24 weeks into fishless (non)cycle

munguin

Member
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.
 

Seasoldier

Member
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.
 
  • Thread Starter

munguin

Member
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.
 

mattgirl

Member
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.
 

Betta02

Member
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. :)
 

LightBrownPillow

Member
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.
 

mattgirl

Member
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.
 

LightBrownPillow

Member
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:

 

Wrench

Member
Cycles will stall or crash at a ph of 6, bacteria starts to die off
 

mattgirl

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

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.
 

mattgirl

Member
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

Member
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.
 
  • Thread Starter

munguin

Member
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

Member
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

Member
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.
 

depan89

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

I'm a newbie. Not much of a help, but Hats off to your dedication!!
 
  • Thread Starter

munguin

Member
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

Member
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

Member
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. :)
 
  • Thread Starter

munguin

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

munguin

Member
mattgirl, I have news: The evidence is pointing to your being very much correct! But hoping you can confirm or correct me on this. I have 2 things to report.

First, I wanted to make sure I am dosing the tanks with the right amount of ammonia. To figure that out, I filled a pot with 1 gallon of tap water and added 0.4mL ammonia, which is the amount I thought would result in a 1ppm reading. I stirred it with a spoon and then measured it. Sure enough, it read 1ppm. (I've attached a photo - I am reading this correctly, yes?)

I therefore extrapolate that, with the ammonia I'm using, if 0.4mL ammonia results in 1ppm in 1 gallon of water, then to achieve 1ppm in 5 gallons water (my tank size) I would need to add 0.4mLx5 = 2.0mL ammonia. I am assuming the relationship is linear like this. Is that correct?

Second, I tested my tank water about 24 hours after I dosed it (as described last night). Last night I had added a total of 2.6mL ammonia (very close to the "correct" 2.0mL dosage that I calculated just now) to try to achieve 1ppm in the tank. 24-hours later, the readings look good: pH 7.6, ammonia 0, nitrites 0, nitrates 20 (photo attached... lighting not so great). Whee!

If all of this sounds right to you, then I think I should dose again up to 1ppm for a couple more days and just confirm that things really are stable. And then I should be able to do a water change and (dare I say it?) get a fish. Do you agree or is there something else you'd recommend?

Thanks so much for any and all thoughts!

Sara
 

mattgirl

Member
Super fantastic news!!!!!! I had a very strong suspicion that this tank was in fact cycled. It was just being overwhelmed with so much ammonia.

I really sounds to me like it is time to do another water change to get those nitrates much lower and finally get your fish. If it would make you more comfortable you can go ahead and dose ammonia each day for a few more days. If it goes back to 0 each day you can be totally positive that this cycle is in fact done.
 
  • Thread Starter

munguin

Member
Outstanding! Thank you so, so, so much for your help. I am feeling so relieved to finally be done with this very long cycle. :) I really appreciate your helping me. I honestly am not sure what I would have done without it. I'll do as you suggest and hopefully soon be the proud owner of a fish! Thanks again.
 

mattgirl

Member
munguin said:
Outstanding! Thank you so, so, so much for your help. I am feeling so relieved to finally be done with this very long cycle. :) I really appreciate your helping me. I honestly am not sure what I would have done without it. I'll do as you suggest and hopefully soon be the proud owner of a fish! Thanks again.
I am so happy I could help you. Keep in mind we LOVE pictures :D
 
  • Thread Starter

munguin

Member
OK, pictures are promised. :)
 
  • Thread Starter

munguin

Member
mattgirl and everybody:

Good news: I'm back with pictures! Bad news: I'm still not quite in the clear and hoping for some advice.

I did go ahead and do 1 last water change and get a betta fish from my LFS. Two, actually. As it turns out, I actually have 2 identical 5-gallon tanks that went through 2 identical fishless cycles simultaneously and had 2 almost identical chemical readings. I didn't mention that in the thread above because it seemed simpler to talk about 1 tank than 2 since they were essentially identical. But suddenly it now makes a difference. Attached are photos of Phineas and Elderberry (names selected by kids :)).

These two guys have enjoyed their new homes for 8 days now. Phineas has been moderately active since the moment he came home. Elderberry seemed stressed out by the change and hid for a day and a half, but has been active and seemingly happy ever since then.

Today we did 30% water changes in both tanks and then tested the water. Elderberry's readings were perfect (pH 7.2, Ammonia 0, Nitrites 0, Nitrates 5). However, Phineas's readings were not good at all: pH 8.2, Ammonia 1, Nitrites 1, Nitrates 5). This surprised me because we have done everything the same for each tank. In theory there should be no difference at all.

I went ahead and did another 70% water change in Phineas's tank, re-tested, and got 0 Ammonia.

I also realized that each tank has 2 biological filter "thingies" (one emptied-out disposable cartridge that used to have carbon in it and now just has the white fuzzy stuff, and one baggie of "Bio-Home" balls). I decided to swap the white fuzzy cartridges, thinking that perhaps Elderberry's tank had enough bacteria in its filters that it could lend some to Phineas's tank. I am not sure whether that was a good idea.

Questions:
  • Any ideas why the tanks should have different water conditions at this point?
  • Was swapping 1 of the 2 biological filters the right thing to do? If not, is there any point in switching them back now?
  • Any other advice?

Thank you!
 

mattgirl

Member
Beautiful little guys :)

I have to ask. Did you use the same substrate and the same decor in each of the tanks? The very different pH in the 2 tanks has me scratching my head. Of course the rise in ammonia/nitrites does too.

Switching the media was a good idea. It may help. I can imagine your surprise to see such different numbers between what appears to be 2 identical tanks that were cycled the same but strangely it does seem to happen. Hopefully by moving some of the media from the one tank to the other will result in better numbers quickly. I would run the test at least every 3rd day for the next few weeks just in case ammonia/nitrites show up in Phineas's tank again and you can get and keep them down should they continue to rise.
 
  • Thread Starter

munguin

Member
Thanks so much for this advice! We used substrate and decorations that were bought in the same store, side-by-side on the shelf. The decorations are not actually identical, though. That is a good point.

We'll take your suggestions and run tests every 3 days or so to make sure we're keeping things under control for Phineas. Thanks so much.
 

Most photos, videos and links are disabled if you are not logged in.

Log in or register to view

Top Bottom