Fish live in water. That seems a truly oversimplified statement. We all know it. Its utterly obvious. But when you think about the repercussions of it, you realize that keeping fish and other aquatic organisms is fundamentally different than say, raising chickens or keeping a cat. Let me explain:
Fish live in water. They cannot escape from your tank or pond and survive. They are confined. That means the water they live in provides them with everything they do. They breathe it and pull oxygen out from it. They drink it. They swim in it. They mate in it. They birth their young in it. They eat food that floats in it. Their young, called fry, will often die in that water. The fish you keep pee in that water. They poop in it. Their gills excrete ammonia in it. Their bodies produce a slime coat that slowly washes of into the water. Uneaten food rots in it. Leaves decompose in it if you have a pond. Other animals such as frogs, toads, birds, will also use that water, peed, poop, and mate in it. So let me repeat that simple statement again. Fish LIVE in that water. They do everything in the water that we put them in. When your cat uses the litter box, it can walk away. Your fish can’t. He’s going to breathe the water with the dissolved waste. He’s going to drink it. He has no other choice. And if you are saying to yourself, “ewww, that water must be disgusting”, you’re getting the message. Here’s the number one thing we can tell you for success: You are not keeping fish. You are keeping water. The fish keep themselves. All you have to do is keep the water just right.
So let’s talk about water. A lot of people assume that water is water is water. But it’s not. Water, depending on where you live, has different things dissolved in it. Some of those things are harmless. Others are not. If you fill your tank or pond with a hose connected to your house’s city water supply, you are adding chlorine and chloramines. Your city adds these chemicals to your water to keep bacteria from growing in it. But if you add animals to that water, clean as it may look, they WILL die. Imagine a house where one room is filled with chlorine gas, bleach if you will. You would not enter that room. Why? Because it would burn your lungs. Fish don’t have that option. They live in water. They cannot escape. The chlorine will burn their gills, and they will choke to death.There is NO acceptable level of chlorine or chloramines in a tank that keeps aquatic organisms. All aquatic animals are vulnerable to chlorine, no matter how minute the dose. So the very first thing you need to know about water is USE A DECHLORINATION SOLUTION. The advanced among you will say, “but won’t letting the water sit for a few days let the chlorine break down?” Yes, it will. But the chloramines do not break down. Use a dechlorinator. This should become a mantra. It should be second nature. If you add water. Add dechlorinator. Its available everywhere. Use it. Why are we harping on this? Because almost everyone at some point finds themselves in a position where they need to add water, and are tired, or don’t feel well, and they end up thinking “it’s just a top off, I can get away with adding a bit of untreated water this time.” Even we have done it. And there is nothing more painful than seeing floating fish the next morning. Not one. Not several. But hundreds and hundreds of dead animals. Don’t do it. Use
dechlorinator. It’s one of the golden rules of aquaculture. And besides, most dechlorinators contain chelates that detoxify heavy metals like copper and lead that may be in your water. So, double win.
Ok. So you’ve got dechlorinating solution stockpiled away. Now what? pH. pH, what’s that? pH is the acidity or the alkalinity of water. It’s a scale, from 0 to 14. 0 is the most acidic solution possible, and 14 is the most alkaline, which can also be stated as: the most basic. Ok, bear with me a moment, because I’ve got a small amount of chemistry to teach you. A very, very brief primer:
Water is H2O. Two hydrogen atoms, one Oxygen. If you were to look at it at the atomic level it would look like Mickey Mouse, with the Oxygen being the head and the Hydrogen the ears. I can write it like this: H-O-H. If I split it up like so: H OH, you have the parts that make up pH. If you have more H, (free protons) your water is acid. If you have more OH, (hydroxyl groups) your water is basic. If they are even, the water is neutral. On the pH scale, 7 is neutral. THAT is your goal. 7. It’s a lucky number. Aim for it.
So, all this about H and OH… is the water splitting up in your fish pond? No. The protons (H) and hydroxyls (OH) are randomly floating around. They are called “free groups” in chemistry. You add or decrease the number of free H or OH groups by using chemicals. For example, hydrochloric acid (battery acid) is HCL. When it touches water, the H floats around, and it is that H that makes the water acid. NaOH is sodium hydroxide. Lye. If you add it to water, the OH splits from the sodium and makes the water basic. Now, add them together and you get a salt (NaCl, or table salt) and HOH (water). Why am I telling you this? To explain this statement: If you mix acids and bases together, you get water, and a salt. ALWAYS. Acids and
bases cancel out. If your water is acid, you add a base. If your water is basic, you add acid. You cannot have water that is basic and acid at the same time.
This is important, because your water will almost always tend to become acidic.
Because rotting food, rotting leaves, and the carbon dioxide that your fish breathe out will naturally release H. They make your water acid. So you have to counter that by raising the pH of the water using a basic solution. (remember you are aiming for 7 or neutral) It IS possible to adjust the water using pool chemicals like Hydrochloric Acid (Muriatic Acid) and Sodium Hydroxide (Caustic Soda, also known as Lye). DON’T. Yes, it is possible. Yes, we have done it. But it is incredibly dangerous, and you need to know EXACTLY what you are doing. So until you have a lot of experience, and have read up a LOT on pH, and we mean A LOT, stick to using commercial pH modification solutions. There are always two. One for raising the pH (it will be basic) and one for lowering the pH (this one will be an acid). No matter what brand you use, follow the directions. The directions will make you calculate the amount of water you have in your system, and the pH. Then it will tell you how much to add.
When you first set up your pond or tank, get the water pH at exactly 7. After the fish are living in it, you will periodically test and adjust. Which leads me to the second golden rule of aquaculture:
DON’T CHANGE YOUR WATER CHEMISTRY WITHOUT TESTING IT FIRST!
Some people will add things at random. Don’t do it. Test first. Then calculate depending on how the test goes. THEN add.
How often do you do this? That depends. If you have a lot of fish, hundreds or thousands of them (and Tilapia breed like mad so these numbers are not crazy) you do it often. If you have just a few, you do it less frequently. Let’s just say, as a starting point, check and adjust the pH once a month.
And if you add water to top off your tank or pond, ADD DECHLORINATOR.
The next article will keep talking about water, but in a different way. We’re going to talk about Cycling. I’ll keep the chemistry as simple as I possibly can, but it’s probably THE most important article in this series, so don’t skip it.