Mystery Source of Ammonia Hurting Betta Brood

Blue, originally uploaded by spyzter.

EK wrote,

I’m also a betta enthusiast, and recently also became a betta breeder… I’m raising my second spawn now. I use beanie boxes because of their convenience — I have a set of shelves holding 96 boxes (24 on each shelf), though I’m only using 72 of them right now. I know you don’t recommend anything smaller than 1gal, but these (a little more than 1/3 gal) are widely used among betta breeders because of their utter convenience and ability to pack quite a lot of them into a small space (absolutely necessary for spawns of 200, 300, 400+ fry). I do 100% water changes twice a week or more, and until now my fish have been perfectly healthy.

I am writing with a mysterious problem. Ammonia is appearing in my beanie boxes at high levels, even right after water changes. Today, I measured .5ppm ammonia in my beanie boxes after doing a 100% water change yesterday!

I’ve been keeping beanie boxes since March and haven’t encountered stressed fish before, though I must admit that I didn’t regularly check the ammonia in the boxes — I just recently began checking since I was trying to pinpoint the source of stress for some fish who unaccountably became sick. Well, ammonia was definitely the source of their stress. I had skipped a water change due to a housguest and ammonia was rearing its ugly head. I had no idea that ammonia could build up so fast if I didn’t keep up with water changes. But still, I feel like my test kit shouldn’t be reading so high right after a water change.

My tap water (Burlingame CA, same water source as San Francisco) is about 7.8pH, 3KH, 4GH, has chlorine, chloramines, AND has .5ppm ammonia straight out of the tap. To condition my water I use NovAqua and Amquel together. I set the pH to 6.6-6.8 using Neutral Regulator and Discus Buffer. I keep the beanie boxes heated at 80F. I feed frozen food (brine shrimp, bloodworms, mysis shrimp, krill, plankton, white mosquito larvae) and Attison’s Betta food — moderate amounts once or twice a day, more for growing juveniles. Each betta in its own box. Floating plants, no substrate.

I use the Aquarium Pharmaceutical ammonia test kit, which I believe is a salicylate test. If I’m correct, the Amquel converts the ammonia to nontoxic ammonium, which shouldn’t show up on my test kit. However, even directly after treating my water with Amquel at more than a double dose, the test kit still reads some ammonia (between 0-.25ppm). And now, a day later, the ammonia is back up to .5ppm. I only fed the fish once, a small clump of frozen brine shrimp (2-6 shrimp each), so decaying matter shouldn’t be the problem.

One other bit of information might be useful. I keep floating water sprite in some of the beanie boxes. Before I changed all the beanie boxes yesterday, I tested many of the boxes and found out that the boxes with water sprite had, with a few exceptions, lower ammonia than the boxes without water sprite. I hadn’t changed the water in about 7 days (very unusual for me), so the ammonia was up to 2ppm in many boxes without water sprite — a definite potential for stress and illness. The boxes with water sprite had, but for a few exceptions, ammonia at .5ppm. So I went and added water sprite to all my boxes, thinking that would keep ammonia from spiking to 2ppm and I’d go back to my normal twice-weekly water change routine to prevent it from reaching even .5ppm.

But obviously there’s something else going on here, since I just discovered that my water tests at .5ppm the day after a water change, and since I can’t even get the ammonia all the way to zero before I add the fish. I have a few theories:

1. The test kit is reading a false positive. This doesn’t make sense, since Amquel detoxifies the ammonia by turning it to ammonium. Ammonium shouldn’t register on my salicylate test kit — or does it?

2. The Amquel is not completely effective. This also doesn’t make sense, since I’ve tried up 4 x the normal dosage and the test kit still registers some faint green. Also, the Neutral Regulator detoxifies ammonia, so with both of those, there should be zero ammonia left in the water.

3. The chloramine is breaking down into ammonia and chlorine as a delayed reaction, and the ammonia removers are not keeping up. This doesn’t make sense either because of all the extra Amquel that I’ve put in, as an experiment. The only way this would make sense is if the Amquel dissipates before all the chloramine is broken down into ammonia, but I doubt that’s the case since the water conditioners should have broken down the chloramine immediately.

4. There is decaying matter in the boxes. I can see how this would usually be the easy answer, but it doesn’t make sense that there would be .5ppm ammonia the very day after a water change. Plus, it doesn’t explain why there is ammonia in the water even before putting a single fish into it.

5. The fish themselves are excreting lots of ammonia. This is a possibility, especially since I tend to feed my growing juveniles heavily. However, this theory has the same problems as decaying matter — high ammonia appearing so soon after a change, and the water reading more than zero even directly after conditioning it.

6. There is some other mysterious source of ammonia.

7. There is some other source of a false positive on my test kit.

Well, I’m out of theories. Can you make sense out of any of this? I’m sorry for writing such a very long-winded email, but after reading everything on your site and blog, I feel that I need someone like you to lend your experience to this puzzling situation.

Thanks so much for any thoughts you might have!

A: Thanks for providing such detailed information in your email. You were answering all my questions just as fast as I was thinking of them. So, to recap, you are finding high levels of ammonia even within a day of a full water change. You are using regular AmQuel and NovAqua together and Neutral Regulator to change your pH. It sounds like, since you mentioned the green color, that you do indeed have a salicylate based ammonia test kit. Ok, now that we know all that let’s see if we can figure out where the ammonia is coming from.

The very first thing I would do is create a control. Test your source water for ammonia straight out of the tap. What a lot of people don’t realize is that household water can have a lot of ammonia in it. Even as much as 2.0 ppm due to agricultural runoff or just residual from the chlorination process. If ammonia is detected then this is a major find in terms of discovering the source of your problem. If not, then we know the ammonia is being caused by organic compounds from the fish and/or food. Determining which if these is the case is important.

Let’s look at possible failures in the system.

1. Test Kit – While it sounds like your test kit is a salicylate kit (reads just free NH3 ammonia) there are two things to consider. First, keep in mind that tolerances for these kits are really low. Any reagent based kit you buy at the fish store has a huge variance in accuracy and it gets even worse if you buy the dip stick kind. Just keep in mind that what it says and what it is can be very different. If accuracy is important to you (it often is for breeders but not so much for the casual hobbyist) then you might want to think about investing in a more accurate kit. I am told that Salifert is the best kit you can buy at a hobby level but if you want to invest in the best then you want to look at labratory grade kits like Hach or LaMotte. Ok, I’m digressing. The other think to remember is test kits worsen with age. If you have had yours for a year, toss it. Hey, that reminds me….

2. AmQuel & NovAqua – We’ll call them A&N for short. A&N are a great option because unlike other products they don’t fade or become less effective over time. If you add it to the tank and ammonia builds up two days later, they will begin working when they are needed. They aren’t removed until you perform a water change. That said they DO have some limitations. AmQuel has a nasty little habit of lowering pH when kh is already low and can become ineffective in very acidic water. Fortunately, ammonia becomes less toxic in very acidic water too. Just how acidic I’m not sure but I am sure the failure point is much lower then your 6.6 – 6.8 pH level. Also, keep in mind that A&N remove ammonia at a different rate depending on the pH. At a pH of 7.0 it will convert toxic ammonia in 5 minutes. At a high pH it will take longer and in acidic water it will take longer still.

3. Neutral Regulator – I’m afraid the bottle is misleading you when it says it detoxifies ammonia. As I mentioned above, ammonia is more dangerous in water with a ph above 7.0 (called basic or alkaline). When you lower the pH the ammonia isn’t AS dangerous to the fish but it isn’t “detoxified” per se. On the flip side, if you were using pH regulator to raise your pH you would be making your ammonia MORE toxic. It’s all relative. This doesn’t mean we should all go out and buy pH Down. Altering pH is a dangerous practice in and of itself. A severe pH crash can do more damage a lot faster then an ammonia spike. I generally recommend working with the pH you have rather than trying to alter it.

But wait.. there’s more.

To get a little deeper into the relationship between ammonia and pH you have to look at the molecules. When we measure the pH levels we are counting the amount of hydrogen (H+) and hydroxyl ions (OH-) present in the sample. An increased level of hydrogen ions [less bonded] means the sample will be more acidic. When less hydrogen ions (H+) and more hydroxyl ions (OH-) are present [more bonded] the sample will become basic instead. When both the hydrogen (H+) and hydroxyl ion (OH-) levels are about the same the sample is neutral. In acidic water ammonia ions (NH3) react with water to create ammonium ions (NH4+) and hydroxyl ions (OH-). When water is basic the reaction goes the opposite way because, as mentioned earlier, there is already an abundance of hydroxyl ions present in basic water. Instead of creating ammonium (NH4+) out of ammonia (NH3) and water (H2O) the hydroxyl ions (OH-) split from ammonium (NH4+) to create ammonia (NH3) and water (H2O).


Ok. I will just get to my theory. I’m guessing there is ammonia in your tap water. You are lowering the pH from basic to acidic and treating with AmQuel and NovAqua. Then over a several hours the pH begins to rise again (this happens naturally due to the carbonate hardness (KH) in your water) and the non-toxic NH4+ is converting back into harmful NH3. This combined with heavy feeding and a couple less water changes then necessary is too much for your A&N to handle and you pick up the readings on your test kit.

What I recommend doing is testing your tap water for ammonia, lay off of the Neutral Regulator and increase the number of water changes to every other day. Keeping healthy plants like you have been doing is a great way to help fight ammonia too. It seems like a lot, but honestly, breeders would tell you daily full changes are the only way to insure a healthy brood. Kudos to you for all your hard work and for taking the leap into Betta breeding.

Rate this article: 1 Star2 Stars3 Stars4 Stars5 Stars (1 votes, average: 5.00 out of 5)


  • Anonymous

    Amquel will absolutely give your testers a false positive reading and sometimes very high. Want to be sure? Very simple, test your water from the tap and than test your tap water treated with the correct amount of Amquel. I guarantee with Aquarium Pharmaceuticals and most testers you will get a false positive with the water treated with Amquel every time. I will not use Amquel for this reason.

  • Hey I know this is off topic but I was wondering if you knew of any widgets I could add to my blog that automatically
    tweet my newest twitter updates. I’ve been looking for a plug-in
    like this for quite some time and was hoping maybe you would have
    some experience with something like this. Please let me know if you run
    into anything. I truly enjoy reading your blog and I look forward to your new updates.


Add Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *