Sudden Ammonia Spike! How, and how do I fix it?

discchord

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My tank has been running for a month. I used the Red Sea Reef Mature Kit which seemed to work great. It knocked my ammonia down to 0 in a week. I added my first fish at week 2 (per the Red Sea program) and ammonia stayed at 0.

That fish was a fire fish and he died mysteriously. I presume the cause was stress. He was curious and outgoing for the first 9 days in the tank, but after a water change his personality changed dramatically. He was ALWAYS freaking out and hiding in his cave if anyone was near the tank. The tank is right next to my desk... 2 days later he died. I did a postmortem, to the best of my neophyte abilities, and couldn't find any signs of infection or suspicious white spots. All of my parameters checked out fine, 0 ammonia, 0.013ppm nitrite, <4 nitrate, salinity was stable at 1.025, pH 8.1.

To be safe I left the tank empty for a week and did a couple of 25% water changes spaced out by 3 days.

My second fish was a Percula. I wanted a hearty fish this time! I got him from LiveAquaria and he was pretty neurotic from day 1. He was frantically trying to get at his own reflection for the first 2 days, without eating. The whole time I'm trying to feed him 3 times a day; 2 different pellets, frozen mysis, flake. Finally by day 3 he started to eat a little. Day 4 he ate continued to eat. Day 5, I woke up and he was dead.

I did the full battery of tests:
1.2 ammonia (Red Sea), 0.031ppm nitrite (Hanna), <4 nitrate (Red Sea), 1.025 sg (Milwaukee), pH 8.5 (Hanna)

He seemed to be decaying, losing color on his shoulders, so he may have died in the early part of the night. I wonder if his own decomposition contributed to the high ammonia.

So my questions to you guys:
  1. What caused the sudden ammonia spike? Was it over feeding? I didn't feed much for the days that there was no fish in the tank. Could my ammonia eating bacteria have died out in that time?
  2. How do I fix this? My first thought is to do an immediate 25% water change, followed by another 25% water change for the next 2 days. Should I just do one big 50%? I'm worried about the ammonia and nitrite affecting corals and snails.
Thanks!
 
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sbash

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To be frank, the ammonia is spiking because you are introducing a source (of ammonia) and there is not enough nitrifying bacteria to consume it as quickly as it is introduced (i.e. your initial cycle may not complete and your tank is likely not fish ready)... That said, if there is a source of ammonia which is introduced beyond 'normal' levels, a spike can happen. I have had this happen to me on two different occasions and for two different reasons on established tanks.

Anyway, so a few questions to help get the ball rolling:

What is your source water? Tap, RO, Bottle, RO/DI, etc???

I am a big fan of the bottled bacteria, but that does not mean it is going to work perfectly all the time. Did you start with any live rock? Were you 'ghost' feeding throughout the dosing of the bacteria kit? Did you do any water changes before adding the first fish?
 
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I'm disinclined to accept that the tank wasn't fish-ready when there was no measurable uptick in ammonia for the 9-10 days I had the firefish in there. There were regular 5% water changes during the Red Sea program. I've been carefully monitoring my Nitrates and Phosphates, doing 25% water changes as needed (about once every 5-7 days).

I should have mentioned from the start that this is a 10g Nano, so that's why some of these levels will seem odd.

Water Source: RO/DI
Substrate: Deep Sandbed 2-3" Aragalive Special Grade
Rock: 10lbs of Reef Cleaners (Mined Rock)
Additional Filtration: 10 Marinepure Cermaic Balls (in my media basket, and some are buried in the sandbed)
 

Tahoe61

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A biological filter's ability to complete the nitrogen cycle is continuously changing. Basically the bi-products of metabolism along with possible over feeding was greater than the biological filter's ability to utilize those organics. The size of the tank leaves little room for error.

Fire fish are extremely skittish fish and not the easiest fish to acclimate.
The clown behavior was most likely the normal behavior of a clown acclimating.

Since you already have corals I would continue with the smaller water changes and allow the biological filter to evolve more prior to adding another fish. If you have hermit crabs I would continue to feed them very small portions there by introducing organics to assist in the development of the beneficial bacteria.
 
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The only critters in the tank right now are corals and snails. I'll continue to feed lightly to keep them alive, and I think I'll invest in a Seneye to keep a closer eye on ammonia.

I just did a 25% water change, should I keep doing those until the ammonia drops, or let the bacteria figure it out? I'm really worried about the snails and corals here.
 
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sbash

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Oh, it is only a 10 gallon tank...

You water change question is a bit tricky. Have you tested your RO/DI water? I would test for ammonia and TDS if you have a meter handy, just for the peace of mind...

If the ammonia was simply cause and effect based on the percula dying (which in a small tank it could easily be, even if the fish was only dead in the water for a short time... even a dead snail could potentially be an ammonia source in a new 10 gallon) or overfeeding, then the water changes will help...

Also, if you only have snails and coral, you do not need to feed the tank very often. So I would hold off adding any more food until the ammonia reads 0. I feed my 5 gallon every 10-14 days (I would do weekly, but i am on the road too much, so it ends up being every other week)...

Sorry for your losses, by the way, it is a rough way to start a tank :(
 
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Oh, it is only a 10 gallon tank...

You water change question is a bit tricky. Have you tested your RO/DI water? I would test for ammonia and TDS if you have a meter handy, just for the peace of mind...
TDS is 0 coming out of the RO/DI, but I'll double-check the ammonia for peace of mind.


If the ammonia was simply cause and effect based on the percula dying (which in a small tank it could easily be, even if the fish was only dead in the water for a short time... even a dead snail could potentially be an ammonia source in a new 10 gallon)
It's funny you should say that... Guess what I found while I was doing the water change. One of my cerith's was dead. I think he may have been dead when he arrived. He was basically where I plopped him when I put him in on Tuesday. Perhaps he was the initial ammonia source.

I thought clownfish were supposed to be tough as nails? I know a lot of people start their cycle with a couple of clowns. This was even something my LFS encouraged, but I went with the fishless Red Sea program because I didn't want to be mean to tiny clowns.

Sorry for your losses, by the way, it is a rough way to start a tank :(
Thanks. This really is a gut punch. I'm going to go at least a week without adding new fish, and just let the bacteria eat up the rest of the ammonia.

I know everyone says clowns acclimate by trying to get to their reflections, and literally everyone says they're going to be fine... But man watching this little guy freak out all day long was rough. I was starting to relax when he started to eat, but then I woke up to this. I feel so bad that his last days were in my tank freaking out, wondering why he'd been taken from his brothers.
 

cmcoker

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Few things,
First put an ammonia badge in the tank, this will help alert if ammonia starts ticking up when you add your next fish. I use one whenever I setup a new tank, have to move a tank, and on my quarantine tanks

Quarantine... I would recommend to quarantine new fish, anything wet really, for a couple reasons- Disease and acclimation. Disease in new fish is not uncommon and using a quarantine will allow new fish to be observed and treated outside the display tank. Acclimation is also easier as you can lower the specific gravity to what the new fish arrives at and gradually raise it over several days, without harming your corals or inverts.

How did you acclimate the clown? If it was a long acclimation, ammonia exposure during the procedure could have been an issue. If a short acclimation, you could have raised the specific gravity too much too quickly and the fish had osmotic shock.

I often see people comment on live aquaria fish arriving between 1.017 and 1.020. If you are running 1.026 that's a big jump in a short time.

Hope your next addition goes better!
 
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The acclimation took quite a long time, I'd say 1.5-2 hours. I didn't check the beginning salinity, but I dripped (and repeatedly half-emptied the bag) until the salinity matched the tank at 1.025.

I've already ordered a Seneye to alert me to any other ammonia anomalies, e.g. $2 snails dying and taking out a $70 fish!

The more I think about it the more I blame that snail. I was feeding the tank a lot, but nothing insane. Typically 0.25 a mysis cube in the morning, a pinch of flake in the afternoon, 0.25 mysis at night. Sometimes I would swap one of the mysis feedings for pellets or flake. Does that sound like enough to cause an ammonia spike?
 
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sbash

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The more I think about it the more I blame that snail. I was feeding the tank a lot, but nothing insane. Typically 0.25 a mysis cube in the morning, a pinch of flake in the afternoon, 0.25 mysis at night. Sometimes I would swap one of the mysis feedings for pellets or flake. Does that sound like enough to cause an ammonia spike?
That is lots... lots for a 10 gallon... For some perspective, this amount of food would be enough for my 220 mixed reef (maybe double up the flakes)... Now that there are no fish, I would put .25 a cube on Wednesday, and some flakes on the weekend at most... With any fish you can safely put in a 10 gallon, I would only feed once a day, at most. A big problem most of use have in the hobby is our desire to make sure our fish are well fed; while this is a great mentality, it ultimately causes problems.
 
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I tested my tank water again today and found the ammonia had some how gone up. After a 25% water change? This seems to me to indicate that either my first test was done incorrectly, or I have something else decaying in the tank somewhere. In either event I'm beginning to wonder if my ammonia eating bacteria are still in there. I did another 25% water change and dosed 1.5mL of Red Sea's bacteria... without the bacteria food because they have plenty of that already!

I think I'll leave it alone for a few days and see how it's doing on Wednesday.

I'm beginning to worry about my other snails. They've done a great job of cleaning up all the rock and sand, but now there's nothing left for them to eat. Is there some food I can give them that won't contribute to my ammonia problem? Searching for "snail food" here is mostly only yielding results for people using snails as food!
 

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Did you ever check your rodi for ammonia? Especially if your city uses chloramine, others have also reported their rodi picking up ammonia if there is a cat in the house..
 
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Did you ever check your rodi for ammonia? Especially if your city uses chloramine, others have also reported their rodi picking up ammonia if there is a cat in the house..
Ah, yes! I even thought to get the test sample from RODI water that had been sitting in my salt mixing bucket for a little while. It had 0 ammonia, but that was a good thought. I know my municipal water is loaded with chloramines, so it is nice to eliminate that possibility.

I encountered a random post from one person that suggested large water changes in a nano volume tank can deplete nitrifying bacteria. According to this poster, it can lead to a mini-cycle or even a whole restart to the cycle. So perhaps in my haste to export the ammonia, I've also been exporting the bacteria that should be eating it! For some reason I was thinking that these bacteria would all be in my sandbed and rock, but that's backwards. The DEnitrifying bacteria are in there, while the nitrifying are in the water column. dang... That was a stupid newbie mistake.

I'm hoping the new dose of bacteria will help matters! I'll be doing another tank water test tonight to see if they are.
 

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The bacteria resides on the rocks and sandbed and not the water column. However, if ammonia isn't being converted, doing a water change can stall the cycling process as you are depleting a food source for bacteria to become nitrifying bacteria.
 

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