Filling the Tank: Is Distilled Water Good for Your Aquarium?

Charlie Morton

Charlie Morton


Distilled Water For Aquarium

Sharing is caring!

When I started fishkeeping, I was lucky enough to have access to excellent well water. No chlorine or contaminants, just pure, soft water that was ideal for South American fish.

If your source of water isn’t so pure, however, you may need to find a way to purify it. Distillation is one such method, although it is more costly and less effective than other purification systems like reverse osmosis.

Let’s find out more.

Key Takeaways

  • Distilled water is a form of purified water, obtained from the condensation of steam from heater water.
  • Distilled water gives the aquarium owner a greater degree of control over water parameters, but it’s also costly and doesn’t remove every nutrient from the water.
  • In the long run, reverse osmosis systems are a more efficient and cost-effective method of purifying water than distillation.

What Is Distilled Water?

Distilled water is water that has been processed to remove certain impurities through a heating and cooling process. Distillation of water requires the water to first be boiled. The steam that is produced is then cooled and collected, resulting in more purified water.

However, while distillation removes many impurities, it does not remove those that have a lower boiling point than water; this means that some undesirable particles may still be present in the distilled water.

This process attempts to mimic the natural events of evaporation, condensation, and precipitation.

How Is Distilled Water Different From Tap Water?

There are a few major differences between distilled water and tap water, the main one concerning nutrients and minerals.

Tap Water

The quality of your tap water depends on where you live. Tap water is pulled from reservoirs that are constantly influenced by weather patterns, runoff, and geological composition; important water parameters, like the pH levels and water hardness, can differ enormously across different regions.

Tap water is treated in facilities to mainly filter and neutralize foreign particles, bacteria, viruses, parasites, and other chemicals; these facilities often add chlorine or chloramine to best preserve the water and kill off any remaining pathogens. However, this process allows many elements, nutrients/minerals, metals, and other ‘fish tank impurities’ to remain at high levels.

Distilled Water

In comparison, distilled water removes most of these other impurities, as long as they can be naturally boiled out. This means that the most dangerous heavy metals that pose a threat to your fish tank, like lead and mercury are removed.

However, this also means that many beneficial nutrients and minerals, like magnesium, calcium, and phosphate, are removed in the process, too. For many tanks, these minerals and nutrients are critical for the basic biological functions of your fish, invertebrates, and plants.

Understanding TDS – Total Dissolved Solids

Usually, hobbyists will test these parameters individually and as total dissolved solids (TDS) for the best reading of their fish tank as a whole. Total dissolved solids measure all inorganic and organic substances in the fish tank water and are recorded in parts per million (ppm).

TDS are important for the aquarium because it indicates the available resources for fish, plants, and invertebrates; it is also an important parameter to consider if wanting to change pH, water hardness (GH), or carbonate hardness (KH).

Tap Water vs. Distilled Water in Freshwater Fish Tanks

child putting distilled water in aquarium

Freshwater plants generally need the natural minerals found in tap water to photosynthesize; shrimp and other invertebrates also require these minerals to molt and grow correctly.

If hobbyists plan to use distilled water in their freshwater fish tank, then they usually need to use other products to remineralize the water and adjust TDS and water hardness accordingly.

While this gives more control over nutrient input and output, it can become expensive and can be difficult to gauge at first.

In contrast, tap water already contains essential minerals and nutrients. However, these levels may still be insufficient or in excess, and might still need to be adjusted to make the water safe for your fish, plants, and invertebrates.

Tap Water vs. Distilled Water in Saltwater Fish Tanks

Saltwater fish tank water parameters usually need to be a little more precise than freshwater parameters, especially when keeping a reef system. Many hobbyists try not to use tap water in saltwater aquarium systems because of all the unknown nutrients and minerals that can easily be introduced.

The most important parameters in saltwater, besides salinity, are typically pH, carbonate hardness, nitrates, phosphates, and calcium. The problem with using tap water for saltwater fish tanks is that these levels can easily fluctuate every day which can create instability; most tap water is also known for containing more phosphates than desirable, which can quickly lead to algae problems.

On top of this, tap water has been known to introduce other major impurities, such as lead from pipes, which can quickly devastate a marine aquarium.

Because of this, most reefers and saltwater fish keepers like to control nutrient levels as much as possible by choosing a more reliable source of water, like distilled water, reverse osmosis water, or reverse osmosis deionized water.

How Is Distilled Water Different From Reverse Osmosis Water?

Another common option for fish tank water is reverse osmosis (RO) water or reverse osmosis deionized (RO/DI) water. There are a few differences between the two, so it’s important to know which is best to use for your tank as these water systems can be expensive to install and maintain.

Reverse Osmosis (RO) Water

Reverse osmosis removes similar particles to distillation but uses a semi-permeable membrane to filter out molecules and other particles that are larger than water (H2O), like certain metals, minerals, and nutrients. At the end of this process, you are left with safe and pure water that has very low GH, KH, and overall TDS.

Reverse osmosis water tends to be used by hobbyists who plan on having their tank for a long time; this is because it is usually cheaper to purchase and install a four-stage reverse osmosis system and keep up with membrane replacements than it is to constantly purchase distilled water.

Reverse Osmosis Deionized (RO/DI) Water

RO/DI water is similar to regular RO water and works on a semipermeable membrane as well, but undergoes the additional step of deionization; this step results in even purer water with zero TDS. RO/DI systems are usually five or six-stage systems.

In short, the deionization stage uses positive and negative charges to remove any lasting ions that have been able to pass through the previous stages of the system.

Many hobbyists believe that RO/DI systems are essential for the success of reef tanks and that it is more than worthwhile to purchase one if you’re planning on getting the best water for your dollar.

Just remember that as with distilled water or RO water, you will still need to add minerals to make the water safe for your fish, plants, and invertebrates.

Is RO Water or RO/DI Water Better?

As you’ve probably heard, bigger is usually better in the fish tank-keeping hobby; for the most part, this is also true when it comes to aquarium equipment. If you’re putting out the money and doing all the plumbing for a RO system, you may as well spend the extra money for a full RO/DI system.

Technically, RO/DI water is much purer than RO because of the additional deionizing step, but for the average fish tank, both make safe and ready-to-use water for fish.

When Should You Use Distilled Water in the Aquarium?

With all the different kinds of water available for your fish tank that all seem to do similar things, how do you know if you should use distilled water for your aquarium or something else instead?

Using distilled water is useful if you have a temporary problem with your tap water or your reverse osmosis system breaks down.

In other cases, if you intend to add purified water to your aquarium for longer periods, some sort of RO or RO/DI system is more cost-effective and also more efficient at purifying water.

Distilled Water vs RO/DI Water in Reef Aquariums

There is always a lively debate among reef tank owners about the pros and cons of distilled water vs RO/DI water. You can get all the angles on the reef2reef forum here. Though it is a complex topic, RO/DI water still makes more sense to me just now!

How To Use Distilled Water

Many freshwater hobbyists like to mix distilled water with tap water or spring water to decrease the number of TDS being introduced into the tank while still keeping a baseline reading.

Freshwater fish tanks can either be topped off for evaporation with this distilled water/tap water mix or used to perform a water change entirely. However, if your tap water is not the best water for fish use, then you will need to remineralize the water, which may then be worthwhile to invest in a RO system.

Likewise, many saltwater fish tank keepers also use distilled water for top-offs as well as to perform entire water changes; the main difference for saltwater fish tanks though, is that only freshwater is added during top-offs while in water changes, water needs to be mixed with salt to match salinities.

This means that a top-off with purely distilled water will not introduce or replace the essential minerals in the tank, but the water change will, as the minerals and nutrients come from the salt mix instead.

A Note on Removing Chlorine

For any type of water, be it tap water, spring water, distilled water, RO or RO/DI water, or any other purified water, it is always important to have a way to remove chlorine regardless – as it is highly toxic to fish.

Even the best filtration systems may not filter out the chlorine that is typically added as a protective measure during treatment. All you need to do is add some water conditioner to your fish tank, and it should be fine!

Should You Use Distilled Water for Your Betta Fish?

distilled water

Again, distilled water lacks many of the essential minerals needed by fish, plants, and invertebrates for many bodily functions. This means that you would need to add nutrients back into the water, even for a betta fish.

Many pet stores carry specialized purified water formulated for betta fish tank use, though mixing distilled water and tap water should be safe for your fish as well.

For a full guide on setting up your first betta fish tank, make sure to check out our ultimate betta guide here.


Distilled water is a type of purified water that can be useful in the absence of a reverse osmosis system. Removing most dissolved solids from tap water gives the fish keeper greater control over water parameters.

If you intend to use purified water over long periods, however, reverse osmosis water makes more sense than distilled water as it’s a more effective method, and is cheaper in the long run.

Sharing is caring!

7 thoughts on “Filling the Tank: Is Distilled Water Good for Your Aquarium?”

  1. Freshwater aquariums require water that is as pure as possible. In order to keep aquariums in good health, it is important to use distilled or reverse osmosis filtered water.

  2. Thank you for this informative post! It’s so helpful that you mentioned that distilled water is stripped of most of the essential minerals needed for many living creatures in your aquarium at the same time tap water also still contains other ‘fish tank impurities’ in high contents which both are to be thought of first. What if I use a bubble machine to help oxidate and improve the living conditions of fishes and plants in the aquarium? Would it be better to choose any water if I have a bubble machine?

    • A bubbler is always good in the freshwater aquarium! However, it won’t help bring in any of the necessary nutrients that come along with good source water.

  3. After removing the chlorine and other unwanted metals in the tap water, it is likely that there are still other harmful substances found in the water. To eliminate this unwanted harmful substance, applying a conditioner is a necessity.

    • Hi Susan!
      Do you happen to have your general hardness levels? It might be such that you don’t even need to adjust your levels as most fish are pretty capable of adapting. More information would be needed though please!


Leave a Comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.