Monitoring Water pH
Without resorting to a chemistry lesson here, pH is a reference to how acidic your water is. A level of 7 is nice and neutral though you would only find an exact 7 with distilled water. When the number starts to get lower, it means that its more acid. Vinegar tends to be around a 3, for example. The other end of the spectrum is referred to as being basic or alkaline. Baking soda is a 9.
You want your water to be around 6.5 to 7.5 on average, for both the fish and the plant's health. If the levels are starting to creep away from your neutral ideal, wait and see if it settles at a reasonable point. Rushing to add chemicals shouldn't be your first reaction. After some observation, if the pH is still changing there are a few ways to fix it. Commercial products like pH Down and pH Up are the easiest options if you have a source to buy them (they are for the hydroponics and aquaponics market).
For a more DIY option, there are some natural ways to adjust pH. Limestone gravel or hydrated lime will help raise up your pH numbers. You can even used crushed up egg shells if you have them. Lowering pH is a little tougher. Adding a little vinegar will actually work. The natural cycles in your system will create a more acidic environment over time from the ammonia in fish waste, so you'll most likely be looking for ways to raise the pH most of the time rather than lowering it.
If your water is constantly veering into acid territory, you may need to either lower your fish population or add additional growing beds. Limestone gravel to your system is another way to have a permanent buffer for acidic water.
Just make your adjustments slowly. A sharp change in pH is very harmful to your fish, even if you are returning it to a better level in the end.
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