Off the chart Nitrite and nitrate readings

Kai4

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Hi,

I'm at a loss. I don't want to drip feed but also don't want the post to run to pages. I'm 3 months in to keeping fish, so still new.

Using NT Labs - multi-test kit - aquarium lab

Summary
I have off the chart nitrite reading- 4.0 (which comes with the label deadly) and 40.0 nitrate (again the same deadly label).

Fish are fine. I've been doing 50-75% water changed but within hours the reading are the same. I can't do another water change it's crippling me! I have to do it by hand because I don't have a pump. I'm lugging 20 litres of water back and forth every night and pouring it in using a small jug! feel like I could cry if I have to do it again!

Conversely though and maybe critical - using test strips tonight I got a 0 nitrite reading and low nitrate reading. Perfectly in line with what I feel the tank should be.

I changed my tank up at the weekend, taking my fish from a 65 litre to a 120litre. The tank had brand new water in it (dechlorinated obvs).

I've used Tropica aqua soil, and pro JBL flora kugeln balls ×2 and the key difference is one capful of microbe-lift plants green, plant fertilizer that I added on Saturday. Sunday was when I got my first crazy reading! I added 5mls once only.

I also set up a nano tank on Wednesday - this one is fishless, brand new. Filter hasn't even gotten going - same result, off the chart nitrite readings, I added 1ml of the microbe-lift. The tank is brand new and had been running for less than 24hrs before I got those readings. Didn't use the fertiliser balls but did use tropica aquasoil. We're talking a tank that has soil and stone and 2 plants in it giving off the chart nitrite readings in less than 24hrs after set up, with nothing living in it.

Both tanks have 0 ammonia.

The big tank has a cycled filter that I swapped over from previous tank to new tank. All working fine.

I've got to assume the ridiculous readings I'm getting from my NT test kit is down to the fertilizer, right? My question is - is it harmful? Given that the test strips aren't detecting it at all?

Also tested my tap water with the NT test kit and no traces of anything.

Honestly with the readings I'm getting - you'd expect the fish to be dead, they are swimming around happily waiting for their dinner.

Can someone shed light on what's going on? Not in scientific lingo please, pretty pretty please! I'm not that smart! When I've tried reading similar queries from posters asking about nitrite/nitrate and fertilizers on various forums, I've not understood the responses for all the jargon, hence why come here to start my own thread.

In terms of fish I have 12 tetras and a baby pleco. Rummy noses all have bright red noses and everyone eating well. No gasping at the surface. So am I getting false positives from my NT kit?

I've ordered the API test kit but it won't arrive until middle of next week.

Sorry to be waffley! Just stressed and worried about my fish but also cannot face another 2-3 hrs of water changing tonight - especially if it's for no reason!

I have seachem prime, dechlorinators and fluval biological enhancer to hand. I've been using the fluval each night after water changing.

Any help much appreciated!
 

CarissaT

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I’ve never used the soil or fertilizer you have, but the fertilizer says it has no nitrates in it. So if that is the case then I would strongly suspect the Aquasoil. It’s supposed to leach out small amounts of ammonia over time but it sounds like it‘s way over doing it. Is your water very soft? It’s just a guess but soft water will dissolve things faster into the water, so I’m wondering if maybe that‘s contributing.

Definitely keep dosing the prime, this will keep the toxicity of the nitrite and nitrate lower than it would otherwise be.

I would do an experiment - take a cup full of soil and cover it with water in a bucket, and test again 24 hrs later. That should tell you if the soil is leaching.

Does your nitrate and nitrite kit use the same bottles of chemicals? If they are two totally separate tests then it would be hard to imagine both are giving a false reading. But with mine, the first two bottles are the same and the nitrate test just has one additional bottle. Now I will say that I’ve had an issue with that third bottle in the past, somehow it settles and then would give false readings. I figured it out by seeing a grain of something come out, it was really hard to get a drop out and it’s because it was clogged. Then it would give a super high result. I haven’t had this issue with the nitrite test though.

It’s tough to say for sure, and I know the test strips are notoriously inaccurate, but with that high of a level you would imagine at least something fairly major would show up on the strips. So I’m kind of thinking it‘s some kind of interaction between whatever’s coming out of the soil and the way those test kits are detecting nitrate or nitrite. Maybe someone else will chime in who has used Trópica Aquasoil.
 

AdoraBelle Dearheart

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Liquid test kits, when the tests are done correctly, are more accurate than dip strips. I use the NT labs one too now, the API freshwater master test kit is good too. I would always trust the results from a liquid test kit over a dip strip.


Bear in mind that I'm far from an expert, this is mainly my suspicions about what's going on;
I changed my tank up at the weekend, taking my fish from a 65 litre to a 120litre. The tank had brand new water in it (dechlorinated obvs).

I've used Tropica aqua soil, and pro JBL flora kugeln balls ×2 and the key difference is one capful of microbe-lift plants green, plant

Even ignoring the planted substrate and ferts for a moment, when you upgrade a tank and change the substrate, tank and potentially some decor too, it's common for any tank to go through a "mini-cycle", since the previous substrate was a huge bed for beneficial bacteria (BB), meaning the nitrifying bacteria we cultivate when we cycle a tank. Even with the same filter, some plants/decor etc transferred, you've still lost a big chunk of your BB, so it can take a few days to a week for the colonies to grow large enough to replace those lost BB. Your tank only grows enough bacteria to handle the bioload of the tank, no more, so losing a chunk means being careful not to over feed (fasting for a few days is a good idea, and fish will be fine with that), and to do regular water changes while the BB colonies grow back to previous levels. When I upgraded a tank like that, even with established filters, plants and stuff moved, changing the substrate and tank itself was enough to put the tank in a mini cycle and spike nitrites. It took 4-5 days of large daily water changes, and using Prime as the water conditioner to make sure the fish were safe between the daily water changes before the BB colonies caught up and the parameters stablished again. Bear in mind that while Prime is great for binding ammonia and nitrites, it only does so for 24-48 hours, so it's important to maintain the water changes.

Then in your case, you have a planted substrate and added lots of ferts straight away, and moved the fish in right away? Some planted substrates do leech ammonia into the water for a while, @Wills has more experience with this, but what I've heard is to set up the tank like you have your empty one, run it and water change for a while and keep testing until the levels drop back down again before adding fish. That it's usually the first week or so that they leech heavily into the water column.

As for what to do now - the main thing is to keep the tank with living fish in it safe for them. That might well mean large daily water changes for a while I'm afraid, but thems the breaks, and it's not forever! It's very likely that within a week or so, depending on your plant load and type, fasting/light feeding and large daily water changes and use of Prime, you could be over the worst of it in a week. You could look into getting a python water changer if mobility is an issue, or enlist a friend or neighbour to help cart the buckets! 20L isn't really enough water to change, especially if levels are that high. Need to change it until ammonia and nitrite are zero, nitrates less than 20ppm, even if that means back to back 75% water changes. If you only change 20% of the water, you're leaving 80% of the bad stuff in there, and it only gets higher as this goes on. Doing the large changes is rough, but will keep the fish safer and get you through the rough patch faster than doing small amounts and watching the levels climb.

What kinds of plants do you have in there? Adding fast growing plants to help process all the nutrients will help too. Floating plants, or fast stems like water sprite, hornwort etc even if only added to help get through this rough patch can help.
***Important**** As mammals, we're not good at telling when fish are "fine". People tend to project and say "my fish is happy, swimming around!" when we have absolutely no idea how to tell if a fish is happy or not, and many can't tell frantic, panicked swimming from normal activity. The fish have no choice about where they are or the water parameters, so will keep on living as long as they can. They will also try to hide weakness and sickness, as many animals do, since showing signs of weakness attracts predators, so it isn't always obvious when something is going wrong internally or their gills are burning and making it hard for them to breathe.

What we do know for a fact is that any amount of ammonia and nitrite in the water that our tests can detect, is harmful to fish, and the higher it is, and the longer they're in it, the worse it is for them. NitrAtes are less toxic than the other two, and fish can survive in really high levels for a surprisingly long time if they've been living in it as it gradually builds; but it's still causing internal harm and a lot of stress to the fish, which weakens them, lowers their immune system, and makes them vulnerable to any other infection or stressor that comes along. So we try to minimise nitrAte levels in our tanks too.

It's called ammonia burns, and nitrite poisoning for a reason. It literally burns their gills and skin, like us breathing in carbon monoxide and smoke during a fire. Enough of that, for long enough, and the fish will die. If you've been using Prime and doing the daily water changes, the Prime has been binding the nitrite and keeping the fish from dying, but again, it's only temporary and water changes are still essential to get those levels back down! But you can do it. Abandon the empty tank for now if it's all getting too much and focus on the tank with fish for now. Can come back to the other tank once the main one settles.
 

AdoraBelle Dearheart

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@CarissaT , your post reminded me of something that could possibly be a factor, thank you.

You both might want to read this thread I made about the liquid tests, and potential errors we can make! Also tips from others on cleaning test tubes and taking water samples from lower down in the tank, not from the surface etc.

Does your nitrate and nitrite kit use the same bottles of chemicals? If they are two totally separate tests then it would be hard to imagine both are giving a false reading. But with mine, the first two bottles are the same and the nitrate test just has one additional bottle. Now I will say that I’ve had an issue with that third bottle in the past, somehow it settles and then would give false readings. I figured it out by seeing a grain of something come out, it was really hard to get a drop out and it’s because it was clogged. Then it would give a super high result. I haven’t had this issue with the nitrite test though.

It’s tough to say for sure, and I know the test strips are notoriously inaccurate, but with that high of a level you would imagine at least something fairly major would show up on the strips. So I’m kind of thinking it‘s some kind of interaction between whatever’s coming out of the soil and the way those test kits are detecting nitrate or nitrite. Maybe someone else will chime in who has used Trópica Aquasoil.

Which test kit are you using? Whichever one it is, one of the chemicals used in the nitrite test does tend to settle and separate between uses. It's why the API kit says to shake the bottle for 30 seconds before adding the drops, and then shake the tub for a full minute once the drops have been added. The instructions don't really stress enough just how hard you have to knock that thing about to make sure it's mixed properly though. We're lucky to have @Essjay who is a chemist, and that's how a lot of us learned how to test properly, since she stresses that you should shake it for longer than 30 seconds ideally, and bang the bottle on a table/the wall/throw it around, shake the heck out of it before adding the drops. Very important to do this step properly to get an accurate result, because as you saw, it will separate and gunk up once settled.
Conversely though and maybe critical - using test strips tonight I got a 0 nitrite reading and low nitrate reading. Perfectly in line with what I feel the tank should be.


Also tested my tap water with the NT test kit and no traces of anything.

Honestly with the readings I'm getting - you'd expect the fish to be dead, they are swimming around happily waiting for their dinner.

So am I getting false positives from my NT kit?

I've ordered the API test kit but it won't arrive until middle of next week.

Another potential for giving a false reading is if you do as I used to, and don't rinse out the test tubes right after reading the results. That same nitrite reagent chemical that settles after a while can leave a residue inside the test tube that doesn't rinse out, if you've left the test tubes with the chemicals in them for a while, like between weekly tests as I've done a few times... :blush:

I asked about it in the thread above because I'd noticed when rinsing the test tubes after leaving them in the kit for a week, that the nitrite tube still seemed to have a light blue tinge to it, no matter how much I blasted it with tap water or even tried to clean it with a mini bottle brush and warm water. The others here laughed at me and had no idea what I was talking about, until @Essjay confirmed that it's a real thing! Here's the important parts from that thread, so you both know how to clean the tubes out properly and make sure you're getting an accurate result :)
Just scrubbed them in warm water with dishsoap and small bottle brushes, but I didn't clean them out straight after I last tested, and it's so hard to get them properly clean! I swear, the nitrite solution especially seems to stain the tube, and can still see which test tube I'd used for which test chemicals. So I worry about that contaminating the next test. Anyone else find the same thing?

Any methods you've used/advice is greatly appreciated!

You're organised and sensible! I'm naughty and left the solution in the tubes inside the box until the next time I needed to test, so it stained the tubes :blush:

But, I bet I'm not the only one who has done it! lol

I was wondering how you managed to stain GLASS test tubes, lol

Have you never seen traces of blue that you can't seem to get out of the very bottom of the tube where you've tested nitrites? No matter how many times I bottle brush it, fill it with water and shake, blast water into the tube and tip it out again... but the remaining droplets still have a light blue tinge to them?

I think it's the chemicals they use. I don't know what they are, but some are powerful acids, right? That's why I tagged @Essjay , she'll know I'm sure!

Thank you!! I'm not alone! My people, haha! These guys are making me feel like a total slattern, lol! It's just easy to mean to go and rinse them, but get distracted refilling the tank or whatever, and put the lid back on and forget!

I rinse the tubes 5 or 6 times by filling with cold water and emptying. Then half fill with cold water, finger over the top and give it a good shake, 5 or 6 times. Then leave it to drain for a few minutes then twist the end of a paper hanky, push it into the tube and twist it round and round till it's dry. This is how I found the nitrite reagents stain the tube if it's not cleaned straight away because the tissue changed colour. Lids are held under running water, allowed to drain for a couple of minutes then dried with the other end of the paper hanky.


If you leave the tube with the reagent in, it sticks to the glass and doesn't rinse off. It has to be scraped off.

@Essjay , I love you!

SEE YOU GUYS!! I'M NOT CRAZY! THE BLUE DOES STICK AROUND AND ESSJAY CONFIRMED IT! :hyper::teacher:


SO YES, I'M LAZY/EASILY DISTRACTED/A SLATTERN FOR NOT RINSING THEM RIGHT AWAY, BUT. BUT! I'M NOT IMAGINING THE BLUE TINGE AND YOU CAN STAIN GLASS!

Just so you know, the API testers contain:

Ammonia #1 - sodium nitroprusside, sodium salicylate [that's why it's called a salicylate test], polyethylene glycol
Ammonia #2 - sodium hydroxide [caustic soda], sodium hypochlorite [bleach]
Nitrite - polyethylene glycol, hydrochloric acid
Nitrate #1 - hydrochloric acid, "proprietary ingredients" [ie they won't say]
Nitrate #2 - polyethylene glycol, sulfanilamide

One problem with strips is if they get damp, they don't give good results. They should be kept in an airtight container except briefly for getting one out to use. And the multi test ones don't include ammonia so a separate one is needed for that.

Liquid tester bottles go off when they've been opened a year-ish. Oxygen gets into the bottle which reacts with some reagents.

Not washing the tubes properly risks a false reading next time the tube is used as the reagent left in the tube distorts the test.

I would never ever put the tube in the tank to take a sample. Like AdoraBelle, I have a tank water testing only pipette to take the water out - mine's a 1 ml pipette so it takes several pipettefuls.

Besides washing the tubes immediately the test is read, I also dry them so there's no residue from water either - you know the marks on the outside of the tank if you drip water down it and don't dry it off? That will be inside the tube if it's left to air dry. Or do a final rinse with distilled water and then let it air dry.

Edited to fix broken quote box.
 
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CarissaT

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Didn't use the fertiliser balls but did use tropica aquasoil. We're talking a tank that has soil and stone and 2 plants in it giving off the chart nitrite readings in less than 24hrs after set up, with nothing living in it.
Got to be the soil. Rocks and plants won’t generate that amount of nitrogen and you have no other source of nitrogen in that tank. If you’re still getting those readings you might have to look at removing your fish temporarily from the other tank and getting the soil out of there, unless you have another tank you can put the fish in and move the existing filter to until the soil finishes leaching out.
 
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Kai4

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Hi,
Thanks all for taking the time to reply. I checked back a few times for a day or so after posting, didn't get any responses - and then wasn't notified I had gotten any - so I'm sorry for the delay in replying. Genuinely didn't think I had any replies.

So, I continued with the water changes everyday.

Unfortunately, I did, I think, too large a water change on Saturday. I basically took it down to just enough for the fish to swim in and then filled it back up. By Sunday 2 tetras had died. I thought I was doing a good thing with a massive water change to remove the nitrites - turns out (as you probably all know but I didnt) an almost 100% water change can still kill fish, and there's me dedicating an entire Saturday afternoon in a bid to save them.....I was gutted come Sunday morning when I realised two had vanished off the face of the earth (guessing they got eaten?).

Seems that the problem, probably was a mini-cycle maybe fuelled by the soil leaching. On Sunday night my nitrites were still through the roof - despite the almost 100% water change on Saturday and then Monday - all gone. Literally all gone, 3 different tests came back 0 nitirites. By this point I had the API test, it arrived early.

Then my nitrates went through the roof upto 160ppm. So I've kept plugging away at the water changes but doing more moderate 20-30% changes and the level has dropped quite nicely.

Ammonia 0, nitrite 0 and now sitting at nitrates between 40-80ppm. Will be starting a 20 litre water change soon this evening. In a bid to stabilise the nitrates at 40ppm.

I was so upset to lose 2 of the tetras, especially as now I realise a partial water change and prime probably would have tied them over while this mini-cycle completed.

All other fish seem OK, in so much as swimming, and eating. A few of the other tetras have full round bellies and I noted some mating type behaviour yesterday morning between two of the neons (one of the male neons was rubbing up against a female with a clearly very full belly). So again, they seem to be doing alright but with the two losses I've lost a bit of confidence :-(
 

CarissaT

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I don’t think the losses were your fault, it’s more likely they were already stressed and just succumbed. Doing a large water change shouldn’t have bad effects on your fish, especially when you’re removing stuff that’s toxic, barring something out of the ordinary like not enough dechlorinator or rapid temperature swing or water chemistry differences between tap water and tank water which there wasn’t because you’ve been doing water changes all along. So don’t beat yourself up over it. The water change may have saved your remaining fish and the others may have died anyway.

Anyone with a length of time in this hobby looks back on mistakes. Once I had a clownfish I was nursing back to health in a 5g bucket en lieu of a quarantine tank. Weeks of not knowing what was wrong, doing daily water changes (reconstituting saltwater too) then medicating, and finally, finally it was eating again. I had done it! A couple days later it was dead on the floor. I didn’t have the lid on securely enough and it jumped out. Another lesson learned. Stuff happens unfortunately but you learn and do your best. 🥹
 
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AdoraBelle Dearheart

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I agree, I doubt the large water change is the cause of death. You've been doing regular water changes already, so the tank water should be the same as your source water in all the parameters that count, so no old tank syndrome. If you used declorinater and temperature matched the water, then it's highly unlikely to be the cause.

Remember what I said earlier about ammonia and nitrite causing burns... it does burn their gills and skin, it's possible that those tetra had already sustained some damage from the leeching ammonia and subsequent nitrite spike, and were hanging on for a while before succumbing. It happens, like if someone was burned in a housefire and smoke inhalation and survived before passing away days or even weeks later. We just can't personally know the precise cause of death each time with our fish I'm afraid. All we can is our best with the knowledge we possess at the time, and learn from our mistakes where we can.
@CarissaT already nailed it, I just wanted to chime in as agreeing to help reinforce that you shouldn't beat yourself up. You've learned about the risks with planted substrates now, that they need time to settle before adding fish, and you've worked hard to try to save them. Go easy on yourself.
 
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Kai4

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Thanks both. It means alot. I'm really quite attached to them now. I've heard/read people say tetras don't have much personality - but I find them so entertaining. I feel like I can see little personalities in most of them. They went from hiding under the filter for days, to cautiously coming out but disappearing when we walked past, to then swimming openly but hiding when I lifted the lid of the tank up - to now actively coming to the glass when I'm there. If I put my finger on the glass they follow it and they come to the top of the tank and circling around while I drop the food in. Even when I'm doing water changes with my hand in the tank some of the braver ones aren't hiding anymore but coming up to nosey at what I'm doing and I find myself saying - come on now, move away from the syphon before you get sucked up! So I do feel incredibly sad that I've lost two. One was a tiny little rummy nose called Romeo - he was so small compared to the others and seemed to have a bit of a casanova look, hence the name! And the other was Betty, a big girl with pouty bright red lips made me think of Betty Boo (the cartoon character).
 

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