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Old 06-07-2008, 10:44 PM   #1
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Fishless Cycling For Dummies

Fishless Cycling For Dummies
(written by a dummy)

New Tank?..................... Canít Wait?..................... What Happened?

Why Cycle?

I doubt that any of you would consider bringing home that new little cute & cuddly kitten from the pet store, lock him in a closet with a litter box, throw in a can of cat food, close the door and let him live in his own waste. Of course not! Besides, he probably doesnít even know how to use the can opener. Naturally, you prepare his area in his new home, with a clean dish, clean pillow and a fancy little feather toy. Well, I can tell you that fish do not like fancy little feather toys, but the concept is the same.

What is a Cycle?

Life is full of cycles, bicycles, tricycles, but this one is called a nitrogen cycle. It deals with bacteria; bad bacteria and not so bad bacteria. In simple terms, things live, eat, breathe and die. An end result is ammonia (bad). However, a bacteria, called Nitrosomonas spp., works to convert toxic ammonia to nitrItes. NitrItes, also toxic to fish, are converted by another bacteria, Nitrobacter spp. into Nitrate (not as bad, but bad). So we start with bad and end with not so bad. See, itís a cycle! Iím sure that made no sense to you, but, you really donít have to know what it is as much as how to do it. Hint: Those two words Nitrite and Nitrate seem similar but are not. So to remember them weíll call them NitrItes and NitrAtes. (Or, if you really want to impress your favorite guy/gal you can use NO2 and NO3)

Why Fishless Cycle?

In addition to being a more humane process, since there are no fish in the tank to be harmed, it offers complete and total control over the process, is quite forgiving should mistakes be made, easily corrected, and if done properly, can allow for a slightly larger quantity of fish to be introduced at once.
However, I feel that best way to justify using this method is that Fish have rights. Just as any other animal in our care, whether domesticated or not, at one time was taken from its natural environment, and at that particular point we must assume the responsibility of providing a safe and healthy environment, allowing it to achieve, as it is entitled to, a good quality of life. (Remember the kitty cat?)

What do I Need?
  • First and foremost Ė a good quality liquid test kit Ė one that tests for ammonia, nitrite and nitrate (thatís all for now) Ė around $20-$30. Yes, I know it is expensive, but, heck, you already spent more than that on that stupid Castle, Sunken Ship, or Shipís Wheel you have sitting on the bottom of the empty tank.
  • A pen or pencil and a Notebook. You are going to want to record your daily readings with the test kit, and probably refer to them often. You can also use it for photos.
  • A bottle of pure ammonia. Since there are no fish, we are going to manually add the ammonia for the other bad boys to go after. Itís important that it be pure ammonia without any surfactants. Test-shake it, if it bubbles put it back!
OK. Grab your hammer and toolkit, (naw, only kidding, you donít need the hammer), and letís go!

Patience. Tanks cycle in their own time, you cannot force the process, however, in my experience I have found the fishless method to be faster than the ďtraditionalĒ method.

Point: Of course the addition of some ďalready cycledĒ substrate, filter media, decorations, etc. that you might get from a friend will aid in speeding the cycle,
But, alas, some of us donít have any friends, so you may skip this.

Point: Contrary to some beliefs, the bacteria we are attempting to introduce will mostly take residence in the substrate, filter and walls of the tank. Very little, if any, lives in the water.

Point: The time tables in this example may not coincide with your particular setup, since obviously I have no idea of the size of your tank, filter, heater, etc. Remember, Iím a dummy. The dosage, too, you will have to calculate to suit your setup. I canít do that for you, Iím not that much of a dummy.

Weeks 1 Ė 2

Stand good and sturdy. Make sure itís level. Decorations & substrate in. Filter & heater in place. Filled with water. Filter & heater turned on. (approx 80-83 degrees). Test Kit ready.

Add ammonia. Start with 2-3 teaspoons. Wait an hour. Test (for ammonia only). What we are aiming for here is to get a test reading of 3-5 ppm (thatís parts per million for the techies here)
After an hour or so, you may have to add more.(for example if you get a zero reading, Doh!) Just remember, weíre looking for 3-5 ppm for a reading.
If you overdose, a little, thatís OK. (Have you ever heard a doctor say that?). Remember, no fish here to hurt. And this is not rocket science. A 6 ppm reading is OK too. Just donít go crazy bonkers.

Now we wait. (Iíll bet youíve heard a doctor say that!). Continue to test (for ammonia only) each day. Donít forget to record your readings in that sexy notebook you bought. Remember in the beginning we mentioned Patience. That is the downfall of many - Patience. Perhaps it might help to read a book while waiting. I can recommend one, it's a short story and in paperback. It's called "The Illusionist" by Stephen Millhauser. OK, moving right along.

Near the end of the 1st week, start testing for NitrItes as well as ammonia. Donít be alarmed if you get zero. Keep testing. Remember, this takes time.

Somewhere into the 2nd week you should see some reading for NitrItes. During this time you should also see ammonia start decreasing. Thatís a good thing.

Weeks 3 - 4

By the 3rd week you should see the NitrIte reading increase and at the same time see the ammonia decrease.

Once the ammonia reaches zero, just add 1 teaspoon of ammomnia each day. Not enough to cause a reading, but just enough to keep the ďammonia eatingĒ bacteria alive and happy. Note: This is a step a lot of people forget or omit and sometimes this omission causes the cycle to stall or stop. Remember to keep feeding these little buggers.

In the meantime, the NitrItes should start climbing and climbing. Somewhere in the 3rd or 4th week they should peak and start dropping down. This is a sign that youíre getting close, and cause for celebration. Go have a beer.

At this point we grab our trusty Test Kit and test for NitrAtes. This part of the process will probably move faster than the previous ones. As with earlier tests, this new NitrAte should start climbing and the older NitrIte should start dropping. And by now, your ammonia readings should always be zero. Onward to infinity! (Buzz Lightyear said that)
Hey, remember that book I recommended for you to read back in week 1 or 2? Well, I have to tell you, she really didn't die. It was all a trick. And then she ran away with the good guy and they lived happily ever after.
What? You didn't finish it? Oops!

Weeks 5 Ė 6

If it hasnít already, somewhere in the 5th week the NitrAtes will continue to rise, and the NitrItes should rather quickly lower to zero. In my case the NitrItes dropped to zero within 3-4 days after it spiked.

When your NitrItes are zero and your ammonia is zero, then, (drum roll please) your tank is cycled!

Donít break out the champagne yet, thereís one more step (and itís pretty darn important). Do a large water change (60% - 80%) to bring the still present NitrAtes down to a non-toxic level (which is <20). After the water change, do not, I repeat, do not remove or change the filter media, (hey, thatís where a lot of those little good bacteria guys are!). Add your water conditioner and lower the temperature to 76 degrees or whatever is proper for your about to become resident FISH!

As a good measure, and common sense, allow you newly cycled tank to churn away for a few hours, or overnight. Test one more time. (you can never test too much), and as long as you see those zeros there and the NitrAte <20 Ė you are good to add FISH!

Donít go bonkers, though. Even though you can certainly add more than one fish, that doesnít mean you should dump in twenty. Just remember that as you add fish, and only a few at a time, you must give the good bacteria a little time to adjust to the increase in numbers and waste.

I truly hope that I have convinced you to go with the fishless cycling. I can guarantee you that your fish will thank you, too, by letting you watch them live a happy, healthy life for many years, and will occasionally give you a wink! (or maybe a high five!).
Good Luck.

Bob R

Lovely little 29Gal FW community with 3 Danios, 4 Neons, 4 Serpae Tetras, 3 Plattys, 3 Albino Corys and 2 Male Dwarf Guoramis. All of whom enjoy swimming, tennis, golf and Bingo on Tuesday nights.
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Old 06-08-2008, 01:17 PM   #2
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Good article Bob, I'd like to point out a few things, however.

In the "What is a cycle" paragraph, you sort of state that the bacteria are called ammonia, nitrite and nitrate. That's not the case, as the nitrIte and nitrAte are actually the "waste" products of the bacteria. I forget the names of the bacteria though.

For conducting the cycle, many of us prefer that the ammonia dosing be much higher than you stated. 3-5ppm is more along the lines of what I think is the right number, rather than 0.5. The reason for this is that is simulates a much higher bioload, but doesn't increase the amount of time necessary to cycle by very much. The bacteria multiply by splitting, so at each split you double-up on the size of the colony, so the extra time is minimal. The simulated higher bio-load is what allows you to safely place a larger amount of fish safely immediately upon completion of the cycle.

The most critical thing once nitrItes and nitrAtes start to show is continuing to feed the nitrifying bacteria with ammonia. You stated this, but you didn't stress it very much. Towards the end of the cycle, it's critical to feed ammonia every day or two. Going any longer than that can cause that bacteria to run out of food and begin to die off. If that occurs, you'll still have a large colony of bacteria to convert nitrIte to nitrAte, but there won't be any bacteria to convert ammonia to nitrIte to feed those bacteria, so in turn they will die off as well. It's also just as important to continue to feed once the cycle is complete until the day before you're ready to stock, then do the large PWC the night before.

You mentioned the temperature, but didn't explain it. The bacteria will thrive at warmer temperatures, like you said, in the mid-80s range. Additionally, lots of oxygenation will assist them to thrive as well, by adding an air stone or reducing the water level to allow for more surface agitation and gas exchange to occur.

All in all, good write up, and I very much appreciate the lighter, more humerous, nature of it.

In the DC Metro Area? Check out GWAPA and WAMAS
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Old 06-08-2008, 02:07 PM   #3
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"That's not the case, as the nitrIte and nitrate are actually the "waste" products of the bacteria. I forget the names of the bacteria though."

Nitrosomonas and Nitrobacter are the names.

IMHO: If a tank is cycled properly with only a FEW healthy fish, the levels are monitored correctly, the fish fed properly (NO overfeeding)..., a fishless cycle is not necessary. Only when the tank has had a serious outbreak of disease and has been torn down completely, sterilized and reset does one need to do a fishless cycle.

If one does not purchase and then isolate all newcomers to the tank to insure everything is disease free, fishless cycling (insures that the TANK is disease free) is a waste of time.
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Old 06-08-2008, 02:17 PM   #4
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Hi neilanh. Thanks very much for the compliments, and more importantly for the corrections and feedback.

I was hoping that additional posts would be made, and welcome additional posts to sort of tweak and fine tune this process, as I personally feel that "fishless" is indeed the way to go.

I know all too well what it's like to be both a NewB and a dummy, re-entering this hobby after many, many years. It does pain me to see so many posts that end with "the fish died", quite often needlessly.

I just hope that many NewBs will read and learn from this, and most importantly, apply it.

Thanks, again, for your input.

Makes me sort of feel that I really should have paid more attention in chemistry class, instead of gawking at Mary Lou in the third row accross from me.

Take care,

Lovely little 29Gal FW community with 3 Danios, 4 Neons, 4 Serpae Tetras, 3 Plattys, 3 Albino Corys and 2 Male Dwarf Guoramis. All of whom enjoy swimming, tennis, golf and Bingo on Tuesday nights.
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Old 06-08-2008, 03:08 PM   #5
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Thanks for the great information and views that everyone is putting here in this post. I am new and did the fishless cycle with some mistakes on my part. All-in-all, the fishless cycle is the best way to go with the kind of fish I wanted to stock my tank. I have cichlid fish and I read that they are territorial so doing a fishless cycle was the way to go for me. It was a good thing because each cichlid picked its part in the tank and they chase off anyone who enters thier little world.

Later, Gerald
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Old 07-21-2008, 06:56 AM   #6
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Excellent information RJRofFl! A very user friendly guide to cycling.
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Old 07-21-2008, 07:01 AM   #7
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I just started using and it is great. Thanks for the time writing it up and the info
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Old 07-21-2008, 10:25 AM   #8
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Great job, Bob!

The thread has been made into a "sticky".

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Old 08-02-2008, 12:21 PM   #9
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so does it usually take about a month and half to do a complete cycle??
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Old 08-02-2008, 01:12 PM   #10
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Hi Shanz,

In an attempt to answer your question, I can tell you that my personal experience resulted in a total of 5 weeks. However, I made a few mistakes along the way which obviously "stalled" it a bit.

As I researched it, prior to doing it, I found that when this method was developed, a Dr. Chris Cow (I am not sure if he actually invented it or just popularized it, but it doesn't matter), actually performed substantial testing of the process. The results were varied, but, the speediest was about 2 weeks (+/- 2 days), and the slowest was 4 1/4 weeks.

I have been advised that there are methods to help speed up the process, but I have my doubts. For example, I've been told to add fish flakes and/or frozen shrimp to aid in the creation of ammonia.
I dispute this, only because, in using pure logic (I am a dummy, remember), both fish flakes and shrimp do take time to decay and form ammonia, so, what's the sense when you can add actual ammonia straight from the bottle? Doh!

I think the key points are simply to continue to add ammonia to the end, maintain continuous oxegenation, and keep the temp around 80-85 (not higher). This seems to be the most ideal conditions for the little bugger bacteria to thrive.

Anyway, that's JMHO.

I hope this helped to answer your question.


Lovely little 29Gal FW community with 3 Danios, 4 Neons, 4 Serpae Tetras, 3 Plattys, 3 Albino Corys and 2 Male Dwarf Guoramis. All of whom enjoy swimming, tennis, golf and Bingo on Tuesday nights.
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