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A Look at Ammonia

It's not uncommon for reef keepers to either fixate on, or ignore ammonia levels.  When in reality, it's just another parameter which provides information about the state of our reef tanks.  We'll look at the different types of ammonia, their toxicity levels, and how to interpret a positive test result.

 

Types of Ammonia

  • Ammonia1.jpgNH3 represents free ammonia, which is toxic in higher concentrations
  • NH3-N represents the nitrogen content of NH3 without the hydrogen component
  • NH4 represents ammonium, which within normal ranges, is harmless to marine life
  • NH4-N represents the nitrogen content of ammonium, without hydrogen
  • Total ammonia (a.k.a. TAN, or total ammonia nitrogen) is the sum of NH3 and NH4

 

The concentration of NH3 is greatly dependent on the potential of hydrogen (pH).  Chemical reactions will quickly convert free ammonia to ammonium, and vice versa based on pH.  The lower the pH, the less NH3 will be in the water.  The following graph shows the percentage of NH3 to NH4 at different pH levels:

 

Figure 1: Percentage of Ammonia in Seawater[1]

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Note:  Here are a couple of calculators which (by entering your water's: salinity, pH, and temperature) can either compute total ammonia from NH3, or NH3 from total ammonia.

 

Toxicity Levels of Ammonia

Reef tank parameter tables often recommend keeping ammonia levels undetectable, or they might mention "typical" ocean values of less than 0.1 ppm.  Plus, we've probably all read that free ammonia (NH3) is toxic to marine life, which I feel has led to some confusion about ammonia levels in our reef tanks.  It's not the presence of NH3 which is a problem, but the concentration which determines toxicity.  Our livestock is typically much less affected by low (but still measurable) levels of ammonia than many of us realize.  So what level of NH3 is considered safe?

 

Both the Seachem Ammonia Alert badge and the Seneye Reef monitor categorize NH3 toxicity levels as follows:[2]

spacer.png

  • Safe: up to 0.02 ppm (or up to 0.25 ppm of total ammonia)
  • Alert: up to 0.05 ppm (or up to 0.63 ppm of total ammonia)
  • Alarm: up to 0.20 ppm (or up to 2.53 ppm of total ammonia)
  • Toxic: up to 0.50 ppm (or up to 6.33 ppm of total ammonia)

Note: The above total ammonia levels were rounded to the nearest hundredth, and computed assuming 1.026 sg, 8.2 pH, and 80° F.

 

Scientific papers often refer to lethal concentrations which kill a specified percentage of organisms within a stated number of hours.  So "96 h LC50" describes a level of lethal concentration which kills 50% of the organisms within 96 hours.

 

It's been reported that marine fish experience 96 h LC50 levels that range from 0.11 to 4.07 ppm of NH3 (or 1.39 to 51.50 ppm of total ammonia at: 1.026 sg, 8.2 pH, and 80° F).[3]  Note that this is a very broad range of ammonia levels, and that ammonia sensitivity varies by species of fish.  Plus, this is a very high rate of mortality within a short period of time; although even sub-lethal levels of ammonia can potentially cause problems.[1]

 

Fish excrete a good portion of ammonia from their bodies through their gills, via diffusion (whereby the higher level of ammonia is diffused into the lower level of your tank's water).[1]  Acute toxicity can occur when high levels of ammonia in aquarium water prevent diffusion from occurring.  While this is simplified take on the subject, it helps to illustrate the point.

 

Based on the NH3 toxicity categories above, (at a pH of 8.2 or less) I'd consider 0.25 ppm of total ammonia to be safe, with no corrective action required.  And while often well tolerated, we should typically look into the cause of total ammonia levels up to 0.5 ppm.  Our goal should really be to keep ammonia to a minimum.  Testing alerts us when something has changed, so we can decide if we just want to take note of it, or try to address it.

 

Unfortunately, I haven't found anything which tells us what levels are considered safe for inverts.  So I could only guess if corals are equally affected by NH3 or not.  However, I speculate that they might be less affected.  But in any case, for the sake of our animals, I still feel that we should strive to keep NH3 to a minimum whenever possible.

 

Ammonia Testing

While ammonia is an important parameter, after the cycle is fully established, most reef keepers rarely test for it because spot checks almost always confirm that ammonia is within a safe range.  However, you might decide to check the level after observing visual signs of distress, experiencing a significant death in your tank, or following a particularly disruptive maintenance procedure or tank transfer.

 

There are a number of ammonia test kits on the market (like API, Red Sea, Salifert, and others); all of which can be used to test for ammonia.  API is probably the most widely used ammonia test kit.  It's affordable, easy to use, and can effectively detect low levels of total ammonia before they become a danger to our livestock.  As someone who has used API's ammonia test kits for nearly two decades, I feel that it's gotten a bad rap for detecting safe levels of ammonia when there are no visible signs of livestock distress.  I actually feel that it's good when a test kit can detect these elevated, but safe, levels of total ammonia.

 

Seachem uses a rather unique color changing disc to monitor NH3.  It comes in two options: the convenient Ammonia Alert badge (shown in the pic above) which continuously monitors NH3 in your tank for up to a year, and their MultiTest Ammonia kit which uses these same discs to report NH3 (but can also test for total ammonia).

 

Finally, There are testers which use sensors to interpret the results (like Hanna and Seneye).  While they tend to be more expensive, a digital display might be helpful for people who have problems distinguishing colors, or shades of colors.

 

Notes:  The use of Seachem Prime can affect the color of Nessler and salicylate based kits (respectively, either changing the color of the result, or showing an inflated level of ammonia).[4]  In addition, people have questioned the claims that dechlorinators such as Seachem Prime can actually detoxify ammonia; apparently, these products have little to no effect on NH3 (or the ratio of NH3 to NH4).

 

Sources of Ammonia

Dead organic matter, which is broken down by heterotrophic bacteria, will result in the production of ammonia.  So a substantial death or deaths can cause elevated ammonia levels.  Likewise, uneaten food which is broken down by bacteria is a source of ammonia.  And when fish consume food (a nitrogen source), they excrete the excess nitrogen through their gills in the form of ammonia.[1]  While we don't want to underfeed our animals, we should realize that overfeeding not only increases the ammonia production in your tank, but it adds to the organic material and inorganic nutrients in the water.
 

A lesser known source of ammonia is from our salt mixes.  Ammonia is a common contaminate in magnesium chloride and calcium chloride.  This contamination can vary by the brand (and batch) of salt.  I've seen freshly mixed saltwater test as high as 0.25 ppm of total ammonia.  While this might sound like a lot, your tank's biofilter should typically be able to process the ammonia fairly quickly.

 

Resources

  1. https://www.reefkeeping.com/issues/2007-02/rhf/index.php
  2. https://answers.seneye.com/en/water_chemistry/what_is_ammonia_NH3_NH4/what_ammonia_level_is_safe
  3. Ammonia in estuaries and effects on fish. Eddy, F.B. Environmental and Applied Biology, University of Dundee, Dundee, UK. Journal of Fish Biology (2005), 67(6), 1495-1513.
  4. https://www.seachem.com/prime.php

 

Also check out:  A Guide to Cycling.

 

  • Like 9
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  • seabass changed the title to A Look at Ammonia
3 hours ago, seabass said:

A quick shout-out to @mcarroll for being a helpful sounding board for this post.  I appreciate all of Matt's time and the insight that he provided.

He’s the first person I thought of when I started reading. 
 

Good write up. 😊

  • Like 1
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I think this is a super-worthy topic....partly because it's so relevant for everyone here; partly because it's a topic that's usually filled with plenty of myth and confusion.

 

IMO, ammonia is also hard to write about since it has so many important aspects of relevancy.  

 

I've actually tried to do a writeup on the topic a few times and it always ends up as a wall of unreadable text so I don't post it....there's just too much that needs to be said!  LOL.  I have a thick-*** book that's about nothing but nitrogen excretion in fish, for example.  It's some heavy reading, but doesn't even touch on how ammonia is processed in the microbial environment, or how corals or plants might use it, etc.  It's literally a big topic!)

 

So this post is really great, IMO.  I hope it gets zillions of reads and causes even more questions and answers to come up.  😊

  • Like 4
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On 10/12/2022 at 11:07 AM, seabass said:

Types of Ammonia

  • Ammonia1.jpgNH3 represents free ammonia, which is toxic in higher concentrations
  • NH3-N represents the nitrogen content of NH3 without the hydrogen component
  • NH4 represents ammonium, which within normal ranges, is harmless to marine life
  • NH4-N represents the nitrogen content of ammonium, without hydrogen
  • Total ammonia (a.k.a. TAN, or total ammonia nitrogen) is the sum of NH3 and NH4

I know I will be referring here often for this info alone....I get these twisted in my head as to which is which fairly often!

  • Like 2
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Thank you very much for the contribution. It seems to me a very interesting topic, along with what I have also read that certain organisms have an easier time using nitrogen from NH3/NH4 as a food source than nitrogen from NO3.

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