BENEFICIAL BACTERIA: The Pet You Can’t See
In the aquarium hobby, there’s this important step to fish health called cycling your aquarium. This mysterious cycle is the ammonia cycle. When you have life in an aquarium, whether it’s fish, shrimp, sea monkeys, or even plants that loose a dead leaf or two, you will have ammonia, which comes from the waste of these creatures. In the ammonia cycle, beneficial bacteria grows, then converts the ammonia into nitrite, and another beneficial bacteria grows and converts the nitrite into nitrate.
Ammonia and nitrite are toxic to fish. Nitrate is safe in small doses. Enough ammonia or nitrite in an aquarium, and your inhabitants will be maimed or poisoned to death. But the beneficial bacteria eats these things, so they in a cycled tank, the levels of ammonia and nitrites should be pretty much zero. So you can see why this cycle is important.
I had been deep into aquariums for quite some time before I even heard of cycling a tank. It’s not something that they tell you at the pet store. Everyone just seems to assume that everyone else knows about it and knows how to do it. (Which is nuts.) This leaves people with some very varied and shifty ideas about the whole process.
What Cycling Is Not
Many people believe that if they fill up their aquarium and let it stand for several days or weeks, the water will somehow age and become cycled. It’s really understandable that this notion is out there, since the cycling part is so not well explained. However, without the addition of some type of ammonia source, no beneficial bacteria will ever grow. When you test this ‘aged’ water, you’ll get great readings, but there is actually no bacteria in the aquarium at all. As soon as you add fish, the actual cycle will start, and you risk killing them.
In order to cycle an aquarium, you have to add some form of ammonia.
Why Should I Cycle?
Have you ever had a fish, or several fish, simply get sick and drop dead for no apparent reason? Nine times out of ten, this is because your cycle, or lack there of, went haywire. This is why you need to cycle.
When you cycle before adding any fish or other critters, you set up a safe and comfortable environment for them before they even get there. You will have to worry much less about ammonia, nitrite or nitrate poisoning. You can almost guarantee the perfect, healthy water your fish need. All aquatic critters, salt water or fresh, need this cycle to survive. It’s very important.
I’ve come across some people who feel that since they just want one small fish tank, or their just doing goldfish or guppies, they don’t need to cycle and test the water because it’s just a hobby. This is so false! If you have a fish tank of any type or size, you must test your water. Just because you want it to be easy doesn’t mean your fish agree. If you don’t test the water, and the cycle doesn’t complete properly, you will have dead fish and wonder what happened. Just because you want it to be a weekend hobby doesn’t mean you can expect that poor care will result in healthy fish. Realize that when you take on fish, you take on a responsibility to care for them properly.
Do I Need to Cycle for Every Species?
Well. . . no. Ok, let me explain. I’ve had bettas and apple snails for years, and I never cycled their tanks. And as far as I know, I’ve never lost one to ammonia or nitrite or nitrate poisoning. However, knowing that each fish is different, some being more fragile than others, and also that cycling with a fish in the tank can be very stressful for the little guy, I recommend cycling every single aquarium you have. I would say that the only exception would be if you’re going to be doing like, a 100% water change religiously every week. You’ll get rid of most, if not all, of the toxic substances that way. But, seriously. Cycle.
What You Need for Cycling Your Tank (And Where to Get It)
When you’re cycling a tank, you’ll need an aquarium testing kit that looks for ammonia, nitrites and nitrates. A pH test isn’t a bad idea, either. There are tons of different tests available. Most aquarium people prefer the drop test as opposed to the paper strip tests, just because they tend to be more accurate. You can buy each test separately, or you can get a kit that contains them all. When you buy the tests, I suggest looking online. You can get them in any pet store, but they’re usually way more expensive than online.
You’ll also need some type of ammonia starter, which can come from fish, fish food, or liquid ammonia. The first two are easy to come by. However, if you go for my favorite cycling method (all three explained below) you’ll need liquid ammonia. This is known as ‘pure’ ammonia in the aquarium world, although, of course, it’s not pure. What people mean by pure is that it’s only ammonia and water with no other ingredients to poison your future fish. One place to get this ammonia is at an Ace Hardware. It will say ammonia hydroxide, which, if you're not thinking hard, sounds like it has something else in it, but it’s just ammonia and water.
Three Types of Cycling
There are three ways to effectively cycle your aquarium, and each person has their favorite way. You’ll have to pick whichever you think will work best for you. The three ways are:
⧜ Fish-In Cycling When you put fish in an uncycled tank, the aquarium will naturally cycle, using the ammonia the fish themselves produce. So, if you plan to have really hardy fish, you can probably cycle the aquarium with the fish in it. Danios are a favorite for cycling, but any hardy fish will probably work.
Many people consider this method to be kind of cruel because the fish can still get ammonia poisoning. However, if you check often and keep the levels low with frequent partial water changes, this way can work, and you can come out with healthy fish in the end. I wouldn’t do it, but it is an option.
My other problem with this method is, if you are not going to have hardy fish in your finished aquarium anyway, please don’t buy hardy fish, use them to cycle and then… I don’t know, get rid of them. I mean, all fish are living creatures, so please don’t think of them as disposable when their job is done. If you cycle with fish, plan to keep the fish you use.
⧜ Fish Food Cycling This is the first type of fishless cycling. In this method, you drop some fish food in the tank and let it… rot. This creates ammonia, which starts the cycle. I always thought this method would be best, since it seems the most natural, until I tried it. It does work, and if you feel like doing this, do it. But there are a few problems with it.
The first problem with this method is that it takes forever. I was dropping bits of fish food in my tanks for weeks and no ammonia was being produced. Flakes are the best way to go with this method, since they break down easier, and that’s what I was using. Still no ammonia after a few weeks and I was ready to throw the whole bag of food in and be done with it, I was so frustrated.
In addition, funky stuff can grow on the food you dump into the aquarium. I wasn’t getting any ammonia, but I was getting some weird. . . growths. So if you do this method, you need to tread the fine line between rot = ammonia and rot = nasty poisonous mold. Some people recommend using a piece of shrimp (like what you’d eat) instead of fish food, but this drastically increases your risk of growing something really freaky. So don’t do it.
Some people also recommend tying the food you use in a piece of nylon or other similar material, so you can just lift it out of the tank later when you don’t need it, thus getting rid of any funky stuff at the same time. This is a good idea in theory, but I don’t like it, either, and I’ll explain why in the Tips section.
⧜ Adding Ammonia Cycling This is the other way to do a fishless cycle. In this method, you directly add ammonia (that ‘pure’ ammonia from above) into the aquarium to jumpstart the cycle. This freaked me out at first because it’s like pouring a chemical into your fishy’s home. But the fact is, this is a tried and true method, and it’s super fast. You’re also running less of a risk of mold or other weird stuff growing on the food you throw in. I highly recommend going this way.
Note: You can always cycle with plants in the aquarium. Unless you have some super delicate plants. . . But I’ve never heard of it being a problem.
How to Cycle
If you’re doing a fish-in cycle, add a fish or two and keep testing. I’ve never done this method. I can’t really explain it properly. But if you read the rest of my article, hopefully you’re not doing a fish-in cycle anyway.
If you’re doing one of the fishless cycles, start adding either your fish food or ammonia. If you’re doing fish food, you’re going to want to add small pinches of ground fish flakes each day. After a few days, you can start testing for ammonia. You’re looking for an ammonia level of about 4 ppm, or parts per million. Many aquarium people suggest that ammonia start to build after a couple days using this method. Again, mine didn’t ever start… so I don’t know exactly how long it takes with the food method.
If you’re going for the ammonia method, add in a small amount of ammonia. And I mean small. I threw a capful of 10% ammonia from Ace in my ten gallon tank and it was waaaaay too much. Two to three drops for my ten gallon raised the level to the necessary 4 ppm. (I used a straw as my dropper. I stuck the straw in the ammonia, then jammed my finger over the end that was in the air, creating suction. You know, like how you used to play with your straw in your Coke when you were a kid? Then I held the straw over the tank and slowly released my finger to allow a few drops to fall.) For my smaller 2-3 gallon bucket, I just swished a straw in the ammonia, knocked off as much as I could, and then swished it through the water. This created enough ammonia.
If you’re using ammonia, open a window and hold your nose before uncapping the bottle. That stuff reeks and it will burn the inside of your nose.
You can test for ammonia and nitrites after a day or two. For me, it was that fast. Keep the ammonia level at 4 ppm as the tank cycles and the nitrites build. This means you may need to add more ammonia.
When you get a high reading of nitrites, test for nitrates. Keep the ammonia level at 4 ppm. It’s going to start going down as your nitrites and nitrates build.
When you have really high nitrates (over 160 ppm) you can do a partial water change. You also want to test the pH once in a while. If it’s under 7.0 or over 8.0, it can stall your cycle, so do a partial water change if it reaches these levels.
Add tiny pinches of fish food to give the beneficial bacteria the phosphates it needs to thrive.
One day, you’ll test the water, and the ammonia and nitrites will miraculously be 0 ppm. You’re almost done!
Build the ammonia level back up to 4 ppm one more time. Test again in 24 hours. If the ammonia and nitrites are both reading 0 ppm again, your tank is cycled.
Keep feeding the tank 1 ppm ammonia every day, if you’re not planning to add fish the day after it’s cycled.
On the day before you get your fish, stop adding ammonia and do a water change to lower the nitrate levels. Nitrate is not nearly as toxic as ammonia and nitrites, but it can be dangerous in high levels. You want a nitrate level below 20 ppm. You may need to change 90% of your water. I did about 90%, filled it back up, then changed two more gallons before my level went into the safe zone. These water changes will not mess up your cycle, as the beneficial bacteria grows on surfaces (like the plants and filter), not in the water itself.
To recap, before you add fish, your ammonia should be 0 ppm, your nitrites should be 0 ppm, and your nitrates should be 20 ppm or less.
Beneficial bacteria grows on surfaces, not in water. One of the best surfaces is a filter cartridge. I like the filters that have a biological filter cartridge right in them. They’re pretty inexpensive and you can get them at Wal-Mart.
However, beneficial bacteria will grow on any surface, so if you have something in your tank that you’re going to be changing frequently, or not keeping at all, don’t put it in while you’re cycling. This refers to the food bag idea. I didn’t do the bag, but I did have a piece of cheese cloth hanging from my filter to curb water flow. When it got kind of funky looking (algae started to grow on it) I threw it away. The next day, my nearly complete cycle crashed and I had to start over. Let the beneficial bacteria grow only on stuff that will remain in the aquarium. Then, add what you need, and when you need to switch it out, let the switching overlap for a day or two. Leave the old thing (such as an old filter) in with the new filter, so some of the bacteria can make the switch from the old to the new.
Beneficial bacteria loves warm water. If you can, heat the tank to 80oF. Just remember to cool it down when the cycle is complete.
Seed material can speed up your cycling. This is when you take something, like gravel or an old filter, from an already cycled tank, and put it in the new tank to bring the beneficial bacteria over. Just make sure you never add anything from any aquarium that you didn’t completely trust. Diseases and other gross stuff can come over, too. However, if you’re sure that the tank you’re getting the seed material from is super healthy, this can speed up cycling.
Lots of people will tell you that, once the cycle completes, you need to add fish slowly, like one at a time. This is bull. If you add one fish, then wait a few days or weeks, your cycle will slow to accommodate just one fish, and will then have to build up as you add more fish, which can cause ammonia and nitrite spikes. So add as many fish as you want as soon as you want, all together, so that your already beefy cycle knows what it has to handle.
After your cycle’s complete and you add fish, keep testing. At first, you can test every few days, then every few weeks. Exactly how often you test is up to you, since you’ll know your aquarium best, but it’s a good idea to always have some idea of what’s going on in your aquarium.
I also have one of those hang-in-tank ammonia gauges. They’re cheap and not super accurate, so it’s not the only way I test the water. However, if the ammonia does spike on a day when I’m not testing, the gauge will let me know. -SEL
© Hot for Cool