On 02/17/04, I used chloramine-treated water in my aquarium...

... And that's when the "fun" began. The costs and energy spent on reversing this terrible error must be documented. First, a bit of background information about chloramine and why I used it: For the last month, I had neglected to do any water changes in my fish tank. During those four weeks, our municipal water switched from minimal chlorine treatment to aggressive chloramine decontamination. Chloramine, a molecule formed by the union of chlorine and ammonia, is not affected by the chlorine treatment chemicals I've always used, and is an efficient fish killer. I had heard vague news about this water treatment transition, but made the false assumption that it couldn't possibly be that much worse than cholorine.

To make sure, I called a reputable pet store and asked about these changes. The store shall remain anonymous, because during a return call after the dust had settled, they seemed sufficiently apologetic and educated. Needless to say, the individual on the phone told me not to worry and proceed as usual.

It was a little after noon that I began a ~30% water change of my 80 gallon cichlid aquarium. As usual, I refilled directly from the faucet while slowly adding dechlorinatation chemicals. My six fish have been subject to this same treatment for at least six years, and never seemed to complain. Not so this time! A mere fifteen minutes after the completion of the water replacement, all fish were already sitting still at the bottom of the tank. Panicked, I began making phone calls to other pet stores. The first response confirmed my fears: A transition to chloramine occurred in the previous few weeks, and if used untreated, will kill fish within twenty minutes. My face turned pale when the death process was described to me over the phone. "How quickly did you say it dissolves the lungs?" Apparently more than one customer had already killed off an entire tank.

This store and the three others within a twenty minute driving distance were completely sold out of the treatment chemicals due to the overwhelming demand. My mind swept over all our water reserves, and concluded that not a single one was suitable. There was only one option.

Three-foot-long tire skid marks remain in front of my house as a monument to my desperation. Five minutes at 4,000 RPM took me to the nearest grocery store... You've seen it in cartoons and funny movies, and some people witnessed it at our supermarket today: A crazy man runs into the store, dashes down one aisle, and nearly wipes out the stock of a single item. Although I did not bother to count while I threw them into my shopping cart, I ended up with twelve 2.5 gallon containers of purified drinking water. A fair amount of water had already been spilled on the tile floor before I reached the checkout line. Those plastic jugs are not meant to bear the pressure of being thrown forcefully into a metal basket on wheels.

A brief explanation while fumbling for my debit card convinced the bagboy of the emergency situation, and I was given fantastic assistance in transferring the ~240 lbs of leaking water containers into my car. Never has a red light felt so long. After the brief and panic-stricken race back home, I ran inside with a container in each hand. Immediately I opened our sliding glass door, grabbed one of my two 5-gallon buckets, and began bailing out water as though my own life depended on it. Never have I lifted 40 lbs up above my head at arm's length. I can only assume that adrenaline strengthened my muscles and prevented back damage.

Each bucket was rushed through the living room and my bedroom and flung out through the open glass door. Meanwhile, I was fully aware of the extreme stress I was imposing on my already weakened fish which I knew were moving toward death with each passing minute. Once 80% of the water had been removed and launched into the backyard, I grabbed a meat knife out of a kitchen drawer and began slashing open the water containers. Each one took a mere fifteen seconds to decapitate and drain, but I quickly realized that the newly added water was rapidly dropping the aquarium temperature. Every energy-consuming resource available to me at that moment was used to remedy the temperature problem. I threw three additional aquarium heaters into the water, put purified water into pots on the stove, and covered every effective central heating vent in the house with a water container.

By this time a centimeter of water had turned the hardwood floor into a treacherous ice skating rink. More bailing was followed by warmed water being carefully carried in from all sides of the house and immediately cooled again by more jugs of water. It was at this time that I was gifted with the surprise return of my dad and sister who immediately joined the operation. While my sister returned to the grocery store to replenish the dwindling supply of untreated water with six more 2.5 gallon jugs, my dad placed a call to very convenient aquaintance who works at the Steinhart Aquarium in San Francisco. The prognosis was bone-chilling, but he did suggest that I move the fish out into a separate body of water consisting entirely of pure water.

The fish were still at the bottom, but were at least exposed to a far lesser quantity of chloramine at this point. Adrenaline was no longer necessary, but the pace didn't slow a bit. My sister returned from the store, and assisted me with the retrieval of my spare 35 gallon tank up in the attic. It was cleaned quickly, and partially filled with approximately 25 gallons of pure water. Again, I ran into the temperature problem. Luckily, the primary aquarium was at a safe 75 degrees fahrenheit, so all three heaters were transferred down to the chilly replacement tank. Combined with these overkill heaters and stove-heated water, it took only seven minutes to match 75 degrees.

I managed to get all six fish into the ER tank with limited glitches and water contamination. My Frontosa's teeth were briefly entangled in the net, but were quickly freed. Luckily I had learned from observation that spiny plecos must never but captured in a net. Instead, I had my sister hold a small plastic tank of pure water directly above the water line while I manually captured and transferred the six-inch pleco.

In between stovetop water transfers, I had wrapped newspaper around much of the ER tank to provide darkness. This and the untainted water seemed an immediate success with the fish. The Frontosa was clearly at an elevated breatherate, but all fish were active. A small powerhead and air pump were added to provide easier access to oxygen for the gills which are surely at lower capacity after the chemical burns they endured.

As I sit here and write this I am still unsure about the ultimate outcome of this critical lapse in judgement. My next worry is the lack of bacteria in the temporary tank. Once the fish were settling into the tank on the floor, I managed to find a pet store which had a mere seven bottles of chloramine neutralization fluid. This chemical is now working its magic in the refilled toxic tank. It is my hope that the remaining bacteria in the canister filter will have processed the ammonia which remains after the chloramine treatment before the new tank reaches dangerous amonia levels.

It's 10:19 pm here on the west coast, and I'm dead tired after this emergency procedure. Tomorrow morning I need to wake up at 5am in order to make it to a 7:30am blood donation appointment. Only a few hours after that, I had planned to go skiing with my dad and sister. Whether or not this will happen remains to be seen. My fish have been with me for a very long time, and my dedication to them is, as you see, not to be taken lightly.

Total cost spent on water today: $50.59 USD
Other costs: ~5 hours of frantic work, missed a class in which I'm scoring a D.
Related links:
Chloramine in aquariums
National water resources - Use the "water info by state" selection
List of municipalities in California
The official San Francisco municipal water website
Chloramine conversion project in the SF Bay Area

02/18/04: One of the cichlids' health began rapidly deteriorating this morning, and 
          he died early this evening :*(  I transferred all others back to the now 
          treated large tank, and they seem OK so far.  They're not out of the woods
          quite yet, but my hope has risen.  I decided to skip the ski trip in order 
          to provide all possible assistance to the fish.

02/19/04  The five surviving fish are still doing well.  One of these five (the same 
          species as the one which died yesterday) isn't looking happy.  Luckily this
          might be attributed to the power struggle which followed the reintegration 
          into the large aquarium.  I hope he's attempting to appear subservient, and 
          not remaining in hiding for health reasons.  I've added two relevant links
          above.  SFwater.org claims there was a massive campaign to educate the public,
          but I only heard rumors from a few people.  Pet stores said they were told
          one week in advance (too brief even to revamp chemical treatment supplies)!

02/20/04  All five fish are now looking healthy again.  Since all their gills took
          heavy damage, they'll all be treated with extra care for at least two weeks.
          If there's a power outage I'll transfer the air pump onto UPS to keep it going.
          My 80-gallon tank is very underpopulated now.  My last attempt to add a small
          frontosa had failed when the large frontosa consumed it seconds after
          introduction.  I'm sorely tempted to buy two new fish today, but I'd be a fool
          to assume that my chloramine treatment skills are refined enough.  My current
          plan is to purchase a 50-gallon plastic trough and put it under my bunkbed.
          I'll insulate it around all sides and heat it with...something.  This trough
          can be filled with the hose which screws onto our utility room sink.  The water
          can then remain there for 24 hours while I treat the chemicals.  I can also 
          attach a wet/dry biological filter and make sure to isolate it until splitting
          up the chloramine molecule into amonia and chlorine.  The water will finally be
          pumped into the next room to make it to the aquarium.

02/22/04  My five fish still appear healthy.  I've posted some images.

03/08/04  Everything stable. This crisis has reached its conclusion.