How to Remove Ammonia From Salt Water

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Yellow Tang
Yellow Tang (Image: Public Domain, Wiki Commons)

New saltwater fish hobbyists and veteran hobbyists alike are vexed by the problem of how to safely remove ammonia from their salt water. Ammonia spikes can have serious repercussions, including the death of one or more of your beloved aquarium inhabitants, and can even lead to the dreaded saltwater tank "crash" that results in the demise of every single living thing in your tank. This article is geared to the new saltwater hobbyist who faces the seemingly impossible task of getting ammonia levels in salt water down to the desired level of zero.

Things You'll Need

  • Saltwater test kit
  • Several gallons of reverse osmosis water
  • Salt mix (e.g., Instant Ocean or Kent brands)
  • Protein skimmer
  • Filter (internal or external)
  • Algae pads, vacuum gravel cleaners and other tools to clean detritus from your tank

Wait it out if you've just set up your tank. Before you introduce live fish to your tank, the salt water will go through a cycling phase after the tank is inoculated with healthy bacteria. Regardless if you choose to seed your tank with bacteria by introducing water or gravel from the tank belonging to another fish hobbyist or if you seed the tank with a small piece of brine, an initial ammonia spike is normal as bacteria breaks down and the resultant ammonia converts to nitrites and then to less-harmful nitrates. How quickly ammonia subsides in your new tank depends on the size of the tank, how much bacteria was produced by the inoculating agent and the equipment you're using (e.g., filter, protein skimmer, etc.).

Assess your water levels using a quality test kit, such as Hagen, SeaChem or Red Sea. During the initial cycling process, the test kit is your most trusted friend. This method, which involves dipping a thin strip of paper in a sample of your water, tells you when levels of ammonia, nitrite and nitrate are dangerously high. Never put live fish in salt water that tests high for ammonia or any other undesirable nutrient.

Remain vigilant about maintaining low levels of ammonia. Once you introduce live fish into your tank, ammonia is continually produced from their waste or the sloughing off of dead cells as your finny pets mature. Food that doesn't get ingested also breaks down and causes ammonia levels to rise.

Invest in the right ammonia-removing equipment, including a filter appropriate for your tank size. Filtration is important for every saltwater tank; not only does a good internal or external filter help remove detritus, it also aerates water to provide a suitable habitat for that pretty yellow tang you've been wanting.

Buy a protein skimmer appropriate for your tank size. This is requisite for any saltwater tank that's medium-sized or larger. It removes very small bacteria-producing particles that a filter cannot capture.

Conduct regular water changes to remove ammonia. Some hobbyists advocate a massive water change once a month (replacing 50 percent of the tank), but many prefer to conduct water changes once weekly, replacing from 5 to 10 percent of the water in the tank with prepared salt water to avoid shock to the aquarium's delicate inhabitants. Many hobbyists use reverse osmosis water; this is sold at most health food stores, although a saltwater aquarium supply store may also make it available for purchase.

Keep your aquarium clean. A water change is an excellent chance to take the algae pads to the inside of your aquarium and conduct a thorough "vacuuming" of substrate. Use a turkey baster to remove dead particles that have accumulated on live rock.

Test, test and test your water again. Avid hobbyists often test water daily to make sure that ammonia levels are low or absent. If you note an ammonia spike after a recent water change, this could be an indication that you have a big problem--in which case it's time to conduct a head count. One of your finned friends could have languished behind a rock or in a place that you don't notice. Decay that results from a dead or dying saltwater inhabitant causes ammonia levels in your tank to escalate.

Tips & Warnings

  • If you're a new saltwater hobbyist, it's tempting to stock your tank with as many exotic fish as your pocketbook can afford. But if you can't manage ammonia levels in a medium-sized tank with only three inhabitants, bringing home more will only compound your problems. Take it slow and simple; learn how to care for a few fish at a time. As your expertise in removing ammonia from your tank increases, then it's appropriate to add more fish to your tank.

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