2 Ammonia methods of cycling your fishless tank

  • #1
I picked this up on the net albeit a bit long windedThere are threads almost daily about the proper method for fishless cycling. In actuality, a Google search will result in hundreds of links and each of those will give you slightly different instructions. I wanted to cover two of the most common ones and their advantages and disadvantages.

Let me start by saying that when you cycle a tank, you are really cycling the filter. That is where the vast majority of the nitrifying bacteria will colonize. Some bacteria are present on the tank walls, decorations, and in the substrate but for the most part they are in/on the filter. Basically, there are NO nitrifying bacteria present in the water itself.

First, a couple things that are common regardless of which method you use. Obviously, you set up the tank with clean, dechlorinated water. I believe it is best to fill the tank and let any sand/gravel dust or cloudiness settle for a few days before you add ammonia. This will prevent cloudy water from giving you a skewed reading when you test. Second, raise the water temperature to the mid to upper 80s. I have even had success with temperatures in the low 90s. The warmer water promotes bacteria growth and will speed the cycle. Also, you will need to add extra aeration via an air stone and air pump. The warmer water temperature will force the oxygen from the water so you must add aeration to replenish it.

Items Needed:

Bottle of pure ammonia. If you don't know where to find it, this thread may help you. Pure ammonia will only list ammonia and water as ingredients. Chelating agents are ok. Without going into great detail, that is simply a bonding agent that keeps the ammonia and water "mixed". If it lists dyes, fragrances or surfactants, you don't want it. If the bottle doesn't have an ingredient label, shake the bottle. If it foams, it won't work. A few air bubbles that disappear immediately are ok.
A good test master test kit. Get a good liquid master test kit. Those generally contain tests for ammonia, nitrite, nitrate, pH and high pH. You won't necessarily need the pH tests during the cycling process but you will later. I would also suggest getting a KH test kit too although, once again, it's not necessary for the cycling process.
A medicine dropper. Any cheap one that you get at the local drug store will do.

While you are waiting on the dust to settle and the water to clear, I suggest you do a couple things. First, test the parameters of your tap water. It is important to know the pH and KH of your tap water so you will know what fish are compatible with your pH. It is also very important to know if there is any ammonia, nitrite and nitrate in your tap water. A lot of municipal water supplies have some or all of those present and well water could also have them present. Knowing that could save you a lot of head scratching later when you have an elevated level that may be caused by your tap water rather than a problem in the tank.

You should also run a little test to determine how much ammonia to add to your tank. Since medicine droppers come in all different sizes, it's hard to say that you need X drops per gallon to get to 5 or 6 ppm to start. I have 3 different droppers for adding fertilizers and for drawing tank water for testing and there is a big difference in the size drops they dispense. Take a small bucket, one of the buckets you used to fill your tank or wash you're sand. Fill it with water and then add 2 to 4 drops of ammonia per 5 gallon of water. Swirl it around to mix it and test to see what the ammonia reading is. Continue to do this until your reading is 5 to 6 ppm. Remember how many drops of ammonia you added and then, some simple maths will tell you how much to add to your tank to get the 5 to 6 ppm required to begin cycling. You can also use a test tube to add it. The amount required will depend on the concentration of the ammonia but 1ml (about 1/5th US teaspoonful) will usually raise 5 gallon to about 5ppm.

Ok. Your tank is set up, the water has cleared, and you know how much ammonia to add. Let's get started.

"Add and Wait" Method

This is the method I have used to cycle 5 tanks (from 2.5 to 75 gallon) and it has worked perfectly. I think it is the simplest and requires the least amount of work. First add your ammonia to raise the level to 5 to 6 ppm. Now you simply wait on the ammonia to drop back to around 1 ppm. Spend the time researching the fish you like and see if they are compatible with each other, with your tap pH, tank size, etc.

Test daily to see what the ammonia reading is. There is no use to test for anything else. Nitrite and nitrate won't be present until some ammonia has processed. Ammonia will raise your pH so no use to test it either. Once you see a drop in the ammonia, test for nitrite. There should be some present. When the ammonia drops back to about near zero (usually takes about a week), add enough to raise it back to about 3 to 4 ppm and begin testing the nitrite daily.

Every time the ammonia drops back to zero, raise it back up to 3 to 4 ppm and continue to check nitrites. The nitrite reading will go off the chart. NOTE FOR API TEST KIT USERS: When you add the drops, if they immediately turn purple in the bottom of the tube, your nitrites are off the chart high. You do not need to shake the tube and wait 5 minutes. If you do, the color will turn green as the nitrites are so high that there isn't a color to measure them with. Once the ammonia is dropping from around 4 ppm back to zero in 12 hours or less you have sufficient bacteria to handle the ammonia your fish load produces. Continue to add ammonia daily as you must feed the bacteria that have formed or they will begin to die off.

The nitrite spike will generally take about twice as long to drop to zero as did the ammonia spike. The reason for this is two-fold. First, the nitrite processing bacteria just develop slower than those that process ammonia. Second, you are adding more nitrite daily (every time you add ammonia, it is transformed into nitrite raising the level a little more) as opposed to the ammonia, which you only add once at the start and then waited on it to drop to zero. During this time, you should occasionally test for nitrate too. The presence of nitrate means that nitrite is being processed, completing the nitrogen cycle. The nitrate level will also go off the chart but you will take care of that with a large water change later. It will seem like forever before the nitrite finally falls back to zero but eventually, almost overnight, it will drop and you can celebrate. You are almost there. Once the bacteria are able to process 4 or 5 ppm of ammonia back to zero ammonia and nitrite in about 10 to 12 hours. You are officially cycled.

At this point, your tank will probably look terrible with brown algae everywhere and probably cloudy water. As I mentioned, the nitrate reading will also be off the chart. Nitrates can only be removed with water changes. Do a large water change, 75 to 90 percent, turn the heat down to the level the fish you have decided on will need, and you are ready to add your fish. You can safely add your full fish load as your tank will have enough bacteria built up to handle any waste they can produce.

"Add Daily" Method

I call this the "Add Daily" method because that is what you do. The start is exactly like the other method. To begin, you add enough ammonia to raise the level to 5 or 6 ppm. The difference is that the next day and each day thereafter you add the same amount. This continues until the ammonia drops to zero. This will take much longer than the other method because of the massive amount of ammonia the tank will initially contain. It generally takes about 3 days before any bacteria begin to form and you are able to notice even a small change in the color of your tests. In the other method, on the 3rd day there will still only be about 5 to 6 ppm of ammonia in the tank. With the "Add Daily" method, there will be approximately 15 to 18 ppm on the 3rd day so you need a lot of bacteria to process all of that.

Once the ammonia finally drops back to near zero, cut the amount of ammonia you are adding daily in half. That will still be plenty to keep the bacteria already developed fed. Continue to add the ammonia daily and test for nitrites. Once the nitrite drops back to zero, do your big water change and add your fish.

Advantages & Disadvantages: As I mentioned, the cycling process will take longer using the "Add Daily" method simply because you are forcing the bacteria to process quite a bit more ammonia. The advantage of that method though is that there will be much more bacteria present at the end than in the "Add & Wait" method. If you plan to have a heavy fish load (overstock) or keep messy fish (plecos, goldfish and Oscars for example), this may be the best way for you to go.

If you plan to keep normal tropicals with normal stocking levels as I do, cycling with the "Add & Wait" method should work fine for you. It has worked well for me. Some articles I have read even stated that if the ammonia level ever goes over 6 to 8 ppm that it severely slows the process and is a waste of time and effort.

Summation: As I said to begin, these are only 2 versions of the fishless cycle. There are numerous variations on these methods. One way to speed the cycling process is to "seed" the tank with a bacteria source from an established tank. See if a friend can give you an old filter from one of their tanks or if the local fish store has some gravel, filter media or anything that will provide a bacteria source. Any bacteria source will help.

As a general rule, don't waste your time or money on "bacteria starter" products such as Cycle or Prime. The consensus is that they serve no useful purpose. The fact that they have been shipped on un-refrigerated trucks and stored in hot warehouses leads most to believe that there couldn't possibly be any live bacteria left in the bottles. One possible exception is Bio Spira. I have personally not used this product but most things I have read suggest it works IF it has been handled properly (always refrigerated). Only purchase it from a reputable source that you trust.

Regardless of which method you choose, please, for the sake of your fish, do a fishless cycle. It prevents them from having to go through all the toxins and saves you a LOT of water changes, stress and lost fish. A little patience in the beginning will pay big dividends down the road.

Edit: I said that there was no use to test the pH as it didn't matter but after more reading, I have found that isn't entirely true. The optimal pH range for nitrification is about 7.0 to 8.0. As pH gets lower and closer to 6.0, the nitrification process severely slows. Below 6.0, the bacteria basically go dormant and stop reproducing. The bacteria that are present will continue to process ammonia and nitrite but the size of the colony will not grow or will grow very slowly. So in actuallity, you do need to test pH to make sure it isn't too low.
  • #2
Thank you for the time and effort you have put into this post.
The same methods can be used for marine aquariums.
Some food for thought... Some people in Australia who keep Seahorses, cycle using the Ammonia method. Tank sizes are 40+g and most use canister filters.
Instead of cycling the filter in the tank, it is cycled in a 10 gallon tub. The only filter media is bio balls, ceramic's, crushed corals etc.
By using the tub method, you add the rest of the filter media after the cycle is complete, this means that when you change out the filter media, you won't lose the bacteria.
And yes the Ammonia messes up the PH in salt water too, so if you cycled in the tank you would need to do a near 100% water change.

  • Thread Starter
  • #3
thanks for the tip
  • #4
That was a phenomenal post and ought to be stickied! Thanks for the great info. Now if I could just find pure ammonia around here......
  • #5
Thanks for taking the time richard7467, to write this all out. Much of this information is under the fishlore article on the nitrogen cycle, you just went into more detail.

The link to the fl article is. https://www.fishlore.com/NitrogenCycle.htm

Option # 3 describes the ammonia process. You however took more time to explain, and have tweaked the process in several ways I like.....one of which is to change more of the water out before adding fish.

I agree, your post will be one I refer people to.
  • #6
nice work. I used the pure ammonia method, and it worked very good.

just a note (sorry if this was said, to tired to read it all )

with many methods of cycling, when u add fish u wanna do it VERY slowly, because the bacteria need to continue to build up.

when u use pure ammonia, you can add almost your whole stock, becausethe ammonia put into the tank to cycle it is much more then fish would be able to create.
(not saying this is best for the fish, cause it might scare them with all the other fish, but biologically, you don't need to worry)
hope this helps
  • #7
so for my 95 gal tank I would add 57 drops (aprox) to the tank? that's a lot of drops!

is 5 ppm all I'm looking for the tank to jump to the first time or should it be higher? if 5 is the case then I might try the ml route. it would be 4 teaspoons of ammonia to get a reading of 6 ppm in my take right?

19ml = 3.8 teaspoons
  • #8
so for my 95 gal tank I would add 57 drops (aprox) to the tank? that's a lot of drops!

is 5 ppm all I'm looking for the tank to jump to the first time or should it be higher? if 5 is the case then I might try the ml route. it would be 4 teaspoons of ammonia to get a reading of 6 ppm in my take right?

19ml = 3.8 teaspoons

HI Kevin,
As the % of ammonia will be different from brand to brand, I would add 1 teaspoon and mix, then test. The reading from your first test will give you some idea of how much more needs to be added to reach 5ppm. If you go over the 5ppm you could do a water change to bring the level down.
Did you find some ammonia?
  • #9
Yes I did find it at ace hardware. it doesn't list the ingediants put here is the link.

I hope its the right kind since I can find ingrediants on the bottle. it doesn't bubble when I shake it. the bubbles go away almost instantly.

think I will go with adding 2 teaspoons and wait an hour after mixing to see where I am at.
  • #10
Been doing some searches on this ammonia and people have listed it as one to use.
Best of luck with your cycling
  • Thread Starter
  • #11
after I posted the initial post I carried out the add daily method and found that the amount of ammonia I was adding was very random to achieve the desired readings. The nitrites go through the roof as do the nitrates panic sets in and you begin to doubt yourself but patience is definetly the key word here, then eventually after around 6 weeks it all came together. I now have a happy tank of tetras,gouramies and corys. I think it took me a little longer than it should have as I really did over do it with the ammonia to begin with. Being impatient and trying to get the nItrites to build up, again proof is in the pudding! you can not rush these things just let nature take its course.
  • #12
Well done Richard! The nitrites take their time to start going down too hey.
Yep.. if you try to rush it, it will take longer lol
  • Thread Starter
  • #13
Cheers Pete but off the subject is there much work in Perth only I have been contemplating emigrating to Oz for sometime also my in-laws are leaping over from NZ this year. Hope you don't mind me completly going off at a tangent but its always best to ask the locals.
  • #14
Western Australia is having a boom for the last 2 years, and no end in sight. China is driving it. Thanks to the boom house prices have gone through the roof, up 50% in 2 years, and rent has done the same. Due to all the people coming over for the work there is a shortage of rental homes 0.3% vacancy. So finding a home could be a issue unless you buy one, cheap 3 bed, 1 bath out in the outskirts will set you back $380,000+ and it goes up from there. If you want you could PM me your email and I could have a chat about getting a 457 visa through the company I work for,.... I will send you a pm with my work email. then if you want you could send a copy of your CV etc and I would take it to our HR people.

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