Instant Cycling Chemicals for the Aquarium

2.9. Instant Cycling Chemicals for the Aquarium

There are a whole series of products that claim to “detoxify” ammonia and nitrite during cycling. They claim these products give an “instant cycle”. These claims are simply false marketing hype.

Many suppliers of these products write some very lengthy claims and papers on how their products work. They blend scientific fact with fiction to create a very believable story.

Aulonocara konningsi Mbenji
Aulonocara konningsi Mbenji


A simple test was set up to measure toxic ammonia gas concentrations in water which had various conditioners added to it. The test used the Seachem free ammonia test.

This is the test that is recommended by Seachem for showing how well Prime and Safe “detoxify” ammonia.

This point cannot be overemphasized. Many come on social media and say “this test doesn’t reflect what Seachem Prime does“. If this is true, why does Seachem recommend the test?

Ammonia was added to 8.0 pH water to create a concentration of 5 ppm of total ammonia. This should give about 0.26 ppm of gaseous ammonia. Testing with several ammonia test kits (Tetra EasyStrips, Salifert Ammonia, Seachem total ammonia, API Ammonia test) confirmed the 5 ppm level of ammonia.

Then several products that claim to detoxify or neutralize ammonia were purchased. A series of bottles were filled with ammonia water and dosage of five times the recommended level of “detoxifier” was then added. In one bottle, the “control” had nothing added. There were three bottles used for each product.

Aulonocara stuargranti maleri Chidunga Rocks
Aulonocara stuargranti maleri Chidunga Rocks

The bottles were then tested with the Seachem free ammonia test dots using the 30-minute scale.

  • Prime (Dithionite) 0.28, 0.26, 032
  • Safe (Dithionite) 0.30, 0.26, 0.26
  • Amguard (Proprietary) 0.25, 0.25, 0.30
  • Aqueon Water Conditioner (Thiosulfate) 0.22, 0.24, 0.26
  • API Water Conditioner (Thiosulfate) 0.28, 0.26, 0.20
  • AmQuel Plus (Hydroxymethanesulfinate) 0.32, 0.22, 028
  • Tetra AquaSafe Plus (Hydroxymethanesulfinate) 0.26, 0.30, 0.28
  • Fritz Guard (Proprietary) 0.20, 0.30, 0.24
  • Aquatic Experts TankFirst (Proprietary) 0.24, 0.26, 0.28
  • API Ammo Lock (Aminoethylsulfinate) 0.30, 0.30, 0.26
  • Control (nothing added)   0.24, 0.28, 0.18

These products ALL failed to neutralize or detoxify ANY ammonia.  The 0.26 level of free ammonia was maintained in all the products, with no “complexing”, “detoxifying” or “binding” being done. So the two Seachem claims and the other product claims are simply marketing hype. Note 0.2 free ammonia gas is considered the “Alarm” level by Seachem, quite correctly.

Note this is a very easy test anyone can do. Duplicate the test if you don’t believe it. Two chemists on an aquarium forum (Reef2Reef) duplicated the test of the Prime and got the same results.

picture of an aquarium fish Paracyprichromis nigripinnis Blue Neon
Paracyprichromis nigripinnis Blue Neon

Sodium Dithionite

One set of “detoxifying” products such as Seachem Prime and Seachem Safe are sodium dithionite.  Safe and Prime were tested in a professional chemistry laboratory with an incredibly accurate DXR™2 SmartRaman spectrometer. These lab tests confirmed these products are pure sodium dithionite and nothing else.

Sodium dithionite removes chlorine because it is a reducing agent and chlorine gas is a strong oxidizing agent. Sodium dithionite does nothing for ammonia. There are NO chemicals that will neutralize the ammonia, NONE!

Note that while as I have pointed out Mother Nature can be very flexible and unpredictable in many areas related to fishkeeping, this isn’t one of those areas. The above is based on firmly-established, indisputable facts of chemistry.

In water, sodium dithionite decomposes to sodium thiosulfate and sulfurous acid. The sodium thiosulfate and the sulfurous acid then reduce the chlorine in the water:

word image 35

So sodium dithionite just decomposes into sodium thiosulfate. And the chemistry from then on is identical to the cheap sodium thiosulfate.

Aulonocara maulana
Aulonocara maulana

There are no equations for ammonia and nitrite. Ammonia and nitrite must be OXIDIZED to nitrate to detoxify them and sodium dithionite is a REDUCING agent. It is impossible to have a chemical that acts both as an oxidizer and as a reducing agent. The two are mutually exclusive.

It is important to remember that it is perfectly legal for the marketing departments to make any claim they want to make concerning any product. There are even some “papers” put out by a “Ph.D.” that have a very convincing blend of accurate science with science fiction. They are more hype. This is not a regulated industry! And the profit motive is very strong.

The test above clearly shows these products do not neutralize the ammonia.

Seachem Prime and Safe are analyzed in much more depth in this link: Prime and Safe

picture of an aquarium fish Paralabidochromis Chromogynos Black Piebald
Paralabidochromis Chromogynos Black Piebald

Sodium Hydroxymethanesulfinate

Another chemical that is claimed to be able to safely neutralize ammonia and nitrite is sodium hydroxymethanesulfinate. This is used in the products Tetra AquaSafe Plus, Kordon AmQuel, Kordon AmQuel plus, ClorAm-X and Hikari Aquarium Solutions Ultimate. Sodium hydroxymethanesulfinate does remove chlorine via the equation:

word image 36

Per some patents, this chemical supposedly safely neutralizes ammonia to form harmless aminomethylsulfinate.

The reaction is supposed:

word image 37

This looks all well and good to most people. But to a chemist, this is off, way off. The C-N bond is a much higher energy bond than the C-O bond. Thus, this equation is simply bogus. It doesn’t occur except at very high temperatures and very high pressures in non-aqueous environments using metal-based catalysts.

Aulonocara Roter Kaiser Hybrid
Aulonocara Roter Kaiser Hybrid

The patent for this compound’s use in aquariums dates to 1988. It makes interesting fictional reading. In 1980 the patent law was revised to allow a person to patent the impossible. This patent appears to be a classic case of just such an occurrence.

Sodium hydroxymethanesulfinate (Tetra AquaSafe Plus, Kordon AmQuel, Kordon AmQuel plus, ClorAm-X, and Hikari Aquarium Solutions Ultimate) categorically does not detoxify ammonia in any form, that claim is just marketing hype.

The test above clearly shows these products do not neutralize the ammonia.

Parambassis pulcinella, Humphead glassfish
Parambassis pulcinella, Humphead glassfish

Proprietary Aliphatic Amine Salt

Another “proprietary” product (API Ammo-Lock) for neutralizing chloramine is a “proprietary aliphatic amine salt”. Supposedly this “changes ammonia into a less toxic form of ammonium for approximately 24 hours”. This is an amino sulfinate. If this is an amino sulfinate it will neutralize chlorine but won’t do anything for ammonia.

And as for this product changing ammonia into ammonium, any product which neutralizes the chlorine in chloramine in water does that. The removal of the chlorine from the chloramine leaves ammonia. In water, most of the ammonia is converted to ammonium. That’s what water does. It has absolutely nothing to do with the conditioner.

The test above clearly shows this product does not neutralize the ammonia.

Paratilapia polleni
Paratilapia polleni

Proprietary Formulations

There are many “proprietary formulations” used in the aquarium trade for many things, including removing chloramine. This includes a host of “natural” products. The premise for keeping the ingredients of these formulations “proprietary” is to prevent the competition from getting the formulation. This is more hype. For a few hundred dollars any competitor can get the exact ingredients of any formulation from any one of several hundred labs in parts per billion.

The reason for the proprietary label is to prevent the consumer from buying a generic equivalent at a lower price or to prevent the consumer from realizing the ingredients won’t work as advertised. One shouldn’t trust or use anything which won’t tell you its ingredients.

In any case, the test above clearly showed these proprietary formulations did not remove ammonia.

Aulonocara Red Flush Nametumbwe
Aulonocara Red Flush Nametumbwe

Belief Perseverance Effect

Now there is a psychological phenomenon called the “belief perseverance effect” which is very strong. “belief perseverance effect” says that if someone buys something, and especially if someone pays a lot of money for that something, even when presented with evidence they made their purchase in error, a normal person will rationalize and support their own decision. There is no way any evidence, testing, or science can penetrate the brick walls that belief perseverance effect puts up in the brain. So we won’t try.

“Nothing dies harder than a lie that people want to believe”


If an aquarium hobbyist puts a bunch of fish in a new aquarium and feeds those fish a lot of food. And if that hobbyist adds one of these “detoxifying” chemicals to their aquarium expecting the chemical to protect their fish, this newcomer could damage or even kill their fish. So this is one instance when marketing hype can be damaging.

Startpage Aquariumscience

Source: – David Bogert

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