Sep 7, 2011

Posted by in Additives | 4 Comments

Additives for Freshwater

There is a seemingly endless array of liquid and powdered additives that are offered in pet shops to help you set up and maintain your aquarium.  Here we will look some of the more important supplements and discuss what they do, how they work, and how to use them properly.


Water Conditioners         

Aquarium water conditioner is perhaps the most basic of all additives.  It is used almost ubiquitously throughout the hobby.  The main purpose of water conditioner is to remove or neutrilize toxic and harmful chemicals found in tap water.  Don’t worry, your tap water is perfectly safe to drink, but keep in mind your fish don’t just drink the water; they have to live and breathe in it. Tap water is processed by methods that kill and remove unwanted organisms that live in it; namely bacteria and viruses that could cause illness in humans.  Chemicals such as chlorine, chloramines, or both are introduced at water treatment facilities. Chlorine or chloramines if left in the water with fish will rapidly damage the sensitive gills, leading to suffocation of your fish, and eventually death.  You will need to find out which type of sterilization your municipality uses to treat your local water supply, and choose a water conditioner that neutralizes the appropriate chemical(s).

Many water conditioners also detoxify heavy metals that are found in low concentrations in your tap water.  These chemicals tend to build up to higher levels in the aquarium, and so detoxifying them is necessary to maintain your aquarium’s health long term.  Conditioners that specifically detoxify heavy metals include Kordon’s Novaqua Plus and Tetra AquaSafe.

There are also a number of water conditioners designed specifically to detoxify fish wastes; these are used mainly in emergency situations where something has gone wrong in the aquarium, and ammonia and nitrite have built up to a toxic level.  They are also quite useful when shipping or transporting fish, as they prevent ammonia toxicity within in the small confines of the container used to transport the fish.  Products in this category include Kordon’s Amquel Plus, Tetra Ammonia Detox, Carib Sea Ammobuster Extreme and Gulfstream Ammonia-Ease.

Lastly, water conditioners often contain a supplement to help your fish fight infections and stay healthy, usually by fortifying their natural ‘slime coat’ using ingredients such as aloe-vera.  These products include API’s Stress Coat+ and Big Al’s Multi-Purpose Water Conditioner.

Use of a water conditioner is not optional unless you have a high end water purification system such as a reverse osmosis unit.  Be aware that using water conditioners with slime coat additives can cause problems in marine aquariums that utilize protein skimmers, and thus a more basic water conditioner, such as Seachem’s Prime are recommended.

Biological Additives

Biological additives are concentrated bacterial or enzyme supplements that are added in order to improve or boost your biological filter media, as well as eliminate and/or reduce fish wastes.  There are a number of different types of biological additives made by a variety of different manufacturers; however, there are two basic types of biological additives with three distinct purposes.

The first type of biological additive is the one you are most likely to be sold when you first setup your aquarium.  They are designed to jump start a newly set up aquarium’s biological filter.  The biological filter is the component of your filtration system that houses bacteria responsible for the breakdown of fish wastes; it is the most important type of filtration, and these additives provide starter bacteria to help colonize the biological filter.  They allow the tank to be cycled and stocked at a faster rate because the biological filter becomes established rapidly.  Examples of these products areHagen’s Nutrafin Cycle, Big Al’s Multi Purpose Bio Support, Seachem’s Stability, Superbac’s Live Nitrifying Bacteria, and Marc Weiss Bacter Vital.

This first type of supplement is also important for the long term health of the aquarium.  As time passes, only one or two strains of bacteria will dominate in the aquarium.  Diversity helps the filter to perform its job better and so supplementing with different strains of bacteria over time results in a healthier aquarium.  Also, many aquarists tend to over clean their aquariums when doing maintenance and often damage the biological filter by rinsing the bio-filter components of their filtration system under tap water, or removing too much water in one water change.  These supplements help to re-establish the bio-filter to prevent ammonia and nitrite buildup, preventing physical stress on fish.  All of the products used to cycle the aquarium mentioned above can be used for this purpose, but API has developed Stress Zyme specifically to combat this problem.

The second type of biological additive is called a digester.  Digesters are designed to help rapidly breakdown accumulated wastes and/or detritus that build up in the aquarium over time.  They are usually made from either biologically active enzymes or a chemical that oxidizes wastes.  They chemically digest waste into simpler molecules that can then be broken down by bacteria into nitrate, which is then removed by water changes. They must be used with caution; breaking down too much waste at once may cause an ammonia spike and place physical stress on your fish.  They can however be an effective means of reducing the amount of physical waste built up in your aquarium.  Examples of digesters include Hagen Nutrafin Waste Control, Big Al’s Multi Purpose Bio Clean, Kent Poly-Ox and SuperBac Biological Aquarium Cleaner.  It is recommended that these products be used with the first type of bio supplement to help deal with the extra ammonia being produced.

Water Clarifiers

The clarity of your aquarium water has dramatic influence on how the tank looks.  Sparkling, crystal clear water in an immaculately clean aquarium makes for a stunning display with or without fish!  Products in this category include Kent Pro-Clear, Tetra WaterClarifier, Seachem Clarity, Clear-Ease, and API’s Accu-Clear.

Often when doing a water change, performing maintenance tasks on your filtration system, or sponging algae off the glass, the aquarium water may become murky.  This can be a problem, especially if you were cleaning the aquarium because you have a dinner party that night and wanted the tank to look extra special!  Many aquarists will use water clarifiers every time they do a water change, simply to avoid the inevitable 12-24 hrs of murkiness that follows.  Also, new aquariums will often appear murky, though this is normal and trying to treat it with clarifiers can be problematic.

Most of the clarifiers are specific to either fresh or saltwater, so check before use.  Also, it is better to use clarifiers on a clean aquarium (gravel washed), and not on an overly dirty one.  This is because these products work by binding little particles in the water column together into larger particles, so a clean tank will have fewer particles to bind together, and thus the effect will be much more pronounced.  Finally, it is important to monitor your tank’s carbonate hardness, especially if it is a soft water aquarium, as these products can cause the KH to drop, which may cause problems with the pH balance of the aquarium; this is quite uncommon and most will not need to worry about it.

Algae Control

Algae control and water clarity are closely related if your water is green. You should first try to remove what is causing the green water before attempting to use a clarifier. Green water isn’t the only algae; there are also strains of algae that grow on the glass, rocks, and decorations. Algae are controlled by one of two methods; either starve the algae of food, or directly poison the algae. Usually the most effective means of getting rid of an algae problem is to do both.

Algae control starts with being proactive about tank and filter maintenance since algae feed off of the products produced from the breakdown of fish waste (nitrates and phosphates).  Keeping these levels in check will go a long way to helping keep algae in under control.  Surprisingly, even visually clean aquariums often have high levels of phosphates and using products that reduce phosphates can all the difference in retarding the growth of unwanted algae. There are two basic types of phosphate control products: liquids that are added to the aquarium and cause phosphate to come out of solution or ‘precipitate’ and specific chemical filter media that cause phosphate to be adsorbed or ‘bonded’ to the media where algae can not access it.  Both are effective means of controlling algae, but some considerations must be made. Certain plants and invertebrates are more sensitive to the liquid additives than the chemical filter media, and liquid additives may harm them.  Liquid algae control includes products such as PhosBuster Pro, Phosphate-Ease and Weiss Algae Magic.  Phosphate adsorbing media includeAlgone,KentPhosphate Sponge, Two Little Fishes Phosban, and Chemi-Pure Elite.

Once the aquarium has been cleaned, and the phosphates are quite low, this is the time when an algaecide could be used to finish off any resistant algae still in the aquarium.  Algaecides are a type of poison that targets plants specifically.  Under no circumstances should they ever be used in aquariums containing live plants or invertebrates.  They are quite effective in killing algae which is why they shouldn’t be used in tanks overrun by algae as a quick fix.  Killing a large amount of algae all at once by using these products can easily result in a large fish die-off, as a large amount of decaying organic material will quickly pollute the tank, hence the importance of trying to eradicate as much algae and waste as possible before dosing an algaecide.  Products in this category include Jungle Labs No More Algae and Aquarium Pharmaceuticals Algae Destroyer.

pH Modifiers and Buffers

The water that comes out of your tap will have certain characteristics that are unique to your geographic location.  The fish that you find in the pet store are almost never from your part of the world; freshwater tropical’s are often from theAmazonRiver basinand its tributaries, tropical regions of Asia, and the rift lakes inAfrica.  All these regions have their own unique water characteristics.  One of the most important characteristics of these unique bodies of water is pH, or ‘Power of Hydrogen’ which is a measure of how acidic or basic the water is.  It is important for more sensitive types of fish that the pH is correct, especially if you are trying to breed them.  It is also important that the pH is kept stable throughout the day.  There are essentially two kinds of pH modifiers, those with buffers and those without.

Buffered pH modifiers change the pH of the aquarium water and ‘buffer’ it there, which simply means that the chemicals added help to keep the pH from changing back to its original level. The pH of an aquarium naturally becomes lower as time goes by due to biological processes such as the breakdown of fish waste by means of biological filtration. Buffered pH modifiers will prevent this from happening. Products in this category include Seachem neutral regulator, API’s Proper pH 7.0 andKent’s Cichlid Buffer.

Bufferless pH modifiers only change the pH temporarily, and if your water has any amount of hardness in it, the pH will change back to what it was originally.  Products in this category include API pH UP and pH Down, and Mag-Float Labs pH-ease increase and decrease.  They are most useful when paired with an appropriate buffer in order to stabilize the pH.

Keep in mind when using pH modifiers and buffers that fish are sensitive to large swings in pH and that it should be adjusted slowly.  Also, keep in mind where your fish are from, as this will determine where the pH should be adjusted to.  Most freshwater aquariums will be fine with a pH of around 7.0, as this is a neutral pH and is intermediate between the extremes, whereas marine aquariums will need to be between 8.0 and 8.4.

Re-Mineralizers/GH Modifiers

Another geographic characteristic of water is its general hardness.  General hardness is a measure of calcium and magnesium salts dissolved in the water.  Hard water is responsible for the chalky buildup inside of a kettle, or on the trim of your aquarium.  Some areas of the world have hard water, and some have soft.  The animals that come from different parts of the world are thus adapted to some level of water hardness, which should be replicated in order to facilitate proper health.  Some fish are sensitive to water hardness, and others are completely indifferent to it.  Whether they are sensitive or not, replicating the natural hardness of your fish can enhance coloration and stimulate natural behaviors such as breeding.

These products are not always necessary and it is important to test your water before dosing. If you use tap water that is soft, and you keep soft water fish, than there is no need to use one of these products.  However, if you are trying to keep African cichlids and you have soft water, then you would be well advised to use a product such as Kent Cichlid Chemistry, Seachem Lake Salt or Replenish to raise the hardness of your aquarium water.

Many aquarists choose to use filtered water (reverse osmosis) for their aquarium; this water is completely devoid of salts, and can be quite hazardous to your fish if used without restoring hardness!  This pure water will literally suck the salts out of your fish.  Salts are extremely important for a variety of biological functions, and so water without some amount of salts is not good for your fish or plants.  Remineralizers are available in these situations to restore a natural salt balance without adding in phosphates, nitrates and heavy metals from the tap water source.  These products include Seachem Equilibrium, Kent R/O Right and Seachem Replenish.  While using R/O water in a freshwater aquarium, using one of these products is not optional.

Trace Elements

Fish use elements found in the water directly and different areas of the world have different concentrations of trace elements and specific types of biological molecules.  These elements include chromium, cobalt, copper, manganese, iodine etc.  Similar to the types of things you might find in a multivitamin.  These elements are also important for a variety of biological functions in fish.  Adding a trace element supplement to your aquarium can increase coloration, vigor, immune health, and breeding behavior.

A related type of product used more like a conditioner that specifically changes the water to simulate theAmazon Riveris known as Blackwater Conditioner. Products such as Tetra Blackwater Extract and Kent Black Water Expert darken the water to replicate the black water regions of theAmazon Riverand its tributaries.  These extracts improve overall health, encourage breeding behavior and are said to aid in the hatching process of eggs laid by fish that come from those regions. It is also known to inhibit algae growth by blocking out excess light, and may lower pH by making the water more acidic.

Plant Fertilizers & Trace Elements

To maintain the health and continuous growth of aquatic plants, it is extremely important to provide the essential macro and micro nutrients needed for plants to undergo their natural biological processes.  Some of these nutrients and elements include Nitrogen, Phosphorus, Potassium, Magnesium, Calcium, Boron, Iron, Molybdenum, and Zinc. Each element plays an important role and without supplementation, deficiencies occur. Symptoms of nutrient deficiency include lack of growth, poor coloration, yellow, browning or discolored leaves, and leaf loss. Dosing some form of CO2 is also an important part of plant growth and overall health. Carbon chain supplements like Seachem Flourish Excel provide a carbon source for plants without the need of a complex CO2 system, and are very easy to use. Seachem has created a full product line of plant products that include a broad spectrum plant supplement, macro nutrient supplements, trace elements, and even buffer & pH regulators. Dosing of these nutrients and elements will improve the health, appearance, and growth of your aquatic plants.

Supplements are designed to help you transform and maintain your aquarium so that your fish feel comfortable and at home.  Whichever you choose, always be aware of how these supplements work and what they do; blindly adding supplements is a recipe for disaster, and it is always recommended to test your water before dosing. Supplements have changed the hobby for the better, and will continue to change the hobby in drastic and unforeseen ways as technology and research allows greater advances in Aquarium keeping.

  1. My tank is dying. I cannot get the ammonia level down. I have done everything Big Al’s has told me. And now I have ick as well. What do I do from here. I did partial tank changes, used Colony, ammo shock, stopped feeding them for 4 days. stopped treating them for ick.

    I just want to start all over with fresh water and see if I can get rid of the ick. I only have a ten gallon tank. I want to get a bigger one, but if I can’t even control this one I sure won’t bother.

    • Why don’t you give us a call at 1-888-824-4257 and we can help you troubleshoot by phone. I have questions to ask that will help narrow things down, but going back and forth on the comments here will be tedious.

      Hopefully we can get you back on track!

  2. bullmastiff says:

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