Chloramines in Aquarium Water

5.5.2. Chloramines in Aquarium Water

Chloramine (generally monochloramine NH2Cl) is a combination of chlorine and ammonia used in many municipal tap water suppliers to remove bacteria from the water. Chloramines are less prone to dissipation by long runs of piping and is considered less of a carcinogen than chlorine.

Chloramine does not kill bacteria firmly ensconced in a biofilm on the pipes. If a municipality uses chloramine, every once and a while it must pulse a high concentration of pure chlorine into the water to kill the bacteria in the biofilm. If you happen to be doing a water change when that “pulsing” is done, you can kill a lot of fish.

Parachromis dovii - Hybrid
Parachromis dovii – Hybrid

When a system is on chloramine. the chlorine pulses need to be frequent. Depending on the water quality it might be as often as weekly. This is why some suppliers of conditioners recommend five times the level of conditioner for chloramines that is used for chlorine.

About one-third of cities in the US use chloramines. To determine if you have chloramine, you can’t really test for it. If you neutralize the chlorine in chloramine with conditioner, and then test for ammonia, you won’t get a good answer. The conditioner will interfere with the chemistry of the test. So, you need to call your water supplier and find out what they are using.

Tropheus moorii
Tropheus moorii

Chloramine Toxicity

A reference is pertinent (“Toxicity of Combined Chlorine Residuals to Freshwater Fish”, John Zillich, 1972):

“McKee and Wolf, in their discussion of chloramines, stated that chloramines were more toxic than free chlorine to warm-water fish. As little as 0.4 mg/l can kill adult fish, and 0.05 mg/l is lethal to trout fry. Coventry et al. reported that the average chloramine concentration of 0.76 mg/l was fatal to hardy minnows and that an average concentration of 0.4 mg/l was instantly fatal to sunfish and some bullheads, and a maximum concentration of 0.06 mg/l was fatal to fry after 48 hours….

Merkens stated that the toxicities of the chloramines and the free chlorine must be of the same order. The log median survival time of rainbow trout was directly related to the total residual chlorine. At pH of 7, 0.08 mg/l of residual chlorine almost all in the form of monochloramine, killed about half the test fish after 7 days of exposure.”

So chloramine is toxic in extremely small quantities.

Maylandia lombardoi - Kennyi
Maylandia lombardoi (kennyi)

Testing for Chloramines

There is a problem that has occasionally killed tanks of fish. There are two types of chlorine tests. One type of test measures both chlorine and chloramine and is called a “total chlorine” test. One type of test ONLY measures chlorine, it doesn’t measure chloramine. It is important to make sure the test says “Total Chlorine Test”.

A few poor souls used the only chlorine test. They have then stopped using conditioner because “their test kits show they have no chlorine”. And these unfortunate souls have killed tanks of fish because they have chloramine in their water.

Further Information

There are some aquarium hobbyists who are interested in delving deep into the science and the calculations behind all aspects of the hobby. For those who are so inclined the following is pertinent:

5.5.2.1. Ammonia in Chloramines

5.5.3. Conditioners


Startpage Aquariumscience

Source: Aquariumscience.org – David Bogert

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