aquarium-nitrogen-cycle

Cycling a new fish tank is a very important step so make sure you do not skip this part of the process. Neglecting to get your aquarium cycled before stocking will result in the fatality of your newfound aquatic buddies, frustration and quite possibly the end of your now very short lived interest in aquariums… Or you’ll try again, depends on your character I suppose.

What is a cycled or matured aquarium ready for stocking fish

I am going to give you a brief understanding of how this works including everything you need to do to have a successful aquarium cycled and to keep your little buddies from going belly up, without boring you to death with ALL of the scientific tid bits.

nitrogen-cycle-in-nature

Here is an illustration to show you the science you can’t see in real life! Source

The terms you need to know!

  • Ammonia – Fish waste and urine, uneaten fish food and dead plant matter (if you have live plants) all turn into Ammonia. This is toxic to your fish and will kill them.
  • Nitrites – Science happens! Beneficial bacteria in the aquarium feeds on the Ammonia and turns it into Nitrites. This is also toxic to your fish and will kill them just like the Ammonia.
  • Nitrates – More science happens! Another beneficial bacteria in the aquarium feeds on the Nitrites and turns them into Nitrates. This is relatively harmless to your fish and they will live.

Hold on, I was just about to get into that! This is called the Nitrogen Cycle and it never stops happening in your aquarium. Hence the word “Cycle“.

You need to be aware of this because your aquarium isn’t handling this efficiently quite yet. You see, your aquarium has brand new filtration which doesn’t have any of these bacteria living in it yet and brand new water in it with no ammonia to make those wonderful bacteria big and strong yet.

So we need to get some ammonia in the aquarium for this first type of bacteria to feed on so that it can build up and process the ammonia as fast as it is produced. The same set of rules applies to the second type of bacteria that I briefly mentioned up above in the Terms You Need To Know section.

We need the first bacteria to turn ammonia into Nitrites for the second bacteria to feed and grow off of so that it can turn those nasty Nitrites into not so bad Nitrates, QUICKLY!! So that your new fish friends will be alive and not dead. This procedures happen in your filtration system, called as biological filtration.

aquarium-nitrogen-cycle

Nitrogen cycle and biological filtration in aquariums. Source

By adding a source of ammonia to the aquarium water and either waiting for bacteria to colonize the filter or adding a starter culture. Ammonia and nitrite levels are then monitored. You can do this work by many ways:

  • If you use some hardy fish for these steps, it is called as “traditional cycling with starter fish”,
  • If there is no fish are used, it is called as “fish-less cycle” using fish foods instead of live fish,
  • Ready-to-use bacteria, are also commercially available for cycling new aquariums,
  • You can also use water and media from an old tank to add bacteria to the new setup tank.

In this article, I only introduce you the method cycling with starter hardy fish because it’s fast, easy, and loved by many beginners who want to stock their new aquariums with some fish and enjoy them as quick as possible.

3 easy steps to cycle your new setup fish tank

Step 1 – Add some hardy fish firstly

After setting up your new fish tank following the previous article, pick out (or already have in mind) one or two hardy fish to put in your new aquarium. Go to the store and buy them and then put them in your fish tank.

Here are some hardy fish for you:

Make sure you acclimate them properly! Adding new fish to an aquarium at any time, cycled or not, always needs to be done properly. Its very important if you want them to continue to be swimming fish and not floating fish. (I bet you never thought there would be so many things that could prove fatal to our finned little friends of the liquid earth, did you? They’re sensitive delicate little water breathers, its crazy!)

Congratulations! If you finished step 1 you now have life in your new aquarium for the first time! That’s pretty cool, you should take 5 or 10 minutes to enjoy it… Go ahead, check it out, observe.. come on back when your ready and don’t worry; there is no rush to move on to step two because from now on the steps are going to be taken care of mostly by your aquarium. More than likely you’ll just need to check the progress once in a while.

Right now, your fish are producing ammonia through waste. Luckily, you made sure to purchase a hardy species that are able to endure some of this ammonia for the time being. It was also very helpful and consideration of you to resist the urge to put a bunch of really cool fish in there right away so that there is not too much ammonia production taking place. You’re also doing a phenomenal job not OVER feeding your fish. That’s very nice of you, as you know uneaten food in the water produces toxic ammonia as well.

Your fish is producing plenty of ammonia on his own, to ensure the positive development of those invisible bacteria! So everything is going wonderfully! It’s still day one, but were starting off great and I know your going to continue not doing things! PERFECT! Now that “What not to do” is well established, we are ready to move on with the next steps!

Step 2 – Check the ammonia level

You should check ammonia level daily with your handy water test strips kit. You should see it spike, that is normal. First ammonia levels drop and nitrite levels rise (as the bacterial population that converts ammonia to nitrite becomes established), then the nitrite level drops as another population of bacteria flourishes and converts the nitrite to nitrate. At the point where both ammonia and nitrite levels are zero, biological filtration is established and the process of stocking the aquarium can begin.

API Ammonia 130 test kitEditor's rating: Buy from Amazon.com

If it gets too out of control, you can do “mini” aquarium water changes but please, absolutely no more than 10% of the water 3 times a week maximum. When adding water back to the tank during a change make sure to add conditioner to the water. The chlorine in tap water will destroy the good stuff in your aquarium water, undoing all of the biology you have been waiting through.

Remember, we need that ammonia in there for the bacteria to feed on. Keep an eye on your fish, if he’s swimming sideways or acting twitchy, that is not good. Water change! If you didn’t put too many fish in there and you didn’t put too big of fish in there, this shouldn’t happen.

Continue checking the ammonia and watching your fish for about 2 weeks. After about 2 weeks from the day you put your fish in the aquarium you should see the ammonia level drop. At this point you should see the Nitrite level spike.

This is normal of course, since those helpful bacteria are consuming the ammonia and converting it into these nitrites. It’s ok though, because now your aquarium gets to begin growing that second bacteria.

Step 3 – Check the Nitrite level

This is easy, just duplicate what you were doing in Step 2, replacing the word “Ammonia” with “Nitrites”. Same process, new word. You will need a Nitrite test kit to fulfill this step.

API Nitrite test kitEditor's rating: Buy from Amazon.com

At some point between the 2-4 week point from when you started Step 3 (or between 4-6 weeks from when you put your fish in the aquarium), you will notice that both the ammonia and the nitrite levels have dropped to zero. Congratulations, you have successfully cycled your new aquarium!

Hopefully you did this without any fishy deaths on your hands and if you followed all directions this should be the case. If you did endure a loss, don’t feel bad; sometimes it happens even when you do everything correctly. Either way, the work portion of this aquarium is over with and you can now enjoy the fruits of your labor… and you have most certainly earned it!

What to do after getting your aquarium cycled

You are now free to SLOWLY add more fish to your aquarium. I advise that you still refrain from adding a bunch at the same time. This could start another “mini cycle” and I imagine you want to avoid dealing with cycling your tank again so soon. At this point your work level for the aquarium is reduced to doing a water change on the tank once a month and at that same time you will be changing swapping out the carbon filter in your filtration equipment.

Come back and view my aquarium water change guide when the time comes if you feel like you could use some direction. Until then, please feel free to leave any comments for me and ask any questions you have. Any suggestions and/or feedback are/is welcome and much appreciated. Tell me what you loved and what you hated about my guide and I will make it better if need be. Thank You for allowing me to assist you in creating something that I hope that you have enjoyed learning briefly about the fish tank nitrogen cycle. Take pride in your new aquarium and hopefully you will be sufficiently entertained by it for years to come!

You can buy separate kits for measuring ammonia and nitrites; however, I strongly recommend API Master test kit that allows for up to four parameter testing. They include pH, ammonia, nitrite, and nitrate tests that are all helpful in aquarium setup as well as maintenance.

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