Tag Archives: aquarium nitrogen cycle

Tips to speed up Aquarium Cycling

Aquarium cycling can be a slow (and painful for some :P) process, because the time required can be up to 6~8 weeks. This is especially true in the case of fishless cycling, because some people can’t wait to get their fish. There are certain things we can do to make the aquarium cycle a lot faster.

Reason for the slow cycling of aquariums
Since all the new fish tanks start with near zero beneficial bacteria of both types (nitrosomonas for converting ammonia, and nitrobacter for converting nitrite), it takes time for them to multiply to a level where you can actually see a change in the test readings. More importantly, nitrobacter will not even start to grow in number at all until the second stage when there is finally nitrite in the water. For nitrite to appear there must be enough nitrosomonas to feed on and convert ammonia first. It can take 2~3 weeks before nitrosomonas grow into sufficient number to provide nitrite for nitrobacter. The first stage is basically a bottleneck or choke point for the second stage. If we can make both stages starting simultaneously from the beginning, the whole aquarium cycling can be a lot shorter.

Three tips to speed up aquarium cycle
1. Heavy bacteria seeding
2. Higher water temperature
3. Higher oxygen level

Heavy Bacteria Seeding
To have some beneficial bacteria to start the aquarium nitrogen cycle will certainly speed up the cycling. More importantly, to have both nitrosomonas and nitrobacter to begin the cycle from the very beginning can be a huge jump start for the aquarium nitrogen cycle since it eliminates the waiting period for nitrite to appear.

Media from well established aquariums
Traditionally people seed bacteria for starting aquarium nitrogen cycle by using an object from an already established aquarium. This object can be a decoration, or some gravel. The best thing to use in this case is a piece of filter media. Since most beneficial bacteria colonize on the filter media, by putting a piece of filter media from a well established aquarium into a new filter in your new aquarium can give quite a jump start for cycling your new aquarium. Since not everyone has the access to a well established aquarium, this form of bacteria seeding is not available to everyone.

Bacteria in a bottle
Nowadays, there are commercial available bacteria seeding products for jump start aquarium nitrogen cycle in new aquariums. Yes, it is a fact there were some old bogus products with incorrect species of land based bacteria in them. When those bogus products were used in an aquarium, at first the tank might seem to be cycled quickly but it will not last because the land based bacteria will drown in the water eventually. The end result is the user must keep dosing those products in order to keep the cycle from crash. Due to wide spread of such bogus products in the past, many people believe all bacteria seeding products wouldn’t work. This is a misconception and old news.

Since Dr. Tim came up with a way to store bacteria spores in a bottle in liquid form, the first proven working product was Bio-spira. It was not long before Tetra re-branded the same product into Tetra SafeStart which was more widely available and many aquarium hobbyists have successfully used it to quick cycle their aquariums. The very same product is now in even more different bottles with different names. Dr. Tim’s One and Only is just another example. These commercially available bottled bacteria are all proven working after tried by many fish keepers. While it is true these products are meant for cycle with fish because the fact most people are not patient enough to do the fishless cycling in an empty tank, I have personally used Tetra SafeStart twice for fishless cycle with pure ammonia in two separated tanks. In both cases my fish tanks were cycled within a week, and the cycle was permanent. I have read plenty of good reviews from other fish hobbyists before I even tried Tetra SafeStart, the good results were no surprise to me.

Higher Water Temperature
Both nitrosomonas and nitrobacter love warm water. In the case of fishless cycling, you may turn the heater up and raise the water temperature to middle or high 80F, it will speed up the multiplying of these beneficial bacteria. High temperature can also increase their appetite for ammonia and nitrite. Although it will not make the day and night difference in the total time required to cycling an aquarium, it will certainly shorten it to some degree. Every little help counts when you can’t wait to get your hands on the new fish, right? 😛

Higher oxygen level
Both nitrosomonas and nitrobacter require oxygen to multiplying. A rich oxygen environment will certainly help them grow faster and therefore shorten the fish tank cycling time. You can easily achieve this by turn up the air pump and add more air stones. This is also required if you use higher temperature from the previous tip, because warmer water holds less oxygen.

There is no set time for how long it might take to cycling an aquarium before it is ready. By applying all of the tips you should be able to shorten it to less than two weeks.

Aquarium Nitrogen Cycle

Aquarium Nitrogen Cycle is perhaps the most important knowledge in fish keeping hobby. It is essential for the survival of fish in an aquarium. Without continuous nitrogen cycle in an aquarium, most fish will drop like flies within weeks.

What is an Aquarium Nitrogen Cycle?
The nitrogen cycle for an aquarium is the natural occurring process of the toxic ammonia (NH3) being converted to nitrite (NO2), then the nitrite is converted to the relatively harmless nitrate (NO3).

Ammonia (NH3) –>>> Nitrite (NO2) –>>> Nitrate (NO3)

What is ammonia?
Ammonia is a form of nitrogen compound. It is toxic. It will cause burn to the fish’s gills in even the slightest amount, and the continuous exposure to just a tiny trace of ammonia will eventually kill the fish. Moreover, ammonia poisoning is one of the leading causes for fish dying in home aquariums. This is especially true in newly set up aquariums. In a healthy aquarium, the ammonia concentration should be absolutely 0ppm (part per million).

Where is the ammonia from?
Almost all live organisms on the planet earth give off ammonia as a waste. Fish is included. Not only the fish produce ammonia directly through their gills on a constant basis, their poop also creates more ammonia when it breaks down. All the other organic matters in the aquarium such as leftover fish food, decay plants, and in some cases dead fish, will also contribute to the increasing level of ammonia in the water. While this is not a problem at all in a natural environment with nearly unlimited amount of water (ex: rivers, lakes, oceans), ammonia is not going anywhere in a closed system such as in a home aquarium.

How do I get rid of ammonia?
While certainly you can remove ammonia manually from an aquarium by doing water changes, this does not remove all of it and it is not the permanent solution since ammonia is produced on a constant basis in an aquarium as long as there is fish in it. Even if you do 100% water change every day (not recommended because it will shock the fish), ammonia will always build up between two water changes. You will never be able to keep it at 0ppm with water changes alone. This is where aquarium nitrogen cycle comes in.

In a well established home aquarium or a “cycled tank”, there will be a species of waterborne bacteria called nitrosomonas feed on ammonia as a food source. They convert ammonia to nitrite as a result. Nitrite is just as if not more toxic than ammonia. A second species of waterborne bacteria called nitrobacter will come in and feed on nitrite as food. The end result is the harmless nitrate. Both species of beneficial bacteria will continue to grow in number in an aquarium, until they reach a balanced level where their combined appetite cancels out the production of ammonia and nitrite. As a result, all the well established aquariums should always have 0ppm readings on both ammonia and nitrite.

While both species of beneficial bacteria exist naturally in the water, the number in any newly set up aquarium is always near zero, and it is nowhere near sufficient enough to keep ammonia and nitrite both at zero ppm which is required to keep your fish alive. The moment you add fish into a new fish tank, the ammonia level will start to rise and it will never be 0ppm until the tank is cycled. However, the fish will usually die to ammonia poisoning before the aquarium cycle can be completed, because it usually takes many weeks or even months before there are enough good bacteria to do the job. The solution is simple. You need to have sufficient amount of nitrosomonas and nitrobacter bacteria in a new fish tank before you can safely add fish without them dying within weeks.

The Aquarium Cycling
The process of “growing” efficient amount of nitrosomonas and nitrobacter in a newly set up fish tank is called cycling an aquarium or fish tank cycling. It is the safest way to make sure your new aquarium can handle the amount of ammonia produced by the fish before you even add the fish.

A lot of fish beginners took the wrong advice of letting the fish tank sit for a number of days, and they believe that will make the fish tank ready for fish. Having an empty tank full of water will achieve nothing even if you let it sit for many years. Since the good bacteria need a source of ammonia to begin their growth, the aquarium nitrogen cycle won’t even start until you add a source of ammonia.

The three most common methods to cycle fish tanks.
1. Fishless Cycle with pure ammonia
2. Fishless Cycling with fish food, or raw shrimp and/or raw fish
3. Cycle with fish (Fish-in Cycle)

Fishless Cycle with Fish Food

Since not everyone has the access to pure ammonia, cycling with fish food or raw fish is another way to do fishless cycle if you do not wish to cycle with fish. It is a slower and messier way to start aquarium nitrogen cycle.

To cycle a fish tank with fish food or raw shrimp or fish, you first need to set up an aquarium

Additional supplies you need for the cycling with fish food is
1. Fish food or raw fish/shrimp
2. a water test kit

Things to know before cycling aquarium with fish food (or raw fish/shrimp)
Flakes are easier to break down and to produce ammonia quicker than pellets. In the case of using raw fish or shrimp, it is faster if you chop them into smaller pieces.

Four stages of cycling with fish food (or raw fish / shrimp)

Stage I. Waiting for the organic matters to break down to produce ammonia
Stage II. Ammonia is presence in the water. Wait for nitrite to appear.
Stage III. Both ammonia and nitrite can be detected. Wait for nitrate to appear.
Stage IV. There is now a reading on nitrate. Wait for ammonia and nitrite both reach 0ppm.

Steps for cycling with fish food (or raw shrimp / fish)

Step 1. Make sure the tank is set up correctly and everything is running. The most important thing is the filter system. It must be running 24/7. The aquarium water must be treated with aquarium water conditioner to neutralize chlorine in the tap water, or it will kill the very same beneficial bacteria you try to have.

Step 2. Add the fish food or the chopped up raw shrimp/fish into the aquarium. Try to spread them out as evenly as possible. There is no need to hold back on the dosage, since there is no live fish in the tank. Just use your common sense for not overdoing it.

Step 3. Since this is still the stage one, we are waiting for ammonia to appear. Test the aquarium water for only ammonia every day after 3 days into the fish tank cycling. There is no need to test it on the first a few days since it takes time for the organic matters (fish food, raw shrimp/fish) to break down into ammonia.

Step 4. Once you start to get a reading of ammonia, it has just entered the second stage. You should add more fish food or raw fish/shrimp into the tank, but the amount should be less than the first dosage. In the case of fish food, just dose as much as the amount you would have used to feed to the fish every day. You should also start to test for both ammonia and nitrite from this point on.

Step 5. If the ammonia gets above 6ppm which is a toxic level for even the beneficial bacteria, you need to do a partial water change to lower it back to 6ppm or less. The partial water change should not include gravel vacuum because you still need the organic matters at the bottom to produce ammonia on a constant basis.

Step 6. Continue to dose fish food or raw fish/shrimp in small quantity every day, and testing the aquarium water for ammonia and nitrite.

Step 7. Once you get a reading on nitrite, the fishless cycling has entered the third stage. You must test for ammonia, nitrite, and nitrate on daily basis, and continue to add fish food or whatever you were using as a source of ammonia.

Step 8. As soon as you start to get a reading on nitrate, it has entered the final and fourth stage. You must start to test the water for PH in addition to ammonia, nitrite, and nitrate on daily basis. Nitrate production process can be acidic. It eats away the water buffer slowly and can cause a sudden crash of PH. When the aquarium water is too acidic, the cycle can be stalled because it is undesirable for the beneficial bacteria. On the first sign of PH dropping, you should do a partial water change to restore the water buffer and to remove the nitrate.

Step 9. Continue to dose the fish food on daily basis and test the aquarium water for all readings. Once you get 0ppm on ammonia and nitrite a few days in a row, the aquarium cycle is finished.

Step 10. Since you have cycled a fish tank with organic matters, there is a lot of phosphate in the water. You need to do several large partial water changes to get rid of most of the phosphate as well as nitrate before you can safely add fish. During the partial water change, you need to use the gravel vacuum to remove all the remaining organic matters at the bottom of the tank.

When you add fish, it is recommended not to add too many fish at once. Add a few fish every two to three weeks until the tank is fully stocked is the best way to do it. You need to test the water for ammonia and nitrite every day as soon as you get the fish. If there is a sign of ammonia or nitrite, large partial water change is recommended every other day with Prime as water conditioner.

Cycling with fish food can be a lot slower than cycling with pure ammonia, but it is still just as safe for your fish since you cycle the tank before you add the fish. The whole cycling process can take more than 2 months with fish food. There are some tips for tank cycling can be used to greatly reduce the time required.

Fishless Cycling with Pure Ammonia

What is fishless cycle?
In order to have sufficient amount of good bacteria in a new aquarium for the natural occurring aquarium nitrogen cycle, we must cycle aquarium or the fish will die. The methods to cycle aquariums without any fish are what we call fishless cycle. As the opposite to cycle aquarium with fish, fishless cycling is more humane because no fish will die in process. While there are more than one way to fishless cycling an aquarium, one of the fastest ways is to use pure ammonia.

There are two ways to do a fishless cycle.
A. Use pure ammonia.
B. Use fish food, or raw fish/shrimp.

In this article, we will cover the pure ammonia method. Another advantage of using pure ammonia to cycling a fish tank is to have the option of fully stock your tank with fish in one go after the cycle is done.

Whatever method you decide to use for cycling aquarium, you must set up an aquarium first. We will not get into details on how to set up an aquarium here.
Here is a quick list of the items you need.
1. A fish tank.
2. An aquarium filter.
3. An aquarium heater (if you will get tropical fish).
4. An air pump and its accessories.
5. An aquarium water conditioner.
6. A water test kit.
7. A source of pure ammonia.

Aside the necessary equipments to set up an aquarium, the only two other items here specifically for the purpose of fishless cycling are the water test kit and a source of ammonia.

The water test kit
The only way to know how much ammonia, nitrite and nitrate are there in the water is to test the water with a test kit. There are many different aquarium water test kits out there. One thing you must know is that liquid test kits are generally much more accurate than paper strip test kits. The latter is considered worthless for aquarium water testing by many people. The most commonly used water test kit with good reputation amongst aquarium hobbyists is the API Freshwater Master Kit. It is capable of testing ammonia, nitrite, nitrate, and PH. There is enough supply in one package for more than 150 tests. A single kit should be sufficient enough for you to complete aquarium cycling with still plenty to spare.

A source of ammonia
Some commercially available bottled ammonia can be used for fishless cycling. Whatever the source is, you must make sure there is no additive in the bottle. Check out the ingredients is essential. The only thing you need in the bottle is a form of ammonia compound and water. Some ammonia products have soap in them, which makes them completely useless for cycling a fish tank. One of the pure ammonia products I have used successfully is Ace Ammonia Janitorial Strength Formula. It is made of 90% water and 10% ammonia hydroxide. Another type of ammonia I have used is Ammonium Chloride Solution by Dr Tim’s Aquatics, while this is a much smaller bottle it is more than enough to cycle quite a few fish tanks.

Important things to know before you start the cycle
Although the beneficial bacteria you want to grow in your new aquarium is waterborne, they can only grow in sufficient number by colonize surface areas within your fish tank. The most surface areas available in an aquarium are in the filter media. Therefore, cycling an aquarium is basically cycling the aquarium filter system, since it is where majority of your beneficial bacteria will be. You must make sure your filter system is turned on 24/7, and it must be rated high enough for your tank size or it will never have large enough surface areas in its filter media to have enough bacteria for taking care of the ammonia produced by your fish.

The Three Stages of Fishless cycle.

Stage One“Growing” nitrosomonas

Define Stage: This is the stage where you will only find a reading on ammonia, while nitrite and nitrate both remain at 0ppm all the time. It requires the most patience, because it can be the longest stage with no sign of progress.

Goal: To get a reading on nitrite is what you should be after for this stage. By the time there is nitrite in the water, it means you already have large quantity of nitrosomonas to convert ammonia.

Tasks: After the tank is set up and everything (filter, heater, air pump) is running, you need to add some ammonia into the aquarium water. While there is no need for absolute accuracy when you drop ammonia, the general rule is not to add more than 6ppm. Too much ammonia can even be toxic to the good bacteria, and it will stall the aquarium cycling.

You need to test aquarium water every a few days for ammonia and nitrite. To make sure there is always ammonia in the water, and to check sign of nitrite to get an idea on how far the fish tank cycling has gone into. It can take up to 2~3 weeks before there is even a sign of nitrite.

Stage Two“Growing” nitrobacter

Define stage: Once you get a reading of nitrite, it has entered stage two. Now the second group of beneficial bacteria nitrobacter will start to grow since there is finally food available to them. Nitrobacter would not grow during stage one because there was no nitrite available for them to feed on.

Goal: To get a reading on nitrate. You have to wait for nitrobacter to grow into sufficient number before there is a sign of nitrate, and during this stage this is exactly what you want.

Tasks: You will need to test the water daily to make sure there is always ammonia in the water, or the nitrosomonas grew during stage one will start to starve once all available ammonia is converted to nitrite. This stage is usually shorter than the second stage, but it can still take up to weeks before the next stage, where nitrate is finally showing up on test results.

Stage ThreeWait to reach a balance
Define Stage: As soon as you get a reading on nitrate, the fishless cycling has entered its final stage. Now there are a lot of both nitrosomonas and nitrobacter in the fish tank to convert both ammonia and nitrite.

Goal: To get 0ppm reading on both ammonia and nitrite. To achieve a balance between the two different species of good bacteria in order to convert all your daily dosage of ammonia into nitrate without a trace of ammonia and nitrite at the end of the day.

Tasks – You should continue to test the aquarium water on daily basis to make sure there is always ammonia to start each day with. You also must keep eyes on the nitrate concentration and PH at this point. During this stage, water buffer gets eaten away slowly and the PH might suddenly crash. When the PH is too acidic it can stall the fishless cycle. As soon as you see a drop in the PH, you should do a large water change to reduce the nitrate and to restore the water buffer as well as the PH.

You also must set your goal of how much ammonia you want your aquarium to be able to handle when it is completed. If you want 2ppm of ammonia being converted daily, you must make sure there is 2ppm ammonia in the water every day after you just gave a new dosage. Generally, 2ppm ammonia being converted daily can only ensure a light stock of fish. If you want to fully stock your tank at once, you need to aim for 5~6ppm ammonia being converted daily.

This stage should be fairly quick. It usually finishes within a week or so. Once you get a reading of 0ppm for both ammonia and nitrite a few days in a row while you still added ammonia 24 hours ago, the tank is fully cycled! You may add fish after one or more large partial water change to remove most of the nitrate.

Fishless cycling can be a slow and painful process for many people. Patience is required. The usual amount of time required to cycle a fish tank can be 6 weeks or more. Exactly time required can be vary case by case depend on many facts. There are certain useful tips to speed up fish tank cycling and cut the time required to as short as a week or less in some cases.

Cycle with Fish (fish-in cycle)

Aquarium nitrogen cycle is essential for the survival of pet fish in a home aquarium. No fish can live for long in a new aquarium before it is cycled, because the toxic ammonia will build up from decay organic matters in the aquarium as well as from fish gills directly. To ensure an ammonia free aquarium, all new fish tanks must be cycled. There is more than one way to cycle a fish tank. While fishless cycling is highly recommended, cycle with fish can be successful too if it is done correctly. To start the aquarium nitrogen cycle, there must be a source of ammonia. The fish themselves are a source of ammonia since they produce it on a constant basis, therefore you can cycle the fish tank with fish. It is also known as the fish-in cycle.

To cycle with fish, you first need to set up an aquarium with all the necessary equipments and supplies.
1. A fish tank of proper size for your fish.
2. An adequate aquarium filter system.
3. An aquarium heater.
4. An aquarium air pump and accessories.
5. An aquarium water conditioner.
6. A few 5 gallon water buckets.
7. A gravel vacuum.
8. An aquarium water test kit.

Things to do and to know before start a fish-in cycle
A. You have to set up an aquarium first.
Everything must be running before you add the fish.

B. The fewer fish the better.
You should only add as few fish as possible. More fish will not cycle the tank faster. Instead, more fish means quicker ammonia building up and the fish will be more likely to die before the cycle can be completed.

C. Choose your fish species wisely for the purpose of cycling the tank with them. The fish for cycling a tank must not all die before the cycle can finish. Traditionally people like to choose a few “expendable” hardy fish to cycle an aquarium. Zebra Danios are known for being able to survive in terrible water conditions for a while, and therefore they are one of the most common fish-in cycle candidates. However, Zebra Danios are known nippers. They are not compatible with longfin and slow moving fish. If you have the plan to get such fish after the tank is cycled without a plan to get rid of the Danios, you should use another species instead. Platies and guppies are also often used for fish-in cycling. Whatever fish species you plan to use for cycling a tank, they must be hardy and at the same time compatible for the future fish you plan to get, since you want them to survive long enough to complete the fish-in cycle.

D. It is highly recommended to use SeaChem Prime as your water conditioner. Since you will have fish in an uncycled tank, ammonia will definitely build up. Any trace of ammonia is harmful to the fish. Therefore the fish need your help to live through the fish-in cycle. Aside the primary function of neutralize chlorine and chloramine in the tap water, SeaChem Prime has a secondary function of detoxify ammonia and turn it into harmless ammonium for up to 48 hours. This function alone can make certain the fish will not be exposed to ammonia poisoning within 48 hours after each water change with Prime. As long as you do partial water change with Prime every other day, the ammonia damage to your fish should be minimal.

E. Feed as little as possible during the fish-in cycle. More fish food means more ammonia in the system. More ammonia will not help the fish-in cycle, but rather it might kill the fish faster. Once the fish is dead, you can’t continue the fish-in cycle. Feeding lightly every other day is recommended during fish-in cycling.

Steps of Fish-in Cycling

Step I – To cycle with fish, first make sure the filter is running, the heater is giving the right water temperature, and the air pump is making bubbles. Add as few fish as possible into your prepared aquarium.

Step II
– Test the water every day for ammonia and nitrite. Since the tank is uncycled, you will be able to pick up small trace of ammonia fairly quick (usually in a day or two). If you have used SeaChem Prime as water conditioner, the reading you get should be ammonium instead of ammonia.

Step III – As soon as you discovered ammonia or ammonium in the water, you need to do a 30~50% partial water change every other day with Prime as the water conditioner. This should ensure your fish will not die to ammonia poisoning before the aquarium cycle can finish. It will also keep the ammonia/ammonium level in check, since more ammonia/ammonium will not make the aquarium cycle faster. It can take more than 3 weeks before the next step.

Step IV – Once you pick up nitrite, you are at least a third way into the cycling. It is a good sign, but do not cut back on partial water changes. From this point on, you should also test for nitrate in addition to ammonia and nitrite tests on daily basis. It might take weeks more to get a nitrate reading.

Step V – Once you get a reading on nitrate, the final stage has arrived. At this point, you still need to do it every other day with Prime, but you can cut back on the percentage of water changed. For example, if you were doing a 50% partial water change every other day, now you may reduce it to 20% instead.

Step VI – The day you get a 0ppm reading on both ammonia and nitrite, you should stop doing partial water change every other day. Furthermore, you only need to do a partial water change once a week to lower the nitrate concentration. This is to ensure the developing beneficial bacteria to have enough ammonia and nitrite to convert. The goal at this stage is to get 0ppm on both ammonia and nitrite.

Step VII
– Wait for at least 3 days in a row after you start to get 0ppm readings on both ammonia and nitrite. You may start to feed your fish every day instead of every other day. This will ensure normal production of ammonia by the fish, and as a result the beneficial bacteria will also increase in quantity.

Step VIII – Wait at least another 3 days before you can finally call it “the tank is cycled” if you continue to get 0ppm ammonia and 0ppm nitrite readings. Congratulations!

You may add more fish now but do it slowly. Too many fish added at once can still produce ammonia spike in an aquarium you just cycled with fish. It is a good idea to add no more than one fish at a time if you had only one fish in the tank by the end of fish-in cycle. If you have more than one fish survived the fish-in cycle, it is still recommended to add only 1/3 of the existing number of fish at a time. In both cases, please wait for at least a week or two before you add more fish. You must also continue to do testing on the aquarium water for ammonia, nitrite, and nitrate. If there is any sign of ammonia or nitrite, you must immediately do a partial water change with Prime, and repeat it every 48 hours until there is no more ammonia and nitrite.

The advantage of cycle with fish.
You get to have the pet fish immediately after you set up your aquarium. Many people can’t wait to get their hands on the fish the moment they set up their aquariums, therefore this might be seen as an advantage for some people.

The disadvantage of cycling with fish.
Your fish will be exposed to ammonia poisoning during the fish-in cycle. The fish you use for cycling the aquarium might not survive.

There is a lot more work load because of the frequent partial water change required to sustain the fish through the tank cycle.

Cycle with fish is slower than fishless cycling. You will in fact wait longer before you can fully stock your fish tank.

There is no exactly set time required for fish-in cycle just like fishless cycle due to too many variables from tank to tank. You can certainly speed the process up and cut down the time required by applying some cycling tips. Although not guaranteed, some of the cycling tips might cut down the aquarium cycle time to as short as a week.