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If you keep fish in an aquarium, it’s important to maintain the water’s pH level. The pH scale ranges from 0 to 14, with 7 being neutral. If the pH level is too high or too low, it can be harmful to the fish. In this blog post, we’ll explore how to lower pH in aquariums using 7 proven methods. Keep reading for more information!
What Is pH?
pH is one of the most important parameters in the fish tank setting as well as in regular water quality analysis. The pH of water directly impacts which species and aquatic life can live in any given ecosystem. An overview of the pH is supplied below by MooMooMath and Science.
For example, tropical freshwater tetra fish are found in waters with low pH while African cichlids need high pH. But what is pH and why are pH levels so important in the aquarium setting?
In order to understand why pH is so important, it’s necessary to understand how it is measured.
pH is the logarithmic scale of how acidic or basic a solution is on a scale from 0.0 to 14.0. A neutral pH falls directly between these two values at 7.0 with values under this being acidic and values over this being basic, sometimes referred to as being alkaline.
As a logarithmic scale, changes in pH levels are exponentially greater than they might initially seem. As a result, rapid or sudden fluctuations in the pH of water can prove to be deadly for many aquatic species.
That being said, pH naturally fluctuates throughout the day due to natural phenomena.
What Affects Water?
There are many natural factors that influence the pH of water, especially seawater. Though these factors in nature don’t have as large of an effect in a small and contained fish tank setting, the theory behind them has been applied to aquarium equipment and media to make adjusting pH easier for fishkeeping enthusiasts.
First, we’ll understand what influences pH in natural ecosystems.
Carbon dioxide is one of the main influencers of pH levels in freshwater, saltwater, and brackish water systems. In short, the more carbon dioxide that is present in the water, the lower the pH drops.
Carbon dioxide is largely available in the atmosphere as a gas. When carbon dioxide combines with seawater through surface agitation, carbonic acid (H2CO3) forms which later breaks into hydrogen ions and bicarbonate ions. These hydrogen ions directly lower pH, causing the water to become more acidic.
As water travels, this change in ocean pH eventually starts to influence the pH in freshwater ecosystems as well. An even greater influence over freshwater pH comes from dissolved organic carbon in the form of decomposition and respiration.
Decomposition And Respiration
Freshwater lakes, streams, and ponds are fed by rainwater as well as runoff from the surrounding ground and tributaries.
Along this path, plants, animals, pollutants, and other contaminants fall into the water and are carried along and eventually deposited. If these objects are organic and start to decompose, then pH will be affected.
During the process of decomposition, carbon dioxide is released. This creates a direct source of hydrogen ions that cause pH to drop.
Another direct input of carbon dioxide is respiration, which is very similar to decomposition though nothing needs to die to start the process. Instead, respiration is the opposite of photosynthesis: sugar (glucose) and oxygen are processed into carbon dioxide, water, and energy.
Most organisms perform respiration within the freshwater aquarium setting, including fish, invertebrates, and plants. Believe it or not, plants only photosynthesize when there is light present while respiration happens continuously throughout the day and night; respiration only becomes more apparent at night due to increased carbon dioxide levels and subsequent changes in pH. It is because of respiration that the pH in your aquarium fluctuates throughout the day.
At the same time, freshwater fish and invertebrates are constantly breathing through respiration and introducing new carbon dioxide into the system. As a result, an overstocked fish tank can lead to depleted oxygen levels and a low pH.
Along the same line as decomposition are tannins. Tannins are an astringent compound found naturally in many terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems in a variety of plants and trees. In the fish tank keeping hobby, tannins are most notably known for composing blackwater systems where the water is stained dark brown and is chemically soft and acidic.
Tannin compounds are incredibly beneficial to these ecosystems and hobbyists have taken advantage of these benefits in their own freshwater fish tanks. Many species of plants and trees contain tannins in their bark and leaves to naturally fight off bacterial and fungal infections. Once these organics start to decompose in water, tannins enter the system, providing bolstered immunity to fish and invertebrates.
Some of these compounds are made up of tannic acid, which is the weak acid responsible for altering the pH. Once this acid enters the water, the pH level will begin to fall.
Levels In Your Aquarium
Most freshwater aquariums sit around an average pH of 7.0. Most fish can tolerate a range of 6.5 – 7.5, though this will vary with species. As mentioned before, most tropical species, like tetras, will prefer more acidic water chemistry. On the other hand, African cichlids are known for loving high pH levels above 8.0.
In general, tap water, distilled, and reverse osmosis will have a neutral pH that is appropriate for keeping most fish. However, if the pH level of the source water is not correct, then there can be some serious problems.
Why Is It So High In Your Aquarium?
There are many factors that affect water chemistry, but understanding the pH levels of your aquarium water is necessary for long-term success. High pH levels are most likely due to poor source water or aquarium substrate and tank decorations.
The pH of source water is determined by where that water was collected. If tap water is used for the fish tank, then the hobbyist must make sure that pH levels are appropriate for fish tank usage; some local reservoirs are naturally more acidic or alkaline than others and subject to change.
Some fish tank decorations and substrates can also increase pH levels, like aragonite sand. For the most part, this is more of a concern for saltwater enthusiasts, though cichlid owners will also need to understand how the substrate they choose influences the pH level.
Aragamax is great for African setups as it keeps pH and hardness levels stable
It should also be noted that pH will rise and fall more often if the carbonate hardness (KH) level, a buffer to pH, is incorrect. A more accurate KH will result in a more stable pH.
How Long Does It Take To Lower In The Tank?
pH is a quick parameter to change in the fish tank setting as long as conditions are right. All-day long, pH is rising and falling depending on photosynthesis and respiration rates. This fluctuation can be as great as a 0.5 difference at times and is perfectly normal.
However, pH will only change as much as the carbonate hardness agrees. Anything greater or quicker than a gradual 0.5 change in pH level can prove to be fatal to fish and invertebrates.
In general, pH should be slowly altered 0.25 at a time with continued observation.
Can Rocks Lower It In The Aquarium?
Most rocks will not cause pH levels to rise or fall in the freshwater aquarium. However, rocks that contain limestone will have a sure effect on your water pH. Limestone is mainly composed of calcium carbonate, which is naturally basic and will cause pH levels to rise.
To test whether or not your rocks contain limestone, simply drop some vinegar onto them. If the rock contains limestone, then the vinegar will bubble and fizzle.
Does Gravel Affect It?
In the same way, limestone gravel can start to affect pH as well. However, most freshwater gravels and substrates will not influence pH if they are for aquarium use, though some may temporarily raise or lower pH levels after being initially added.
If keeping cichlids that like hard, basic water, then most hobbyists choose to use a crushed coral substrate. Crushed coral is similar to limestone as it contains calcium carbonate, which will then raise the pH level.
How To Lower It in the Tank – 7 Ways
Lowering pH can be tricky. Remember, this is a logarithmic value and any slight change can prove to be too much for fish and invertebrates to handle at once.
If attempting to alter pH, then plenty of time needs to be given for livestock to acclimate to new conditions. It is also important to note that pH levels will not change unless KH is within the appropriate range.
When the tank is ready, pH can be lowered through several methods.
1. Aquarium Driftwood
When setting up a freshwater aquarium, you will more than likely add driftwood for decoration and structure. In short, driftwood is any type of wood that has washed up on the shore of a beach, lake, pond, or river. Due to wind and wave action, these pieces of wood are eroded and brittle.
Aquarium enthusiasts have perfected the art of aquascaping with driftwood, using popular varieties like mopani, spider, and manzanita wood. However, driftwood adds much more to the aquarium than just aquascaping.
Manzanita offers it all. Great shape, low tannins, quick to water log and reasonably priced. It's the ultimate driftwood!
Remember that most trees contain tannins and tannic acid; driftwood is no different and most varieties will leak tannins into the aquarium water. This results in dark water, lowered pH, and increased immunity for fish and invertebrates. Thus goes to reason that the more driftwood that releases tannic acid, the more that the pH will drop.
This is true, though can be hard to control and the buffering property eventually runs out. Luckily, unwanted effects from tannins can be reversed by using activated carbon in a filter bag.
2. Indian Almond Leaves
Indian almond leaves, sometimes abbreviated as IAL, are another great addition to the freshwater aquarium and are especially popular among betta fish keepers!
These dried leaves come from a type of tree, Terminalia catappa. Similar to driftwood, Indian almond leaves contain tannins that are released into the aquarium water when they start to decompose.
These leaves can be added to your aquarium to help promote a natural habitat for bettas, shrimp, and other soft-water loving fish. Betta breeders can use these leaves to help encourage breeding behavior.
In addition to the health benefits and decrease in pH level that Indian almond leaves provide, they also provide great coverage on the bottom of the tank as leaf litter. Many species (like betta fish) will enjoy foraging for food and hiding in a thick leaf litter substrate, though not all hobbyists will enjoy the tannin-stained tank water that comes along with it. Again, the effects of tannins can be reversed by using activated carbon packets in the filtration system.
While Indian almond leaves are some of the most abundant types of dried leaf available, other botanicals may be used for the same effects. These leaves will need to be replaced every three months or so as they will completely disintegrate.
3. Peat Moss
Peat moss is a regular addition to home gardens but is one of the best ways to lower pH levels without adding anything directly to the fish tank display.
Peat moss largely refers to the Sphagnum genus, which is a group of mosses commonly found growing around bog ecosystems. Like driftwood and Indian almond leaves, peat moss works to lower the pH level in the tank by releasing tannins. However, using peat moss is much more controllable than the former options.
One of the benefits of using peat moss in the fish tank is that it can be measured for exact dosage. Many hobbyists choose to put a bag of peat moss in their filter, though some incorporate it directly into their substrates. Another option is to prepare new peat moss-treated tank water beforehand.
It should be noted that there is some discussion about the sustainability of harvesting peat moss in both horticulture and the aquarium industry due to its importance in nature.
4. Using CO2 Injection
CO2 injection is the same idea as atmospheric carbon dioxide entering an ocean or lake, just at a much smaller and controlled scale: increasing carbon dioxide subsequently increases the number of hydrogen ions in the tank water, lowering pH.
This is a great method to lower the pH in fish tanks, especially ones with aquatic plants, due to the control that comes with dosing carbon dioxide. However, CO2 injections can be costly over time and require additional equipment that some hobbyists might not be able to fit into their setups.
5. Changing Your Water
If you have a large bioload in your fish tank and don’t keep up with regular maintenance, then pH may begin to fall over time. This is due to the idea of respiration and decomposition where organics are being broken down, releasing carbon dioxide and acidifying the water. In the same ways, water changes will also help remove carbon dioxide from the water and introduce new oxygen instead which will lower pH.
For these same reasons, it is recommended to perform regular water changes when using a new substrate in order to keep pH levels stable.
6. Replace Your Source Water
Changing your source for aquarium water is probably the best and most long-lasting solution to reaching the desired pH level. Many freshwater aquariums rely on tap water for convenience and mineral addition. However, tap water can have varying pH levels day to day depending on the variables affecting the source water.
For the most control over aquarium pH and general water quality, it’s recommended to use and remineralize reverse osmosis water to the hobbyist’s liking. This also gives much greater control over fertilizing and plant growth.
7. Use Chemical Solutions
Chemical solutions should be the last resort for any aquarium problem. pH is especially sensitive.
Chemical solutions can be difficult to dose, expensive, and most importantly, don’t fix the origin of the problem; as soon as the chemicals are stopped dosing, then pH levels will return to where they were over time.
API offers a pH proper series for various pH targets. This will allow you to set your pH to the desired level for your fish
That being said, there are plenty of aquarium-proven neutralizers, reducers, and buffers to accurately increase or decrease both pH and KH.
pH is a complicated water parameter that can be influenced by many chemical and biological factors. Most fish and invertebrates are highly sensitive to large and sudden changes in pH levels, even though pH naturally rises and falls throughout the day.
If you’re struggling with high acidity or need to get into the perfect pH range for cichlids, then there are a few methods to gently get pH to the levels you need.
Mark is the founder of Aquarium Store Depot. He started in the aquarium hobby at the age of 11 and along the way worked at local fish stores. He has kept freshwater tanks, ponds, and reef tanks for over 25 years. His site was created to share his knowledge and unique teaching style on a larger scale. He has worked on making aquarium and pond keeping approachable. Mark has been featured in two books about aquarium keeping – both best sellers on Amazon. Each year, he continues to help his readers and clients with knowledge, professional builds, and troubleshooting.
I have a 36-gallon freshwater tank, a new start, with 4 small fish, and it’s about 37 days old. The PH is 7.6 my fish store recommended putting Discus Buffer for 6 days and nothing has changed. I’m not even sure the tank is fully cycled yet. Ammonia at .25, Nitrates at .25, and Nitrites at zero. The water from my well is 7.0 so I am thinking of a water change (the fish store told me not yet) but I don’t know what else to do.
I would focus on getting the ammonia down. Try getting a bacteria product like Turbostart to help out. Your pH is gonna be tough to balance until you get your ammonia in check. Focus on one main parameter at a time
How much of the driftwood, Pete moss, almond leaves etc to use per gallon ? I have a 250 gallon tank and the PH is HIGH, testing at 8.2. As this is a new problem, We used a PH Down chemical and its not working.
I would go with showcase-style driftwood to lower pH and put Peat Moss in your canister. Check your source water pH as well. Do you use anything that increases pH like calcium-based rock or substrate?
This has been very helpful indeed. Thank you kindly.
I have a 105 ltr freshwater tank with three goldfish currently, and I’m looking at the ph levels which are high. It would seem that the Almond Leaves are my way to go here, and I have already introduced Driftwood also.
I shall be keeping a keen eye on the ph levels as I add the leaves and tannings.
Again, thank you kindly for your advice.