Warning - this is going to be long. I've been lurking long enough to have about 1,000 questions but not long enough to know all the answers.
So where to begin? First of all, thanks for this wonderful resource. I have been lurking around for a couple of months and have gotten much invaluable information.
Long story short - my 3 year old wanted a fish tank after seeing a friend get one for Christmas. I have never kept a fish in my life, but how hard could it be right? Get a bowl, throw the fish in, feed it. Done. Obviously I have learned this is not quite the reality.
Went to Petco, listened to their ...sound... advice. Dude at least told me that fish in bowls don't do well, so we ended up with a 5.5 gallon starter kit, 5 glofish, 2 snails, water conditioner, flake food, snail wafers. I felt extremely noble for purchasing this "large" aquarium instead of putting some fish in a little bowl. Set up the tank, put the fish bag in for 15 minutes, dumped them into the tank, went to the movies. Came home to 1 dead fish. I had been warned that some fish don't deal with the shock of moving, so I didn't worry.
Went back to the pet store the next day and got a glofish and a leopard danio (they were out of glofish) to replace the dead one. Everyone seemed ok. I got some magical test strips which all looked ok to me. Proceeded to overfeed the crap out of the fish because the Petco guy told me that glofish have high metabolisms and need to eat 3 times a day. A week later, we were down to 2 glofish, the leopard danio, and the snails. Also the tank smelled like rotten death, so I took everything out, washed the tank and gravel in vinegar and replaced the filter cartridge (eek!).
Went online, read about cycling, not overfeeding, water changes, liquid test kits, heaters, live plants, my tank was way too small, all that jazz. I am now conducting a fish-in cycle with the 3 surviving fish and 2 snails. Everyone seems happy. Fish are good colors, no red gills, very active. They will now eat little flakes and worms right from my fingers and show themselves to be very intelligent little guys. The snails have nice looking shells and are actually quite fun and interesting to watch.
I now have four small live plants - 3 different varieties of java fern and one anubias. I upgraded to a 25 watt bulb to give the plants enough light. I got some Seachem Prime for water conditioning. I feed the fish very sparingly every other day. Got the API master freshwater testing kit.
I test for ammonia and nitrite each morning and then I do the whole shebang every evening. I conduct 2 gallon water changes twice a day (as needed) to keep the ammonia and nitrite levels down and lightly vacuum the top of the gravel in the evening. PH is a constant 7.4, water is medium hardness, temperature is 78, nitrate is around 20. Before the typical water change, ammonia is .25 - once in a while somewhere between .25 and .50, nitrite is between 0 and .25. I have been cycling this way (since after the great bacteria holocaust where I totally cleaned out the tank) for about 5-6 weeks.
I have purchased a new 55 gallon tank which is sitting empty until my styrofoam background dries. I plan to fishless cycle this before moving the current stock over to the big tank. I will then get 3 more glofish/danios for proper schooling.
My questions - do I just continue this cycle until ammonia and nitrite work themselves out? Am I doing too many water changes? I don't want the fish to be harmed by the ammonia/nitrites. The water changes don't stress them out - I made it a point to give them a nibble of food before and after each change, so they now swim happily around where I'm working in anticipation.
Also, disaster befell us last night and my daughter's friend knocked the tank on the ground. It now has a large chip out of one edge. I managed to save the fish and snails and got everything back together. It's not leaking, but I threw on a patch of aquarium silicone with duct tape over it. I'm now in constant fear that it will spring a leak. I should probably just replace the tank - my question about this is, since I'm putting out the expense and a 10g is only $10 more, should I just get a 10 gallon kit to finish out the cycle in or would that upset the cycling too much? I obviously would just transfer the gravel, plants, decor over and put the old filter media into the new filter.
I think this is long enough for now...more questions will follow I have no doubt.