Ammonia Instructions when Cycling with TSS+ or other Bacterial Starter


Fishless Cycling with Ammonia and a Bacterial Additive: When cycling your aquarium you are cycling for the most part your filter(s). The bacteria will adhere and grow on any surface they can find but the majority of them will be in your filter sponge, ceramic media etc where there is lots of surface area for them to grow on along with all of the oxygen as they are aerobic. Never rinse your filter media in tap water, always rinse in de-chlorinated tap or or old tank water.

Ammonia:First off, the easiest way to cycle fishless is with a pure ammonia source. In the U.S. you can pick up janitorial grade ammonia at Ace Hardware. There is also Dr. Tim's Ammonium Chloride you can order online. Any other pure ammonia will work. The only ingredients should be water and ammonia. A good test is to shake the ammonia, it should not foam. Small bubbles are ok, just not a sudsing or foaming action. It should contain no perfumes, dyes or detergents.

Fish Food: If ammonia cannot be found then an alternative is fish food which is imprecise but will work nonetheless. Put a few pinches of fish food in a nylon sock or media bag, one ammonia is up to 1.0, remove the bag and add in the TSS or other bacterial starter. When ammonia and nitrites are both down to .25, put in a new bag of fish food and repeat. I do not recommend cycling with a dead shrimp or other dead matter as it can lead to future aeromonas/columnaris outbreaks later in your tank.

Bacteria in a Bottle: All bacteria are not created equal The best bottled bacteria to cycle with are ones that contain "true" nitrifyers (nitrosonomas, nitrosomas, nitrobacter, nitrospira are a few). Some that come to mind and I know work are Tetra Safe Start and Plus version, Seachem Stability, Dr. Tim's One and Only, Fritz Industries FritzZyme 7 & 9 or TurboStart, MicrobeLift Nite Out - II. I'm sure there are others but these are the ones that I see frequently work.

One thing to remember is each tank is its own contained eco-system and so what works great in my tank with my water hardness, alkalinity and PH may not work in yours. Sometimes I see a product fail in someones tank and another one will work great.

Instructions: Less is More is my motto for fishless cycling with a bacterial starter. Most bacteria starters have you start with 1 fish per 10 gallon for the first two weeks, so we want to mimic that by having a very low amount of ammonia initially. This feeds the bacteria without inhibiting its growth.

1. Setup your tank, dechlorinate, heat and run the filter. Put your heat up to 82-84 as this will speed the growth of the bacteria. Pickup the API Liquid Test Kit so you can track your parameters. Test strips cost more in the long run and are inaccurate. So you have a baseline, test your tap for PH, ammonia, nitrites and nitrates and write them down.

2. Dose your ammonia to 1.0ppm. This calculator may help (janitorial grade ammonia is 10% and for salinity I would just put in 0 for freshwater):
Ammonia Cycling Calculator

3. Most bacteria starters have you put in the whole bottle at once, some have you dose daily. Their instructions are for fish-in cycling. You cannot overdose bacteria and I would put in the whole bottle for your sized tank or the next size up. This can cloud up your tank in some cases though I don't hear that very often. If it does it will clear up within a few days. Note: Wait 24 hours after using a water conditioner/ammonia binder (like Prime or Amquel Plus) before adding in TSS+, you don't have to wait with the other products. If you just have a regular dechlorinator that doesn't bind ammonia then wait 3-4 hours. If you have a UV Filter, turn it off for the first 5 days. Lights will not effect the bacteria. Just a note if you are using TSS+ it will alter your ammonia readings in your tank for the first 24 hours making them higher. This is because it comes housed in ammonium for food.

4. Wait for ammonia to drop to 0-.25, this can take several days. At that point, test nitrites and nitrates. Don't be surprised if you have some nitrates. Because you have seeded your filter with all the necessary bacteria to attach and start multiplying this is not unusual. You should see some nitrites at this point most likely though sometimes with TSS+ you may not.

If the #2 nitrate bottle is not shaken vigorously and mixed well enough it could result in a false 0 reading. I find taking nitrate #2 and banging against my palm or countertop will mix it up adequately.

If nitrites are not over 2ppm, go ahead and dose ammonia to 1.0 again. If nitrites are over 2ppm wait an additional 24 hours for the nitrite converting bacteria (nitrobacter/nitrospira) to catch up and the nitrites will lower.
People worry they will be starving the bacteria if they wait an additional 24 hours. These are hardy little guys and they have a neat ability to go dormant when they are deprived for long periods of time. Depriving them of ammonia for 24 hours is just fine in this scenario.

Test your PH once or twice a week. If it starts falling more than .5 see the FAQ below.

5. Repeat step 4.until you can dose ammonia and 24 hours later your have 0 ammonia and 0 nitrites and increasing nitrates. Once you can do that you are cycled. At this point you can either add more ammonia up to 2.0-3.0 and repeat step 4 until this is also handled in 24 hours OR you can do a huge water change and add in some fish.

A Note on Adding Fish:People often want to know how many fish they can add in at once. This depends on a number of things: your tank size, the type of fish, how much you will be feeding and how many you want to add at one time. Most people seem happy to start with a small school of fish (6-8) which the 1.5 ammonia processing would be sufficient. A week later you can add in more. This gives the bacteria time to adjust to the new bio-load in between adding fish. But for instance if you want to stock a cichlid tank with all of the fish then you would want your bio-filter to be able to handle 4ppm of ammonia in 24 hours.

Some FAQ:

1. My nitrites won't drop and its been two weeks. If you get stuck in the nitrite phase and they're not really high, (up at 4 or higher) its possible that you don't have enough phosphate in your tap water. You can add in a small pinch of fish food to help the nitrobacter/spira convert the nitrites over.

2. When should I do water changes? You don't need to do a water change unless nitrites get up to 4.0 or higher or nitrates up towards 100 when fishless cycling. Other than that just one large one before adding fish.

3. My PH is falling what does this mean? If your PH starts falling then this indicates your may have low carbonates which hold your PH steady. This can lead to a PH crash which will often cause the loss of your nitrite converting bacteria and you'll see a spike in nitrites. This can happen with fish in your tank and can cause stress, sickness and death. Take a sample of your tap water to the pet store and have them test your GH/KH (general hardness, carbonate hardness) or purchase an API GH/KH test kit which you'll need anyways if your KH is low. Ideally you want your KH at 100ppm or higher for PH stability. You can go to the pet store and pickup one of the following: crushed coral, aragonite, limestone, cuttle(fish) bone found in the reptile or bird sections, oyster shells. These can go in a media bag in your filter or mixed into your substrate. As PH falls they will slowly dissolve and release carbonates which will hold your PH.

4. Its been over 2 weeks with no changes to my ammonia and I still have 0 nitrites and 0 nitrates, why?
I would suspect the bottle of bacteria you purchased was for some reason either expired or not viable anymore, you could purchase another bottle. Another reason this can happen is if you have copper in your pipes. If you have copper levels at .3 or higher this will inhibit both ammonia and nitrite nitrification. A copper test might be in order.

5. I had nitrates and now they're disappeared! This can happen in a fishless cycle. While your nitrifyers are all busy multiplying and attaching to surfaces there is another group of bacteria busy at work also. These are the heterotophic bacteria, the organic decomposers that break down excess food, poop, plant matter and organics in the water column. When they run out of food in the water column some of them can actually switch roles and start consuming nitrates for food thus the drop in nitrates. Often just adding in a pinch of fish food will take care of this. Its nothing to worry about though either way.

jdhef, Mike, Lucy any way to have this stickied?
el337 input appreciated, did I miss anything?


Great job Cindi! Thanks for asking for my input but I can't think of anything that you haven't already covered! This is definitely sticky-worthy!


Nice write up Cindi. Thanks for taking the time to do this.
We are in the processing of streamlining the cycling stickies. This thread will be included.

To add to #4.
If the #2 nitrate bottle is not shaken vigorously and mixed well enough it could result in a false 0 reading.


Thanks Lucy I'll add that, I was thinking about that too!


Link to this thread can be found here:


Ok sounds good. Any way you want to move mine up to the top since its the newest?

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