Help 24 weeks into fishless (non)cycle

munguin

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I am hoping for some advice on a fishless cycle. I'm fairly new to aquariums and fish. I'm 24+ weeks into a fishless cycle on a 5-gallon tank (heated, filtered) in which I am hoping to someday keep a betta fish. Records of the cycle data and my specific actions are attached. Unfortunately, the cycle seems to be not working. Or rather, it has at brief times seemed to be working before falling apart. I am not sure what's going wrong and what I should try. For many weeks after I started, the cycle seemed to be doing nothing, and about 14 weeks in I managed to get a used filter from a neighbor's cycled tank. That seemed to kick things into gear, but ammonia was still getting down only to about 0.25 and not 0. Then, after several more weeks, the ammonia finally started to get down to zero. For about a week I thought I was all set, but then my pH inexplicably plunged down off the chart and the ammonia went back up again. After a water change the pH is now up again but the ammonia cycle seems almost back where I started 24 weeks ago. Can anybody find a pattern in the data? Is there something I'm doing wrong? I am mystified and would be grateful for any insights! Thanks.
 

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Seasoldier

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Hi, 24 weeks is a long time to get a cycle established, I can't open your zip file so can't see your data but can I ask a few questions. 1 what are you using as ammonia to feed the bacteria colony? 2 when you dose the ammonia how high do you get the ammonia reading & how long is it taking to go to zero? 3 are you getting any nitrite / nitrate readings? 4 how often are you doing partial water changes? 0.25 is not too high for ammonia but what are you testing with, strips or master test kit? If you have a combined ammonia / nitrite reading of less than 1 you're OK especially if you have nitrate reading of 5 - 10 or so. Lastly small tanks are notorious for trying to keep stable, the bigger the tank volume the easier it is.
 
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munguin

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Thanks for these questions! I tried attaching my records again, this time as a PDF.
1. I'm using clear ammonia (ingredients: ammonia). Eventually my first bottle ran out (I also use it for cleaning in my home) and I bought a new bottle of "clear ammonia." A couple days later I discovered that it was mislabeled and actually contained surfactant. You'll see on my chart that I performed 2 complete water changes at that point and added in a carbon filter for a week or so. I then bought properly-labeled clear ammonia and have used that ever since.
2. When I dose ammonia I'm dosing it up to about 4ppm. At first it was taking many days to reach 0. Many weeks ago, after adding a used filter media from a neighbor's cycled tank, it was taking only 1 day to reach 0 (yay!). But now we're back to taking 2 days (and actually today I'm still at 1ppm which hasn't budged since the day before yesterday). I feel like I'm back to where I started almost half a year ago.
3. For a very long time I did not get any nitrite readings at all, but I did get low nitrate readings. I thought that the ammonia bacteria were taking so long to multiply that the nitrite bacteria were keeping pace. However, about 6 weeks ago (as you can see in the data) I suddenly had a nitrite spike. It was completely surprising to me. It's now back down to 0. I do have nitrates that build up over time and are removed when I have done a few water changes (not enough water changes to disrupt the cycle, I wouldn't think?). The nitrite spike immediately preceded a free-fall of pH. I'm not sure whether the two events were related.
4. The water changes I've done are marked in the data. Many times they have been complete water changes because of certain reasons. e.g. trying to get rid of surfactant, thinking I was ready to get fish (but then noticing issues with the cycle shortly after and so not getting fish), etc. But I have not been doing them occasionally, not constantly, and I've been rinsing media not at all or else in the discarded tank water (not tap water).
5. I'm testing with the API Master Test kit. It's new info to me that a combined ammonia / nitrite reading of less than 1 is OK. I have not heard this before.
6. Small tank... Such good advice. Thank you. Oy. If I had only known before embarking on this fish adventure that bigger tanks are actually easier. :)

Looking forward to any additional insights you can share! Thanks so very much.
 

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mattgirl

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24 weeks is way too long. I will try to help you get this tank cycled.

The first thing I would do is change out at least 75% of the water. Be sure you both temp match and dechlorinate the water you are replacing. If the water change gets your ammonia down to zero go ahead and add enough to get the level up to 1ppm. There is no need to be dosing up to 4ppm in a 5 gallon tank. You can't put enough fish in there to produce that much ammonia daily so no need to grow that much bacteria.

Water changes during the cycling process isn't going to hurt the cycle. The bacteria isn't in the water. It is growing on your filter media and on all the surfaces in the tank. The cycling process can cause the pH to drop. Normally regular water changes will keep the pH up to the level of your source water. If it continues to drop with water changes we may have to deal with that.

Your attachment doesn't take me anywhere so if you could just let me know the parameters in the tank right now. Meaning pH, ammonia, nitrite, nitrate and temp readings we can go from there.

It is about time for me to head for bed but I will be back in the morning and hopefully we can get to the bottom of why this tank isn't fully cycled after all this time.
 

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I won't be much help with your cycling issues, but I applaud you for hanging in there and not giving up! It took me a long time to cycle my first big tank, so I understand your frustration. Mattgirl will help you get your tank on track, she was a huge help to me. :)
 

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Wow, good job hanging in there through such a long time munguin. Cycle frustration is a big turn off for many people getting into the hobby.

Mattgirl will definitely be able to help ya. For my two cents, the fact you are seeing ammonia go down and nitrates go up (regardless of nitrite levels) seems to indicate your bacteria are active, just maybe having a hard time staying consistent. Getting a fish in might help, but work with Mattgirl first to see if there aren't other issues.

Also, your sudden pH drop might be related to your water hardness. There's a value called Carbonate Hardness (abbreviated KH) which is related to the water's "buffering" capacity against pH drops. Basically, having carbonate sources in the water will neutralize acids as they appear, but once the carbonates are used up then the acids will begin reducing the water's pH. Since the nitrogen cycle is an acid-producing process, a sudden pH drop like what you saw is a normal occurrence in water who's KH has dropped. Most tap water has some buffering capacity in it. Your best bet for preventing pH drops is weekly water changes.
 

LightBrownPillow

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mattgirl said:
Thanks for the vote of confidence Betta02 and LightBrownPillow

Once I have those numbers hopefully we will be able to figure out what's going on in this tank.
The PDF link seems to work fine for me. Here's a snip of the final few weeks of data:

1593439895644.png
 

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LightBrownPillow said:
The PDF link seems to work fine for me. Here's a snip of the final few weeks of data:

1593439895644.png
Thank you bunches. I have a strong suspicion that this tank is actually cycled. Adding 4ppm ammonia has been overwhelming this small tank. Once that is stopped and water change is done I feel sure we will find that the tank has been cycled for a while. It went through a nitrite spike and is producing nitrates. It also had seeded media added. That alone should have finished up the cycle.

When the pH dropped things slowed down to a crawl thus indicating that the cycle wasn't complete. Water changes to get and keep the pH up and adding less ammonia should let us know whether or not this cycle is done.
 

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Wrench said:
Cycles will stall or crash at a ph of 6, bacteria starts to die off
I agree that the low pH can stall a cycle but I have to think it would take a long time for the bacteria to start dying off thus crash a cycle. I do think it will go dormant. Once the pH is back up where it should be the bacteria should wake up and get back to work fairly quick. I will be the first to admit it if I am wrong about this though.
 

Wrench

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mattgirl said:
I agree that the low pH can stall a cycle but I have to think it would take a long time for the bacteria to start dying off thus crash a cycle. I do think it will go dormant. Once the pH is back up where it should be the bacteria should wake up and get back to work fairly quick. I will be the first to admit it if I am wrong about this though.
I have heard of the crushed coral and sea shells raising ph, but never had needed too mine is always always at 8.2 in all my tanks, I have never had ph fluctuate which is apparently odd considering all the threads I have read about it doing just that on here.
 
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munguin

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All,

Thank you so, so, so much for this help and support. After 24 weeks I was starting to question whether the universe was telling me not to keep fish. :) And actually this tank is for my kids, who have been asking me every day for the last 24 weeks whether we’re ready to get a fish. Oy… (The things we do for our kids…) I am so grateful for all of your kind words and helpful advice! Reading your responses feels like warm fuzzies. Thank you.

mattgirl: I am so grateful for your help. You’ve clearly earned a fanclub on this forum, which is wonderful to see. Your thinking makes sense to me. I’d been following the instructions for fishless cycles that I’d found in a variety of reputable online sources, but (of course) I realize now that those instructions weren’t optimized for such a small tank size as 5 gallons. I’d briefly wondered whether the 4ppm dose was right for my tank but didn’t see anything saying it wasn’t. That might just be because 5 gallons is not really that common. (I wish I’d known before buying it that a larger tank size would actually be in some ways easier. Live and learn!) Based on your advice, I’m listing at the end of this note what I think my next steps should be - please confirm or correct.

Wrench: The pH drop was unexpected for sure. After a water change it went back up to its normal range and has stayed there for the past week. Since this pH drop seemed to be a one-time occurrence in a tank that has (we now believe) overwhelmed with too much ammonia, I’m thinking I might not need any particular remedy. Just cutting back on the ammonia dosing and changing the water regularly might (I hope) resolve the pH issue permanently. If not, then the crushed coral sounds like it might be a reasonable next step. Total newbie question: Is this actual coral? Are we harming coral reefs by harvesting it?

LightBrownPillow: Thanks for the note about carbonate hardness. I’ll switch to weekly water changes (which I would do anyway once we have a fish but hadn’t realized I should also do them during the fishless cycle). Is the KH something I should be regularly testing for, or is that necessary only if there are issues with the pH?

Betta02: Thanks for your kind words! I will admit that I almost gave up at one point, but then my dear husband encouraged me to throw in the towel, which caused me to stubbornly dig my heels in and absolutely refuse to give up. :)

Here's what I think my next steps are, following @mattgirl’s advice:
  • I just tested the water, and the ammonia is down to 0 (took 3 days to get there from 4ppm). Yay.
  • I can’t do a water change at this moment because the tank is in my daughter’s bedroom where she is now sleeping.
  • So, I just dosed the tank back up to ~1ppm ammonia to give the wee beasties a snack.
  • Tomorrow I will do a 75% water change and then re-dose back up to 1ppm ammonia.
  • I’ll test the water again ~24 hours later and see where I land.
  • Then I’ll update this thread and let you all know what I’m seeing.

Again, thank you. I’m not usually a warm fuzzy sort of person but I feel like you all gave me a big hug and it really made my day.
 

LightBrownPillow

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munguin KH isn't anything to worry about in a simple freshwater tank like yours. I've gone most of my 20 years of fish keeping without ever testing KH, and just doing weekly water changes with tap water should be enough to keep your levels normal. You could get a test report from your water supplier if you want a free estimate of your tap water's conditions.

As has been side, your tank is very small and so things can change quickly. I think you saw the sudden pH drop because you were dosing such high ammonia levels that your bacteria colony grew very large for the tank volume. The nitrogen cycle was thus very rapid, and used up your buffering faster than normal. Once you get a single fish in there and things into a routine, your filter won't have enough ammonia to produce enough acids to get through the buffer within a week.
 

mattgirl

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munguin said:
All,

Thank you so, so, so much for this help and support. After 24 weeks I was starting to question whether the universe was telling me not to keep fish. :) And actually this tank is for my kids, who have been asking me every day for the last 24 weeks whether we’re ready to get a fish. Oy… (The things we do for our kids…) I am so grateful for all of your kind words and helpful advice! Reading your responses feels like warm fuzzies. Thank you.

mattgirl: I am so grateful for your help. You’ve clearly earned a fanclub on this forum, which is wonderful to see. Your thinking makes sense to me. I’d been following the instructions for fishless cycles that I’d found in a variety of reputable online sources, but (of course) I realize now that those instructions weren’t optimized for such a small tank size as 5 gallons. I’d briefly wondered whether the 4ppm dose was right for my tank but didn’t see anything saying it wasn’t. That might just be because 5 gallons is not really that common. (I wish I’d known before buying it that a larger tank size would actually be in some ways easier. Live and learn!) Based on your advice, I’m listing at the end of this note what I think my next steps should be - please confirm or correct.

Wrench: The pH drop was unexpected for sure. After a water change it went back up to its normal range and has stayed there for the past week. Since this pH drop seemed to be a one-time occurrence in a tank that has (we now believe) overwhelmed with too much ammonia, I’m thinking I might not need any particular remedy. Just cutting back on the ammonia dosing and changing the water regularly might (I hope) resolve the pH issue permanently. If not, then the crushed coral sounds like it might be a reasonable next step. Total newbie question: Is this actual coral? Are we harming coral reefs by harvesting it?

LightBrownPillow: Thanks for the note about carbonate hardness. I’ll switch to weekly water changes (which I would do anyway once we have a fish but hadn’t realized I should also do them during the fishless cycle). Is the KH something I should be regularly testing for, or is that necessary only if there are issues with the pH?

Betta02: Thanks for your kind words! I will admit that I almost gave up at one point, but then my dear husband encouraged me to throw in the towel, which caused me to stubbornly dig my heels in and absolutely refuse to give up. :)

Here's what I think my next steps are, following @mattgirl’s advice:
  • I just tested the water, and the ammonia is down to 0 (took 3 days to get there from 4ppm). Yay.
  • I can’t do a water change at this moment because the tank is in my daughter’s bedroom where she is now sleeping.
  • So, I just dosed the tank back up to ~1ppm ammonia to give the wee beasties a snack.
  • Tomorrow I will do a 75% water change and then re-dose back up to 1ppm ammonia.
  • I’ll test the water again ~24 hours later and see where I land.
  • Then I’ll update this thread and let you all know what I’m seeing.

Again, thank you. I’m not usually a warm fuzzy sort of person but I feel like you all gave me a big hug and it really made my day.
You are so very welcome. :)

I have a very strong suspicion that you will find that this tank is actually cycled once you are able to do the water change. The proof will be if the 1ppm ammonia you add is back to 0 or .25 within 24 hours and you see no nitrites. After you finish the water change run all the tests on the tank. You should see low or no ammonia, no nitrites and maybe low nitrates.

24 hours after adding 1ppm ammonia you should see 0 ammonia, 0 nitrites and your nitrates should be a tiny bit higher than they were just after doing the water change.
 

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LightBrownPillow said:
The PDF link seems to work fine for me. Here's a snip of the final few weeks of data:

1593439895644.png
I'm a newbie. Not much of a help, but Hats off to your dedication!!
 
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munguin

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So... Tonight I did a 75% water change. I then added in 1.6mL of ammonia, which is what I thought should be the right amount to get me up to 1ppm (based on earlier trial-and-error dosing and testing with plain water). I waited about 45 min for it to dissipate into the water evenly and then tested to be sure I had the right dosage. I got a reading of 0.5ppm (maybe slightly closer to 0.25, but hard to tell). I then added another 1 mL ammonia, waited an hour or so, and tested again. I still got what appeared to be around 0.5ppm. I'm confused and I'm worried about adding more because the point is to *not* add so much ammonia as I was before. I don't want to go overboard (again). So for the moment I appear to be at 0.5ppm and I'm leaving it there. My kids are going to bed (where the tank is) and I, too, am headed in that direction. Tomorrow I will sit down with a bucket of plain water and re-assess how much is needed to get from 0 to 1ppm ammonia. I feel awfully silly. Is it possible that my bacteria are eating up ammonia so fast as to reduce it significantly within the span of an hour?
 

Betta02

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Typically I waited 24 hours after my last dose of ammonia. If you dose to 2 on the ammonia, and then retest in 24 hours and have 0 ammonia among with 0 Nitrites of course, I'd call it cycled.
 

mattgirl

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munguin said:
So... Tonight I did a 75% water change. I then added in 1.6mL of ammonia, which is what I thought should be the right amount to get me up to 1ppm (based on earlier trial-and-error dosing and testing with plain water). I waited about 45 min for it to dissipate into the water evenly and then tested to be sure I had the right dosage. I got a reading of 0.5ppm (maybe slightly closer to 0.25, but hard to tell). I then added another 1 mL ammonia, waited an hour or so, and tested again. I still got what appeared to be around 0.5ppm. I'm confused and I'm worried about adding more because the point is to *not* add so much ammonia as I was before. I don't want to go overboard (again). So for the moment I appear to be at 0.5ppm and I'm leaving it there. My kids are going to bed (where the tank is) and I, too, am headed in that direction. Tomorrow I will sit down with a bucket of plain water and re-assess how much is needed to get from 0 to 1ppm ammonia. I feel awfully silly. Is it possible that my bacteria are eating up ammonia so fast as to reduce it significantly within the span of an hour?
Any thing is possible and with as long as you have been cycling this tank it is very possible that there is enough bacteria to clear out what you are adding, quickly. :)
 
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munguin

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OK, I am going to go experiment with this outside my tank and figure it out. Will report back!
 

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