Fishless cycle diary - Just 10 days
Another fishless cycle diary - Just 14 days
When I wrote the article on fishless cycling in January 1999, I had no idea that it would gain
popularity on the internet so quickly. What started as a very obscure idea has become a viable
alternative for many newcomers and more experienced hobbyists alike, thanks mostly to
promotional support from a few individuals who tried the idea out and then recommended it to
others.When I first wrote the article, I had tried this method out on two of my own tanks; since writing it,
I've received feedback from literally dozens of individuals, and I now have a much better
understanding of the process itself, and some potential pitfalls.
The advantages of this process over the traditional method of cycling a tank using a few small,
hardy fish to get the bacterial colonies up and running all result from "front-end
loading" the tank. The amount of ammonia added is far above that generated by a
reasonable number of cycling fish, resulting in faster growth of the bacterial colonies, and larger
colonies when you're finished. In practical terms, this means that your tank cycles faster
(reports of anywhere from 10 days to 3 weeks, depending on the fish tank... compared to average
of 4-6 weeks for traditionally cycled tanks), and that you can fully stock a tank when the
cycle is complete. This latter point is of particular interest to keepers of african cichlids or
other aggressive fish. If these fish are all added together as juveniles, they're much more
tolerant of each other than if they're added in small groups after the first fish have established
their territories. Of course, another big advantage is that no fish are subjected to high ammonia
or nitrite concentrations, eliminating mortalities and ammonia/nitrite related illnesses which
frequently occur in new tanks.
While the original recipe works quite well (4-5 drops NH3 / 10 gal / day until nitrite peaks,
then reduce to 2-3 drops / 10 gal / day), it does NOT take into account varying concentrations
of ammonia that are available. ACS grade ammonia, which I was using, is ~28% NH3, while
most household cleaner grades vary from 4-10%, a fairly wide variation in concentration.
Bottles that have been left open for long periods of time will be lower in concentration, as the
NH3 gas escapes back into the atmosphere. With that in mind, I'd like to propose a different
recipe, which was suggested by D_Man and others (thanks!): Add ammonia to the tank
initially to obtain a reading on your ammonia kit of ~5 ppm. Record the amount of ammonia
that this took, then add that amount daily until the nitrite spikes. Once the nitrite is visible,
cut back the daily dose of ammonia to ½ the original volume. One advantage of this
method is that the ammonia spike occurs immediately... when adding 4-5 drops/10 gal/day,
it could take 4-5 days before the ammonia reaches the same levels. This should result in
an acceleration of the entire process, though by how much (on average) remains to be
Sources of Bacteria:
While it is probable that the bacteria required for the conversion of ammonia and nitrite to
nitrate exist at very low levels in most uncycled tanks, it greatly accelerates the process to
inoculate the tank with a large dose of healthy bacteria to get things started. Good sources
of beneficial bacteria are ranked from best to least:
1) Filter material (floss, sponge, biowheel, etc.) from an established, disease free tank.
2) Live Plants (preferrably potted, leave the rockwool on until cycling is finished). Crypts or
amazon swords are good choices, and not too demanding.
3) Gravel from an established, disease free tank. (Many lfs will give this away if asked nicely)
4) Other ornaments (driftwood, rocks, etc.) from an established tank.
5) Squeezings from a filter sponge (any lfs should be willing to do this...)
There are also a number of commercial bacterial supplements (Cycle, Stress-Zyme, etc.)
available. IMHO, without getting on a soapbox, these have very little to no effect, and are
best left on the shelf. If you want to try it, go ahead, but I believe that any of the above
options will be more effective, and most if not all of them will be cheaper.
Sources of Ammonia:
The most difficult part of the fishless cycling procedure, according to many postings on the
message boards, involves finding a good source of ammonia. Ammonia used should be
free of surfactants, perfumes, and colourants. Unfortunately, not everyone has access to
ACS grade ammonium hydroxide. Always read the ingredients on the bottle. The best
sources for Pure or Clear Ammonia are discount grocery stores or hardware stores. Often,
the no-name brand is the stuff you're looking for. Some other people have reported success
with the following brand names of ammonia: Top Crest or Whirl Clear Ammonia. To paraphrase
RTR: If it doesn't list the ingredients, or say Clear Ammonia (or Pure Ammonia or 100%
Ammonia, or Pure Ammonium Hydroxide), then leave it on the shelf and look elsewhere.
Shake the bottle if you're not sure about it... ammonia with surfactants will foam, while good
ammonia will not.
Water Changes and Ammonia Removing Chemicals:
A large water change (50-70%) should be done before adding any fish to the tank to lower
nitrate levels, which can be a pain to bring down later. When changing the water during a
fishless cycle, do NOT use dechlorinators that also sequester ammonia, such as the very
popular Amquel. I have heard from at least one individual who did everything right with regards
to cycling her tank using this method... the tank cycled quickly, then she did a water change, then added a reasonable fishload the following day with more than adequate filtration, and observed both an ammonia and a nitrite spike. The only explanation that I could think of after questioning her extensively led back to the Amquel. In a normal, established fish tank, the ammonia is being generated nearly constantly... in a fishless cycle however, the ammonia is added as a daily dose... IMO, it's concievable (though not really provable unless a lot more people experienced identical problems) that the Amquel temporarily deprived the bacteria of its food source, causing a minor die-back in the colony at the worst possible time... right before adding her fish. To be on the safe side, use a simple chlorine/chloriamine remover which does not affect your ammonia levels.
By similar logic, any other ammonia removing chemicals (eg. Ammo-lock) or resins (Amrid)
should also be avoided while cycling... they will affect the cycle, extending it's duration or
otherwise adversely affecting the bacterial colonies.
Too Much Ammonia?:
It IS possible to add too much ammonia to the tank (generally several times the amounts
suggested in either recipe), as some individuals discovered by mistake (thanks Boozap).
What happens in this case is that the ammonia will spike very far off the chart then the nitrite
will spike as well (also way off the chart), and it will continue to spike for a very long time.
Why? There are a couple of possibilities... the first is that the filter media and surfaces in the
tank or oxygen levels are simply insufficient to grow and maintain a bacterial colony massive
enough to convert all of the ammonia and all of the nitrite to nitrates. Another likely possibility
is that the ammonia levels are high enough to inhibit growth (through a biofeedback mechanism)
of the bacteria rather than promoting it. The solution is quite simple, however. If you realize
that you've added way too much ammonia simply do a water change, or if necessary a series
of water changes to bring the ammonia and/or nitrite levels back into the readable range on
your test kit. Then proceed as normal with daily additions of ammonia until the tank is
Fishless cycling is also very applicable to hospital/quarantine or fry growout tanks... when
not in use, a maintenance dose of ammonia (eg. 2-3 drops/10 gallons) can be added daily
to keep the tank cycled and ready for new fish indefinitely. Simply stop the addition the day
before you want to buy your fish, take ammonia and nitrite tests to be certain that the levels
are still zero, and do a water change to reduce nitrates.
Future of Fishless Cycling:
The future of this method is up to those of you out there that have tried this and like the
method. If you do, please continue to promote it, whether on the internet, at your lfs, or at
fish club meetings. Feel free to print off this or the original article for education purposes;
the more people that know about this method the better. I'd be very happy if lfs caught on
to this idea as have fishkeepers on the internet, and recommended it to newbies as a safer,
cheaper way to do things. IMO, the number of people that didn't get frustrated in the early
stages and thus continued with fishkeeping would make it worth their while. Please continue
to give me feedback on the method, or to ask any questions you may have about it.
Written by Chris Cow firstname.lastname@example.org
Ph.D. Organic Chemistry