Distal renal tubular acidosis (dRTA) is not a single disease. The experimental forms of the syndrome are unsatisfactory as models of the naturally occurring disease, not least because they are seldom complicated by nephrocalcinosis, which is present in the majority of patients with spontaneous disease and contributes to the renal tubular defects found in the syndrome. Impairment of minimal urine pH, reduced urine carbon dioxide tension (PCO2) during passage of alkaline urine, and reduced urinary ammonium (NH4+) excretion, have all been advocated as essential criteria for the diagnosis of dRTA. Minimal urine pH, measured during metabolic acidosis, sulphate infusion, or after oral frusemide, is the yardstick against which other criteria should be assessed. A reduced urinary PCO2 is commonly found in dRTA but is not specific for the syndrome and may be accounted for by tubular defects other than those involving reduced distal hydrogen ion secretion. NH4+ excretion is reduced in most patients with renal acidosis whatever the nature of the underlying renal disease; this function is closely related to nephron mass, and is not specifically impaired in renal tubular disease.