Aquaponics Cycling and the Case of the Missing Ammonia

The mystery started with a late Friday phone call. A customer who had purchased one of our new Cycling Kits had added ammonia into his system, but nothing registered on his ammonia test. So he added more and retested. Still nothing. After repeating this several more times, he dumped in the entire bag of powdered ammonia and still there was no trace of ammonia through his test.

API Freshwater Master Aquarium Test Kit

API Freshwater Master Aquarium Test Kit

So he called us. I listened sympathetically, but between you and me the word ‘impossible’ was definitely running through my head. I told him we would look into it and get back to him. My next move was to grab my test kit and some ammonia, dissolve the ammonia in a glass and test. No way! No ammonia! Maybe the batch had ‘expired’, although that was sure hard to fathom. It was more likely that the test kit had expired, so I decided to test the Clear Ammonia that we had used for earlier cycling experiments in our aquaponics systems. Again, no ammonia. Clearly I had a bad test kit, so I opened a new kit. Same results!

Now I had two batches of ammonia that were testing negative for any ammonia, and / or two test kits that weren’t working. The next step was to run to the hardware store and buy a fresh batch of Clear Ammonia. Same results!

Time to call in the experts. I sent an email to my friend, Dr. Wilson Lennard in Australia asking if ammonia could expire or dis-associate. He responded “no” and he was sorry but he had no idea what was going on.

Next, I put both the dissolved powdered ammonia and the newly acquired Clear Ammonia in jars, got in the car and went to our local aquarium store and asked them to test. Same results!

However, they said that test kits often expire, so they pulled out a new ammonia test kit that had an expiration date in the future and tested with it. Same results!

So now the aquarium guys were as baffled as I was and I was beginning to think that there was some sort of cosmic oddity going on and there was an ammonia black hole in my town. Ironically, on our community site at the same time was a post by someone using powdered ammonia from one of our cycling kits from the very same batch of ammonia we were testing and he had ammonia levels that were too high!

By this time it was getting pretty late on Saturday and all I had time to do before meeting friends for dinner was to compose and send out an email to all of our cycling kit customers explaining what was going on. Our first recall. Depressing.

First thing Monday morning Alan was on the internet and the phone locating a new source of powdered ammonia. He located a 50 pound bag in Denver, and was there and back before lunch. We tore open the bag, dissolved some in a cup, and sure enough – no ammonia!

testing cycling kits

Our kitchen during the crisis

Now we were at four batches of products that were supposed to be largely ammonia, and had used four test kits, and nothing registered ammonia. We had a depressed lunch and were silent with our thoughts.

Then I had an idea. I asked Alan, what if we are overwhelming the test by using too high of a concentration?? We both thought it was an utter long shot, but we were pretty much out of options at this point so what-the-heck. I went back to my testing notes for the Clear Ammonia and after figuring out how much I used to get to 4 ppm (5 ml in 60 gallons) we calculated that one drop in 8 cups of water was equivalent. Alan put in the drop, stirred and gave me a look that said ‘this is never going to work’. We ran the test and slowly but surely the most beautiful shade of green started to appear in the test tube! We added a second drop to the 8 cups of water and tested again, and the green was darker! Next step was to do the equivalent test for the powdered ammonia. It worked as well!

Problem solved. We recalled the recall and learned a lesson we won’t soon forget.

I’m wondering how many of you knew what was going on all along?

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