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       Understanding pH and ammonia The pH of water is a measure of how acidic/basic water is. The range goes from 0 - 14, with 7 being neutral. pHs of less than 7 indicate acidity, whereas a pH of greater than 7 indicates a base. pH is really a measure of the relative amount of free hydrogen and hydroxyl ions in the water. Water that has more free hydrogen ions is acidic, whereas water that has more free hydroxyl ions is basic. Since pH can be affected by chemicals in the water, pH is an important indicator of water that is changing chemically. pH is reported in "logarithmic units".   Each number represents a 10-fold change in the acidity/basic of the water. Water with a pH of five is ten times more acidic than water having a pH of six. The pH of water determines the solubility of and biological availability (amount that can be utilized by aquatic life) of chemical constituents such as nutrients (phosphorus, nitrogen, and carbon) The ideal pH level for discus fish is slightly acidic. For a non-breeding tank, the 6 to 7 pH range is ideal. Also, you have to maintain the water hardness at a minimum of 7 dH. Though discus fish love slightly hard acidic waters, this doesn’t mean that they can tolerate extremely low pH levels. If the pH level of your tank water drops to 4, your discus fish will immediately go into shock.  Water hardness is important to discus fish too, because if the water is too soft, the discus fish’s kidneys will have to work extra hard to ensure fluid equilibrium inside the body. Do not allow the water hardness to exceed 10 dH, as this can become fatal to discus fish. If you wish to experiment with breeding adult discus fish, you have to adjust the acidity of the water so that a 5.5 pH level is attained.                 OK, so what role does the ammonia play in the tanks Ph levels? Pure ammonia actually has a basic or alkaline pH. So in theory, ammonia should raise the pH of an aquarium. However, virtually all processes in the aquarium that produce ammonia, as well as the breakdown of ammonia will produce hydrogen cations. Since pH is the negative log of hydrogen cation concentration, increasing this lowers the pH, negating the mildly basic pH of ammonia. So while ammonia has a basic pH, the processes that creates it in an aquarium will produce enough hydrogen ions to overcome this and lower the pH. but this process can take weeks to establish in a new tank.( it doesn’t have to : see overcoming new tank syndrome”) When the pH level and average water temperature of a tank go up, the ratio between ionized and non-ionized ammonia changes. Non-ionized ammonia is the form of ammonia that can kill your discus fish.    Ionized ammonia can still be a problem if very high concentrations are found in your tank. This can easily be remedied by partial water changes. I emphasize “partial” because it is never recommended to completely drain your tank of all its water.    The water in your tank after several weeks has already been colonized by nitrifying bacteria, the beneficial bacteria that takes care of harmful ammonia.    Once the proper cycle has been established regular monitoring of the levels and cleaning along with partial water changes will be easy to maintain. OK, so how can I get the tank bacteria established before I bring the  Discus home? New Tank Syndrome A very common experience among beginner aquarists is the issue of something called New Tank Syndrome . Add fish before the bacteria are in place to deal with the waste and toxic ammonia and nitrite will build up. Fish cannot deal with high levels of ammonia or nitrite and will become sick very quickly. Most often levels spike within a few days so the question becomes : How do  I establish the correct levels in a new tank ?
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Aquarium Nitrogen Cycle by Eliasch via Wikimedia Commons