Glossary: Water Parameters
When your Betta is sick and you turn to a seasoned aquarist for advice, whether it be at your local fish store, an online web forum, or aquarium club; one of the first things you will be asked is for information on your water parameters. We throw the term out all the time but people new to the hobby may not really understand what they are being asked for. Water parameters is just the idiom aquarists use to indicate all the basic componants and descriptions of your water. These parameters may include the temperature, pH, general hardness (gh), carbonate hardness AKA buffering capacity (kh), salinity, conductivity, ammonia level, nitrite level, nitrate level, and many other things depending on the type of set up and species of fish you keep.
Fish are incredibly sensitive to their environments and experienced fish keepers realize that most illnesses or diseases are caused by inadequate water quality. Sometimes it’s the presence of something, like ammonia that is causing the problem and other times it’s a lack of something, like carbonate hardness that is to blame. Water parameters like temperature and pH have a range that best suits individual species and when the water is measured at the extremes of that range, problems can occur.
Its not necessary for Betta keepers to be familiar with every single common water parameter. For instance, in a typical Betta aquarium or bowl, it is hardly ever necessary to measure salinity or conductivity. All aquarists, no matter how modest the set up, should be testing some water parameters occasionally. Testing your water allows you to identify problems early on before they affect your Betta’s health. The frequency in which you test your water depends on your set up and the type of test.
I will go over some of the most common water parameters that effect Bettas and how often you should be testing.
Temperature: Using an aquarium thermometer, check that the water temperature is in a safe range and stable daily.
Ammonia (NH3, NH4): Ammonia is caused by fish waste in the form of feces and urine as well as decomposing food and plant matter. It is extremely toxic to fish, especially bettas. Prolonged exposure to even small amounts of ammonia (<.25 ppm) over time can cause irreparable damage to a betta's gills causing gill burning, weakening of the immune system, fin damage and death. Ammonia poisoning is worsened by alkaline water (pH above 7.0). To avoid ammonia poisoning fully cycle your tank before adding bettas. In an uncycled tank, 100% water changes must be performed before any ammonia becomes present. It also helps to take out any uneaten food or decaying plant matter before it converts to ammonia. Ammonia should be checked weekly in an uncycled tank and about every 6 weeks in a cycled tank or when problems arise.
Nitrite (NO2): Autotrophic bacteria consume ammonia and give off Nitrite as a waste product. Nitrite, though slightly less toxic then ammonia, is still very dangerous to aquarium fish. It is an intermediate compound that is formed after ammonia becomes present in the water and before other bacteria are able to consume it. It becomes present when aquariums are going through the Nitrogen Cycle. To avoid (NO2) poisoning, fully cycle your tank before adding bettas. If you choose not to cycle your tank it’s best to not use a filter. Filter media house nitrifying bacteria, which introduce nitrite to your tank. Nitrite should be tested with some regularity in an uncycled tank and whenever problems arise.
Nitrate (NO3-N, NO3-): Nitrates are the byproduct of the bacteria that consumes nitrite. It is less toxic to bettas and most other aquarium fish. To keep nitrates under control in a cycled tank it is necessary to do partial water changes once per week. Usually, changing 20% of the water is sufficient. It’s still important to test for nitrates weekly to make sure the concentrations are staying in the healthy range (about 20-30 ppm on the high end, less then 20 is better).
pH: You tank water contains acids and bases (alkalinity) which effect your fish. These acids and bases are measured using a number scale. If your water has an equal amount of acids to bases it is neutral and the number given to a neutral pH is 7.0. If you water is more acidic the number is less then 7.0. If it’s more alkaline, it is greater then 7.0. Most aquarium fish thrive in a neutral pH, though there are some exceptions. It’s extremely important to test your water’s pH to make sure it is stable and in a safe range. A rapid decrease in pH can cause sudden death to your fish and a rise in pH causes toxins like ammonia and nitrite to become even more dangerous. A general rule of thumb is not to allow your pH to fluctuate more then 0.2 in 24 hours. Test your tap waters pH every few months because because it often changes throughout the seasons. Your aquarium’s pH should be tested at least weekly and whenever problems occur. PH tests should be performed more frequently in tanks with a very low or non-existant carbonate hardness (kh).
Gh: (General Hardness): General Hardness is the term used when describing “hard water” or “soft water.” The hardness measures the amount of calcium and magnesium dissolved in you water. Bettas can easily tolerate a range of gh, but other fish may be more demanding. Check your gh when setting up a new aquarium and when problems occur.
Kh: (Carbonate Hardness): KH is also known as buffering capacity. The kh measures the amount of carbonate (CO3–) and bicarbonate (HCO3-) dissolved in your water. The kh becomes especially important when it is low. With proper kh your water is able to “buffer”, which keeps your pH stable. When your buffering capacity is low, you water can no longer keep your pH stable and you may experience a rapid drop in pH. This rapid drop can cause quick death among your fish. It’s a good idea to make sure you have adequate buffering capacity when you set up your tank. If you do not, you will likely have to add “buffers” to your water at every water change to keep your pH stable.
Testing your water parameters is a good habbit to get into and testing to some degree should be performed by all Betta keepers. You can buy most water test kits at your local fish store or online.