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I keep chocolate gouramis in a blackwater tank.  For water changes I make tannin-stained water with a pH of around 5 using Yates Hauraki Gold peat in a coffee maker (the old school kind that drips hot water through the grounds).  A lot of sources say that pH doesn't matter and that soft water is what counts, but I found that the chocolates I had didn't look good or stay healthy for long until I brought the pH way down with peat.  My remaining pair is going strong, and a few days ago I got five more to keep them company.

The newbies are in a quarantine tank and I have been changing out some of their water for peat water every day to acclimatise them to the conditions of the display tank.  The quarantine filter wasn't cycled so I've been feeding light, every second day in addition to doing 50% daily water changes.  I have tested pH daily to keep an eye on the drop, but yesterday I tested for ammonia and nitrite too and was startled to find that not only was ammonia already at 1 ppm before I did the water change, it actually increased after the water change.

Now, the fish in quarantine have not showed any abnormal behaviour and I even saw courting today.  The pH is currently at or below 6 (bottom limit of the API test, will use SERA next time as it covers low range) and at that low pH the ammonia is not toxic to the fish, so I'm not concerned for their immediate welfare.  (I will be checking often for nitrite as I understand that it is more toxic in acid conditions.)  

But I was disturbed, because as the peat doesn't have any added fertilisers, it never occurred to me that it would contain ammonia.  So, I made up another batch of peat water today and tested it - it look to be somewhere between 2 and 4 ppm, I couldn't really tell, but high.  I tested my display tank, which had a water change the day before yesterday - barest trace of ammonia, no nitrite, nitrate about 5ppm.  I've obviously been unknowingly dumping ammonia in there for ages and the filter just clears it over a few days.

I'm puzzled.  A quick internet search didn't yield much information, a couple of aquarists who have found that their peat contains ammonia, a couple of companies who sell peat praising it for being excellent at absorbing ammonia.  Does all peat naturally contain ammonia?  Does anyone know?  I am on my second bag of peat, I have no idea whether the first bag I used added ammonia though I suppose it did.  I do remember when I started using it being concerned about the beneficial bacteria dying off as the pH dropped, and I tested to check.  I didn't see any ammonia at the time, but I'm sure I would have tested before a water change, not afterwards.  What about peat granules sold for aquarium use, has anyone ever tested them?  It seems very odd to me that peat is widely recommended as a natural way to soften water, with no mention of releasing ammonia.

And what about water changes going forward?  I really want to keep the pH down and the peat is the only way that has worked for me - using distilled water only got me down to high 6's and I was still losing fish.  They are now healthy, vibrant and apparently happy in their peat water, so perhaps I should keep just doing what I'm doing and not worry about the ammonia?

If anyone here has experience with blackwater tanks and/or using peat, I'd be grateful to hear your thoughts.

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On 3/9/2019 at 8:45 PM, Caryl said:

I have no experience with blackwater tanks or using peat but found your post interesting. Were both bags of peat the same brand?

Yes, both the Yates peat.

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On 3/10/2019 at 6:34 AM, alanmin4304 said:

Is your water supply chlorinated and if so what are you using to treat the chlorine?

Yes, I'm using Prime at the moment.

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The prime will convert the ammonia released from the treatment of the chloramines to ammonium but I understand that the test kits read for ammonium and ammonia. If that is the case then the ammonium will be safe at that pH.

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9 hours ago, alanmin4304 said:

The prime will convert the ammonia released from the treatment of the chloramines to ammonium but I understand that the test kits read for ammonium and ammonia. If that is the case then the ammonium will be safe at that pH.

Thanks, yes, the test shows the total of ammonia + ammonium.  Wellington's water is only treated with chlorine, not chloramine to my knowledge, so I'm fairly sure that the ammonia I'm seeing is from the peat itself rather than chloramines.  But I'll test some dechlorinated tap water to confirm.

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Little update - the female of the courting pair is now holding eggs (mouthbrooders).  I'm taking that as a sign that they're not at all bothered by the ammonia, which is still well over 2ppm.  I haven't done any more water changes, there's no point since the ammonia isn't getting processed.  I've added the other three fish to the display tank, so only the breeding pair remain in the quarantine tank.  Will buy some Brooklands aquarium peat this weekend and test that for ammonia.

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Brooklands peat has the same properties as Yates Hauraki Gold peat, end pH is the same, ammonia content is the same.  It looks identical and so I'm assuming it's the same product in a smaller bag.  I double checked my treated tap water for ammonia after dechlorinating, none detected so it's definitely all coming from the peat.

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