The aquarium nitrogen cycle information presented below may be rather boring to most people, but it is absolutely essential to understand this process if you want to be successful at keeping fish!
Some call it the biological cycle, the nitrification process, new tank syndrome or even the start-up cycle. They all are referring to the same cycle – The Nitrogen Cycle. The aquarium nitrogen cycle is a very important process for the establishment of beneficial bacteria in the aquarium and in the filter media that will help in the conversion of ammonia to nitrite and then the conversion of nitrite to nitrates.
This process can take from 2 weeks to 2 months or longer to complete. It is vital for anyone planning on keeping aquarium fish to understand this process. Learning about this process will help you to be successful in keeping fish and it should definitely improve your chances when keeping tropical fish. The best way to monitor the nitrogen cycle is to purchase an aquarium test kit that will test for ammonia, nitrites, nitrates and ph.
Test your aquarium water every other day and write down your readings. You will first see ammonia levels rising. A few weeks or so later you should see the nitrite levels rising and the ammonia levels dropping. Finally, after a few more weeks you should see the nitrate levels rising and the nitrite levels dropping. When you no longer detect ammonia or nitrites but you can detect nitrates you can assume that it is safe to add your tropical fish.
Nitrogen Cycle Stages
Ammonia is introduced into the aquarium via tropical fish waste and uneaten food. The tropical fish waste and excess food will break down into either ionized ammonium (NH4) or un-ionized ammonia (NH3). Ammonium is not harmful to tropical fish but ammonia is. Whether the material turns into ammonium or ammonia depends on the ph level of the water. If the ph is under 7, you will have ammonium. If the ph is 7 or higher you will have ammonia.
Soon, bacteria called nitrosomonas will develop and they will oxidize the ammonia in the tank, essentially eliminating it. The byproduct of ammonia oxidation is Nitrites. So we no longer have ammonia in the tank, but we now have another toxin to deal with – Nitrites. Nitrites are just as toxic to tropical fish as ammonia. If you have a test kit, you should be able to see the nitrite levels rise around the end of the first or second week.
Bacteria called nitrobacter will develop and they will convert the nitrites into nitrates. Nitrates are not as harmful to tropical fish as ammonia or nitrites, but nitrate is still harmful in large amounts. The quickest way to rid your aquarium of nitrates is to perform partial water changes. Once your tank is established you will need to monitor your tank water for high nitrate levels and perform partial water changes as necessary.
There are other methods to control nitrates in aquariums besides water changes. For freshwater fish tanks, live aquarium plants will use up some of the nitrates. In saltwater fish tanks, live rock and deep sand beds can have anaerobic areas where denitrifying bacteria can breakdown nitrates into harmless nitrogen gas that escapes through the water surface of the aquarium.
Getting The Nitrogen Cycle Started
There are two ways to get the aquarium cycle started, either with fish or without fish.
Starting The Nitrogen Cycle With Fish
This is not the preferred way to get the nitrogen cycle started because the fish are being exposed to ammonia and nitrites during this process. Many fish can not and will not make it through the cycling process. Often times the fish become stressed and fish disease starts to break out. I wonder what percentage of disease is caused by the cycling of new aquariums?
Certain species are hardier than others and seem to tolerate the start-up cycle better than others. For freshwater tanks, the zebra danio is a very hardy fish that many use to get the nitrogen cycle started. For saltwater tanks, some have reported success using damselfish to get the process started. Again, using fish to cycle is not a good idea and you may be throwing your money (on dead fish) out the window. There is a better way. Read on, young grasshopper.
Starting The Nitrogen Cycle Fishless
There are a few different ways to get this process started. To easily get an ammonia reading from your tank water try the Seachem Ammonia Alert. It sticks inside the tank and has a circle that changes color depending on the ammonia levels in the tank.
Using Fish Food
Drop in a few flakes every 12 hours. As the food decomposes it will release ammonia. You will have to continue to “feed” the tank throughout the process to keep it going.
Use a small piece of raw fish or a raw shrimp
Drop a 2 inch by 1 inch chunk of raw fish or a raw shrimp into the tank. As it decomposes it will release ammonia into the tank.
Fishless cycle – using Ammonia
Use gravel and/or filter media from an established and cycled tank
This is the best and fastest way to go. This will seed the tank with all of the necessary bacteria for the nitrogen cycle. “Feed” the tank daily with flake food until you are getting nitrate readings. Depending on how fast you were able to get the gravel and filter media into your tank, you may be getting nitrate readings in only a day or two. There are some drawbacks to this method. Ask your source if they have recently used any copper medications in the tank. If they have and you are planning to have invertebrates in the tank you should probably not use this method. Invertebrates will not tolerate copper. Get a copper test kit to determine if it’s safe to use.
You can use a bacteria culture product called Tetra SafeStart. People have reported success on the forum with using Tetra SafeStart. Do a quick search on the forum for other members’ input.
Once the cycle has started only add one or two fish at a time. Wait a couple of weeks before adding more fish. This will give your tank the time it needs to catch up with the increased bio-load.
Speeding Up the Cycling Process
There are things you can do to speed along the process of cycling your aquarium.
Increase the temperature of your aquarium water to 80°F-82°F (27°C-28°C)
Get some beneficial bacteria colonies. Borrow some gravel from an established and cycled aquarium. If you have another tank with an extra filter you can use it. If you have a really nice friend with an established and cycled aquarium, ask if you can have one of their used filter media. It will be loaded with the good bacteria that we are looking for.
Credits by Nathan Miller