4 Ways To Cycle A Freshwater Aquarium
“Cycling an aquarium” is the process that is used to grow a colony of bacteria to remove toxins that the fish, the food and other decaying matter creates. Without those essential bacteria, toxins quickly build up which stress, injure, or kill the aquarium’s inhabitants. Knowing how to cycle an aquarium is the very base of fish keeping. Today, lets have a look at a few very effective way to cycle an aquarium. All the method bellow have proven to be very effective, the one you chose has no importance. Just make sure to pick one and to do it the right way.
The Cycling process:
There are a few important steps in cycling an aquarium. First, a culture of bacteria will grow and establish in your filter. Actually, the bacteria will establish everywhere in your tank (even on the glass) but the filter is where the most of them will establish because the filtration media we use allow more surface area for the bacteria to establish on. Those bacteria will digest ammonia (toxic to the fish) and turn it into Nitrite (also toxic to the fish). Without ammonia to “feed on” those good bacteria wouldn’t grow in your aquariums so we could say that the real first step is the production of ammonia. As soon as nitrite start to build up, a new kind of bacteria will grow. This second kind of bacteria will digest the nitrite and turn it into nitrate. Nitrate is relatively harmless to the fish but, in high amount, it will stress and contribute to the loss of appetite of the fish (which lead to diseases… and maybe death). One of the cycling technique we will talk about later involve a 3rd kind of bacteria that will digest the nitrate and turn it into nitrogen gas that will simply evaporate (this reduce the need for water change).
Now lets have a look at how to cycle an aquarium.
As said above, the real first step in cycling an aquarium is the apparition of ammonia that will allow the first kind of bacteria to grow. Fishless cycling involves using household ammonia or fish food (fish food will decay and produce ammonia). There should be no fish or invertebrates in the aquarium until it is fully cycled. If you chose to use household ammonia, chose a brand with only ammonia and/or ammonium hydroxide and/or water in the bottle. It should contain no perfumes, no surfactants and no coloration products. Finally, the last think you’ll need is a good test kit for ammonia, nitrites and nitrates.
So all you need to do is to setup your tank and fill it with water. If you chose to use fish food as a source of ammonia, just drop a few pinch of flake food in the aquarium every day for the next few weeks. If you chose to use ammonia, add a few drops (just a few!) in the tank everyday.
After the first day in which you add fish food or ammonia, you should test for ammonia and nitrites on a regular basis. Some folks suggest to test every day but I see no need to do this since we know it will take a few weeks before the tanks is cycled. Testing everyday from day one won’t make this happen faster. However, it is a good idea to test once in a while to see how thing goes. If your ammonia level reach 5 ppm or more, stop adding fish food or ammonia. If you are new to the hobby, you might find it interesting to test everyday to see how thing works.
During a fishless cycle, the water should not be changed until the cycle is complete. You know the cycle is complete when you are getting zero ammonia, zero nitrite readings and some nitrate. It should take about a month before the aquarium is fully cycled.
Before to add your first fish, it is important to test for nitrate. If your nitrate level is high, do daily 20% water changes until your nitrate is down to 10 ppm or less. When you have zero ammonia, zero nitrites, and 10 or less nitrates, your aquarium is fully cycled, and ready to house your aquatic pets.
Traditional cycling with “starter fish”:
Here we use “starter fish” as a source of ammonia for the bacteria. It will be important to chose fish that you will want to keep in your tank and to not cycle your tank with feeder goldfish because they are usually not has healthy as other fish. White clouds, zebra danios, tiger barbs, cherry barbs (and many others) are all good choice for this. As a rule of thumb, 2-3 small fish should be enough for a 10-26 gallon tank. There are several reasons you should not cycle your aquarium with a large number of fish:
1. The more fish, the more waste. This will be stressful to your fish, resulting in higher die-off and greater susceptibility to disease. This can also contribute to a foul smell forming from the tank.
2. A large number of fish will increase water problems incurred during the cycling process.
Purchase a small number of fish and introduce them to your aquarium. Let the tank sit for a couple of days and feed your fish daily. Every couple of days, do a 10-15% water change. After about a week, test your water for ammonia, nitrite and nitrate. At this point, the water should test with high ammonia and maybe some nitrite.
After about 6 weeks, test your water again for ammonia, nitrite and nitrate. At this point, you should the water should test 0 ammonia, 0 nitrite and some nitrate. If there are still some ammonia and/or nitrite in the aquarium, wait an other week and test again. Do not add more fish until ammonia and nitrite levels have both dropped to zero. When you have zero ammonia, zero nitrites, and 10 or less nitrates, your aquarium is fully cycled, and ready to house your fish. Before to add your first fish, it is important to test for nitrate. If your nitrate level is high, do daily 20% water changes until your nitrate is down to 10 ppm or less. Remember to only add a few fish at the time. If you add too much fish at once, your tank will have to adjust again. If you add a few at the time, the bacteria in your tank will have the time to adjust.
I must say that I am not a fan of the traditional method. Many starter fish do not survive the cycling process, and those that survive have their gills damaged because of the ammonia and nitrite spikes which will make their lives unhealthy and painful. The method has been used for a long while and has proven to work but it is not the most efficient way to cycle an aquarium and this is certainly not the most human way to do it.
With water and media from an old tank:
When I need to cycle an aquarium fast, one of the two method I like is to fill half the tank with water from an already establish tank and to fill the filter with filtration media from an older tank as well. Then, I fill the other half of the tank with tap water, add a few pinch of flake food and wait 24-48h. During this period of time, I feed the tank daily to provide the bacteria with a source of ammonia to feed. I also test the water for ammonia, nitrite and nitrate on a regular basis. When you test zero ammonia, zero nitrites, and 10 or less nitrates, your aquarium is fully cycled, and ready to house your aquatic pets. This is a very fast and effective way to cycle an aquarium.
With Right Now Bacteria:
Another method I use to cycle an aquarium is to fill the filter with Tri-Base Pelletized carbon (this will be your bacteria bed) and to add a dose of Right Now Bacteria to the aquarium. Done the right way, this method will cycle an aquarium in one day. Once the aquarium is cycled, I leave the carbon in the filter. This will be the only filtration media I use. The reason I like this method is that it does not only cycle the aquarium but also add a new step to the nitrogen cycle. The right now bacteria will consume the nitrate and turn it into nitrogen gas which evaporates in the air. This technique reduces the need for water change and help keep the aquarium healthy. Fish keeping is very easy with this technique. Finally, if you clean your carbon once a month, you will only need to replace it every four years and the nitrogen reduction will last for months (if not years) without having to add more bacteria to the tank.
I have been using this technique for a few years now and still think this is the best way to cycle an aquarium and the best way to keep the aquarium healthy without too much work.
One more thing: Do not use Tri-Base Pelletized Carbon and Right Now Bacteria in a planted aquarium. Your filter will be so effective at removing all nitrogen compound that plants won’t grow.
I won’t spend more time about this last method since I already wrote a few post about it. If you are interested to give it a try, I invite you to read my previous post about using Tri-Base Pelletized Carbon and Right Now Bacteria (the carbon and bacteria are now available from this page). If you try this method, remember to follow the instruction carefully. If you don’t, you might not get the results.
If you have any question about the above method, please feel free to ask using the comment box bellow. Remember that cycling an aquarium is the very base of fish keeping so make sure to not skip this important step.
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