Roughly 98% of all municipal water supplies in the US have chlorine or chloramine added to the water. This chlorine is added to kill bacteria in the water. If this wasn’t done, people would get waterborne diseases.
This chlorine and chloramine are poisonous to fish in even very small quantities (> 0.05 ppm). It is important to use something called a “conditioner” to neutralize this chlorine and chloramine.
Chlorine Removers or “Conditioners”
My recommendation with conditioners is simple:
If the tap water has chlorine or chloramine the water can typically be treated with a conditioner in the water change bucket. Then it can be added to the aquarium. Alternatively, the conditioner can be added to the tank before the change water is added. Dosage should be based on the amount of change water. The amount should NOT be calculated based on the tank size.
When a water 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.
Note that for discussion purposes chlorine and chloramine are identical. All conditioners which neutralize chlorine also neutralize chloramine with equal efficiency. There is just some subtleties about treating chloramines (having to do with the ammonia in the chloramine) which require a separate discussion.
Chlorine Pulse Events
When one does a water change with chlorinated water and conditioner, there is a serious problem which can kill all the fish in an aquarium very quickly, anywhere from seconds to days. “Normal” chlorination levels are 0.5 to 2 parts per million (ppm) of chlorine. Most chlorine “neutralizers” and treatments neutralize between 1.0 to 2 ppm of chlorine.
Here is a pertinent comment made on this website:
“A little something I hope will help fellow hobbyist
I have noticed the smell of my water from the tap has been bad (like chlorine). The first time I did a water change after I noticed this. I had to dose my dechlorinate again to get to zero. I use a pool test kit to check my water before I pump it into the tank. I fill a 30 gallon trash can and dechlorinate it for my water change.
I got this email today:
Dear Cal Water customer:
Some Cal Water customers may temporarily experience a different taste and odor to their water, due to rising temperatures and algae in the Kern River, from which we obtain water. We treat the water to make it safe to use and drink. While unpleasant, please be assured that the taste and odor are aesthetic issues only; we rigorously monitor water quality, and your water continues to meet all federal and state standards set to protect public health.
In the meantime, you can refrigerate an open pitcher of water, which will help the odor dissipate faster. If it does not clear or you have any concerns, please Contact Us.”
Water suppliers typically will treat with up to 4 ppm of free chlorine periodically. This is what is often called a “chlorine pulse” or a “chlorine bullet”. The 4 ppm of free chlorine or chloramine are the maximum allowed under EPA rules.
The majority of the water supplies in the USA are currently treated with chloramine, which is chlorine combined with ammonia. The nitrogen in the ammonia feeds harmless types of bacteria which create a “biofilm” on the surfaces of the water pipes. When this biofilm gets to a certain thickness it will allow “bad” pathogenic bacteria to reproduce under the biofilm.
So the lines are treated with 3 to 4 ppm of chlorine to remove the biofilms. With new regulations this can be done as often as once a week. Sometimes this is accompanied by what is called “line flushing”, where fire hydrants are opened up. The same level of chlorine can be used when the water has bad tastes due to algae in the water supply.
Note a similar problem can occur when one has well water. Well water typically does not have chlorine in it but it can be very low on oxygen and/or very high in carbon dioxide. These two will do massive fish kills just like chlorine pulses.
Because deaths from “chlorine pulses”, low oxygen and carbon dioxide are very commonly misdiagnosed, it is the source of many fish keeping myths. Some of those myths are:
- Large scale water changes (40% to 95%) kill lots of fish.
- Ammonia or nitrite spikes rapidly kill lots of fish
- Whole tanks of fish can be electrocuted
- Changing water with water even a few degrees difference from the aquarium water will “shock” the fish and kill them.
- Changing water with water of a different pH, GH or KH will “shock” fish and kill them.
We go into each of these myths in more detail below.
There are several things which can kill lots of fish overnight. A heater stuck on, a power outage which stops the aeration in a heavily stocked aquarium, or even a bacterial infection can do it. But if there was a water change just prior to the deaths, a chlorine pulse, low oxygen or high carbon dioxide will be the killer 99% of the time.
If one has fish in stress because of a chlorine pulse understand the excess chlorine is neutralized in the filter of most tanks in minutes to a few hours. So it is of little use to try and save the fish by adding more conditioner hours after the water change.
The best treatment for fish damaged by chlorine is to take the temperature down to 70°F (21°C) and aerate the hell out of the water with a big air pump and airstones. This takes the oxygen level of the water up and gives the damaged gills the best chance of doing their jobs.
Reasons for Chlorine Pulses
There are several reasons for adding more chlorine than usual:
- Municipalities which use chloramines must do “chlorine pulses” on a regular basis as the ammonia in the chloramine feeds beneficial bacteria (hardy little buggers!). This mean beneficial bacteria build up in pipes in what is called a “biofilm”. This biofilm can harbor and shed pathogenic bacteria. This biofilm must be killed and cleaned out at intervals.
- In the summer months warm water will cause blooms of algae, which cause the water to smell “musty”. To treat this smell, many municipalities add more chlorine
- If an area has had flooding or heavy rains, municipal water sources often have to add more chlorine.
- When a water line breaks and the municipalities repair it they need to remove any bacteria that may have gotten into the lines. So they will put in a chlorine pulse.
These chlorine pulse events are common killers of fish, especially in the summer months. It is sometimes very difficult to closely control the amount of chlorine added in these events. While the EPA limit is 4 ppm the author measured 11 ppm chlorine in Tempe Arizona once.
Many hobbyists on social media report fish dying after a water change even though they used conditioner. Invariably this turns out to be chlorine poisoning. Mike Mass lost 180 angels and cardinals overnight (ouch). Adam C. lost several aquariums. Amy Gage lost a whole tank of fish. Mike Randall lost 70 Africans in 3 days. Colby Ladd lost 32 Lake Malawi’s. The author lost about fifty mbuna to a chlorine pulse.
Unfortunately these mass deaths are often blamed on a host of other reasons: ammonia poisoning (only very slowly kills), pH shock (a myth), temperature shock (another myth), electrical shock (still another myth), heavy metals in the water (laughable!), etc. ad infinitum.
Symptoms of Excess Chlorine
This excess chlorine will often give very random deaths. Some fish will keel over and die immediately, others will be just fine. It tends to affect one species more than another. It all has to do with the thickness of the mucous covering on the gills. A thick mucous covering can prevent chlorine from killing the cells in the gills. Some species just have thicker mucous. And some fish can live on reduced oxygen from impaired gills while others succumb to any reduction in body oxygen. When fish get “chlorinated” they have some symptoms such as:
- Fish hit by chlorine can act very erratic. They can twirl, hit the sides of the aquarium, or even dive into the substrate. They are trying to get away from the burning chlorine.
- Sometimes with chlorine the fish just pant at the bottom of the tank. Often the entire tank of fish will be hanging motionless close to the bottom.
- Other times they “current surf” in the flow from the filters or the current produced by wavemakers. They are trying to increase the oxygen going into their damaged gills.
- Rarely with excess chlorine the fish in a tank will get white scaly skin.
Here are three fish which were hit with excess chlorine:
Here is a pleco which was hit with chlorine and has scaly skin as a result:
“Natural” ways to Remove Chlorine and Chloramine
Note there are many “natural” methods pushed on social media for removing chlorine and chloramine. These “non-chemical” methods include: letting the water sit for 24 hours, aerating the water, spraying the water through shower head and UV light.
I didn’t test these methods of removing chlorine and chloramine because they will ALL be very highly variable depending on the chemistry of the water and the chlorine or chloramine. So I might find that in my water chemistry a 24 hour “outgassing” works well. A reader might then use a 24 hour outgassing with their water and end up killing a tank of fish. And I do NOT want to be responsible for killing a tank of fish.
The various sulfite reducing agents are a cheap, very safe and extremely reliable way to remove chlorine and chloramine. Any other way is not reliable and simply shouldn’t be used.
“I Don’t Use Conditioner!”
Now there are some uninformed (I prefer a different term) who have chlorinated water and don’t treat for chlorine and claim their fish are unaffected. There are four mechanisms for chlorine to be neutralized:
- There is conditioner in the water
- There is a lot of bacteria in the water
- There is fresh activated carbon in the filter
- There are a lot of plants in the aquarium
The last three mechanisms take time to remove the chlorine. So while the hobbyists may see no apparent damage, in a chlorine pulse the gills of the fish may well suffer long term damage. Any hobbyist with chlorinated water should either add a lot of sodium thiosulfate conditioner or test the water for total chlorine and add conditioner accordingly. Not adding conditioner risks long term unseen damage to the fish. Not doing this also risks a mass die off of fish, which is not a pleasant experience.
Fallacies About Excess Chlorine
This is a repeat of a section above where I go into more depth on the subject. If someone comes up on social media and says they did a water change and some or all their fish died overnight there are typically several incorrect responses:
- Your pH was too different and they died from pH shock
- Your temperature difference was too great and they died from temperature shock
- Some new rocks or new décor poisoned your fish
- The fish got an electric shock
- You used the wrong conditioner and it killed your fish.
- You obviously had an ammonia spike that rapidly killed all your fish
All these things are just common myths in the hobby. The “pH shock”, “temperature shock”, poison rocks, electric shocks, and bad conditioners are all simply false myths parroted over and over again on social media. None of them has EVER killed a fish. And ammonia kills very slowly, over many weeks, unless your water is over 9.0 pH. We go into each myth below:
Mythbuster: pH Shock Doesn’t Exist
Fish in the wild constantly swim though water with wildly different pH’s as the sun, plants and carbon dioxide interact. So all fish can take very large rapid changes in pH. This myth is debunked in the following link:
4.8. Stability is not Important
Mythbuster: Temperature differences of less than 10°F (5°C) are Harmless
As anyone who has swum in a lake on a sunny day can attest, there are very large “thermoclines” with radically different temperatures in natural lakes. Fish constantly swim through these thermoclines with no damage. So all fish can take rapid changes in water temperature. This myth is debunked in this link:
4.8. Stability is Not Important
Mythbuster: There are NO Toxic Rocks
There are no “toxic” rocks. It is very common for hobbyists to do a water change when doing something like changing the décor and adding new rocks at the same time. They then come on social media and say things like: “The rocks from my local fish store poisoned all my shrimp overnight!”. This myth is debunked in the following link:
Mythbuster: Fish DO NOT get Electrocuted
It is virtually impossible to electrocute a fish as few tanks have a ground in them. Here is a link which debunks that myth:
14.11. Electrocution in the Aquarium
Mythbuster: Too Much Conditioner will only Rarely Kill Fish
And most chemical conditioners are based on a very simple chemistry. They have sulfite groups (SO3) which are oxidized by chlorine to sulfate groups (SO4). These sulfite reducing agents are all very mild and can’t possibly kill fish at recommended dosages. So a “new conditioner” cannot kill the fish if used at the proper dosages. There are some conditioners which can produce some formaldehyde in the aquarium. But even these conditioners are quite safe at the recommended levels. Here is a link which debunks that myth:
Note that there are a few “natural” products which claim to remove chlorine. Avoid these products, they are not water conditioners and do NOT remove chlorine. There are also some forms of “API Stress Coat Aquarium Water Conditioner” which do NOT have a red plus sign (+) on them. These API conditioners do NOT remove chlorine, even though their label says they do.
Mythbuster: Ammonia does not kill rapidly.
When there is a large loss of fish dying overnight reported in a Facebook forum there are immediately many people posting that the fish died because of ammonia poisoning, “obviously”. The posts are simply parroting what they’ve read somewhere else. They are simply wrong. Ammonia kills gradually over time. It takes weeks or months to do its evil. Chlorine kills overnight.
One Facebook post on an Aquarium forum went like this:
“When I started my 75 gallon African cichlid aquarium, I was doing some routine maintenance and I made the mistake of doing a water change and cleaning my HOB filter. Long story short, I lost about 12 fish in 2 days. Most of the beneficial bacteria was gone and I got an ammonia spike.”
This is typical. A hobbyist believes that because they cleaned their filter they got an ammonia spike and it killed their fish. This is incorrect. They did a water change with water which was super-chlorinated and killed their fish.
Ammonia damages fish by passing through the gills of the fish as the gas ammonia. The ammonia then converts to ammonium in the bloodstream of the fish. This ammonium imbalance then damages the internal organs relatively slowly. If the fish is going to die it will generally take at least several days and more likely weeks, months or even years for that to happen.
For more on how ammonia kills and at what levels it kills go to this link:
Chlorine is 100 to 1000 times more toxic than ammonia. Chlorine kills exposed tissues like the gills of the fish outright. When the cells in the gills of the fish die, the fish is starved of oxygen and may die anywhere from minutes to days after exposure to the chlorine. Therefore, chlorine kills fast and ammonia either doesn’t kill or kills slowly.
In the summer months many municipalities must super-chlorinate. They have no choice. When this happens there will be a flood of Facebook posts on how whole aquariums of fish died overnight. The replies and “advice” always are that ammonia killed the fish. The simple fact is that:
The Truth: If one asks, the hobbyist with the tanks of dead or dying fish has almost always has done a water change with chlorinated water just prior to the fatalities. It is just very common to have chlorine spikes kill all the fish or most of the fish in a tank. VERY COMMON!
For more information on chlorine and chloramine click on the following:
5.5.1. Chlorine in the Aquarium
5.5.2. Chloramine in the Aquarium