I use municipal tap water in my aquarium. What do I need to know?

Most people use tap water in their tanks; it is easiest (and cheapest) to use. Unfortunately (for aquarists), local water companies add chemicals to the water to make it safe to drink (e.g., by adding chlorine or chloramine to kill bacteria). More recently, concern about water flowing through (older) lead pipes has caused some water utilities to add pH-raising chemicals to the water (lead dissolves less readily in alkaline water). Consequently, tap water must be specially treated before it can safely be used in fish tanks.

Another potential problem to be aware of concerns variability in the chemical properties of your water supply over time (e.g., month-to-month). Some water districts don't have enough water themselves, forcing them to purchase additional water from neighboring water districts in times of shortages. If this water has a different hardness (for example), your tap water's hardness will vary as well. As a common example, high bacteria levels are more of a problem in summer than winter, especially in warmer climates. Consequently, it is not uncommon for water companies to use more chlorine in summer months to keep bacteria in check. Even such factors as local weather can have an impact; heavy rains may cause the hardness of your water supply to decrease, as local reservoirs fill.

In general, chlorine and chloramine are the two additives that cause the most problems. Note that these two substances are VERY DIFFERENT! Be sure you know what is in your tap water and treat appropriately.

What do I need to know about chlorine?

In the US, EPA guidelines require that tap water at any faucet contain a minimal chlorine concentration of .2 ppm, and stringently limits the concentration of bacteria (which may require more than .2 ppm chlorine to keep in check). Because chlorine breaks down over time, the chlorine concentration of the water that comes out of your tap will be lower than that put in at water plant. Thus, the exact concentration at your faucet depends on how far you are from the water plant, how long it takes the water to travel from the water plant to your house, how much chlorine is initially added, etc.

Chlorine at high concentrations is toxic to fish; at lower concentrations, it stresses fish by damaging their gills. Concentrations of as little as .2-.3 ppm kill most fish fairly rapidly. To prevent stress, concentrations as low as 0.003 ppm may be required. Fortunately, chlorine can easily be removed from water by the chemical sodium thiosulfate, readily available at fish stores under various brands. Sodium thiosulfate neutralizes chlorine instantly. Note that there are many "water treatment" products that are advertised as "making tap water safe". Read labels carefully. Inevitably, the ones that neutralize chlorine all contain sodium thiosulfate, plus other substances that may or may not be useful. If your water only contains chlorine (as opposed to chloramine), sodium thiosulfate is all you need. The most cost-effective treatments use only 1 drop per gallon of water. Most other water treatments are much more expensive in the long-term; they may require a teaspoon of treatment (or more) per gallon!

Chlorine is relatively unstable in water, escaping to the atmosphere on its own. Water left in a bucket (or tank) with adequate water circulation (e.g. filter or airstone) will be free of chlorine in 24 hours or less.

Many netters report that they perform partial water changes without ever treating their tap water to remove chlorine. Keep in mind that even though fish show no APPARENT ill-effect from untreated water, that doesn't mean that the chlorine isn't stressing your fish. How much stress depends on how much chlorine is introduced to the tank, which depends on many factors (including the percentage of new water added). Because chlorine removers are so cheap (pennies per usage), the insurance they provide should not be passed up.

What do I need to know about chloramine?

One problem with using chlorine to treat water is that it breaks down relatively quickly. Another concern with the use of chlorine is that it can combine with certain organics (that may or may not be present in your water) forming trihalomethanes, a family of carcinogens. Consequently, many water companies have switched from using chlorine to using chloramine. Chloramine, a compound containing both chlorine and ammonia, is much more stable than chlorine.

Chloramine poses two significant headaches for aquarists. First, chlorine-neutralizing chemicals such as sodium thiosulfate only neutralize the chlorine portion of chloramine, neglecting an even bigger problem: deadly ammonia. The consequences can be devastating to fish. Although a tank's biological filter will (eventually) convert the ammonia to nitrate, the time it takes to do so may be longer than what your fish can tolerate.

The second problem relates to water changes. One of the primary reasons for doing regular water changes is to remove nitrates that build up. If your replacement tap water contains ammonia, you'll be putting nitrogen right back into your tank and it will be impossible to reduce the nitrates below the concentration in your tap water. Fortunately, tap water concentrations are relatively low (1 or 2 ppm); you are more likely to have a much higher concentration of nitrate in your tank.

Chloramine can be safely neutralized through such products as Amquel, which neutralize both the ammonia and chlorine portions of the chloramine molecules. The neutralized ammonia will still be converted to nitrates via a biological filter.

Another method for neutralizing chloramine is to age it while simultaneously performing biological filtration. For example, get an appropriately-sized (plastic) garbage can, fill it with tap water, dechlorinate it with sodium thiosulfate, and then connect an established biological filter to it. Just as in your tank, the bio filter will convert the ammonia to nitrate, after which it can safely be added to your tank. Note: you must add sodium thiosulfate to neutralize the chlorine; otherwise, the chloramine will kill the bacteria in your biological filter.

Alternatively, the ammonia can removed by filtering the water through zeolite or carbon before adding it to your tank. [Note: folks report mixed success with this. If you have concrete (positive or negative) experience to report, please notify the FAQ maintainers.

Are there any other water impurities that I should be aware of?

Quite possibly. In addition to the additives described above (chlorine & chloramine), municipal water may (or may not!) contain other elements that the aquarist may need to know about about. Water in some locations actually contains nitrates. In some places, water contains elevated concentrations of phosphates (1 ppm or more). High phosphate has been linked to algae problems, and a comprehensive algae control strategy may require removing phosphates. High levels of iron (1 ppm or more) have also been linked to thread algae. Consult the algae section of this FAQ for more details.

How do I find out just what my local water company is adding to the water?

The quick answer is to ask someone who knows. A local fish store (if they reside in the same water district as you do) should be able to tell you. Alternatively, call your local water utility. Ask to speak with the "water chemist". Tell them you are an aquarist and want to know about the pH, GH, and KH of your water, as well as how much the water characteristics vary from month to month. Finally, (in the US) if you really want details, have them send you a copy of the periodic water report they are required to generate for the EPA. It contains a detailed listing of exactly what your water contains and in what concentrations (e.g., iron, nitrates, phosphates, etc.). By law, the report is available for public inspection.

I don't have city water. Can I use my well water?

Yes. One advantage with well water is that you don't need to deal with chlorine and chloramine. On the other hand, well water is frequently (much!) harder than water available through local utilities. In addition, the only way to know its composition (GH, KH, etc.) is to run tests on it yourself. Alternatively, there are companies to which you can send water samples that will perform a detailed analysis of its contents (for $20-100).

One potential problem with using well water is that it frequently contains high concentrations of dissolved gases (e.g., dangerous to fish). For example, well water is frequently supersaturated with CO2, which lowers the water's pH. Once the CO2 escapes, the pH will increase. Fish shouldn't be subjected to this temporary pH fluctuation. For safety, aerate well water thoroughly for several hours before adding it to your tank.

What test kits should I get, and when are they useful?

There is a seemingly endless array of test kits for testing everything from ammonia levels to phosphate levels. Does one really need to buy them? The quick answer is no. It is quite possible to have a healthy tank without ever buying a single test kit. However, test kits are extremely useful at eliminating guesswork when something goes wrong (e.g., fish appear stressed or die). In the following, we describe the test kits that are most useful and the conditions under which they are useful.

Should I get an ammonia test kit?

Yes. Ammonia test kits are cheap ($5-10) and will tell you whether your tank has elevated ammonia levels. This is useful in two circumstances. First, during the tank-cycling phase, regular testing for ammonia will tell you when the first phase of the nitrogen cycle has completed. Second, should you have unexplained fish deaths, testing for ammonia verifies that your biological filter is (or is not) working correctly. Note that even in an established tank, the biological filter can sometimes weaken or fail outright. Common causes include not cleaning it regularly (water can't flow through a clogged filter, where the nitrifying bacteria reside), naively adding fish medicines (antibiotics kill nitrifying bacteria (oops) as well as disease carrying ones), having too small a filter for the fish load, etc. Be warned: If you have fish deaths and subsequently ask the net (or a fish store) for advice, the first question asked will be "What are your ammonia (and nitrite) levels?".

Ammonia levels are measured in ppm. At concentrations as low as .2-.5 ppm (for some fish), ammonia causes rapid death (also consult cycling section for further details). Even at levels above 0.01-0.02 ppm, fish will be stressed. Common test kits don't register such low concentrations. Thus, test kits should NEVER detect ammonia in an established tank. If your test kit detects ANY ammonia, levels are too high and are stressing fish. Take corrective action immediately (see question XXX). Warning: Amquel and other similar "ammonia-neutralizing" water additives are incompatible with most ammonia test kits. Water treated with Amquel will falsely test positive for ammonia, even when ammonia is not present. Test kits sold under the brand names XXX are known to give false readings under such conditions.

Should I get a nitrite test kit?

Maybe. Nitrite kits are cheap ($5-10) and are useful in the same circumstances where an ammonia test is useful. The only time a nitrite kit provides information that an ammonia kit can't is while testing for completion of the second phase of the nitrogen cycle. As in the case for ammonia, if your test kits detects nitrite, your biological filter is not working adequately. Once a tank has cycled, nitrite kits are pretty much useless. (If the bio filter in an established tank isn't working, both ammonia and nitrite levels will be elevated.)

Nitrite is an order of magnitude less toxic than ammonia. Thus, one common saying about tank cycling is: "if your fish survive the ammonia spike, they'll probably survive the nitrite spike and the rest of the cycling process." However, even at levels above .5 ppm, fish become stressed. At 10-20 ppm, concentrations become lethal.

Should I get a nitrate test kit?

Yes. Nitrate levels increase over time in established tanks as the end result of the nitrogen cycle. (The only exception to this rule is HEAVILY planted tanks, which are SOMETIMES able to consume nitrogen faster than it is produced.) Because nitrates become toxic at high concentrations, they must be removed periodically (e.g., through regular water changes). Having a nitrate test kit helps you determine whether or not your water changes are removing nitrates quickly enough.

Nitrates become toxic to fish (and plants) at levels of 50-300 ppm, depending on the fish species. For fry, however, much lower concentrations become toxic.

Note: A nitrate test kit is only of limited value in determining whether the nitrification cycle has completed. Most nitrate test kits actually convert nitrate to nitrite first, then test for the concentration of nitrite. That is, they actually measure the combined concentration of nitrite and nitrate. In an established tank, nitrite levels are essentially zero, and the kits do properly measure nitrate levels. While a tank is cycling, however, a nitrate kit can't tell you how much of the reading (if any) comes from nitrate rather than nitrite.

Should I have a pH test?

Yes. You will want to know the pH of your tap water so that you can select fish whose requirements meet your water conditions. In addition, you will periodically want check your tank's pH so that you can be sure it stays stable and doesn't increase or decrease significantly over time.

In some cases, tank decorations (e.g., driftwood) or gravel (e.g., of made of coral, shells or limestone) change the pH of your water. For example, tank items may slowly leach ions into your tank's water, raising the GH and KH (and pH). With driftwood, it is not uncommon to have the wood slowly leach tannins that lower the pH.

Should I get a test kit that measures general hardness (GH)?

Maybe. You may want to get one of these, but having one is not critical. You don't need to know the exact hardness level. Knowing whether your water is "soft", "very soft", etc. is good enough. Your local fish store may be able to give you sufficient information. Alternatively, call your water utility.

Should I get a test kit that measures carbonate hardness (KH)?

Maybe. This kit is not critical to have. By regularly monitoring the pH, you can figure out whether your KH is "high enough". That is, the KH should be high enough that your pH stays stable over time. If you have trouble keeping the pH stable, you may want to increase its buffering capacity. Your local fish store may be able to give you sufficient information as to your KH value. Alternatively, call your water utility.

Next Section: Beginner: Partial Water Changes