Maintaining an aquarium comes with many challenges, and to new fish owners, they may not understand a problem with the tank until it is too late. It is not unlikely to find nitrates in your aquarium, as nitrate buildup is caused by high levels of ammonia.
Performing regular water changes and tests will keep you aware of the chemical levels in the tank, ensuring a safe environment for your fish. Read on to understand the acceptable nitrate levels for aquariums and how to recognize a problem before it’s too late.
Normal levels of nitrates have little to no effect on fish. However, it is crucial to understand where nitrates come from and how to prevent a buildup.
Test the levels first
Nitrates come from ammonia, which is present in fish waste, tap water used to fill the tank, and old food that may remain at the bottom of the aquarium. To maintain a healthy level of nitrates, you should first test the levels in your tap water to determine if you need to find another source of water.
If your nitrate levels are less than 50 ppm (parts per million), you’re good to go! If the nitrate levels are greater than 50 ppm, don’t worry, there are many steps you can take to lower the levels of nitrates in your aquarium water.
Why do I need to add nitrate?
Now you may be thinking, what if my nitrate levels are too low? There is no such thing as “too little” nitrates in terms of keeping the fish alive.
In fact, you want to maintain a low level of nitrates to keep a healthy environment for your fish. However, live plants feed on nitrates to survive, and if there is a lack of nitrates, the plants will eventually die.
If you find yourself in a situation where the nitrate levels are 0, this could be caused by many things such as not enough fish and too many plants. Plants use nitrates and other chemicals as a source of food, and if there are little to no nitrates present in the tank, the plants will struggle to survive.
Adding potassium nitrate
The safest way to increase the nitrate levels in the tank is by using a potassium nitrate fertilizer which provides nitrogen and potassium to aquarium plants to ensure healthy growth. This fertilizer aids in photosynthesis and the production of chlorophyll, which is the component in plants that gives them their green color. Be sure to follow all instructions on the potassium nitrate fertilizer, as high levels of nitrate and potassium make for a dangerous environment for your fish.
Nitrate levels in a freshwater aquarium should be below 50 ppm. Anything higher than 50 ppm will cause nitrate poisoning or nitrate shock in your fish.
If high nitrate levels persist in the tank, it can be fatal. The fish will start to feel the adverse effects of the elevated nitrate at around 100 ppm.
It is imperative to maintain a safe nitrate level before it gets that high. Once it does, it will be tough to rapidly change the environment to save that fish. Performing regular water tests to determine the levels will ultimately prevent a detrimental situation from occurring, as you will always be aware of the nitrate levels in the tank.
Population size in your tank
Determining a safe nitrate level for your tank is defined by how many live plants and fish are in the tank. If there is a significant number of fish and not enough live plants to feed off the nitrates, the levels could increase significantly if the tank is not regularly cleaned. There must be a balance between fish and live plants, and that way, the nitrate levels do not increase or decrease to harmful levels.
Manage food waste
It is also important to ensure that you are not overfeeding your fish. The excess food that the fish do not consume falls to the bottom and causes a rise in nitrate levels. Using tools such as a gravel vacuum when you do your water changes can target excess food and fish waste from the gravel and remove it from the tank. Be sure not to remove too much water at once, as that will put the fish in shock with the rapid temperature and chemical changes.
Regular 25% water changes and watching how much you feed your fish will aid in keeping the nitrate levels normal. High nitrate levels also contribute to unwanted algae growth. It is essential to keep in mind that if the nitrate levels rise quicker than the plants can consume the nitrate, that is when algae will grow, and nitrate levels will increase. Noticing these environmental changes in your tank is crucial to maintaining a safe tank for your fish.
Nitrate poisoning happens when a fish is exposed to high nitrate levels over a consecutive period. If the owner does not take the proper steps to reduce the amount of nitrate in the tank, this ultimately results in fish death.
When fish are abruptly exposed to high or low levels of nitrate, they may go into shock. Similarly, when they experience a sudden temperature change, it puts them into shock. This is why a new fish needs to get accustomed to the environmental temperature before being put in its new home.
Nitrate shock can also occur when you add new fish to your aquarium, and the environment the new fish came from caused a spike in nitrate levels resulting in nitrate shock in the fish.
Noticing nitrate poisoning symptoms early can be critical to remedy the situation. If your fish is experiencing nitrate poisoning, they may be swimming oddly or upside down, laying at the bottom of the tank, or not eating. Rapid gill movement is also a symptom of nitrate poisoning, and this symptom might be the first one you notice.
Given that nitrate poisoning occurs when the levels slowly rise over time, your fish may become sick. Until tests are done to determine the levels in the tank, you may not immediately understand the cause of sickness. If the levels are not reduced, the fish may begin to show more symptoms, such as a curved head to tail, which is usually the stage before death if the situation does not change. There are many steps you can take before it is too late to lower the nitrate levels in your aquarium.
Now that we know what causes elevated nitrate levels and how to notice nitrate poisoning symptoms in fish, let’s discuss the steps needed to reduce the levels of nitrate in your aquarium. Maintaining the tank’s cleanliness regularly is much easier than fixing an emergency due to a lack of attention to the tank.
Regular cleaning and water changing
To avoid a heavy buildup of nitrate, cleaning the tank and changing 25% of the water every week or so will significantly decrease the chances of your fish developing nitrate poisoning. Since nitrates come from fish waste and leftover food in the tank, cleaning out that waste will improve the quality of the water.
More live plants
If you are looking to add live plants to your aquarium, this would be another significant step in reducing the overall nitrate levels, given the plants will feed off the nitrates. Keep in mind that you need to balance fish and plants to maintain enough nitrate for the plants to consume, but keep it below 50 ppm to ensure a safe environment for the fish.
Tap water conditioner
If you are using tap water as a water source for your tank, make sure you test the baseline nitrate level of the tap water. Products such as tap water conditioners can aid in removing some of those elevated chemicals. However, if the levels present in your tap water are significantly high, the tap water conditioner might not remove all of the nitrates. Testing the baseline will determine if you will need to consider a different water source for your tank.
It is key to remember the signs of elevated nitrate levels to take the proper action needed to fix the situation. It is much easier to maintain the tank regularly over time than to deal with nitrate poisoning in your fish.
If you find yourself in a situation where your fish has nitrate poisoning, you will need to reduce the amount of nitrate in the tank slowly. The first step is to not feed the fish. Given that he will most likely not eat, that leftover food will contribute to the rising nitrate levels.
Your fish can only tolerate 5% water changes every couple of hours. So performing these small water changes and measuring the nitrate levels before and after every change will give you a good idea about how many water changes need to be done to get the levels back to normal. If the nitrate levels are still high the next day, repeat the process. Given that there is a small time frame from when the fish are exposed to high nitrate levels and death, noticing the symptoms early will improve the chances of your fish surviving.