When to Change the Ammonia Chips in an Aquarium

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Aquariums should be free of toxic ammonia.
Aquariums should be free of toxic ammonia. (Image: Jerry Yulsman/Photodisc/Getty Images)

Ammonia production occurs continuously in both saltwater and freshwater aquariums. Fish waste, leftover food and other decaying organic material can increase ammonia levels to dangerous heights if inadequate bacteria are present in the biological filtration system. Fortunately, ammonia chips when used in conjunction with vigilant freshwater aquarium maintenance, ensures that ammonia is reduced to the only safe level -- zero. Part of achieving this involves recharging, rather than replacing, these ammonia chips.

Ammonia Basics

Ammonia production is the precursor to the nitrogen cycle, a necessary process for algae and plant survival. Decaying fish and plant waste, food, debris and the normal cycle of respiration contribute to ammonia production. Unfortunately, if this ammonia is not converted into less toxic nitrate through a biological filtration process, fish will show signs of stress, gill damage and disorientation, and can ultimately die. In freshwater systems only, ammonia chips can be placed in the biological filter, according to the manufacturer's specifications, to help convert ammonia.

How Ammonia Chips Work

Ammonia chips are composed of zeolite, a porous and absorbent aluminosilicate that binds the toxic ammonia of freshwater aquariums as it reaches the filter, allowing bacteria to colonize on the biological filter. These processes work in conjunction, allowing removal of both bacteria and ammonia from the main tank and away from the fish. The bacteria then convert the ammonia to nitrate, and the filter cycles that back into the tank, to the benefit of the algae and plant organisms that utilize it.

You Don't Change the Chips

When it's working optimally, biological filtration allows no ammonia to remain in the tank. Rather than requiring a regular replacement schedule, the chips are rechargeable -- they do not need to be replaced unless ammonia testing of the tank reveals positive levels. Testing should take place weekly or any time a change is made to the tank, such as the addition of fish or plant material, as changes may require the ammonia-munching bacteria to catch up. In fact, because bacteria is so important to the process of biological filtration, it is also recommended that the filter not be replaced unless there is a substantial clog in the system that cannot be cleaned. Otherwise the filter need be cleaned only when chips are recharged.

Recharging the Chips

Only if the ammonia testing dip-strip returns a positive result is it time to recharge the chips. Ammonia chips are designed only for freshwater aquariums. Because of the zeolite material, ammonia will not bind to ammonia chips in saltwater. In fact, saltwater is used to recharge the ammonia chips, as it causes the release of ammonia from the media. A positive test result means either there are excess ammonia molecules bound to the chips, or the bacteria are not adequate or healthy. When the chips and filter are rinsed with saltwater, ammonia buildup is flushed away, any old decaying bacteria are removed, and the filter setup is ready to bind ammonia and colonize fresh bacteria. Follow all manufacturer specifications to complete this process. An aquarist can provide alternatives for reducing ammonia levels in a saltwater tank.

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