by Frank Cowherd
If you have not yet discovered the value of the 5-in-1 or 6-in-1 test strips to monitor water quality, go out and buy a bottle of them at your earliest convenience. If you do not already know the terms associated with hard and soft water, general hardness and carbonate hardness, or know whether your tap water has the same pH as your aquarium, then these test strips will help you become familiar with the terms and give you the information on your water conditions that can help you be a better aquarist.
5-in-1 test strips give readings on total hardness, total alkalinity (carbonate hardness), pH, and nitrite (ion) and nitrate (ion) levels. The 6-in-1 strips add a chlorine test. Pictures of three of the available bottles of test strips are shown in Figure 1. All run at or near $10 for a bottle with twenty-five test strips. Typical test strips are shown in Figure 2. And Figure 3 shows one of the reference color charts.
The wet test methods are slow by comparison to these dipstick tests. Wet methods require care and experience to get good results. I still prefer the Hach wet test method for pH since it gives good results in 0.5 pH unit increments even if I only use it once every month or longer. Care and experience are needed in most wet test methods to avoid contamination of the water sample, in adding precisely the right amount of reagents, in allowing the correct amount of time to lapse prior to adding additional reagents, mixing the sample, or reading the test results.
The 5-in-1 or 6-in-1 test strips are not likely to be in error as long as you keep them dry prior to use. If they have gotten wet, buy new ones.
The test strips give ballpark results, but they give results you can use. Results from the test strips require only seconds to generate, though the color development for the nitrite and nitrate tests take about 30 to 60 seconds to develop, so it takes a minute before you can read off the ballpark nitrite and nitrate ion levels.
First thing you should know is what is coming out of your tap. Rinse a glass well with tap water and then fill it with tap water. Take a test strip and swirl it for one second in the water, and remove it sideways so excess water slides off the strip when you remove it. Then hold it horizontal while you compare the hardness, alkalinity, pH, and chlorine pad colors to the references. I would suggest you do it twice and record the results somewhere for future reference, particularly for the time you think your tap water has change, like when you think the water company has done something strange, like flushed the lines and put in ten times the chlorine, as they often do once a year.
The second thing to do is test your aquarium water just before a water change and right after the water change. You will see immediately the beneficial effect of a water change on nitrate. In fact you can use the 5-in-1 or 6-in-1 test strip as a way to know when to do a water change. If the nitrate level is above 40 ppm, you should do a water change. Some species of fish and particularly fry are more sensitive to nitrate and their water should be kept below 20-ppm nitrate.
Nitrite level should always appear to be zero on the test strips. If you see any elevated level of nitrite on the test strip, then the bacterial cycle is not well established. You should observe the tank to see if it would benefit from more filtration, aeration, added beneficial bacteria, or smaller feedings until the nitrite level lines out at zero.
Use the test strips to test once every month to confirm the aquarium water is fine. Use them to confirm the RO unit is producing soft acid water.
The use that I really love for these test strips is in looking at the water quality in the bag of fish I just got. If the fish are from someone whom I know is breeding the fish, I can check on the water quality he knows they do well in. Mainly this regards hardness versus softness and acidic versus basic water. That knowledge helps me put the fish in the right kind of water, assuming I do not already know or just want to confirm.
The test strips can also be a lifesaver with bagged fish. If you open a bag of fish you got in the mail or from a big auction, or anytime the fish have been in the bag for a long time, the results of the test strip can alert you to problems. Carbon dioxide expelled by the fish in the bag slowly turns the water acidic and ties up toxic ammonia as less toxic ammonium ion. If you raise the pH slowly or rapidly during the acclimation process, the toxic ammonia is released and can kill the fish. Adding any of the known chemical additives that remove ammonia, nitrite and nitrate, like Prime and Amquel Plus, will mitigate the potential problem. In other cases the test strip may show the water to be very much harder or softer than your water. In either case, be sure to take the time to acclimate the fish to your water since a rapid change in hardness can be fatal to the fish.
My recommended acclimation procedure is to empty the contents of the bag, fish and water, into a small container such that the water level is only deep enough to keep the fish approximately upright. Then add enough water from the tank the fish is going into (i.e., the quarantine tank) to double the level in the small container. Wait 15 minutes to allow the fish to adjust to the new water parameters. Since this basically averages the mineral content, the temperature, and changes the pH only a manageable amount, 15 minutes is all that is needed. The test strip results on the water in the bag will tell you if a much lower amount of water should be added because of a large pH difference or a large hardness difference. You can add a few drops of ammonia consuming Amquel Plus or Prime to consume any ammonia released because of an increase in pH. After 15 minutes, double the water level again. Wait 10 minutes, then net out the fish and place them in the new tank.
Since temperature is quickly adjusted by this procedure, bags need not be floated. I do not recommend floating the fish in the bag since that just means the fish are in the bag for a longer time. Breather bags should never be floated since floating in water prevents oxygen and carbon dioxide from breathing through the bag. It is better to start the acclimation in the mixture of waters as described above and do it as soon as possible after you get the fish in your fish room.
Knowing the quality of the water in your tap, in your tanks and in the bag will help make you a better aquarist. These 5-in-1 or 6-in-1 test strips are the easiest way to define water quality. Just keep them dry until you use them, and protect them from moisture in the air.
May 13, 2012