Re:New tank prep

Pete Giwojna

Dear JetMech:

You’re very welcome, sir! It’s good to hear that you have the fluorescent lighting option for your Aquapod — that eliminates one cause for concern right there. Having two separate spray nozzles for the output from the filter will help to reduce the resulting current they produce, and the way you have them arranged so that they direct the water stream across the top of the tank should also help diffuse and attenuate the water flow so that it’s not too overpowering. Your seahorses’ behavior will let you know if there is too much current for their liking, but I am encouraged by the measures you have taken to tone down the water flow thus far.

Yes, sir, you can certainly use fresh fish from the supermarket rather than cocktail shrimp to provide a source of ammonia for the beneficial nitrifying bacteria while your aquarium is cycling. Select a type of fish that is not too oily and start out with a section of the flesh that’s about 1 inch square. If it decomposes so quickly that it’s gone before the tank has finished cycling, just add another chunk of the fish or similar biomass to continue feeding the beneficial aerobic bacteria that carry out the nitrogen cycle. Otherwise, just leave it in the aquarium until it has finished cycling and you add the cleanup crew. The aquarium janitors will make short work of any remaining fishy leftovers, and the metabolic activity and wastes produced by your sanitation engineers and cleanup crew will provide the ammonia needed to sustain the large populations of beneficial nitrifying bacteria until you are ready to add the seahorses. If you will be waiting six weeks after you add the macroalgae and aquarium cleaners before you add seahorses, in order to eliminate any possible parasites the plants or aquarium janitors may have been carrying, then you can feed the sanitation engineers with a little frozen Mysis now and again to assure that they are providing plenty of waste material to feed the biofilter in the meantime.

One drawback to this method of cycling is that it can sometimes produce an objectionable odor nearby the aquarium as the cocktail shrimp/fresh fish decomposes. Most times this just produces a slight "fishy" odor, but sometimes, in the advanced stages of decay, the odor of putrefaction can also become quite noticeable. If it gets to the point where it’s driving your wife and kids out of the house and mutiny is in the air, then you may have to remove the decaying fish and explore other alternatives. In that case, you might want to consider feeding the beneficial nitrifying bacteria with drops of ammonia directly, as explained below, sir.

Fsihless Cycling

The best way to accomplish this is to feed the nitrifying bacteria directly with ammonia that you add to the tank drop by drop yourself, which has a couple of worthwhile advantages. First of all, the amount of ammonia you add daily is far greater than that the amount of ammonia hardy damsels or mollies can produce nature’s way as waste products. The excess ammonia means the bacterial colonies can grow faster and produce much larger populations of Nitrosomonas and Nitrobacter bacteria by the time the cycling process is complete (Cow, Jan. 1999). The result is that your tank cycles faster, typically in 10-21 days as opposed to 4-6 weeks for more conventional cycling methods, and the tank can ordinarily be stocked at capacity once the cycle is completed (Cow, Jan. 1999). As an added bonus, there isn’t the unpleasant odor of putrefaction that can sometimes become a major annoyance when using decomposing cocktail shrimp as the ammonia source.

To cycle your tank this way, simply add ammonia drop by drop, keeping track of how many drops you’ve added, until it produces a reading of ~5 ppm on your test kit (Cow, Jan. 1999). Then continue to add exactly that many drops of ammonia each day thereafter until you begin to see detectable levels of nitrite. Then once nitrite readings begin to appear on your test kits, cut back the amount of ammonia you add to 1/2 the original amount, and continue to add a half dose of ammonia each day until the cycle has finished and you stock the aquarium (Cow, Jan. 1999).

It is important to use your test kits every day or two when cycling your tank to monitor the progress of the process. One benefit of fishless cycling method is that it produces an immediate ammonia spike, which accelerates the cycling process accordingly (Cow, Jan. 1999). So at first you will see a rapid rise in ammonia levels with no detectable nitrite or nitrate. Then, as Nitrosomonas bacteria begin converting ammonia to nitrite, the ammonia levels will fall and nitrite readings will steadily rise. Nitrite levels will peak as the ammonia drops to zero. Next, Nitrobacter will begin converting the nitrite to nitrate, and your nitrite readings will fall as the level of nitrate rises. Finally, after the nitrites also read zero, you are ready to stock your tank. At this point, your ammonia and nitrite levels should both be zero, nitrates will be building up, and algae will usually begin to grow. This will tell you that your biofilter is active and functioning properly, and that you can now safely begin stocking the tank (Fenner, 2003b). It generally takes anywhere from 10 days to 3 weeks to cycle a tank this way from scratch using the fishless cycling technique (Cow, 1999).

When cycling your tank with this method, it is advisable to perform large water changes (70%-100%) before adding any specimens to the tank in order to lower the elevated nitrate levels it produces and correct the pH (Cow, 1999). Otherwise, it can be difficult to bring the nitrate down to manageable levels again after the tank is stocked. Ammonia is a powerful base, so adding ammonia changes the pH of the water substantially, making it more alkaline (Warland, 2003). A large water change will reduce nitrite levels and lower the pH back to normal after the tank has cycled.

When changing the water, avoid using dechlorinators that also sequester ammonia, the so-called ammonia quellers, since we are relying on high ammonia levels to feed the bacteria colonies. When performing water changes during a fishless cycle, stick with simple chlorine neutralizers that don’t affect ammonia levels (Cow, 1999).

Not just any ammonia will do when cycling the tank this way. The ammonia used for this purpose should be free of surfactants, perfumes, and colorants (Cow, 1999). ACS grade ammonium hydroxide is best but may be hard to find. Pure or clear ammonia will do nicely and the best places to get it usually hardware stores or discount grocery stores. Many times it’s the off-brands or little-known, no-frills generic brands that work best (Cow, Jan. 1999).

When you find a likely candidate, be sure to check the ingredients on the bottle of ammonia. The good stuff will simply say Clear Ammonia (or Pure Ammonia or 100% Ammonia, or Pure Ammonium Hydroxide), and list no additives (surfactants, coloring agents, perfumes, etc.; Cow, 1999). If the bottle does not list the ingredients or lists added ingredients like those specified above, pass it by and take your search elsewhere. When in doubt, administer the shake test. Shake the bottle vigorously — ammonia that contains surfactants will foam up, but the good stuff suitable for fishless cycling will not (Cow, Jan. 1999).

When cycling the tank this way, it’s important to remember that the high levels of ammonia involved are toxic to all fish and invertebrates, so you cannot use ammonia to establish the biofilter if there are any inhabitants present in the aquarium (Warland, 2003).

For more information about cycling a new aquarium directly with ammonia, see the following online article:

Best of luck cycling your new Aquapod and optimizing it to create ideal conditions for your seahorses, JetMech!

Pete Giwojna

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