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Fishless Cycling
by Tim Craig (prov 356)
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Cautions, tips and tricks

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 ammonia source?"

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 be sure.

Aquarium water from an established system


This is probably not going to be helpful. Relatively few nitrifying bacteria reside in aquarium water.

Bottled bacteria

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. Tim's Aquatics

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