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BlueWolf's Howl

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September 08, 2018

PWCs - Partial Water Changes and Ammonia Problem

Nobody's perfect. And when you start into the fishkeeping hobby, you're bound to make some mistakes. Pet stores and local fish stores make quite a bit of money selling fish to people who don't know how to properly keep fish. And we flush these fish - one by one - down the toilet until the tank is empty. And then some of us start again with another kind of fish or a different fish store. This happens until we either learn something or the tank ends up in the basement storage or a yard sale. I'm trying to get into the "learn something" category.

Take a look at this tank:

Would you think to do a water change on this tank? Does it need a water change? What about these other tanks?

The water is looking crystal clear, right? Well they all got a water change last night. This is because the ammonia levels are not 0 in any of these tanks. This is where a test kit will help you flush less fish (which already cost you money) down the toilet.

There are plenty of expert freshwater fish sites on the web. This is not one of them. I found those sites after I had already made the mistakes that they warn against. And as you can see, the fish are already in the tank. Now what do I do? So I'm documenting what I'm doing to fix this and the outcomes so that someone else in this situation may learn by it and maybe give them hope in such a similar predicament. One of the sites I found had a post that mentioned "any problem in a fish tank can always be fixed by daily PWCs." I am testing that theory.

With the tanks above - which one do you think is the cleanest? The dirtiest? Well, guessing at it I would think the one with the goldfish has to be the dirty one. Goldfish have a reputation for that. And the cleanest has to be the last one, right? Well - let me tell you what the ammonia levels were in each tank.

The first one had a level of 1ppm (goldfish tank). The second tank had a level of 1ppm. The third tank had a level of 4ppm. And the last tank had a level of 0.25ppm. Yes the last tank was the cleanest - but it also looked much cleaner because it has led lights - which may be misleading. And the second tank looks as cloudy as the goldfish tank - but that's due to the Nitra-Zorb in the filter.

From my frequent testing and frequent water changes, I have found that a PWC reduces the ammonia by half in a tank. With a 20 gal tank, I'm replacing about 5 gals of water and the ammonia level gets cut in half. I was surprised to see the results too. If you do the math, it shouldn't come out to that. But it does - because you're doing the math on a container of water and you're doing the water change on a physical tank. I have a siphon that attaches to my faucet and I vacuum the gravel (and scoop dead fish) during a water change. This not only dilutes the ammonia in the water, but removes the uneaten food in the gravel and the fish poop in the tank. Also remember that your filters are still running and filtering ammonia while you are changing this water. I normally test about an hour or two after I have completed the PWC. With the filters I have on my tanks, most of them have filtered the 20 gals X10 or more. And I notice a 50% drop in ammonia.

I have considered doing multiple water changes (every few hours) to try and bring the levels closer to 0. But the expert sites do not recommend changes more than daily. The water change stresses the fish and perhaps may be more detrimental than 0.5 ppm ammonia. And the daily changes are only needed until you can get your system under control. The "normal" maintenance on an established tank would be weekly PWCs. That time will come eventually.

Things that contribute to a high ammonia level include the number of fish in the tank, uneaten food and dead fish. The things that assist in controlling ammonia include water changes, established bio filters (with beneficial bacteria) and live plants. There are chemicals that you can use, but they are not a magical wand. They sometimes just "lock up" the ammonia and will still show on a water test. As with the second tank shown above, some of them can make the water cloudy. [Yes, I rinsed the Nitra-Zorb bag under running water before placing it in the filter and it still made the water cloudy.]

Sadly, the first issue (too many fish) will eventually resolve itself. No matter what you see at any fish store, your tank at home will never be maintained long term with that level of fish. Accept this - it is step #1. The fish in the store are there temporarily and will be sold off quickly (and restocked). If they stayed in that tank for any amount of time - well, those are the ones that are dead in the tank (and hopefully scooped out before the customers see it). It will be a long time before I buy any more fish, but I plan on testing THEIR water next time. Most stores guarantee their fish, but expect you to bring a sample of your tank water (for testing). Of course your water has ammonia in it, but a fish won't die in two days because of your 1-2 ppm water. [I have dozens of fish proving this today.] However if it has been at the fish store in 4ppm for a week before going in your 2ppm tank for two days - well, dead fish.

How do you know if your tank has too many fish? If you have too many fish, your ammonia will be high and fish will die until you don't have too many fish. Sad but true. If your fish die, do not replace them. Fix your tank and prove to yourself that the water maintains the proper parameters by testing the water daily for a week. Then add one fish. Test again that your parameters are maintained before buying another. This is painful, but not nearly as frustrating as flushing dead fish (and money) down the toilet.

Another idea (if you want to keep all the fish you already have) is to buy and set up an additional (or bigger) tank. This may be a waste of money. It takes 4-6 weeks to establish a tank. By that time, the fish you were trying to save are already dead. I say this as I have too many angelfish in my 20 gal tall tank and an empty 33 gal tank in another room. [The 33 gal was bought as a display tank for a saltwater display.] Even if I move the gravel, plants, filters, heaters and put fresh water in the tank - I have not solved the problem, only moved it. And the slight increase in water volume is not enough to resolve the problem. What I would end up with is a 33 gal angel tank, two smaller empty tanks and no saltwater tank.

What about tank cleaners? Tank cleaners are fish like cory catfish, plecos and invertabrates. They scavange the bottom of the tank and eat as much of the "extra" food as possible. When I bought the fish to stock the tanks, I also bought four more plecos. I had planned on two plecos per tank (goldfish, school, angels) to keep them clean. When I saw my angel tank was in trouble, I started searching online for a solution. I ran across something that mentioned plecos can dirty a tank quickly (like goldfish). The first thing I did was scoop out the plecos and plop them in the goldfish tank. That tank now has 6 plecos, two albino cory catfish, two comets and a large carp. It only has one TopFin 20 filter and one large live plant. And it's consistently at 1ppm - so the plecos were not the issue. Too many fish in the tank and the tank not completely cycled seems to be more likely to be the culprit.

The common wisdom about the amount of food to feed fish recommends only enough for them to eat in about 5 min. That's a little misleading. I've been doing this for a while. I look in the tank and I don't see any food floating on the top and none in the water. Yet, when I do a water change, I see it coming up off the gravel each time. As I vacuum the gravel, I think to myself - this is the extra food and by how much I need to cut down the feeding.

Another technique I use is that I grab a pinch large enough for one tank and spread it among multiple tanks. I have multiple types of food and multiple types of fish. They don't need every type every day. One pinch of tropical flakes gets a tiny bit sprinkled into the 10 gal for the 2 angels in the "hospital" tank. A little more of that pinch goes into the 20 gal tall angel tank for the 8 angels in there. And the rest of that pinch goes into the 20 gal long school tank. I also have brine shimp blocks and tubiflex worms blocks. One block is way too much for any 20 gal tank. On the days I pinch off a corner (less than 25% of one block) - it is similarly shared among the three tanks.

The goldfish have their own food. Goldfish flakes, goldfish crisps and pond sticks are reserved just for them. I've found that the pond sticks tend to cloud the water faster, so I stopped using them a while ago. Now that I'm doing daily water changes, I'm back to the sticks so they can get used up. A pinch of those and a few flakes or crisps (not both) fills them and keeps them off the plant (for the most part).

One last note about chemicals before I end this very long post. When I do my water changes, I use Aqueon Water Conditioner - which I have used for years. I also add Seachem Prime to detoxify the Ammonia, Nitrite and Nitrate. These are added to the replacement water. When the water change is complete, I add Seachem Stability directly to the tank. This is supposed to populate new tanks with beneficial bacteria (so I don't put it in the goldfish tank). I have been doing this every day for about 4 days. I will continue adding the Prime until my parameters are good and the Stability until the bottle runs out.

In the angel tank I also used API's Nitra-Zorb. Despite rinsing well, it still made the tank cloudy. You're supposed to "recharge" the bag using Aquarium salt every 5 days for the first month and every 2 weeks for the second month. The bag says it takes ammonia from 4 ppm to 0 ppm - but I have not seen that. I cannot guarantee that I am using it correctly and it was difficult to fit in the Aquaclear filter. I had to remove the sponge to get it to fit. But like I said earlier - there seems to be no magical chemical solution. Sometimes you need to just let nature take its course, be patient and do your daily water changes.

Posted by BlueWolf on September 8, 2018 12:52 PM