to try and compete with @Daniel or @Coronal Mass Ejection Carl.  They have forgotten more that it know, but...

This is where a good LFS or even a big box can be handy.  Most offer free testing, and can double check your results. 
 

also, are you seeing a bump in nitrite or nitrate?  You might try testing before and after you next couple water changes.  Won’t cost much, but may help track down the problem.  

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I know when you have a high reading on your parameters we all panic and want to do a big water change to correct the issue. Keep in mind wild swings is also harmful and could be just a deadly. Doing lots of small quantity water changes is preferable and less harmful  to you fish.  Think of it like jumping in a snow bank in winter in your bathing suit then jumping in a hot tub that extream shock of temperature is very uncomfortable. But if you sat in a cold tub of water and it slowly heated up you would not notice the change as much.

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