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Five drops from one bottle, five drops from another, and within minutes, a colour is generated revealing a previously unknown property of your aquarium or pond’s water.  The secret chemistry that happens within a test tube appears mysterious and prone to misconceptions.  Let’s explore some of these ideas and see what’s going on:

Nitrite tests from different manufacturers measure nitrite differently.

FALSE:    The underlying chemistry used to generate a colour that intensifies as the compound of interest increases is largely the same, whether it’s an NT Labs test or any other.  There can be subtle tweaks in formulations to slightly alter performance, but the fundamental chemical reaction is the same.

NT Labs Nitrate Test measures nitrogen whilst some others measure nitrate ion.

FALSE:   Like the first answer, the chemistry is the same.  Where there is a difference is how the concentration is reported.  It’s similar to measuring length; you can report the physical length of an object in centimetres, inches, metres or yards, but the methodology of measurement is still the same.

When you use an Ammonia/Nitrite/Nitrate NT Labs Test Kit, you need to multiply the result to convert it.

FALSE:  You only need to perform any numeric conversion on a result if you need to know the concentration of the ion of interest, but this is rarely required.  In the case of nitrate for example, this is the difference between NO3-N and NO3-.  The former reports the mass of nitrogen as a concentration (as if the ‘O3’ bit does not exist), while the latter considers the mass of the entirety of the compound (technically, only half of the compound as these negative ions cannot exist in isolation).  The former is preferred for three reasons.  Reporting as NO3-N is entirely unambiguous in what is reported, whereas NO3 does not share the same clarity.  When comparing a nitrate concentration to known toxicity values, these toxicity values are usually in terms of NO3-N; like-for-like comparisons are needed to know if your water is safe.  Finally, reporting in terms of nitrogen makes working with these numbers much easier.  For example, 14 mg of NH4-N will be converted by your filter to 14 mg of NO2-N, then to 14 mg NO3-N; the actual amount of nitrogen doesn’t change, irrespective of its form.  If you use the actual molecular weight of the ions, it turns out that 18 mg of ammonia will be converted to 46 mg of nitrate ion, then converted to 62 mg of nitrate ion!  Both examples are correct, but reporting in terms of nitrogen is much more comprehensible.

All liquid-based ammonia tests measure total ammonia

TRUE:  This is certainly the case where the test uses the “indophenol blue” method or its variants.  Ammonia (NH3) in water coexists with its ionised form, ammonium (NH4+), and one can readily change into the other and back again: a phenomenon known as ‘chemical equilibrium’.  Like an old-fashioned set of scales, the position of this equilibrium is determined by the pH and temperature of the water.  Alkaline pH and higher temperatures tip the balance in favour of free ammonia, while acidic conditions and lower temperatures favours ionised ammonium.  However, when running the test, which requires strongly alkaline conditions to work, all of the ammonia is converted to the NH3 form.  Consequently, this type of test will measure total ammonia.  In conjunction with the pH and temperature, it is possible to calculate the concentration of the harmful free ammonia in your pond or aquarium.  However, in practice, any positive total ammonia concentration reading indicates a problem and will most likely result in an elevated nitrite concentration shortly after.

Phosphate in a reef aquarium should be 0.03 mg/L PO4-.

FALSE: But the devil is in the detail.  Ideal phosphate concentration in a reef aquarium should be 0.03 mg/L as phosphorus (or using the convention as above, PO4-P), which means that phosphate ion concentration should be about 0.1 mg/L as phosphate ion.  However, phosphate ions are a little more nuanced; phosphate ions that can lead to algae growth or affect coral health can take numerous forms, with varying quantities of phosphorus and oxygen bound together.  It would therefore be wrong to assume that all phosphorus in a water sample is in the form of PO4, but we can all agree on the total amount of phosphorus present when we report it as phosphorus (PO4-P).  It would be like trying to work out the number of vehicles on a road; you could count all of the wheels belonging to cars and divide by 4, count all of the wheels belonging to motorbikes and divide by 2 and add the two together

A KH test that reports dKH can be converted to mg/L.

TRUE:  each dKH (or degrees carbonate hardness) is equivalent to 17.85 mg/L, but here’s the important bit: as calcium carbonate (CaCO3).  Again, this isn’t to imply that 1 litre of water with 1 dKH contains 17.85 mg/L calcium carbonate, but it is equivalent to having this amount dissolved in water.  Many minerals contribute to the effect we call carbonate hardness, such as carbonates, bicarbonates, even hydroxides.  Only sophisticated high-tech testing would be able to accurately measure each of these components separately, and it is lucky we don’t require that information.  Consequently, we can simplify and effectively pretend that it all originates from calcium carbonate.   For the fans of chemistry, CaCO3 also handily has the nice, round atomic weight of 100 g/mole!

Conclusion:  The hobby of fishkeeping is unique amongst pet ownership in that it allows a fishkeeper, if they so wish, to explore a lot of the science that governs the habitat of our fish.  That’s not to say it’s a must – our test kits are easy to use with simple step-by-step instructions, complete with colour charts showing what’s acceptable or what requires action.  If you’re new to fishkeeping or maybe intimidated by the chemistry, it’s usually sufficient to know that ammonia and nitrite should be zero, nitrate should be as low as your source water allows, the pH is correct and stabilised by a good level of KH.  Equally, if you want to enjoy the science and get stuck into the numbers, understanding these measurement conventions can really help put these concentrations into a meaningful context.

To view the full range of Aquarium Lab test kits, click here.

Tagged in: Indoor

Recent Testimonial

Koi Water Barn and NT Labs have a long history of working together, we feel that the products in the Koi Care range offer our customers a quality product at a realistic price. This is backed up by extensive research and development that is carried out at the NT Labs HQ located in Kent. They are not far away from our shop at Coolings (Knockholt, near Sevenoaks), this is an added bonus for our customers as they are buying from a local UK based company.
Keith Holmes - Koi Waterbarn

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It’s been great to watch this highly successful and innovative company develop its product range to meet the challenging needs of Koi Keepers. It’s great to have a definitive go to brand.
Nigel Caddock - Nishikigoi Yearbook Magazine

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It will be manufactures like NT Labs who give support to retail shops that be rewarded in the long term for their support to the trade
Kernow Aquatics & Reptiles

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We have been working closely with NT labs for many years now. We stock their Pond range and test kits, we strongly believe they are the best liquid test kits on the market, we use them in-store and have sold many over the years. Last year we have began stocking more of their fantastic ranges including their Pro-f food range and Aquarium range of water treatments.
Nicholas Cox - The Aquatic Store Bristol

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Excellent technical department that knows it's chemicals as well as it's fish!
Matt Sands

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At FishCove Aquatics we are huge fans of NT labs range of products we have seen fantastic results using the food and even bigger results with the liquid fertiliser. Tried and tested by us recommend by many.
FishCove Aquatics - Dorset

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“I Just wanted to say thank you for the help with bacterial issues I had in my pond. I can happily say that the mouth rot of one fish and the fin rot of two others has cleared up to near perfection now. I have been really impressed with the service from your technical team. I have already recommended online that people ask NT Labs about their products and recommended usage.”
Richard Pashley

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Your Probiotic food is absolutely brilliant! I bought twenty one 1 year old Japanese Koi via a fish farm in Ogata, Japan about 3 years ago. I’ve been feeding them on Probiotic and Probiotic Growth in the summer months. Some of are now 2ft in length and of superior quality. It’s not cheap, but you get what you pay for.
Paul Munday - Consumer review

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I have used many products for the eradication of aiptasia over the last 15 years. Often with poor results. After purchasing the Anti-Aiptasia, I was astonished with the results! Absolutely fantastic and not like the competitors which normally contains some form of hydroxide. I would highly recommend NT Labs Anti-Aiptasia. This is arguably the best in the market!
Viv Samuels-Lee - Consumer Review

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We use Blanketweed Balance, and find it highly successful in the battle against Blanketweed. We recommend it to all of our customers and feedback is very positive. It is now our best selling Blanketweed treatment. Another top quality product from NT Labs
Roydon Hamlet Water Garden

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I work at a pet store in Durban (South Africa) and have had the best results with my salt water aquariums that I have EVER seen. I have been in the industry for about 10 years now and seriously recommend the products supplied by NT Labs. All our customers that have used anti-aiptasia swear by this product and have said that it over rules every other product out there. Highly recommended.
Brandon Baker - South Africa

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"I called your offices for support and was put in touch with one of your Aquatic Biologists. He has been incredibly helpful... Without your help, my fish would be suffering and I might have had to stop keeping Koi. I cannot recommend your products, or staff, enough."
John - Customer Service Review