Aquarium Water Testing – It’s easier than you think!
Concerned that aquarium water testing will be too complicated? Do you wonder if you need a chemistry degree to do your own aquarium water testing? Don’t despair. Aquarium water testing is easier than you think!
Every marine aquarist knows good water quality is essential for keeping fish and invertebrates healthy. Fortunately, we are able to keep a close watch on nearly every important water chemistry parameter with the use of test kits. Getting accurate results has always been a topic of debate online and in your local fish shop. Our hobby is full of test kit lore than can make water testing seem complicated. Let’s take a look at five of the most common Testing Tales and see if they are true.
Aquarium water testing kits are “Toys”
I’ve heard this statement from water treatment plant operators: aquarium water testing kits are nothing more than toys. Reef aquarists were finding high nitrate in their newly prepared saltwater. A quick test of their tap water showed high nitrates and in some cases ammonia and nitrite. By drinking water laws and standards, the treatment plants were in violation. Their response to the aquarists was to simply blame the test kits for “inaccurate and false” readings. Some marine aquarists spend hundreds of dollars on aquaculture grade test kits, believing the higher price delivers a better kit. The truth is, the test methods used in liquid aquarium test kits are basically the same as many of the field test kits used by marine biologists around the world. In fact, many aquaculture facilities use aquarium test kits because they are accurate and simple to use. So don’t let anyone tell you that aquarium test kits are unreliable. Verdict: Myth
Dirty test tubes can affect test results
Have you ever forgotten the empty test tube after performing a test? I don’t mean for a day. I mean for a few weeks? The test tubes can get pretty grungy. Does it matter? It can. After a while, the chemicals in the test tube begin to decompose, sometimes forming a solid precipitate on the glass and in the test tube.
If you wait long enough, minerals will also crust up the test tubes. Chances are if you are this “sloppy” with cleaning up you won’t be all that diligent to clean out the test tubes the next time you take out your aquarium water testing kit to see how your reef tank is doing. This will leave a chemical residue that could affect the chemistry of a test kit. The best way to keep your kit clean is to immediately rinse the test tubes with tap water. If you are using reverse osmosis water in your reef, rinse the test tubes with RO. There is no need to use detergents. Just give ‘em a good rinse. Verdict: True
Take water samples from the bottom of the tank
The theories that there are right and wrong places to take a water sample have been around for decades. The story goes that substances like ammonia are “heavier” than water and accumulate on the bottom of the aquarium. The myth recommends aquarium water testing samples be taken near the bottom of the tank to get a true measurement. A more modern version says not to take water samples near the outflow of filters because the water is purer than the rest of the tank. The truth is anything dissolved in the water is completely dispersed throughout the entire aquarium. When taking a water sample, just dip the test tube into the tank and run the test. Verdict: Myth
Aquarium water testing kits have a limited shelf life
This is an important topic. At some point in time, all aquarium water testing kits will expire. What does “expire” mean? Expiration usually results in poor color development in the test tube, making it hard to read. The good news is that all major manufacturers have a “use by” date on the kit. The shelf life will depend on the type of kit. A high-range pH kit will have a longer shelf life than an ammonia test kit. This is just the nature of the chemicals used in the kits. Master test kits, which contain several test kits, will have a range of expiration dates. Typically test kits last at least three years before they expire. Expiration dates are based on “normal” storage and use conditions. Keeping your calcium test kit in an environment, like an attic that gets very hot or repeated freeze/thaw conditions, could damage the product. Always close the caps on the bottles. If you use dip strips, keep the strips dry at all times. Never buy a used or new test kit from yard sales and flea markets. You never know how the kits were stored. They may seem like a bargain until you start testing your reef and get funny results. Verdict: True
Follow the aquarium water testing kit instruction manual
Well, that sounds like a no brainer – Right? Wrong! If there is one thing you take away from this article, it is Follow The Instructions! I should rephrase that to READ the instructions then FOLLOW the instructions. Nearly all of the reports of weird and incorrect test kit results are due to not following the instructions and user error. If the test kit says you need to shake the test tube for 30 seconds, it means 30 continuous seconds, not three seconds. It matters! Your saltwater is reacting with minute amounts of chemicals, to give an accurate result. I have personally met with aquarists and even shop owners who recommend adding more or less test chemicals to the test tube because “it works better.” Not true. Test kit manufacturers spend years developing their kits to perform well, as long as you follow their instructions. Verdict: True
Don’t complicate water testing!
We’ve seen that using test kits to measure your water quality is not difficult or tricky. You don’t need to be a chemist to take care of your marine aquarium. Just follow the instructions. Testing your water is a great way to know that everything in your reef is right and you are taking good care of your fish and inverts!
For more information, check out one of the most popular articles on the blog: the 9 Most Important Saltwater Aquarium Water Parameters.
Is it time to replace your test kit?
Publishing this article made me realize that I should check the dates on my own test kits. How old are your test kits? Is it time to replace them?