Freshwater Aquarium Fishless Cycling
No, you won’t be tested afterward, but if you are a bioscience enthusiast, that is probably what lead you to this hobby. A fish tank is like your own ongoing science experiment. If you don’t know the following like the back of your hand, read over and over until you do.
The Nitrogen Cycle
You remember this from fourth grade: Animal waste(feces and urine), decaying food, plants, and animals, create nitrogen that passes into compounds that form ammonia. Ammonia is a highly reactive, toxic gas to animals. Ammonia is oxidized by the “good” bacteria and turns into then nitrates. Nitrates are used as all plant food and enter the nitrogen cycle once again.
In the tank world, you must give a helping hand to the process by doing routine water changes to reduce the ammonia, and not overfeeding, which will increase the waist. A high nitrate level will cause stress on your fish and make them more susceptible to disease. The uneaten food, decaying plants, and fish waste can be removed using mechanical filtration. This is why you will need a test kit to check for ammonia, nitrite, and nitrates.
The old way to re-create this cycle in an aquarium is to set everything up, add a few “disposable” fish, then wait 4-6 weeks until the “good bacteria” which convert ammonia into nitrites into nitrates have become established. It is too common at this point for the stress caused by toxic ammonia and nitrites to kill some or in extreme cases all of your starter fish, no matter how hard they’re supposed to be. In addition, it’s a well-known fact that the damage caused by high ammonia levels to the gills of a fish is, to the extent at least, permanent.
Once the tank has been fully cycled, you can start adding fish very slowly, usually at a rate of a couple every week or two, until capacity is reached. This slow addition allows time for the relatively small bacteria culture on your filter to grow until it can handle the increased bio-load. If done incorrectly, for example by adding too many fish at once after the cycle, a nitrites spike can occur before the bacterial colony can adjust.
This method took an average of 4 – 6 weeks, and the fish had to be introduced slowly as opposed to putting all your fish in at the same time. Born on the Internet just a few years ago was a new, faster harmless way to cycle your tank.
If you mention fishless cycling at your pet store, you’ll most likely get rolling of the eyes, incredulous looks, or blank stares. They rather sell you the fish now, and then sell you an armload of medications and water preparations when your fish start dying from ammonia poisoning.
Fishless Cycling is actually a tradition started on the internet, refined and popularized by Chris Cow. This technique of using store-bought ammonia is becoming quite popular, and for very good reason. The method uses store-bought ammonia (plain ammonium hydroxide, if you can get it) to prime the bacterial “nitrifying” process that metabolizes ammonia to harmless nitrate in aquariums. In order to properly cycle a tank, all that’s required is the filter media, water movement (to supply oxygen to the bacterial colonies), an introduction of the right all types of bacteria, and a source of ammonia.
The first step is to start everything up and add a few potted plants (their roots contain all of the necessary bacteria, and the plants themselves do not seem to be harmed by this process). You can also add some gravel from an established tank. Most fish store employees will provide this for free. On the first day, add 5 – 6 drops of ammonia per 10 gallons (It will be more or less depending on the grade of ammonia). You should get a reading on your ammonia kit of about 5 ppm. Record the amount of ammonia this took, then add that amount daily until you get a nitrite spike. Once you have nitrites, cut the ammonia back to half the previous amount per day until the nitrites disappear.
You will know that you have finished your cycle when all of your nitrite levels are 0 and your pH has stabilized. The tank should be able to cycle through the additional doses of ammonia chloride within a duo of days of addition if bacterial populations are sufficient. The whole process usually takes anywhere from 10 days to 3 weeks, depending on the fish tank Once the tank has been cycled, the bacterial colony created by this method can handle a very large fish load immediately.
The amount of ammonia added to the tank during the cycle is significantly higher than what would be contributed by a very small number of hardy fish, therefore, a much larger, healthier bacterial colony exists at the end of the cycle using ammonia than would if you used to fish. It’s inevitable, in fact, if you’ll give it time. Nitrifying bacteria are so apt to scavenge any source of nitrogen- whether in the form of ammonia or as nitrite that it takes a pretty too-good lab technique to keep suitable cultures free of them.
Sources of ammonia. To avoid the perfumes and dyes in consumer-type ammonia cleaning products, look for a generic brand from a hardware store. But don’t hunt for a stronger solution: if you go above about 5ppm ammonia at any point, you’ll only delay the completion of your “cycle.”. One good rule of thumb: If it doesn’t list the ingredients, or say Clear Ammonia (or Pure Ammonia or 100% Ammonia, or Pure Ammonium Hydroxide), then leave it on the shelf and look elsewhere.
Sources of Bacteria
1) Filter material (floss, sponge,e, etc.) from an established, disease-free tank.
2) Live Plants (preferably potted, leave the rock wool on until cycling is finished).
3) Gravel from an established, disease-free tank.
4) Other ornaments driftwood, rocks, etc. from an established tank.
5) Squeezings from a filter sponge
There are also a number of commercial bacterial supplements (Cycle, etc.) available. In this author’s opinion, these have very little to no effect and are best left on the shelf. Bio-Spira. There is a pet store alternative to fishless cycling called Bio-Spera. Many products claim to be “cycling bacteria” but really, Bio Spira is the only one worth anything. It’s about $11-15 for enough to treat a 30-gallon tank. It can cycle your tank in just a few days. You won’t find it at Walmart, Petco, Petsmart, or any other big chain store, only at a local shop.
Dr. Tim Hovanec and a team at Marineland Labs developed this product and put it on the market in 2002, which is said to contain a founder population of Nitrospira-type bacteria to start the “cycle.” In this case, you add fish, but not ammonia! Cycling with Bio-Spira is not fishless cycling. Your fish store employee may have had some initial resistance to this product, as it needs to be kept under refrigeration. You can find out more about this interesting development, which is getting good early reviews from fishkeepers on the Internet forums, by checking the description at Marineland Labs’ website.
If you start your cycling with Biospera, you should be able to add the fish almost immediately. If you have already started cycling it may take more than the usual dose and longer than usual to cycle the tank. Best to add the BioSpira and wait a day. If the levels are dropping after a day wait to see if they drop further. If they are the same or higher after a day, add the rest of the packet.
Too Much Ammonia?
It IS possible to add too much ammonia to the tank (generally several times the amounts suggested in either recipe), If you realize that you’ve added way too much ammonia simply do a water change, or if necessary a series of water changes to bring the ammonia and/or nitrite levels back into the readable range on your test kit.
See More: All About Fish Tank Guy