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Aquarium Water Quality Management

Article · August 2012


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Subhendu Datta
Central Institute of Fisheries Education


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Dr. Subhendu Datta

Sr. Scientist
Salt Lake City, Kolkata

Fish obtain their basic necessities from the water in which they live. The most
characteristic feature of any aquarium system is therefore the quality of the water it contains.
This water must be obtained from some source, pre-treated to make it suitable for the fish,
delivered to the fish in sufficient quantities and maintained in good condition. Finally, it must
be disposed of.
The water supplied to an aquarium is not pure, but contains dissolved and particulate
materials, some are necessary for the well-being of the fish and others are harmful.
Contamination may occur not only at source or form the animals, but often takes
place within the aquarium form the materials used in its construction. The volume of water
supplied to an aquarium may at first sight, seem to restrict the number of fish that can be
maintained within it. However, it is rarely the quantity of water per unit which limits the
carrying capacity. The capacity is usually set by the consumption of dissolved oxygen and
the accumulation of toxic metabolic products.

Nitrogenous waste products:

Perhaps the most pronounced and damaging changes to water quality originate with
the aquarium inhabitants themselves. In particular, water quality is impaired by the end
products of nitrogen metabolism. These include ammonia (either as the gas NH3 or
ammonium ion, NH4), urea, uric acid and other nitrogenous substances including proteins
and amino acids. Ammonia, especially, is one of the most harmful substances. Higher
percent of un-ionized NH3 prevails at higher pH and higher temperature. In ammonia
poisoning, Gill becomes red, fish become darker in colour and grasping at the surface layer.
Acute toxicity levels = 0.4 ppm NH3. Chronic toxicity levels = 0.05 ppm. This is common in
new aquarium when immediately stoked to full capacity. Ammonia can damage the gills at a
level as small as 0.25 mg/lt. For immediate removal of ammonia, use ammonia detoxifier
such as Kordon's Amquel. However, it is best left alone until the bacterial load is sufficient.
Note that the bacterial phases will not take place unless the tank is initially stocked with
feeder fish which can be removed after treatment. Test the water until the ammonia drops to
nearly zero. At this time, we should notice an increase in the nitrite level. When the nitrites
are gone, it will be safe to add fish.
The conversion of the more toxic nitrogenous compounds to less toxic compounds is
achieved through organisms residing in water treatment units such as filters. In some aquaria,
algae are also used in nitrogen recycling. The process of combating the effects of nitrogenous
waste products is facilitated by low stock density, a high water turn over, aeration or
oxygenation of the water, frequent cleaning, removal of faeces and waste food and by the
provision of special water treatment facilities.

Dissolved oxygen:
The majority of aquatic organisms need oxygen and must obtain it from the
surrounding water. The oxygenation or aeration of the water is therefore, of fundamental
importance in any aquarium, especially as the oxygen supply is one of the factors which may
ultimately limit the capacity of a particular volume of water for carrying fish.
The oxygen dissolved in water comes from two main sources: the atmosphere and
green plants. The actual content is a function of temperature, salinity and atmospheric
pressure. Low temperature, low salinity and higher atmospheric pressure favours more gas
content (thereby more oxygen) in the solution (water medium).
Aeration: Continuous aeration is very good husbandry since it mixes the water, supplies the
oxygen for the fish, removes carbon dioxide and maintains a constant temperature throughout
the tank. Many cheap air pumps are available in the hobby trade, though they are often noisy,
are of limited power and many frequently fail. If only one or two tanks are required, such
vibratory diaphragm pumps are acceptable, but a spare pump and several replacement
diaphragms should be stocked. The pump should be mounted above the tank level or the air-
line fitted with non-return valve to prevent back-siphoning when the pump is stopped or fails.
A loop in the air-line 8 cm (3 inch) vertically above the tank’s water level will also prevent
back-siphoning by absorbing the oscillations when the airflows stops. The air tubes from the
pump are connected to air stones for providing minute air bubbles that diffuses the oxygen in
water. Besides that it is also connected to various types of toys and also for airlift pumping
under for under gravel filtration. For diffusion of more oxygen in water a micro pore air
stone gets priority during selection of air stones.

Water Temperature:
Temperature is perhaps the most potent of all the environmental factors controlling
and governing the metabolism of animals. Water has a high thermal capacity compared to
air; that is, it can absorb a large amount of heat energy for a small rise in temperature. It,
therefore, provides a thermally stable environment.
In aquarium, fish are largely denied the use of any behavioural regulation, and the
aquarium design and management must compensate for this loss. Sudden change of
temperature in the aquarium should be avoided. Such as thermal shocks are most likely to
occur when fish are transferred from tank to tank or when they first arrive in the aquarium
complex. A simple rule is to float transfer containers plus fish in their new tanks until the
temperature has equilibrated or alternatively to slowly mix the water in the container with
that in the tank over half an hour or more. Increases in temperatures have the most distressing
effect since respiration rate and excitability increase while the oxygen-carrying capacity of
the water decreases. Such temperature increase in established tanks may result from
refrigeration breakdown or thermostat malfunction. The damage cause by faulty thermostat
in a heated system can be minimized by employing the minimum wattage heaters required
for the temperature control or by including a high temperature cutout in the circuit. This
could simply be a second thermostat in series with the first, but set to a slightly higher
temperature so that it is on all the time during normal operations. Such a thermostat should,
however, be serviced regularly to ensure it does not stick on.
During winter months necessary heating arrangements may be made for tropical
aquarium fish. A water heater of 5-6 watts capacity is required per gallon of water. Heating
equipment of the aquarium is basically an electric heating coil complete with thermostat to
control it both contained in glass tube. This submerged in the aquarium, connected to the
electricity supply and the built-in neon indicator. A thermometer is always kept in side the
aquarium to monitor the temperature. It is placed at the front where it can be easily seen. It is
best arranged heater and thermostat at opposite corners of the tank to get correct temperature
readings of the aquarium water.

Sound and Vibration:

It is often forgotten that many fishes are acutely sensitive to sound and other
mechanical disturbances of the water. Though the hearing of most species is restricted to low
frequencies (below 3 kHz for nearly all fish, and below 1 kHz for most), at these low
frequency and amplitude many species produce sounds especially during courtship.
The aquarium is often a very noisy place, with underwater noise levels in aquarium
tanks often very much higher than those in the sea or in freshwater. Much of the noise comes
from the machinery; pumps and compressors associated with the aquarium, and
characteristically contain strong single frequencies in its spectrum. Human footfalls, doors
opening and closing etc. can also be troublesome, and their strongly impulsive nature may
evoke startling response from the aquarium inhabitants. Vibration is transmitted to the water
mainly through the floor and tank supports but also through the water pipes. Therefore,
machinery; pumps and compressors, which are producing unnatural sound, must be replaced
at the earliest.

Routine cleaning:
Routine partial changes of the water are most important. The changes are necessary to
dilute the build-up of soluble materials (due to accumulation of fecal and unfed materials).
The ideal is to replace 20% of the tank volume weekly. Evaporation losses should be
replaced by suitable water (artificially prepared or natural). The cleaning can be done by
hand; the hands should be washed with shop, after the job and not before because of the
danger of introducing soap into the water. Use scraper for algae on glasses. The toys, air
stones and other equipments, which have the algae and other sediment attachment, should
also be cleaned. Plants should be trimmed and decaying leaves should be removed regularly
at the time of water exchange.

Some important aspects of water quality:

Aquarium should be filled with clear portable water. The quality requirement of water
in the aquarium depends on the types of the fishes being kept there. The tap water is probably
the safest source of aquarium water for majority of tropical fish and plants (see below the
requirement for breeding). But it contains chlorine, which is toxic to fish even at low
concentration. To remove the chlorine naturally, it is better to allow maturing the water for
few days or aerating overnight before its addition. During emergency conditions
dechlorination can be done with the commercially available chemical (sodium thiosulphate)
purchased from the pet shop.
The degrees of hardness have several biological effects upon aquatic life.
Bicarbonates tend to prevent a solution from changing in acidity. Soft water, lacking this
protection, may become particularly acidic when much carbon dioxide is present; such a
change creates stress for organisms. For soft water species excessive hardness causes an
organism problem in absorbing substances through its delicate membranes. This is most true
of the sensitive naked cells of eggs and milt, so that soft water has been found to play a vital
role in the successful reproduction of many species of freshwater fishes. Thus, at least for the
purposes such as fish breeding, a soft solution is desirable. Water hardness typically follows
the following guideline:
Hardness scale Water hardness level Hardness level
(as CaCO3)
0-4 dH 0-70 ppm Very soft
4-8dH 70-140 ppm Soft
8-12 dH 140-210 ppm Medium hard
12-18 dH 210-320 ppm Fairly hard
18-30 dH 320-530 ppm Hard
50-200 ppm Desirable hardness

To maintain soft water, all sources of calcium carbonate such as calcareous rocks, gravels,
coral, broken shell and algae must be kept out of the aquarium system whilst using only soft
water initially and during exchange. Conversely, presence of such sources will preserve the
water hardness. Some of the important water quality parameters and their optimum ranges for
maintaining the fish in aquarium are presented in the table below:
Temperature 17-380C
pH 7.0-8.5
CO2 < 5 ppm
Alkalinity 75-120 ppm as Ca CO3
Hardness 60-100 ppm as Ca CO3
Dissolved oxygen 6.0-8.0 ppm
Free ammonia <0.05 ppm
Ionised ammonia <0.1-0.4 ppm

Parameters Ideal for breeding

SL. Name of the fish Water Temperature pH Water hardness

No. (oC) (mg/L CaCO3)
Egg layers
1. Gold fish (winter 18 - 20 7-7.5 90-200
2. Koi carp (winter 20 - 22 7- 7.5 70 - 200
3. Angel (summer 22 – 32 (breeding) 6.3 – 8.5 70 - 200
breeder) 28 – 30 (larval
4. Gourami (summer 24 - 30 6.0 – 7.0 60 - 100
Live bearers
5. Sowrd tail (-do-) 28-30 6.5 – 7.5 80 - 250
6. Platy (-do-) 28-30 6.5 – 7.5 80 - 250
7. Guppy (-do-) 28-30 6.5 – 7.5 80 - 250
8. Molly (-do-) 28-30 6.5 – 7.5 80 - 250

For culture in Pond

Parameters Range
Temperature 18 - 37°C
pH 6.5 - 7.5
Ammonia 0.0
Nitrite 0.0
Nitrate < 50 ppm
(Carbonate 70 - 150 ppm
70 - 200 ppm

There are three basic types of aquarium filtration system.

Biological Filtration

Biological filtration is the term used to describe beneficial

bacteria, which is established during the initial cycling of
the aquarium. These bacteria break down ammonia and
nitrite and convert them into the less toxic compound
nitrate. It is widely acknowledged throughout the aquatic
community that these bacteria require a surface to attach
and oxygen rich water.
Biological filtration is essential and needs to be
adequately established in every aquarium.
It is recommended to medicate fish in a separate
tank (hospital tank) when using antibiotics (anti bacteria), as extensive use of these
medications will kill the bacteria.
Live rock and sand are by all means biological filtration as well. In theory you could
maintain an aquarium with these alone, however the tanks fish population would be restricted
to small numbers. Always keep in mind, that biological filtration requires oxygen. An
inadequate or interrupted supply will result in the failing of your biological filtration system
Saltwater tanks can be successfully maintained using only a protein skimmer and
biological filtration.

Chemical Filtration

Chemical filtration removes dissolved wastes. The most common type of chemical filtration
is activated carbon. Others, such as Algone absorb ammonia, silicate, phosphates and so on.

Carbon has established itself as “a must have” in the aquarium. Still, be aware that
some carbons leach phosphates. Another media for chemical filtration consists of zeolite,
which will delay or disrupt biological filtration, especially during the cycle.

Mechanical Filtration

Mechanical aquarium filtration removes solid particles from the water via the aquarium filter.
It does not remove or convert ammonia, nitrite or nitrate.
This filter type actually provides a means to remove free-floating waste before it
decays. Mechanical filtration will only be beneficial if the filter material is replaced every 2-
4 weeks because the waste will still decay while trapped in the filter material. To save money
on replacements, you can also rinse the filters in use or use an alternative filter such as filter
floss, which costs only a fraction of replacement cartridges.
Common types of filter media are paper cartridges, sponges, and floss. Mechanical
filtration will be ineffective on matter that settled in the gravel. Use a siphon to remove these
particles. Kill two birds with one stone – siphon during water changes!
Be aware, that beneficial bacteria will settle on the filter media. Take this under
consideration, and replace part of the media at a time if it’s possible. Sponges will clog
quickly and paper even faster.
Filter floss is very efficient due to small and large openings, which will not clog as
easily. Another benefit of floss is that you can easily do a partial change, reducing the
amount of bacterial settlements that are removed.

Corner Filter

Water is forced through it. On the inside you would find filter floss or other
media. It is mainly a physical/mechanical filter. Beneficial bacteria settle on
the medium and provided biological filtration. This very inexpensive filter
is an excellent way to set up a hospital tank. Buy one for pennies on the
dollar and use some gravel from your established tank. You will
immediately have a working biological and mechanical filter for your
hospital tank.

Canister Filter
Basically an enhanced corner filter. A closed box where water is forced through
filtration media (mechanical and/or chemical). It can be placed inside the
aquarium, or outside (underneath the aquarium or as hang on type). The canister
filter has the most powerful mechanical filtration system, and can be used with
messy eaters. The down side is that it requires frequent cleaning. Bacteria will
also settle in this filter type. Biological filtration can be improved, by placing
wet dry wheels at the outflow of the canister filter.

Fluidized Bed Filter

This filter is a recent development, using sand as a bacteria settlement media. In a
tubular design, sand is fully submerged in water. The water is pumped upwards
through the sand, allowing bacteria to settle within. Additional tubes can be used as
pre-filters (mechanical) and also for chemical filters using activated carbon. This filter
provides a large surface for bacteria colonies, but sometimes lacks in providing enough
oxygen for their performance.

Power Filter
The very easy to maintain power filter hangs on the back of the aquarium (easy
access). Water is pulled through a mechanical filtration, using floss and insert
cartridges. They also provide enough space for chemical filtration media. Within the
last few years a wet dry wheel (biowheel) was developed, to provide an even larger
area for bacteria to settle. Wash it once in a week. Cost: Rs. 400-1000/-

Protein Skimmer
The protein skimmer is a chemical filtration method. It takes out dissolved
biological waste before it can decompose. This is achieved by a tubular design with
air bubbles inside. The waste is attracted to the surface of air bubbles, which then
rises to the water surface. There, a skimmer removes the biological waste. This
filtration type has revolutionized reef tanks. It only works with high pH and salinity.
This filter is for salt-water use only.

Sponge Filter
A sponge filter looks like a tube with a sponge like material inside. As water flows
through, bacteria will colonize the porous foam and establish a biological
filtration. These sponges also serve as a mechanical filter, removing larger
particles from the water. The advanced versions use two sponges, making it easier
to preserve bacteria colonies by replacing the sponges at different times. Using a
sponge from an established aquarium can also jump-start a new tank or
quarantine/hospital tank.

Undergravel Filter
The undergravel filter (UGF) is basically a perforated plate below the gravel.
Water is pumped upward through the gravel by air bubbles, water stream, or
a combination of both. This slow flow of water and oxygen allows the
bacteria to colonize the gravel. The UGF is an aid for biological filtration. It
does not remove larger waste particles. It has to be well maintained,
especially through vacuuming of the gravel. UGF’s are inexpensive, but
have a tendency to clog up. It is recommended to replace this filter as they age. Of course,
they can be combined with a power head as a pre-filter for larger particles.

Wet–Dry Filter
Also known as trickle filter. This kind of filter was designed with consideration of
the oxygen demand of beneficial bacteria. It consists of a plastic tube with
unsubmerged media (floss, bioballs etc.) over which water trickles – hence “Trickle
Filter”. The wet dry filter provides a large air to water surface. The larger the
surface structure of the media gets the better it works. This filter provides no
mechanical filtration and works on the principle of the wet dry wheels.

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