Understanding Proper Water Conditions and the Nitrogen Cycle

Unlike cats or dogs, fish are hard to take care of in that their entire world depends on the quality of their water. Different chemicals naturally build in water and depending on the water and its source, different toxins can be present. Betta fish, like many fish, are considered hardy and able to thrive in nearly any condition. This is a false sentiment because thriving is not the same thing as surviving and poor conditions are severely cut the lifespan of a betta.

The first thing to understand are the different chemicals to look out for, some of which are more important to be concerned with in regards to different tank sizes. It is important to have a water test kit that can test for these chemicals–it can save a betta’s life!

An aquarium being vacuumed with a siphon for a water change. Photo by backtotropical via photobucket.com

An aquarium being vacuumed with a siphon for a water change. Photo by backtotropical via photobucket.com

The first and easiest way to remove these problems is for tanks that are 5 gallons or more, which can establish a cycle. A water cycle is the control of chemicals and bacteria in the water through the use of a filter, making water changes easier. The following contains basic information only.

Ammonia (NH3)

This chemical is the most common cause of betta death. Ammonia develops from natural waste, the build up of not eaten food, and from the excretion from gills; in the same way humans breath out Co2, Betta fish breath out ammonia. Ammonia poisoning comes in many forms including red/purple gills, lethargy, and red stripes appearing across the body, among symptoms.

Ammonia can be removed from the water in several ways. First is through a water cycle. If the tank in question is under 5 gallons or establishing a cycle is not a possibility, then the second way to remove ammonia is through water changes. Changing the water is the quickest, most effect, way to rid a tank of most problems.

NitRITE (NO2-)

Nitrite is a chemical excretion of good bacteria that eat ammonia. These bacteria do not have time to appear in a non-cycled tank, so those who cycle must pay careful attention to this chemical. Nitrite can harshly poison a betta, with some symptoms including rapid gill movement and extreme lethargy. It can also cause “Brown Blood Disease,” which is the impairment of a betta’s ability to carry oxygen and circulate blood, causing gills to appear brown. This can lead to the suffocation of the fish.

The only way to get rid of nitrite is do water changes. Some live plants can help decrease nitrites in the water but water changes are still required.

NitRATE (CO3-)

Nitrate is a chemical excreted by nitrite-eating bacteria. Although this chemical cannot harm a betta as much as nitrite or ammonia, it can still poison the fish and kill it. Nitrate poisoning includes spastic swimming, bent spine, curling of the body, and twitching.

Nitrate also can only be removed through water changes.

A liquid water test kit, essential for monitoring water conditions. Photo by Petco

The Dangers of Hard Water

In addition to toxic chemicals, water hardiness can harm Betta fish as well. Hard water is water that contains high and/or concentrated amounts of minerals. Betta fish can tolerate a water hardness of 5-20 dH or 70-300 GH ppm, preferably with conditions in mid-range. Water hardness is not a usual problem in most areas. Some places like Las Vegas, Nevada have very hard water that is not good for any animals, let alone fish. This is not typical as most water systems contain water softeners, making water safer for consumption.

Because most places have water softeners in the system, it is often not necessary to worry about this but if there is a need to lower the water hardness, there are products that pet stores and fish stores sell to lower the hardiness. It is important not to just place these conditioner into the water but to carefully read the instructions on how to mix them in.

Chlorine

There is always some level of chlorine in water supplies in order to kill harmful bacteria that would otherwise be present in it. However, chlorine is very deadly to a Betta fish and any level above 0.5 ppm will result in death. Water conditioner is needed as a result.

The types of water conditioners vary and treat different things. Thus, it is important not to purchase just any water conditioner at a store. Sometimes the cheapest product will not remove every harmful element in the water, for chlorine is not the only purpose of conditioning treatment. The Seachem Prime conditioner brand, for example, is one of the best brands of water conditioners for that it covers nearly everything that can make water toxic for fish. API Stress Coat, Aqua+Plus, and other conditioners are often recommended as well but do not detoxify ammonia like Seachem Prime does. It is important to read labels before purchase in order to ensure that what needs to be removed from the water will be.

pH

Water pH is not hard to maintain. pH is the balance of acidic or base content in water. It is not good to be too high in acid or base, so test kits are essential for maintaining proper water for Betta fish. The range of pH measures from 1-14, with 1 being acidic, 7 being neutral, and 14 being basic. It is ideal to have a pH of 7 for a Betta fish, as a pH of 6 is ten times more acidic than a pH of 7.

Betta fish can survive in a pH range of 6-8 but it is important to try and maintain a pH of 7 in order to give a more neutral condition of the water, in case of pH spikes. It is not recommended to ever chemically alter the pH of your water, however, as that can have adverse effects on the health and safety of your fish. Many Betta fish owners choose to use Indian almond leaf tannins to naturally balance the pH and other water conditions required for Betta fish.

Indian almond leaves are commonly sold for Betta fish habitats because of their beneficial tannins that help support a healthy betta living environment. Photo by The Betta Factory

Total Alkalinity or Carbonate Hard Water (KH)

This is a measurement of how well water can resist pH changes. This is a good reason not to use distilled water for it has a total alkalinity of KH, which means that any change to the acidic or basic content in the water will be easily  increased of decreased. This can stress the fish and sometimes kill it in extreme situations.

Tap water has a total alkalinity buffer added to it already, making it ideal for tank water. There are some products on the market that can help increase alkalinity, if need be.

Chloramine

This is a combination of chlorine and ammonia. Chloramine tend to be unstable and can evaporate over time. Water sanitation plants have begun adding chloramine to water in order to kill harmful bacteria, as it does a better job than chlorine. This is a very harmful additive or a Betta fish and must be removed from the water to ensure a healthy life.

Water conditioners that remove chlorine will only remove chlorine and not chloramine, unless otherwise specified. Prime water conditioner was specifically mentioned earlier because of its coverage of this chemical as well. If only chlorine is removed from the water, then ammonia is left behind. This can cause an ammonia spike which, as stated earlier, can be deadly.

The only way to remove chloramine is through a proper conditioner.

A 500 ml bottle of Seachem Prime. Photo by Seachem

A 500 ml bottle of Seachem Prime. Photo by Seachem

Phosphates

Phosphate in addition to sunlight cause algae growth. Phosphates get into water through food or through previous presence in tap water. Water changes are the best way to remove phosphates from a tank, although there are products to remove them if they get to extremes. Additionally, some live plants remove phosphates as well.

Water Change Schedules for Best Tank Health

As can be seen, water changes are the best solution for tackling most problems. A clean source of water is an assurance of better betta health. However, water changes are dependent on tank size. This next section is a basic guide to the most popular tank sizes used for Betta fish. Bigger is always better and means less changes, especially if cycled.

1 gallon: Do a 100% water change every other day. This sized tank cannot establish a water cycle as it is too small.

2 gallons: 50% water changes 2-3 times a week and one 100% water change weekly. Another tank size too small for cycling, it is important to maintain regular water changes. Gravel vacuums will make cleaning easier and help maintain better water.

5 gallons: This is the first tank size that can be cycled and thus is has two different water change schedules. For cycled tanks, perform 50% water changes weekly. For non-cycled tanks perform 50% water changes twice a week and one 100% water change weekly. Non-cycled tanks are much harder to clean and it is recommended that a cycle is established for the this purpose.

10 gallons: For cycled tanks, perform 50% water changes weekly if there is only one betta inhabiting it. If it is a community tank, add another 50% water change to its schedule. For non-cycled tanks 50% water changes should be performed twice a week and a 100% water change bi-weekly.

20 gallons: Tanks this size should only be cycled. 50% water changed should occur each week.

There are many other tank sizes but these are some of the most common. For in-between sizes, adjust the schedule to your best judgement. Although these are not absolute, strict, must-have schedules, they are recommended for the best health of Betta fish.

What is cycling?

A diagram of the nitrogen cycle. Photo by PetSmart

When referring to a “cycle” aquarists are referring to the Nitrogen Cycle, which is created by a series of chemicals and bacteria that are naturally present and created in water. Cycling is not easily possible in smaller tanks and generally can only be established in tanks of 5 gallons or more, even if the small tanks are equipped with a filter. The cycle begins with ammonia, which is a toxic chemical created from fish and food waste that gets dispersed into the water the animal pumps through its gills. The cycle’s purpose is to convert ammonia into safer substances for your fish through creating good bacteria. The beneficial bacteria turns ammonia into nitrite, then nitrite into nitrate. Although these substances are still harmful to the fish, they can be tolerated for longer periods of time and cause less harm as a result.  On average, a cycle can be established between 4-8 weeks, depending on the method you choose to use.

Note: Unless an aquarium is filled with a certain eco-balance of live plants, partial water changes are still required. This article will not cover live plants. To learn more about the basics and benefits of a naturally planted aquarium, take a look on my other post on this topic.



The Fishless Cycle

This cycle is performed without the fish in the tank. This is the preferred method of cycling by many aquarists, for ammonia will not be able to harm fish while establishing the cycle. The following are needed to begin a fishless cycle: A fish tank, a filter, non-treated water, a water-test kit, and an ammonia source. The ammonia source commonly used by hobbyists is either fish food or pure ammonia, with pure ammonia being the preferred choice due to more precise accuracy and measuring abilities. Follow the steps for completing a fishless cycle:

1. Prepare a clean, empty, fish tank that has not been washed with any chemicals. Clean and add substrate if desired; substrate provides a home for the beneficial bacteria to live in and although it is not always necessary since beneficial bacteria tends to house itself within filter media, substrate can help with this process.

2. Add non-treated water to the tank. It is essential not to add conditioners to the water at this time since no fish will be present and water conditioners can alter test reading results.

3. Connect and add filter to the tank. The type of filter is not important but depends on preference. If filter media from a previously cycled tank is available, it can be added at this time in order to help jump-start the cycling process. If not available, proceed to the next step.

4. Add the ammonia source. If the source is fish food, the amount added should be noted so when replenishing the ammonia source a similar amount is used and the cycle becomes easier to monitor. If the ammonia source is pure ammonia, then use an eyedropper to measure the amount being added to the tank.

5. Allow the filter to run and preform a water test within the first week. Sometimes it is needed to replenish the ammonia source for the beneficial bacteria and so testing the water is critically important throughout the cycling process. Eventually the ammonia will be eaten into beneficial bacteria and nitrite readings will begin to show up, followed by the same process eventually resulting in nitrate readings. Once the levels are at a safe range, the cycle is complete.

The fishless cycle can vary in length of completion depending on many factors such as tank size, filter, ammonia source, live plants, and so forth. It can take from several weeks up to a two months to cycle, usually with the average one month.

The In-Fish Cycle

Sometimes aquarium hobbyists will cycle their tanks with their fish stock as the source of ammonia. This can put the fish at danger because ammonia levels will not be at a safe range and can harm their gills and general health. However, it is still do-able and fish do not always get harmed or die in the process. Like the fishless cycle, the same materials are needed to begin the cycle except this time the water will be treated and the ammonia source will be the fish itself.

Water changes must be completed on a regular basis to help reduce harmful chemical spikes and maintain balance in the water. It is important to test the water regularly during the cycling process because any spike can hurt the fish or kill it and testing the water can indicate a need for a water change. Once ammonia and nitrite levels begin to read at 0 ppm and a nitrate reading become available, the cycle is complete.

References

Bahamut285. “Water Chemistry Basics.” Water Chemistry Basics. Bettafish.com, 30 Mar. 2011. Web. 28 Sept. 2012.

F., Christine. “Water Changes.” Water Changes | Betta Fish Care. Nippy Fish, 01 Mar. 2011. Web. 28 Sept. 2012.

Nippy Fish. “Nitrogen Cycle.” Nippy Fish. Nippyfish.net, n.d. Web. 28 Sept. 2012. .

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