Cautions, tips and
Avoid massive water changes when cycling is first complete.
You have been adding ammonia that has now been fully converted
to nitrite and then nitrate. Now you are done, but your nitrate
level is through the roof. You want to get nitrate down to finish
this up and get some fish in the aquarium, so you have decided
to do a 90% water change. The next day you test water parameters
and find an elevated level of either ammonia or nitrite or both.
What happened? Well, this does not seem to happen to everyone
and I am not exactly sure why it happens at all. My theory is
that in a new aquarium, the biofilm that the bacteria reside in
has not had ample time to build up and provide sufficient protection
for them. (See 'What's a biofilm?' below.) Being less than fully
protected the water change results in either the removal or inhibition
of them in some way. The good news is that these spikes are usually
low and brief, lasting only a day or so. Wait a day and test again.
When levels reach zero again, resume your routine, but this time
do smaller, partial water changes to bring nitrate under control.
Avoid the temptation to tinker with the system during the cycling
process. Get things set before you begin cycling. If you find
some rock is not where you want it or you do not like the ceramic
castle that you added, just accept that your system will take
time to be all you want it to be and leave it alone for now. On
the other hand, do you wish you had used sand instead of gravel?
If it is early in the cycling process, then it is probably the
best time to make that change. It will probably set you back,
but better to have the minor setback now than to make that change
a month after adding your fish and risk a setback at that time.
Do not clean the filters for at least 45 days after cycling
is complete, and best to wait 60-90, if you can. Considering
that you should be going easy on the feeding during the early
days, the filter should not need to be cleaned right away. Any
organics that are starting to build are much less of a risk to
the fish than disrupting your nitrifying bacteria. Now if the
filter flow has slowed to a trickle, then do what you have to
do in order to resolve that, but try not to disrupt the biomedia
in the process. Follow the filter cleaning up with an evaluation
of your feeding amounts and schedule.
Frequently asked questions
"What kind of ammonia should I use and where do I get it?"
Look for something typically called 'Clear Ammonia'. I have found
it at Wal-Mart and Ace Hardware. Just be sure to read the ingredient
list, as not all Wal-Mart stores around the US carry exactly the
same thing. It may look the same, but ingredients can be different.
The only ingredients listed should be ammonia, water, and possibly
chelating agents as in the picture below. Avoid anything with
perfumes, dyes, or surfactants. Therefore, the first thing that
you are looking for is that it is clear. If it is not clear, then
you know right away that it contains some sort of dye. You should
also give it a quick shake to see if it foams up. If it does,
then it contains something you do not want to add to your aquarium.
Pass it by.
The ingredient list may not always be obvious,
as in this bottle from Ace Hardware below. It simply says 'contains
10% ammonium hydroxide'. Ammonium hydroxide is a solution of ammonia
in water. Household ammonia is dilute ammonium hydroxide.6
You will not find 'pure ammonia' by the way, so do not ask for
it in stores. Ask for 'clear ammonia'. When searching, a large
department store with a large aisle of cleaning supplies is your
best bet if you do not find it at Ace or Wal-Mart.
"Can I use some cut up shrimp as an
You can, but there are potential problems with this approach.
It is not easy to regulate the amount of ammonia added to the
aquarium water by the decaying shrimp, so you could very easily
overwhelm any nitrifying bacteria that are trying to multiply.
Of lesser importance, it is a bit unsightly and may cause cloudiness
of the aquarium water. Picture a rotting piece of shrimp sitting
in an aquarium of cloudy water along with an unpleasant aroma
in the room. You could always do water changes to adjust the ammonia
level, and you could also remove some or all of the shrimp after
a while. However, it just seems easier to add some drops of ammonia
from a bottle. The ammonia costs about $1-$3, and will probably
be the only bottle you will ever need to buy for cycling aquariums.
"Can I just add some fish food to get
the cycle started?"
You can, but it may take a very long time for the food to be broken
down into ammonia, and the amount of ammonia may be negligible.
You may get very frustrated with this method long before the first
signs of ammonia show up on your test kit. Again, it just seems
easier to add some drops of ammonia from a bottle.
"How can I speed up the cycling process?"
To speed up the cycling process, you can do something called 'seeding'
the bacteria colony. This simply means adding nitrifying bacteria
in some quantity to jumpstart the process of building numbers
of these bacteria sufficient in quantity to handle the initial
stocking load of fish.
'Biomedia' from an established aquarium
Do you have an established aquarium or know someone who does?
Has it been running for six months or more, and been disease free?
If so, then the best source of bacteria to seed your new aquarium
filtration is right inside the established aquarium. Moreover,
it does not have to come from the aquarium's filter, although
that is an excellent source. In many filters there are different
types of filtration media. There is usually some type of pads,
rings, plastic balls, sponges, etc. Which one should you use?
Many think that the grungier, the better, but this is not necessarily
the case. You will often hear of 'squeezins' being used. Many
filter pads will collect organic solids that are broken down into
a brown sludge called 'mulm'. Heterotrophic bacteria are the bacteria
that handle this breakdown. Unfortunately, these are not nitrifying
bacteria, and while not harmful, they are not what you are looking
for to seed your biofilter. In fact, nitrifying bacteria may find
it hard to become established on a filter pad that is covered
in mulm. Nitrifying bacteria need a surface to adhere to, and
may find it difficult to adhere to a grungy filter pad.5
Will it still work? Yes, it often does, but why not use something
ideal? A better filter media to look to is what typically resides
at the next stage of water flow behind the grungy mechanical filtration
pads or sponges. This is what is usually referred to as 'biomedia'.
This media will look relatively clean. However, residing on this
media will be an unseen biofilm that harbors exactly the type
of bacteria that you are looking for. (See 'What's a biofilm'
below.) If there is some mulm on the media, it is not a problem,
but best if it is relatively clean. Nevertheless, do not get tempted
to rinse it. Use it as is straight from the filter.
So how much should you take? You really do not need a lot. You
do not want to disrupt your existing system just to seed the new
one. I would suggest about 25% of it. If possible, add it right
to the new filter. If that is not possible, then attach it to
the filter intake tube near the intake strainer using a fine mesh
bag and rubber band. You want the media to reside somewhere in
or near the filter where there is a good flow of water that either
runs through or is about to run through the new filter. If seeding
sponge filters, then you can sit the sponge filter on top of the
media bag. You can also use a sponge filter itself to seed a new
aquarium, or even rocks or other décor from the established
aquarium. You can even use gravel, but I would suggest attaching
it to the filter intake tube in the fine mesh bag rather than
laying it out over the new substrate. It will probably get more
water flow around it, provide an easier path to the filter intake,
and be easier to remove once cycling is complete. Again, leave
the grunge behind. Skim some clean gravel from the top layer.
Moving an entire filter with its media is also a great way to
seed the biofiltration of a new aquarium system. Keep in mind,
though, that even though you have moved an entire filter, there
may not be enough beneficial bacteria within this filter to handle
a full load of fish. Move the filter and then fishless cycle to
Aquarium water from an established system
This is probably not going to be helpful. Relatively few nitrifying
bacteria reside in aquarium water.
There are many bottled bacteria products for sale. Few have a
good reputation. One that I will recommend is Dr. Tim's 'One and
Only'. Many aquarists have reported success with this product
and I have seen that Dr. Tim stands behind it. He openly provides
support by participating in discussion forums here
at CF. He also sells an ammonia source product for those that
are having trouble finding a good source locally. Here is his
web site: Dr.
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