Your Step By Step Guide To Unionized Ammonia Calculation

Last Updated on January 23, 2022 by Fabiola L.

Keeping ammonia levels in balance is crucial for any aquaponics system to be a success. This article will teach you all about ammonia and how to do unionized ammonia calculations.  

Ammonia is a byproduct that fish create when they excrete.  It is an unavoidable part of any aquaponics project. If it is produced in large amounts, it can ruin your whole tank’s ecosystem.

It is important to keep ammonia levels in check in order for your project to succeed.  Typically, ammonia levels are naturally contained by bacterias who consume it.  

Unionized ammonia refers to ammonia in its toxic state.  Once the bacteria break this down, it turns into a harmless form called ammonium.

If you think your tank’s ecosystem is imbalanced, you will need to keep a careful check on your unionized ammonia levels.  This is why we have created a step-by-step guide to unionized ammonia calculation and how to do it most accurately.

Unionized Ammonia And Nitrogen In Your Tank

Before we get started into unionized ammonia calculation, let’s overview the basic chemistry in your fish tank. Understanding how organic material changes in your water will save you a lot of headaches in the future.  So, let’s get started.

Nitrites and Ammonia are byproducts of organic material breaking down inside the water. The source can come from fish excretion, plants in your system, or uneaten food particles. When these materials break down, the chemical composition changes.  

At the beginning of decomposition, they turn into Ammonia which is very toxic for plants. Then, naturally occurring bacterias which live in the water turn the Ammonia into Nitrite.

The biological path that organic waste is broken down into is as follows:

First, it becomes Ammonia, then it is converted to Nitrites, and finally BACK to a usable form of Nitrates which actually helps your plants grow!    Keep in mind, Nitrites AND ammonia are toxic to fish.  

No matter what kind of system you have, this natural process will occur.  However, if you do not take proper care, the ammonia levels in your fish tank can get out of control and have severe consequences for your fish!

Unionized ammonia refers to ammonia when it is in its most toxic form. If it does not get broken down by bacterias, you will have a serious problem in your tank. 

unionized ammonia

Ammonia Calculator

Unionized Ammonia shows up in your tank as NH3, and the nontoxic ammonium is NH4. If you add up the amount of NH3 and NH4 in your tank, this gives you a reading called Total Ammonia Nitrogen. This is abbreviated as TAN.

Typically when you use an ammonia test kit, it will give you the TAN reading. This means you cannot tell how much percent of this reading is Unionized ammonia and how much is Ammonium (NH4).  

You can see that you cannot get an exact reading of NH3. However, there are certain things you can analyze in order to determine if the amount of unionized ammonia is a threat to your tank.

The first thing you need to understand is that the level of unionized ammonia depends on the water’s temperature and PH. NH3 needs certain conditions to break down and turn into NH4.  

According to Iowa State University, “When the pH is low, the reaction is driven to the right, and when the pH is high, the reaction is driven to the left.”  This means that when you have a PH level, your ammonia content will be high, but the ammonium will be below.  When you have a lower PH, you will find lower levels of ammonia and higher levels of ammonium.  

One way to ensure that your unionized ammonia doesn’t exceed dangerous levels is to keep your PH at a number slightly below neutral. A good number to stay within is 6-6.4. Most fish also prefer a PH level in this range.  

Another rule of thumb is that the lower your water’s temperature, the lower toxic ammonia levels will be. If you think you have a unionized ammonia problem, you can try to lower your water temperature to get things under control. 

Free Ammonia Calculation

Free ammonia calculation is the same thing as unionized ammonia calculation. They refer to it as free ammonia because it is the ammonia that has not yet been changed into ammonium (NH4).  

If you want to find out a close estimate of how much NH3 is in your water, you can take four different measurements, put them into an app, and it will give you a pretty accurate assessment. 

First, you need the water salinity level.  Salinity refers to the amount of salt in your system. You can measure this by using a special tool that goes into your water.  

Usually, you will have a saltwater tank if you are raising tropical fish. If you are working with freshwater fish species, then your salinity level will be 0.

The second measurement is the PH level. Water PH levels can easily be taken by using a PH kit. This is often a strip that you dip directly into the water. The paper will change colors to indicate the PH level.  

The third measurement is your water temperature. Water temperature is easily measured with a thermometer.  

The last measurement you can enter is the TAN (total ammonia nitrogen). If you have all these, there are applications online that can give you an NH3 reading.

In Conclusion

As you can see, the unionized ammonia calculation has to do with many factors of your tank. In aquaponics, you have to consider things together with the whole ecosystem rather than individually.  

The most important thing you can do is to keep your ecosystem healthy and in balance. If you monitor your levels and keep things stable, you should never have an unionized ammonia threat.  

However, it is crucial for you to know how to do unionized ammonia calculations. This skill is something that will save you a lot of headaches for all future aquaponics endeavors. 

Feel free to comment and ask questions below!