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  • Testing and Testing Equipment

    Article: Testing and Test Equipment

    Intro: The Task Of Testing Your Water Parameters

    In the aquarium hobby, one of the most important elements of a healthy environment for your fish and other livestock is the quality of the water they are living in. Whether you're keeping a fish only with live rock (commonly referred to as FOWLR) or a full reef system, water parameters are an important factor in keeping your livestock healthy and happy and alive. Sometimes, your make-up water just doesn't quite cut it in providing your tank with the "proper" levels (or should I say the levels you are shooting for) of certain trace elements needed by certain marine life like corals for example, and the only way of knowing this is by testing. Who knows, you may need to supplement something like some extra calcium to bring your levels up to where it needs to be. Then there are cases when you just need to know if your water is safe enough to put livestock in as toxic ammonia and nitrite can be lethal to your livestock and the only way to figure this out is by testing.

    So with that said, let's take a look at the most common things usually tested for in this hobby...

    Most Common Tests Performed

    TDS (Total Dissolved Solids)- Reef Tank hobbyists are constantly looking to control the amount of nutrients we add to our tanks as it leads to algae growth or at least blooms of it. One of the possible sources of nutrients is in the water we get from our taps. TDS can be present in our home tap water and since they come in a dissolved form they are very easy for algae to utilized. You can test for this in your tap water by using a TDS meter, these meters can range from a cheaper inline meter to the more expensive hand held models. For a look at a variety of models and types go Here and for a more descriptive explanation of TDS go What is TDS?

    Salinity - When looking into this topic we must understand that Salinity in the aquarium hobby is measured in a few different means. One is salinity which measures it in terms of PPM (old standard) and the other is Specific Gravity. When looking to test and keep track of salinity, the norm is to use a Conductivity meter/probe, this piece of equipment will give you a measure in terms of ppm but it also carries a bit of and expense to it. The next step down in terms of equipment works on the premiss of Specific Gravity and it is called the refractometer. When using a refractometer one must make sure they calibrate this unit prior to each use by using RO/DI water (allowing it to sit on the window for 30 seconds for temperature) and then once every month or so by using a salinity standard calibration fluid. The final method commonly used is also the cheapest and it is called a hydrometer. Hydrometers come in two versions, one being the swing arm and the other a floating form that looks like a thermometer. When purchasing a hydrometer one must pay particular attention to the temperature standard that the hydrometer is calibrated to. The one that most advanced reefers use is set to a 75 F standard, this one will give you the most accurate reading in the world of hydrometers for keeping reefs. As with all things one must approach the purchase of one of these pieces of equipment with the outlook that you get what you pay for, normally the higher the price gets you the more accurate readings. Personally I would suggest (with all the other expenses of starting up a reef) that a new hobbyist start with a decent hydrometer while their tanks go through the various stages of cycling and then move up in grade as time passes and your wallet has a little more in it. To see a variety of salinity measuring tools please look Here. For some good reading on salinity and measuring it, take a peek at this article. Refractometer's and Salinity Measurement

    Ammonia- In the beginning of cycling a tank, testing for ammonia is required to follow a tanks natural development of bacteria population and process. Because of all the biological (LR, LS and similar) and mechanical (Skimmers, ozone and similar) one does not usually test on a regular basis for the presence of ammonia. Because of this most hobbyists buy one when they first enter the hobby and then just keep it around to test if something goes horrible wrong. As with most of these element test kits their are many on the market at many different price levels. Most common is the hobby is to look for a test kit that gives both clarity and accurate. To see some popular test kits for ammonia testing look Here and for some more in-depth reading take a peek a this article:Ammonia and the Reef Aquarium

    Nitrites- As with Ammonia, Nitrites and thus the need to test for it mainly happens at the beginning of your tanks first cycling. When you have and use this test it allows you to follow the population increase of bacteria that reduces Nitrite. Because of all the biological (LR, LS and similar) and mechanical (Skimmers, ozone and similar) one does not usually test on a regular basis for the presence of ammonia. Because of this most hobbyists buy one when they first enter the hobby and then just keep it around to test if something goes horrible wrong. As with most of these element test kits their are many on the market at many different price levels. Most common is the hobby is to look for a test kit that gives both clarity and accurate. To see some of the more popular test kits have a look Here and for a little more depth read on the subject have a look at Nitrite and the Reef Aquarium

    Nitrates - Unlike Ammonia and Nitrites, Nitrates are something that tends to be something most reef tanks owners find themselves constantly testing for through out the life of their tanks. Nitrates are produced in the tank in many different ways, from LR to LS to fish waste to anywhere bacteria can create a well oxygenated surface to populate, it the same breathe they are also enter the tank through feeding, additives and similar. So testing for nitrates can be useful to check for sources and to maintain the various methods we use to control or reduce their presence. Most hobbyists will find that they will go through many Nitrate test kits for the life of their tanks. As with all test kits it is best to find kits that are both accurate and easy to read and for this you will find a broad range of pricing on these products. To see some of the more popular Nitrate test kits on the market have a look Here and for a more in-depth read have a look at this article Nitrate in the Reef Aquarium

    Phosphates - Phosphates fall into the same category as do Nitrates and they come in many forms, from particulate, to inorganic and so on. Phosphate test kits can only measure those that come in the state of Dissolved Inorganic form. Phosphates enter our system in many different ways, from the food we feed to the additives to the various sub-straights we have or use in our tanks. Phosphates like Nitrates are easy for algae of many forms to bind to their matrix, which in turn can create algae blooms or growth in our tanks. For this reason the Phosphate testing is something most reefers will use through out the life of their reef tanks. They can be used to test the overall P levels in the system or to test the variety things we put in. Again as with all test kits it is best to search for brands that are both accurate and simple to read. To see some of the more popular kits out their take a peek Here and for a good read Phosphate and the Reef Aquarium

    Calcium - Calcium is an element in our reef tanks that will be depleted natural through uptake from corals, various algae and most critters that use it to form shells and similar. Because it is used up in our tanks we are force to add this element back in to keep it at natural SW levels. SO once more the cardinal rule comes into place " Anything you add or know is depleting you MUST test for". As with most elements Calcium has strong bonds and relationships with other elements with in the natural SW mix. Alkalinity and Magnesium are its to best friends and will play a direct role in its levels and its availability to those that need it. Also Phosphates can play a key role. Again as with all test kits it is best to search for brands that are both accurate and simple to read. For some of the more popular testing resources have a look Here and a great article on the subject Chemistry and the Aquarium: Calcium

    Alkalinity - Alkalinity is basically the measurement of carbonate systems with in your reef tank. Your alkalinity will directly effect the PH of you tank and it also play a huge role on your calcium levels. In the your reef tank as it is in the wild Alkalinity ions will search out calcium ions and bind with them and then look for a clean surface to seed onto. You can see this reaction occur on things like Heaters, pumps and similar, you can also see it occur inside the corals (Hard corals) themselves as the fallout from their binding forms the actual coral skeleton. As with all elements that are used up and/or depleted a reef tank keeper will have to find a way to replace this element in order to keep its levels at a natural SW level. Thus once again the cardinal rule is implied, so testing for this element is a must. For a look at some of the popular testing resources have a look Here and for a great read Chemistry and the Aquarium: What is Alkalinity

    Magnesium (Mag) - Is a somewhat ignored element but it is equally as important as both alk. and cal. Magnesium is used up by all the same things that Calcium and Alkalinity is and their for it is a product that will be depleted in our tanks. Magnesium also forms a special kind of relationship with calcium, its kind of like calcium's Little brother, its ions will surround the alk ions and stop them from binding with calcium and then precipitating out of solution. SO if your mag levels get to low it will greatly effect your ability to keep your calcium levels up. With this understood one must again keep a cautious eye on Mag to make sure its levels are close to those of natural sea water. Using an accurate and easy to use test kit becomes essential. For some of the more popular test kits have a look Here , and for a more detailed explanation on Magnesium have a look at this articleAquarium Chemistry: Magnesium In Reef Aquaria

    ORP (Oxygen Reduction Potencial ) - Is a measure of the balance between Oxidizers and reducers in your system. One must look at this balance as kind of a war between the oxidizers and the reducers, both are in a constant battle to become dominate with in our tanks and they come in many forms. If either of these two win that battle your tank will die, so it is important to maintain that balance. Now in saying that a good aerated healthy tank will always have a good balance naturally, but it is a nice thing to watch to see if anything changes. Their are test kits available but the most common way to monitor it is by the use of a ORP probe and monitor. Also if one ever decides to use Ozone or to dose products such as Hydrogen peroxide the monitoring it is a must. The only way to test orp is by using meters so have a look Here and a great read ORP and the Reef Aquarium

    There are many articles to be found here on Reef Frontiers that will help you better understand the relationship between ammonia, nitrites and nitrates, and between calcium, alkalinity, magnesium and ph, and how important it is that the levels are checked and kept in a specific range.
    See the "Reef Aquarium Chemistry for Beginners parts 1,2,3&4" and other threads in the in the Specialty Forum here on Reef Frontiers.
    Reef Chemistry Discussion with Boomer

    Types of Test Kits

    There are many different brands of water test kits for saltwater. Some of the more common ones are
    • Instant Ocean test Kit
    • Salifert test kit
    • Elos test kit
    • Aquarium Pharmaceuticals(API) test kit
    • Red Sea test kit
    • Sea Chem test kit
    These tests all consist of liquid or powdered chemicals that are mixed with the water from the tank to produce a result which is then measured by the color matched to a color card supplied in the test kits. Some brands are easier to use and easier to read the results of. Some of these test kits are also more accurate than others.

    There are also digital, hand held meters for some water parameters that are easier to use and read than the chemical tests. Those are currently limited to water temp, pH, ORP, alkalinity and salinity.

    Also, if you are interested in seeing what is the most commonly used instrument to test specific gravity/salinty of the water among the reefing community, here is a poll that you can check out.

    We have questioned the members here on what test kits and equipment they use and why. This thread is located here for you to review and help you in your decision for what test kits or equipment you may choose to use.. Also, if you are interested in how frequently people test their water, here is another poll that you may find useful


    So to sum it all up, testing is a part of the hobby that you just can't get around. When you are dealing with such a small volume of water compared to what the ocean provides for it's inhabitants, our tank's just can't compare or provide the stability the ocean can on its own. It is up to us to make sure that our water's parameters are in "tip top" shape to provide the best possible atmosphere for whatever marine life we decide to keep. Without testing, a lot of the problems that we may encounter in this hobby would just never be figured out. You have for example some nuisance algae growing all of a sudden and you aren't quite sure what is causing it to grow so what do you do? You test your water for nitrates and phosphates...Two of algae favorite food sources and from there, you will know which direction you need to head in. Then there may be a case where your corals all of a sudden stop growing like they use to so right away you check your calcium, alk and mag levels to make sure they are all balanced. If not, then you will know exactly what it is you need to supplement in. Even just starting up a new tank we can see that a few basic test kits and instruments are needed such as a hydrometer or refractometer to make sure that your salinity levels are sitting at the appropriate spot and then kits like ammonia and nitrite (most importantly) are needed to figure out when your initial cycle is completed. It is only through testing these two that you will know when it is safe to add in your delicate livestock who's lives may be at jeopardy under the toxic conditions that the presence of ammonia and nitrite provide.

    With that said, all tank's are different as there are so many different variables involved. This is why testing your water is so important (especially with a good quality test kit). Learning how to properly test your different water parameters is essential as well so that you don't fall victim to false readings that could make or break your system. This hobby doesn't come cheap and one little mistake can bring a tank completely crashing down so to ensure the best possible success in this hobby, a good piece of advice would be to test your water regularly and properly. What you test for, will all be dependent upon what your long term goals are for your aquarium in addition to what stage you are at in the hobby.
    This article was originally published in forum thread: Testing and Testing Equipment started by mojoreef View original post
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