Many people who set up freshwater, brackish, or saltwater tanks start without truly knowing anything about the nitrogen cycle.  This is one of the most overlooked things and is probably the single most important thing to know and understand when dealing with fish of any kind.  I hope this blog post helps shed a little light on the subject so you can make informed decisions and don’t cost many animals their lives in the process of setting up your new aquatic system.

Fish produce waste, this sounds simple doesn’t it?  Well, what happens to the waste after it’s released from the fish?  The nitrogen cycle takes over to convert highly toxic waste in the form of ammonia and nitrite into a far less harmful form nitrate.  Whenever you setup a new fish tank it will lack the bacteria that are needed in order to process the fishes waste.  This is a huge problem as the fish will produce waste and it will stay in the system.  They will produce more and every hour the system will become more and more toxic to it’s inhabitants.  This is why so often when people start up a new tank they will see large amounts of fish perish before the tank becomes stable on it’s own.  I highly recommend when setting up a tank you have patience.  Yes, it sucks to have this big fish tank with few or no fish in it until it cycles, but it’s well worth it.  Not only will you prevent death, but you will also spend a lot less money in the process.

The Nitrogen Cycle Explained:

First the fish release a toxic waste in the form of ammonia.  There is beneficial bacteria that will soon start to populate the water where ammonia is present.  This bacteria will begin breaking down the ammonia into yet another toxic substance called nitrite.  Then another bacteria will start to present itself in your system, which will start breaking down the nitrite into it’s non-toxic form of nitrate.  This process usually takes around a full six to eight weeks if you cycle your system with fish, which I do NOT recommend ever doing.  Stay away from commercial products that say they will cycle your tank faster, they do not work and are only an additional expense you don’t need to have.

A better way to cycle your new tank:

ammoniaHow would you like to start up a fish tank and have no deaths at all related to the “new tank syndrome”?  If you have a small amount of patience and can handle having your tank with no inhabitants for about 30 days I can show you how.  I highly suggest this method because if the fish you started your cycle with don’t die they could still have negative effects from the cycling process for the rest of their lives. 

First off, go to any local grocery store and find standard household ammonia.  Be sure to read the label, don’t get anything with any fragrance or anything else in it.  A chelating agent in the list of ingredients is okay.  Setup your tank just as you would to add fish.  Make sure you have your substrate in and aerate the water.  Start dropping in three drops of ammonia for every ten gallons of water volume every day.  This will simulate having fish in the system producing waste and get the bacteria starting to form.  Continue to do this for about three weeks.  At this point go ahead and test your water for ammonia, nitrite, and nitrate.  Most local pet stores will test your water for you for free if you don’t have a test kit.  If you don’t have a test kit I do highly recommend you get one to be able to test for the major water parameters I just mentioned. 

After your ammonia and nitrite show zero you are ready to add fish!  If you didn’t run your system with carbon be sure to add carbon and run it for about 24 hours before adding fish.  This is mostly a safety precaution to make sure nothing bad was left in your system from the ammonia.  I highly recommend running a small amount of carbon in your system constantly and replacing it often (no more than every two weeks). 

Your tank will now have enough bacteria to sustain a full tank of life.  You don’t have to worry about buying a couple of fish at a time, you can buy them all at one time and put them in.  Be sure to continue adding three drops of ammonia per ten gallons of water per day until the day you actually add the fish.  You must keep food (ammonia) in the system at all times to keep the bacteria alive.  This is by far the *best* way to cycle your new tank for life.  You will have no deaths due to poisoning and you will have a fully established tank in about three to four weeks as opposed to six to eight weeks.

Cleaning your tank:

When you clean your tank be sure to get a siphon that has a large end on it that can be inserted into the gravel bed to remove any waste that is trapped in the rocks.  NEVER remove the rocks and clean them with anything other than tank water.  If you really feel you want to clean the rocks really well once in awhile, just remove the rocks and use the old tank water you removed to rinse the rocks off.  If you use any chemicals or soap you will kill all this beneficial bacteria that keeps your system healthy and thriving.  Also, if any soap or other chemicals get back into the tank it will kill all your fish! Good luck and I hope you will find this article useful and avoid many fishes deaths by using the steps outlined above.