Starting a new fish tank can be a bit daunting to a greenhorn ichthyes (that’s Greek for “fish”) enthusiast who doesn’t quite know what to do. Unfortunately, it takes more than just buying a glass container, filling it with water, and dumping all sorts of fish inside. You need to start things off on the right foot, and the most important aspect when setting up your new aquarium is the cycling process. Cycling your aquarium prior to adding any fish is a necessary step towards keeping your aquatic friends healthy and saving them from an early watery grave.
What is cycling?
Cycling is a process that prepares new aquariums for supporting life. When an aquarium is first set up, it lacks the necessary microorganisms that assist in breaking down toxic metabolic products and debris within the tank. Without these beneficial bacteria, your fish will become poisoned by their own waste. This is where cycling comes in. It establishes the microbes that allow your fish to live in sanitary conditions.
The basic cycling process goes like this:
1. Fish waste releases a chemical called ammonia which pollutes the water
2. Ammonia triggers the production of bacteria called nitrosomonas which converts it into nitrite
3. Nitrite triggers the production of bacteria called nitrobacters which break down fish waste and all toxins
Ammonia and nitrite are lethal to your aquatic pets. Without the nitrifying bacteria to neutralize these poisons, your new fish will soon be sleeping with the fishes, so to speak.
Unfortunately, there are no shortcuts to cycling your fish tank, but these tried-and-tested methods can help jumpstart the process:
1. If you have access to an already established and cycled aquarium, you can take some of its water and pour it into your own tank. The bacteria present in the water will start to multiply and speed up cycling.
2. There are many commercial products that specifically introduce nitrifying bacteria to your tank’s water. They can be helpful in decreasing the amount of time necessary for the bacteria to reach the appropriate number.
3. Finally, the easiest way to initiate cycling is to add some form of aquatic life to the tank. Snails are a good choice, as they will produce the ammonia waste required to start the cycle as well as clean the tank of algae and debris.
A test kit will be required in order to accurately monitor the ammonia, nitrite, and nitrate levels within the aquarium. There are two major types of test kits on the market: test strips and drop tests. Drop tests are more accurate since they use liquid chemistry in order to assess the chemical levels, so it is recommended to use these.
It usually takes approximately 3-4 weeks to get all of the parameters correct. The criteria should be 0 ppm (parts per million) ammonia, 0 ppm nitrite, and less than 20 ppm nitrate. If you do not obtain these numbers, then the tank is not yet cycled and still considered unsafe for fish.
Typically, a spike in ammonia will occur first, followed by an increase in nitrite, and finally a rise in nitrate. Afterwards, the toxic ammonia and nitrite will slowly decline while the neutral nitrate remains stable due to the effects of the beneficial bacteria. After you achieve the required levels, keep monitoring them for about a week. If they remain constant after seven days, it is then safe to start putting fish in the tank. Once the fish are added, continue monitoring the levels closely over the next few days and be sure not to overfeed your new pets. If the ammonia, nitrite, and nitrate concentrations are just right, then congratulations! You have successfully cycled your tank!
My tank is cycled. Now what?
Properly cycling a new aquarium is one of the biggest and most tiring obstacles a new fish owner has to surmount. But once the tank is cycled, the only thing left for you to do is to keep it in pristine condition by feeding the fish and preventing algae outbreak. Feed your fish twice a day to keep them healthy, and turn on the aquarium lights for about 10 hours a day to prevent algae growth. Afterwards, it’s time to enjoy your new pets and watch them grow and swim in the comfort of their brand new fish tank. Following the cycling process guarantees that you’ll be an excellent owner for life.