1.  How does ammonia affect my aquarium?

Ammonia poisoning is one of the biggest killers of aquarium fish. Toxic levels of ammonia occur most often when an aquarium is newly set up. Known as "New Tank Syndrome" these fish are poisoned by high levels of ammonia (NH3) that is produced by the bacterial mineralization of fish wastes, excess food, and the decomposition of animal and plant tissues. Additional ammonia is excreted directly into the water by the fish themselves. However, it can also occur in an established aquarium when high amounts of livestock are added (overwhelming the existing biological filter), flter failure due to power or mechanical failure, or if bacterial colonies die off due to the use of medications or sudden change in water conditions. The effects of ammonia poisoning in fish are well documented. These effects include: extensive damage to tissues, especially the gills and kidney; physiological imbalances; impaired growth; decreased resistance to disease, and; death.

2.  Where does ammonia come from?

Ammonia comes from fish respiration, and decomposing organic wastes such as fish feces, left over food, dead plants and animals, etc.

3.  What are the common signs of ammonia poisoning?

Ammonia poisoning is one of the leading causes of death in aquarium fish. It is important to know the causes and effects of ammonia toxicity so that the aquarist can recognize and take immediate action.

The common signs of ammonia stress are easily detected.
  • Lethargy
  • Loss of appetite
  • Hovering at the bottom of the tank (especially for urface dwelling fish)
  • Gasping at the surface
  • Inflamed gills
  • Red streaks or inflammation in the gills
  • Inflamed eyes or anus

4.  How much ammonia is too much?

Any measurable or detectable amount of ammonia is too high and can stress livestock. Any time ammonia is detected, emergency action should be considered to reduce the danger. The presence of detectable levels indicates that your bio filter is not working adequately for several reasons. One, your tank has not yet cycled, or two, the filter is not functioning adequately, which means it is too small for the amount of livestock you have, is working incorrectly, clogged, etc. Fixing the problem with your filter is as important as taking care of the high ammonia.

5.  Does temperature and pH effect ammonia?

Ammonia varies in toxicity at different pH and temperature of the water. For example, ammonia (NH3) continually changes to ammonium (NH4+) and vice versa, with the relative concentrations of each depending on the water's temperature and pH. Ammonia is extremely toxic; ammonium is relatively harmless. At higher temperatures and higher pH, more of the nitrogen is in the toxic ammonia form than at lower pH.

Standard test kits measure total ammonia (ammonia plus ammonium) without distinguishing between the two forms. The following chart gives the maximum long-term level of ammonia-N in mg/L (ppm) that can be considered safe at a given temperature and pH. Again, note that a tank with an established biological filter will have no detectable ammonia; this chart is provided only for emergency purposes. If your levels approach or exceed the levels shown, take emergency action IMMEDIATELY.

Percent of ammonia from 'total ammonia'
Temp C°/0° pH 6.5 pH 7.0 pH 7.5 pH 8.0 pH 8.5
20°C (68°F) 0.13 0.40 1.24 8.82 11.2
25°C (77°F) 0.18 0.57 1.77 5.38 15.3
28°C (82°F) 0.22 0.70 2.17 6.56 18.2
30°C (86°F) 0.26 0.80 2.48 7.46 20.3
Generally, any value above 0.5 is dangerous

6.  What bacteria is responsible for converting ammonia to nitrite?

The bacteria responsible for converting ammonia to nitrite in freshwater are from the genus Nitrosomonas, in saltwater Nitrosococcus are responsible. These bacteria are rod-shaped chemolithoautothrophs with an aerobic metabolism. While they do not grow by photosynthesis, their unusual metabolic behavior involves burning ammonia with oxygen. Long, thin membranes inside the bacteria's cell use electrons from ammonia's nitrogen atom to produce energy. In order to complete cell division, they must consume vast amounts of ammonia, making the division process last for several days. The cells grow either in pairs or short chains. In nitrification the ammonia oxidizing bacteria in Turbostart play the role of oxidizing ammonia to nitrite, which is then converted to nitrate by other bacteria.

7.  Is it possible to add an initial ammonia source without using fish?

Yes you can. Add ammonium chloride so that levels reach 2 to 4 ppm along with FritzZyme®. When ammonia and nitrite are near 0 ppm, add ammonium chloride one more time bringing the level back up to 2 to 4 ppm. Once the ammonia and nitrites reach zero the biofilter is established and ready for animals (time is less than one week). NEVER add ammonium chloride to a tank containing fish.

Independent Studies

California State, Texas A&M Corpus Christi, University of Nevada Las Vegas


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