How to get rid of Ammonia in a Fish Tank (9 Ways)

If you are an aquarist, you already know how harmful ammonia poisoning can be. Ammonia poisoning in a fish tank is always bad news. Ammonia levels rise when the waste from the fish tank is not filtered well or is allowed to build up. If it shoots up, your fish are likely to develop infections or bacterial diseases, which will prove fatal to them.

Most hobbyists never catch ammonia rise in the tanks and fail to curb it in time. The sign of a good fishkeeper is to be vigilant and check your water regularly for ammonia spikes and if you notice the levels amiss, then take immediate steps to lower them.

Let us understand why ammonia levels increase, what signs warn you that something is wrong and how you can reduce ammonia levels in your fish tanks and keep your fish healthy.

What causes ammonia in the fish tank?

How to get rid of Ammonia in a Fish Tank

The reasons for ammonia accumulation in the fish tank could be any one of these:

Waste Residue

Apart from the fish, a fish tank also contains a lot of plants, uneaten food particles, or sometimes even fish that are dead. If you see any waste, you can use fishnets, a vacuum, or siphons to get rid of the trash. 

These issues should not occur very often if you clean your tank from time to time. But, if you ignore or put off cleaning it, this waste gets accumulated, seeps into the substrate and between crevices of the decoration in the tank. 

Over time, dead plants or fish will release more ammonia in your tank, increasing the levels and putting healthy fish at risk.

Filtering Issues

Investing in a good filter if you are a fish keeper is essential. Filters are the only way you can regularly clean your tank and maintain good water quality. Most aquarium filters allow you to filter out harmful pathogens and only keep essential bacteria important for growth. 

If you spot that the filtered water is not flowing smoothly, or is not being flushed, immediately do a thorough filter cleaning. If you find issues with your filter, then add another filter to do the job better. Having more filters will increase the chances of a good filtration of toxins.

Overcrowded tanks

Overstocking fish in a tank is one of the main reasons for ammonia spikes. Having more fish means that more waste is produced and that causes an increase in ammonia levels. The best solution is to move some fish to a different tank or invest in a bigger tank. 

Take a look at this guide to identify some small fish tanks and decide what fits your needs best.

Lack of Good Bacteria

Good bacteria are beneficial for keeping your fish healthy. These bacteria work to ensure water quality by absorbing ammonia. If you face regular hikes in ammonia, then that means your tank lacks enough beneficial bacteria.

There are many things you can do to ensure that the beneficial bacteria increase in your tank.

  1. Try adding another filter to your tank to expand the bacteria. Aquarium filters provide a safe hub for these bacteria to grow.
  2. If this method does not work, then you can try adding some gravel. Adding gravel will provide a breeding ground for the bacteria. If your tank does not have any substrate, then consider starting here.
  3. Planting your tank is another great option that will help in the growth of beneficial bacteria. Plants will provide the necessary strength they need to survive. Having plants in your tank will also reduce ammonia levels as the plants will absorb all of it and use it as fertilizer for growing. Heavily planted tanks often have the least amount of ammonia.

Unbalanced pH levels

In a fish tank, the pH of the water plays an important role. A slight disturbance in the pH can prove deadly for the fish. If you do not monitor your pH levels constantly, you will risk your fish and increase ammonia levels in the tank. 

One of the reasons for a higher pH value could be if you have a coral substrate in the tank. This substrate increases calcium levels, thereby elevating the pH.

Make sure to check pH levels using a water testing kit regularly. 

To correct pH using an easy method that involves vinegar, take a look at this article.

Cycling Aquariums

No matter what level you have reached in your fish-keeping hobby, you need to cycle your tank before putting any fish into it. Regularly cycling your tank maintains hygiene and creates a healthy environment for fish and beneficial bacteria. After placing the fish in, your tank will be ready to handle the ammonia the fish will produce.

What are the signs of ammonia in the fish tank?

Fatigue or Lethargy Among The Fish

Fish usually does not exhibit lethargic behavior until something is wrong. Fish swim around the bottom of the middle if they are sleeping, so don’t mistake sleep for lethargy as fish do not have eyelids. You can tell that they are lethargic if they move around slower than usual or do not actively participate with other tank mates. Lethargy comes from underlying diseases or ammonia poisoning. Make sure you isolate the fish and observe its behavior well.

Fish Stops Eating

A loss of appetite is a telling sign that your fish might be suffering from high levels of ammonia in the tank and is sick. Take immediate measures to check the water conditions using a water testing kit.

Gill or Fin Inflammation

If the gills of your fish appear inflamed or swollen that means the ammonia level in your tank is high. This is also the case with fins. If you notice swollen fins, or in some cases, red streaks on the fish, then this indicates an ammonia overflow.

Inflamed Eyes or Anus

Apart from inflamed gills and fins, high ammonia also causes the eyes and the anus of the fish to swell. 

Fish Gasping at The Surface

Some fish live around the water surface and occasionally pop their heads out. But, if you notice your fish doing so constantly or your bottom-dwellers also come up to the surface, this is a sure sign of ammonia poisoning.

Another reason could also be a lack of oxygen in the water. You can start using air pumps to increase the oxygen flow or perform a significant water change to solve this problem. If the problem persists, use a kit and check your ammonia levels to ensure the cause.

Ammonia Reducing Products

Here is a list of some products that will come in handy to reduce ammonia levels from your tank.

Seachem Prime Fresh and Saltwater Conditioner – Chemical Remover and Detoxifier

Seachem Prime Fresh and Saltwater Conditioner

This ‘water conditioner’ is one of the best and the most popular out there. The best part about this agent is not only doing it dechlorinate your tap water so you can make partial water changes, but it also converts ammonia into harmless solubles! It turns the heavy metals in the aquarium and neutralizes them while keeping your fish tank ammonia-free. 

Once the ammonia gets converted, then it can easily be filtered out by the filter. The Seachem prime conditioner is excellent if you are cycling a new tank.

There is no expiry date on this product as it is quite concentrated and guaranteed to last for a very long time. The instructions to use it are provided below for a user-friendly experience.

API Freshwater Master Test Kit

API Freshwater Master Test Kit

This testing kit is an all-in-one kit that you can use to measure different water parameters, including ammonia levels, to keep your fish healthy.

It will measure the pH range, high pH levels, ammonia levels, nitrites, and nitrates in the tank. Even though testing the water through this kit is a little more time-consuming, you can perform around 750 to 800 tests with it. Even if you test once a week (an ideal amount), it will still last you for years.

This kit also comes with detailed instructions so even new hobbyists can easily follow it.

Python No Spill Clean and Fill Aquarium Maintenance System

Python No Spill Clean and Fill Aquarium Maintenance System

This is a great product, though it is a little expensive. It is a two-in-one cleaner that will help you to keep your substrate clean, thereby reducing ammonia spikes. This will prove to be a life-saver for you, especially if your tank is large.

Not only can this vacuum your substrate and remove debris, but it can also fill the tank with clean water. It comes with a long hose for easy handling and uses.

Ways of Getting Rid of Ammonia From a Fish Tank

1. Cycle The Tank

Cycling a new tank is a prerequisite in fishkeeping. If you remember to cycle your tank from time to time, you will avoid 80% of all the problems related to your fish. Cycling the aquarium regularly also increases the growth of beneficial bacteria. Check this guide to know more about how to set up a new tank or lightning-related questions.

2. Perform Partial Water Change

Partial water changes help keep the tank clean and maintain a healthy environment for the fish to thrive. A partial water change means changing 30 to 50 % of the total tank water. The new water will not have any ammonia concentrates in it, so it will help to lower the ammonia levels.

To ensure that you don’t harm the ecosystem of the fish while performing partial water changes, follow these rules:

  1. Take a clean bucket, which has not been treated with any soap or chemicals. Pour normal tap water into it.
  2. You will need to dechlorinate the tap water next. To dechlorinate it, you can either let it stay overnight or pour a dechlorinating agent into the water. One of the best options available in the market is the Seachem Prime Fresh and Saltwater Conditioner - Chemical Remover and Detoxifier.
  3. Once the dechlorination is done, you can switch off the light and the filter of the tank. Carefully remove 30 to 50% of the water using a hose or a siphon. Using a siphon is better and easier. Once you have removed the required quantity, add the dechlorinated water to the tank.

3. Check The Filtration System

To improve your filtration system, there are a couple of things you can do, such as

Use a filter in the tank

Using a tank filter is the surest way of keeping your water clean and filtering waste. Not only does it clear the water, but it also acts as a breeding ground for any beneficial bacteria to grow. Even if your tank is small in size, a filter is mandatory for the good health of the fish. In small 10 or 20 gallon tanks where you do not have much space for filters, consider using a hang-on-the-back filter and do not forgo a filter.

Extra filters

Using extra filters is always an option if you feel that your current filter is not doing well. Adding extra filters works best in large tanks as the surface area is big, and one filter might not be able to perform well.

Unclogging the filter

Sometimes, filters cannot perform to their full extent because of dirt or debris. If you see that the water flow from the filter is not smooth, it means something is clogging it up. The best option is to unclog the filter, but there are some things to keep in mind while doing so. Cleaning the filter with regular tap water will prove harmful to the beneficial bacteria in the tank. To avoid killing these off, use some of the aquarium’s own water to clean the filter and put it back.

Getting rid of impurities

Impurities such as uneaten food, fish waste, or even plant debris can create ammonia spikes in the tank. To remove these impurities from the tank, use a fishnet to catch them.

Clean the substrate

Vacuuming or cleaning the substrate will take care of a lot of trapped debris for you. Substrate or gravel often catches this debris and lets it rot in the water. Rinsing your substrate will keep your tank clean.

Lowering the pH of the tank

Ammonia builds up if your pH is too high. To reduce your pH, you can do partial water changes. You can also use driftwood in the tank to lower pH levels. There are special driftwood pieces that act as pH lowering agents and are not harmful to the fish. You can also put some almond leaves in the water. Almonds, like driftwood, will release tannic acid and reduce the pH of the water.

4. Improve Aeration In The Tank

Tetra Whisper Air Pump

Ammonia levels can go up if your tank is not aerated well. Improving air circulation in the tank can help you to dissolve the ammonia gas in the water. To increase the airflow in the water, the best thing you can do is invest in an air pump. A good air pump option is the Tetra Whisper Air Pump that can be useful for tanks of all sizes. Besides the air pump, you can also get a hang-on-the-back filter to increase airflow. One more method is to use a spray bar to maintain aeration in the tank.

Also, remember not to put the lid on the tank while you are aerating it.

5. Plant the Tank with Live Plants

They are a good combatant against ammonia. Live plants will need nutrients, both macronutrients, and micronutrients, to survive in the tank. These nutrients are available in the tank in the form of leftover, uneaten food and fish waste. The plants will absorb these and convert them into fertilizer to grow. This action will prohibit ammonia levels from going up as the plants will take care of it on time. These live plants will also produce oxygen for the fish. 

This makes live plants a beneficial solution to curb ammonia. Plants will also be useful for the growth of beneficial bacteria, as we will see shortly.

Some hardy, low-maintenance live plants that you can use in the tank are Java Moss, Java Fern, Anubias, etc.

6. Add The Beneficial Bacteria

As mentioned earlier, the lack of beneficial bacteria lets the ammonia levels rise. Like the live plants, the beneficial bacteria will profit from checking ammonia levels. Low beneficial bacteria are common in new tanks as they haven’t had a chance to grow yet.

Increasing this bacteria will go a long way in reducing your burden of keeping ammonia low. There are some ways in which you can help the growth of these bacteria.

You can use a thick layering of gravel to give a place for the bacteria to colonize. If you have another older aquarium, take some gravel and put it in the new one to hasten the process. The old gravel will already have some bacteria living in it.

Additionally, plant your tanks to give the bacteria space to grow in. You can use something like a ‘filter pad’ of an older tank, with the casing of the filter in the tank, and use it in your new one. There is a high chance that the filter pad will be teeming with these beneficial bacteria.

7. Save The Beneficial Bacteria

Once you have these beneficial bacteria, it is important to prevent them from dying out. If you notice ammonia spikes starting up again, despite adding beneficial bacteria to the tank, then it is because you might have removed them.

Some hubs where beneficial bacteria live are the filter, the gravel, and deep within the substrate. To prevent bacteria from dying, do not clean your tank filter or the substrate with tap water. Always use the aquarium water itself to clean.

8. Add Neutralizing Drops to The Water

Neutralizing drops are a quick method to curb ammonia. These drops, available in stores, will not remove the ammonia but neutralize it or stabilize it. It will make ammonia harmless for the time being. After adding the neutralizing drops, make sure that you perform a good water change.

9. Upgrade Your Tank

Having a large number of fish in a tiny tank is neither good for the fish’s health nor for keeping the ammonia levels in check. A lot of fish will produce a lot of waste. The waste, in turn, will create massive levels of ammonia in your tank, and your fish will fall sick. The simplest solution to getting rid of ammonia in the tank is to separate your fish into two small tanks. You can also invest in a bigger tank that can house them and has a more extensive, better filtration system.

If your tank is significant, the ammonia levels will not pile up if you perform partial water changes and take care of the water pH.

How do you prevent ammonia in your aquarium?

There is no way to prevent ammonia from your tank completely. The only thing you can do is make sure that the levels do not build up, notice the early signs of ammonia spikes, and take preventive measures. Yet, there is no known cure for ammonia poisoning, so the only option keeps the levels from rising.

Wrapping Up

Ammonia in a fish tank is a bad sign, and you will do well to detect it at the beginning before it’s too late. The only foolproof solution to high ammonia levels is to keep performing regular water changes and checking from time to time.

The more fish you add to your tank, the more you will need to be careful. Use the solutions mentioned above to keep your fish happy, healthy, and at no risk of ammonia spikes.

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