MHR’s Guide to Fishless Cycling

What is Fishless Cycling?

Fishless cycling is the term used to describe the process of growing nitrifying bacteria in your aquarium without fish. This is done by adding a source of ammonia to jump start the growth of the bacteria that process ammonia to nitrite, and nitrite to nitrate which is often referred to as the nitrogen cycle. The nitrogen cycle is what makes sustaining life in an aquarium possible. Before you start a fishes cycle you need to understand the process you are undertaking.

I recently wrote an article on how to cycle a fish tank if you’re interested in looking at multiply ways to cycle a fish tank. The focus of this article is based only around Fishless cycling and it’s benefits.

All the products that we use for cycling our aquariums as well as quarantining fish are from Dr Tim’s Aquatics. I have provided product links below.

► Dr.Tim’s Aquatics One and Only: Here

► Dr.Tim’s Ammonium: Here

The Nitrogen Cycle

The nitrogen cycle refers to the process that takes place in an aquarium that converts toxic elements from dissolved organic waste to a more less-toxic element (as long as it keep at low levels). Fish excrete ammonia through their gills, and urinate and defecate in their water. Waste in the aquarium produces ammonia as it decays. Nitrifying bacteria begins to grow and converts ammonia to nitrite, Then a different nitrifying bacteria begins to grow and converts nitrite to nitrate. This is what’s known as the nitrogen cycle. The process is sometimes referred to as nitrification or cycling an aquarium.

How to cycle a fish tank

The Benefits of Fishless Cycling

The biggest advantage to fishless cycling is that you can safely stock the aquarium without subjecting your new fish to toxic levels of ammonia or nitrite. Elevated ammonia and nitrite levels are capable of doing long-term damage to fish. Even if the fish survive and seem to not be affected, some harm may have occurred. You may not see the effects right away, but the damage done to a fish can affect the long-term health of the fish and shorten its life. 

How To Cycle an Aquarium with Fishless Cycling

This is my nano reef build. I decided to use a fishless cycle using Dr. Tim’s Aquatics: One and Only nitrifying bacteria and ammonium chloride to jump start the process. Click here to visit DrTim’s Aquatics, LLC

Chronic exposure to low ammonia levels can cause gill and kidney damage among other maladies. Fish differ in susceptibility to these toxins. Short-term exposure can affect some fish more than others. Any time you cycle with fish and subject them to elevated levels of ammonia or nitrite, you put the fish’s long-term health at risk.

Fishless Cycling with Fish Food

One of the more popular fishless cycling methods is to buy a few dead shrimp at the grocery store, cut them up into chunks and add them to the aquarium. The shrimp decay, which produces ammonia to feed the nitrifying bacteria. There are a few drawbacks with this method, one being that the hobbyist really has no way to know how much ammonia is being produced by the decaying shrimp, and the aquarium does not look very good with dead shrimp laying on the bottom. Also, the organic material of the shrimp can cause bacteria blooms which turn the aquarium water cloudy.

This method works but it takes time and patience and you will probably see a spike in ammonia and nitrite if you add a medium to heavy load of fish after the initial cycling. Note that some people use flake fish food instead of shrimp but this is not recommended because flake food does not have much organic material compared to shrimp and so does not add a lot of ammonia to the water, but you can use cut fish instead of shrimp.

Fishless Cycling With Ammonia

Simply add chemical ammonia to the aquarium water and let the process cycle. The benefits of this method are that the tank does not cloud up with a bacteria bloom and you don’t have to look at an aquarium with dead cut up shrimp or fish on the bottom. Plus you can somewhat accurately determine the amount of ammonia being added to the tank. The drawbacks to this method are that the proper ammonia solution can be hard to find and when you do find an ammonia solution you may not be able to easily determine its concentration.

Why do you need proper ammonia? Most of the ammonia solutions that are easy to find at grocery or hardware stores are for household cleaning use. They usually contain an additive for scent or something else. Never use anything but pure ammonia. Also, many of the ammonia cleaning solutions which have a heavy ammonia order also have very high pH and the smell is ammonia gas. Over time, the ammonia is leaving the solution so the concentration is changing (getting lower).

Most start out between 4 and 11% ammonia but rarely is the concentration given on the bottle, so it can be hard to figure out how much to add. If you are going to use an ammonia solution, proceed cautiously at first until you have an idea of how much ammonia is actually being put into the aquarium water. For this you need to be able to accurately measure the amount of the liquid you are putting into the water. Add some solution to your aquarium, let it mix and then use your test kit to measure the ammonia concentration in the water. You want to have an initial ammonia-nitrogen concentration of 2 to 3 mg/L (ppm). Do not go above 5 mg/L.

Whatever the source of your ammonia, the following is the way to proceed. Add the ammonia solution to the aquarium so that the ammonia concentration is between 2 and 3 mg/L (but, as mentioned, do not go above 5 mg/L). Record the amount of liquid you added. If you are not using DrTim’s One & Only Live Nitrifying Bacteria, wait 2 or 3 days and measure the ammonia and nitrite. Continue measuring ammonia and nitrite every 2 or 3 days until you start to see some nitrite. This is a sign that the ammonia-oxidizing bacteria are starting to work. Add half the initial amount of ammonia you added to the water on day 1. Continue measuring ammonia and nitrite every 2 or 3 days. Around day 9 to 12, the ammonia will probably be below 1 mg/L, maybe even 0, but nitrite will be present.

Nitrite does not spike until somewhere between days 14 and 20. You want to be careful adding more ammonia because you do not want the nitrite-nitrogen over 5 mg/L as this will start to poison the nitrite-oxidizing bacteria. Add a little ammonia every few days (1/4 dose), making sure the nitrite does not go above 5 mg/L. Once you start to see the nitrite decrease, it will drop pretty fast. The cycle is completed when you can add the full dose of ammonia (2 to 3 mg/L-N) and overnight it all disappears to nitrate with no sign of nitrite. Now you can start to add fish to your aquarium.

My Results with Fishless Cycling

Here are my results after 5 days of fishless cycling.

For more information on Fishless cycling follow the link.

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