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Nitrate vs Nitrite- What Does it Mean in Aquaponics?

Ammonia Nitrite Nitrate Cycle

Nitrate vs Nitrite, whats the deal?  Is there a difference and why is it important? Lets throw back to basics here.  No, even more basic than water, fish, plants, food.  Lets go to bacterial basics. Fish are animals. They create Ammonia through their waste.  A healthy system will have bacteria that turns that Ammonia into Nitrites and then a different bacteria that will turn the Nitrites into Nitrates.  Plants eat Nitrates!  That is their food. As the plants absorb the Nitrates they are cleaning the water and therefore give your fish a healthy environment to live in. Too much Ammonia will kill your fish.

As part of your system maintenance you should be checking your water every day (for new systems) up to once a week (for mature systems). You would do this with a water testing kit. Typically you will be checking your pH levels, your nitrites and your nitrates.

As you check nitrite vs nitrate levels, it is best for them both to be showing 0. When those numbers are at 0 that means that the bacteria are efficiently converting all the ammonia into food your plants can eat and your plants are eating them! Are your numbers higher than that?  I’ll help you problem solve!

Nitrates are the food that your plants eat. If your Nitrates or Nitrites are high it is because of one of two things.  1) You have too many fish for how many plants you have or 2) you are feeding your fish too much food.

There are several perfect solutions to this problem. The first and best course of action is to decrease the amount of food you are feeding them or stop feeding them until the levels go back down.  (Don’t worry, fish can live for quite a while without being fed!).  Another option is to plant new plants, although that option takes a while to be of use. Doing a 50% water change can definitely help as well, although depending on the size of your system might not be feasible. If your fish are harvest-able size, harvest a few.  If you can put a few fish in a separate tank, that is a good idea too.

I’d definitely take a two pronged approach.  Either plant a few more plants while not feeding your fish for several days or stop planting new plants and do a 50% water change, or stop feeding your fish and do a partial water change.  All three of these options will bring your nitrite and nitrate levels down to where you need them to be.

Fish can tolerate higher nitrate levels for a little while, although if your nitrates are higher than 400, you might already be looking at dead fish… Don’t panic about the higher levels but take them in stride.  Understand that its just a process of keeping your tank healthy. Work toward making both numbers 0 by balancing your fish and your plants.

Check out our product review of different water test kits here!


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