Cloudy aquarium water is often seen in the aquarium. Although not particularly harmful, it is unsightly.
One of the most common problems that can occur right at the beginning after a new aquarium set up is installed is termed "New Tank Syndrome". The tank becomes filled with cloudy water.
It may look like someone poured a glass of milk into the aquarium. Although this is most common about three days after a new aquarium has been filled with water.
Most often seen right at the beginning, it can also occur much later in the life of the aquarium. The symptoms are the same, but the underlying cause may (or may not) be the same.
The reason you see cloudy aquarium water appearing as a milky cloud is because the density of individual bacteria suspended in the water is so high. They are seen as the cloud by the naked eye.
Bacteria are always in the water, but only when there is a bacterial bloom can they be detected without tools.
New Tank Syndrome
When a new aquarium installation is created, the water that is added is sterile. It was treated by the water company with chlorine in most cases. This killed any bacteria in the water supply.
When a chlorine remover is added, the water becomes safe to support life, but it is sterile. Since bacteria are ubiquitous, they will populate anywhere that will support them.
They will drop into the aquarium and establish themselves without a problem. Where they come from is irrelevant, what happens when they get there is.
Bacteria populate geometrically. The population doubles every replication period. They will populate a given water column as fast as they are able.
In the case of a new tank, there are few, if any, predators. The population will grow substantially and with little loss. It takes abut three days before the population can become a visual problem.
In most cases, the water will stay clear. This is a function of the available nutrition carried in the new tap water.
If the water in the tank is not carrying much in the way of dissolved nutrients, the bacteria will stabilize to a population that is useful, but not visible.
In some cases, the water company may have had a problem with filtering. The water and a lot of dissolved nutrients were in the water when taken from the tap.
This is not all that uncommon, and especially true in the spring when a rapid thaw and spring run off occurs.
In this case, the rapid flow of melted snow and ice into the reservoirs bring all the assorted wastes trapped during the winter into the water supply. This often overwhelms the filter capacity of the water company.
A lot of dissolved compounds creep into the water as well. Many of these are nutritional supplies for the bacteria. This abundant food sends their populations into a bacterial bloom where they over-populate.
This is one case where the cloudy water can be detected. For this reason, water changes should be carefully considered when the spring thaw is occurring. It can also occur after very strong rainstorms. The same overwhelming conditions may occur.
If you use the wrong water, the result will be cloudy aquarium water.
Bacterial bloom in established aquariums
There is a second set of circumstances where the water can allow the sudden explosion of bacteria suspended in the water that results in cloudy aquarium water. In this case it is often the fault of the aquarist.
Decay processes will break down solid wastes to more common compounds, but can also release some of these as dissolved nutrients.
Even more common is the case where a fish tank is regularly overfed and some of the left-over food makes its way into the water column as dissolved nutrition for the bacteria always there.
If standard aquarium maintenance and regular water changes do not occur, especially using a gravel cleaner to remove wastes caught in the gravel, the overall nutritional availability increases over time.
Cloudy aquarium water in this case is often a result of poor maintenance habits and excessive feeding. If the food available is adequate, a bacterial bloom can be triggered as well.
If the conditions are close to promoting sudden population explosion and water with a lot of dissolved nutrients is added - say to compensate for evaporation - a bloom can be triggered.
Solving the problem
Cloudy aquarium water is a sign the aquarium water has too many dissolved nutrients in it. This can occur in a new aquarium through no fault of the aquarist. It can also happen in an older aquarium where regular over feeding and somewhat poor maintenance is the standard.
Either way, the amount of nutrients in the water triggers a population explosion in suspended bacteria. The unfortunate result too often is cloudy aquarium water.
The best way to reduce the problem is to:
1) Stop feeding the aquarium for three days. This allows the huge population of bacteria to use up the overabundance of its food supply. It then dies back from starvation.
No standard filter has the ability to remove these tiny organisms. They are way too small to be trapped by common filter medias. Only a diatomaceous earth filter could create a screen small enough to do that.
2) Do a water change. Assuming the water you remove is dirtier than the water used to replace it. Try never to do a water change after a heavy rain or during the spring thaw. This will help ensure the water being added is better than the water being removed.
3) After the three day fast, start a controlled feeding regimen.
Feed once a day, as much as the fish will eat in two minutes with nothing hitting the bottom or left over.
By removing the original food supply with the fast, then reducing the amount of pre-cursor wastes with the water change. The final step, proper feeding, will help eliminate the root causes of the cloudy water.
There are some preparations that will also help speed up the process of removing organic wastes. Biological water clarifier adds biological enzymes and bacteria that specialize in eliminating the cause of the problem. These can be used regularly to help overcome the original problem and prevent it in the future.
Besides these clarifiers, a great way to control the problem is to supercharge the waste reduction with bacterial augmentation.
These are not directly responsible for clearing water, but when in proper quantities these bacteria reduce wastes past the sludge stage.
They decay down to mineral components and some ash. Nothing left to dissolve into the water to feed a bacterial bloom. Treatments will speed up the removal of the liquefied wastes substantially.
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Beginning Aquarium Tips