Ammonia buildup results from a breakdown of fish metabolism. Since ammonia (NH3) constantly converts to ammonium (NH4+) and vice versa, ammonia test kits usually measure both, resulting in a total ammonia (ammonia-N) concentration.
In an established tank, the reading of this test needs to show an undetectable level at all times. A detectable presence of total ammonia requires immediate action.
Ammonia is highly toxic in freshwater tanks, but even more toxic in reef and saltwater environments. This is due to a higher pH level that causes the presence of ammonia gas, which in turn is far more toxic and water soluble.
Even low concentrations of ammonia-N severely stress fish; this makes them vulnerable to diseases, thereby shorting their life span. Accumulating ammonia will not only be highly toxic and cause severe stress to the fish, but will be lethal!
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Ammonia toxicity is significantly influenced by temperature and pH. The lower the temperature and pH, the more ammonia can be tolerated. For example, a fish tank kept at 68 degrees F can tolerate more than twice the amount of ammonia as a tank kept at 86 degrees F.
Lethal ammonia concentrations at a pH of 6.5 are 0.73 ppm, while at pH 8.5, only 0.17 ppm is considered lethal to inhabitants.