When thinking about the impact of aquarium water quality, it’s useful to compare it to the air we breathe. Because, essentially, that’s what water is to fish.
If you’ve ever lived in a polluted area, you’ll know the effect that poor air quality can have on your day to day life. And, if you don’t regulate the condition of the water in your aquarium, the effects can be even more drastic on fish.
Should you allow the levels of certain chemicals and minerals in the water to fall outside the correct range, it could lead to illness or even an untimely death for your aquatic pals.
That’s why testing kits for your aquarium water are vital if you want to keep your fish healthy.
In this post, we’re going to focus on the best master test kits for freshwater tanks.
We’ll start by examining exactly what a master test kit is, then look at the pros and cons, before discovering more about the two types of master test kit and the best kits of each type.
- 1 What is a Master Test Kit?
- 2 Different Test Types Available
- 3 Best Liquid Test Kits
- 4 Best Paper Strip Test Kits
- 5 Conclusion
What is a Master Test Kit?
Before you go out and purchase a master test kit for your freshwater aquarium, you’re probably going to want to know what it is, and rightly so!
An aquarium master test kit contains a bundle of different tests for different elements of water quality, that should encompass the main levels you need to check in order to maintain a healthy tank.
These tests generally include checking for the correct levels of chemicals and acidity / alkalinity such as pH, nitrate, nitrite and ammonia levels.
The pros of buying just one master test kit, as opposed to buying all the tests individually, is that it generally works out much cheaper per test. You also know that every test has the same expiration date, so it’s easier to keep track of when you need to replace them.
Finally, it’s simply more convenient, and less confusing for beginner aquarium keepers.
There are, however, cons to buying a master test kit, too.
The main problem is you can’t customize what tests you get in the kit, which means you might find yourself needing to buy some additional single tests.
It’s also likely there will be tests you don’t need as often and others that you use more frequently, meaning you can get into a situation where you’ve run out of one or two types of test but still have nearly all of some others.
Different Test Types Available
There are two main types of master test kits available:
- Those using paper test strips
- Those using liquid chemicals.
There are pros and cons to each type, so it’s important to learn about both so you can pick the best option for you.
Paper Test Strips
Paper test strips work just like the litmus paper that you probably used in science class.
You can either dip these strips into the aquarium water or take a pipette of water from the tank and squeeze a few drops out onto the paper. The paper then changes color to indicate the level of whatever chemical it is that you’re testing for.
Each test will come with a comparison chart so you can match the color on your strip to the chart and find out the levels.
The main advantage of paper test kits is that they’re easy to use, even for someone who has never used them before, and rely on just a one-step process. They also tend to be fairly inexpensive compared to some of the liquid tests.
However, they do come with a big downside: they’re generally less accurate and reliable than liquid chemical tests.
Not only are they less accurate in general, the comparison chart can be difficult to interpret, especially for people with colorblindness. Also, once they’re exposed to air, they quickly become less effective, meaning they have a short shelf life.
Experts tend to consider paper tests the worse of the two options, but they may be useful as a back up when you’re short on time.
Liquid Chemical Tests
Liquid chemical tests, sometimes known as liquid titration tests, are the other main way of testing aquarium water. They consist of a liquid chemical which you add to a vial of water from your aquarium.
There are a few different ways they can work, depending on the brand of test you’re using, but generally you either add a specified amount of drops of the chemical into your vial of water and look for a reaction, or you add drops until a reaction occurs and the number of drops added will tell you the levels.
The best thing about liquid chemical tests is they’re generally much more accurate than paper tests and the results shouldn’t be difficult to interpret.
The main con is that they’re trickier to perform than paper tests, but they’re still not hard to figure out if you read the instructions fully.
They can also be pricier to buy than paper test strips, but because they have a longer shelf life, it may work out better value for money in the long run.
Best Liquid Test Kits
If you prefer a more accurate test kit, and don’t mind having to perform a more complex procedure to find your results, liquid testing is the way to go.
Here are three of our favorite liquid master test kits on the market.
API Freshwater Master Test Kit
The API Freshwater Master Test Kit contains chemicals to perform five tests on your aquarium water.
These are arguably the most vital tests to keep freshwater fish healthy: freshwater pH, ammonia, nitrite, high range pH and nitrate.
In addition to the chemicals, the kit also contains four test tubes and a holding tray, as well as a computer calibrated laminated color card to help decipher your results.
You’ll also find the instruction manual easy to read and to follow, so although it’s more involved and time-consuming than paper tests, it isn’t more difficult, yet is more accurate.
While it’s more expensive than some of the paper test kits, it contains enough chemicals to perform around 800 tests, so it does work out good value for money.
Nutrafin Mini Master Test Kit
This test kit checks for four different parameters: wide range pH, ammonia, nitrate and nitrite.
While some aquarium-keepers may find they like to perform more tests, these are the bare bones of what you need to know to keep your tank healthy. Therefore, it can be a good starting place and then, if you feel you need more specific tests, you can choose which other individual tests you need to purchase.
This kit does come with test tubes, but since they’re round-bottomed, you can’t set them down without a rack, which some users have found to be an annoyance.
All in all, the Nutrafin Mini Master Test Kit is a good kit to get started with if you’re new to aquarium water testing.
Nutrafin Master Test Kit
The Nutrafin Master Test Kit is basically a deluxe version of the mini test kit above, which can test for six additional parameters, so that’s ten in total.
The full master kit can test levels of phosphate, calcium, nitrate, nitrite, ammonia, pH high range, pH low range, carbonate hardness, general hardness and iron.
Unless you have a really specific issue with your tank, these are essentially all the tests that you’re ever going to need to perform on your aquarium water, even in a well-planted tank, so it’s perfect if you like to be thorough.
You also get five glass test tubes with caps, two pipettes, a spoon and four instruction booklets, which provides you all the equipment and know-how you’ll need to make your aquarium water is healthy for your fish.
Because different levels of chemicals are needed for each test, it’s hard to say exactly how many tests you can perform with it, but the general consensus seems to be that one kit will last you at least a year, even with weekly testing.
However, this test kit isn’t perfect. Some customer complaints include that the test tube caps sometimes leak a little, and the instruction booklets are made from thin paper, so can be damaged if they get wet.
Best Paper Strip Test Kits
We’re now going to run through what we think are three of the best paper strip master test kits on the market, in terms of accuracy and value for money.
API 5 in 1 Aquarium Test Strips
These are one of the most popular types of test strips around and they have good reviews from the vast majority of their customers.
They come in a desiccant-lined tube, which means that they should last longer than some other paper test strips.
One of the things that are great about them is the convenience, as each strip tests for levels of pH, nitrite, nitrate, carbonate and general hardness, so you just have to dip one strip in and you get results for all five levels.
However, some customers claim that the results can be slightly difficult to interpret using the color comparison chart.
Another downside is they don’t test for ammonia levels, so you will most likely need to get a separate test to check this.
Tetra EasyStrips 6-in-1 Test Strips
These 6-in-1 strips test for levels of chlorine, alkalinity, nitrite, general hardness, nitrate and pH.
Like the API strips, with Tetra EasyStrips, you just have to dip one strip into your aquarium water and you have your results.
The difference is, Tetra claim their strips are more accurate as they stop developing after 60 seconds. This means you shouldn’t get false highs due to the strips absorbing additional moisture from the air.
Again, there is no ammonia test, but you can buy a separate Tetra strip to check your tank’s ammonia levels. That said, some aquarium-keepers doubt the effectiveness of paper strips for ammonia testing and would recommend using liquid chemicals to check for ammonia.
AZAQUA Accurate 5-in-1 Aquarium Test Strip
The AZAQUA 5-in-1 test strips can be used for both freshwater and saltwater aquariums. So, if you keep both, these are especially handy to keep around.
Like the other test strips we’ve featured, you just need to dip the strip in and see your results for all levels at once, which means they’re extremely convenient and simple to use.
That said, many aquarium-keepers believe that they’re not hugely accurate or easy to read when it comes to precise levels.
Therefore, they may be better for simply getting a snapshot of the levels in your tank and then, if anything seems amiss, you can do a more precise but time-consuming test using liquid chemicals.
Now that you know a little bit more about freshwater master test kits, you should have a good idea of which type to pick.
Although paper test kits are cheap and simple to use, they’re generally believed to be less accurate by experienced aquarium-keepers, so they shouldn’t necessarily be the only type of test you ever perform.
That said, they can be useful for regular testing in between chemical tests just to get a vague idea of the levels in your tank and get an early warning if anything’s wrong, which can then be confirmed with a more accurate test.
The main thing is that you’re doing some kind of testing of the water in your aquarium, as it is vital for keeping your fish healthy and happy.
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