What is the difference between Nessler ammonia test kits and Salicylate kits?


Reagent Based Test Kits:

There are several types of ammonia test kits available to aquarium hobbyists but one of the most commonly used are the reagent based kits. These kits come with a test tube, which you fill with tank water to a designated point and either one or two bottles of liquid reagent. After a measured amount of time the water turns a color and can be compared to a color chart that indicates the approximate level of ammonia present.

What is Ammonia – Keepin it Simple:

Ammonia can be ionized (NH4+) or unionized (NH3). To keep things simple, just know that ionized ammonia (NH4+) is sometimes called ammonium and isn’t especially dangerous to fish while unionized ammonia (NH3) can be quite toxic at even very low levels. In fact, fish keepers don’t want any unionized ammonia at all in their tanks to keep their fish from suffering from ammonia poisoning. Ammonia can burn gills irreversibly, damage fins and can weaken the immune system leading to illness or even death.

Where Ammonia Comes From:

Ammonia comes from a few sources including fish waste, decaying food and plants and from chloramines. Chloramines are more stable then chlorine and don’t dissipate when exposed to the atmosphere making them much more desirable as a water treatment option. Since stricter water treatment laws were introduced, much of the country has switched to chloramines. It’s important that aquarists purchase a water conditioner that specifically treats chlorine AND chloramines if their water is treated with this method.

Water Conditioners:

Chloramines are formed by binding chlorine particles with ammonia. When you add a water conditioner it breaks the bond and neutralizes the chlorine leaving the dangerous ammonia behind in the tank. A good conditioner like Kordon’s AmQuel+ will also handle the excess ammonia by binding it into it’s less toxic form, ammonium.

The Ammonia Test Kits:

The Nessler method test kit is designed to test the total combined ammonia (NH3) and ammonium (NH4+) levels. The color chart measures in shades of amber or brown. If you are treating your tank with AmQuel+ or a similar ammonia fighting water conditioner then you aren’t interested in the total ammonia level, you are only interested in any toxic ammonia that may be present. If you test with a Nessler test kit you may get a false positive. Technically it isn’t “false” but it is telling you more then you need to know. More recently, Salicylate based test kits have been the norm on store shelves. They measure ammonia in shades of green and only warn you of dangerous (NH3) ammonia levels. These are safe to use with water conditioners like AmQuel+ or Ammo Lock.

It’s not always obviously marked on the package so you might have to check the fine print or open the box to peek at the color chart. Depending on your water and the conditioners you use you may not need a Salicylate test kit but they are always the safe choice. Anyone can use them where as with the Nessler kit is only accurate under certain conditions.

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Reader Interactions


  1. gazard says:

    Cool, you have really great tips for betta lovers. I like you betta site too, the look and feel are very nice.

  2. Christie says:

    Thanks so much. I appreciate the kind words. 😀

  3. Jason Peabody says:

    I am using the tetra test kit, which measures in shades of green but claims to measure both ammonia and ammonium levels. Any info on that? I haven’t been able to find anything that specifically says which type it is.
    I use Seachem Prime, which also claims to detoxify ammonia. Does it do this via the same method as AmQuel, by ionizing it?
    Thanks much for any insight you can give.

  4. Chris says:

    I’ll second the observation about a test kit using green shades, but also claiming to test both NH3 and NH4+. The test kit in question is Jungle Labs Quick Dip Ammonia Test Kit.
    I suspect that this test kit is incompatible with the AmQuel+ ammonia remover that I am using since the test kit seems to keep reporting high levels of ammonia despite my partial water changes and treatment with the ammonia remover.

  5. Anonymous says:

    Thanks, this really helped

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