Cycling without Fish (ammonia)

Discussion in 'Aquarium Nitrogen Cycle' started by carolo43, Nov 29, 2012.

  1. carolo43Valued MemberMember

    Once you start to cycle (all methods) do no cleaning. Messing with your tank removes the bacteria and starts your cycle over again. This can not be stressed enough. Do not change the gravel, mess with the filters and play around with pH adjusters, etc. If you do, you will delay the cycling process. No water changes are needed doing the fishless cycle.

    Bacteria grows faster in warmer temperatures with lots of oxygen so turn your heater up to 82 and add an air stone or bubbler if you have one.

    Unless you have well water, you must always use a de-chlorinator. The chlorine in your water supply will kill bacteria immediately. Many water municipals also use chloramines as a means of sterilization so get a product that removes chlorine and chloramines. Most water conditioners now do both. Storing water does not remove chloramines.

    There is more than one way to do a “fishless cycle”. You can feed the tank fish flakes or use a piece of “raw” shrimp or fish in a nylon stocking and anchor it to the bottom of the tank. (Must be underwater and may get stinky.) Many are now using PURE ammonia to get the level up instantly rather than waiting for shrimp or flakes to rot. This article is only about cycling with pure ammonia.

    HOW MUCH AMMONIA TO ADD: Now pay attention!!!!

    This is determined by the size of your tank. A 55 gallon will be stocking more fish than a 10 gallon so obviously you need to grow more bacteria in larger tanks. You also have larger filters on larger tanks for the bacteria to grow in.

    No one can tell you how many drops it will take to bring your ammonia level up to a correct dosage so this is why you need a tester. If you have a tank of perhaps 40 gallon and up, ammonia can be added to read between 4-5ppm’s to get your cycle started.

    If your tank is a small tank, will hold only a few fish and has a small filter, then you should began your cycle with far less ammonia…..perhaps only 1-2ppms. You do not need to grow a ton of bacteria for a few small fish.

    If you are in doubt about the ammonia to purchase, give it a good shake. If it foams, do not buy it. If it forms a few bubbles at the top that quickly break up, then it is OK to purchase. Read the label. If scents or detergents are added do not buy it. It will be listed on the label or ingredient list.

    To Began.....

    Add some ammonia to your tank, wait for it to get circulated by the filter and then test. If it needs a tad more, then add a tad more. And then DO NOTHING! Leave the tank alone. Nothing is going to happen for several days so no point in wasting testing solutions and fretting over the cycle yet.
    (Make sure you have added dechlorinator when you set the tank up.)

    After a few days, began to test for ammonia levels. Nitrosomona bacteria needs time to grow. As it grows, ammonia levels will slowly began to drop. Slowly at first but as more bacteria grows, ammonia levels will drop very quickly.....within hours.

    You should began to very soon see nitrites, perhaps after only dosing the tank once or twice. When that happens, now only add ammonia of one/half of your original dose when you started. Ammonia is only redosed when previous dose has dropped to 0 and only one time a day.

    Nitrites will continue to climb each day, also growing bacteria. You may have nitrites register on your tester for a couple weeks but one day you will check and they will be 0. That is when you have your cycled tank! You will have high nitrAtes when you tank is done cycling. Do a large water change to bring those nitrates down to under 20 and you can began to add your fish.

    If for some reason there will be a delay in adding fish at this time, add a wee bit of ammonia each day to your tank to keep that bacteria fed. But make sure those numbers are 0 before adding any fish.

    A faster cycle is achieved by adding used filter media from another fish tank. If you have a friend that has a tank, steal some of his filter media. If you can not do that, have him vacuum his gravel and give you the nasty stuff he pulls up. (Mulm)

    Bacterium does not live in the water so transferring of water will not help with a faster cycle.

    Bacteria Boosters are not used for fishless cycling. It does no good to add ammonia and then dump in a booster that reduces the ammonia.

    There are several reasons that a fishless cycle may fail.
    1/ Not using a de-chlorinator
    2/ Not reducing the amount of ammonia during the nitrite stage.
    3/ Changing your filter media or cleaning the gravel or adding chemicals that you don’t need to add.
    4/ Not having the patience to wait for the nitrite levels to drop.
    5/ Over-dosing ammonia by starting with too much or adding more than once a day.

    You should be able to achieve a fishless cycle in 3 weeks or less. Not everyone has the same results in cycling. Water temperature, oxygen, hardness and softness of each persons water makes cycling all a bit different for each of us. Do not get frustrated or think you have done something wrong if your cycle does not go exactly as another persons cycle went for them.

    Cycling a tank is easy. People make it hard !!

    Your fish will thank you for not subjecting them to toxic water conditions and taking the time to cycle the tank before bringing them home.
    Last edited: Dec 3, 2012
  2. carolo43Valued MemberMember

    These are articles I wrote some years ago. If they help someone.....great. If Mike or the Mods would rather not have them here or wish to remove them, that's fine too. :eek:

  3. LyleBWell Known MemberMember

    Good information. Agree with virtually everything said.

    One caveat that I would add is that as you're waiting for the Nitrites to drop, occasionally (maybe once per week) test nitrates also. I had them get quite high and performed one partial water change to bring them down a bit. I'm not sure, but read several places that too high of Nitrate concentration can delay, if not stall the cycling process.

    I'll admit, that possibly the excessive Nitrates were caused because I continued to dose the ammonia back up to 3-4 ppm each day that it dropped to 0. I'll try your method of reducing the ammonia dosing after the initial start.

    Good post. Nice and succinct.

  4. JayseeFishlore LegendMember

    Nice write up.

    One thing that we see happen from time to time, is the cycle stalling out. Seems if the nitrites get to high, the cycle can get stuck, and doing a small water change can be the catalyst needed.
  5. carolo43Valued MemberMember

    Exactly Jaysee. And that happens because ammonia is not reduced. Or the filters are simply not sufficient to grow the amount of bacteria to warrant the amount of ammonia added. You can add 4-5 ppm of ammonia easily but if that tank has nothing to filter it but a penguin, eventually there is simply no more room to grow bacteria.

    Not reducing the ammonia also results in what Lyle was speaking of......nitrates way off the charts. Our tester only goes to 5 but in fact, nitrates could be up to 20 for all we'd know.
  6. jetajockeyFishlore VIPMember

    Good article. A few things I might add. Often these stalls are a result of a pH crash, this is often a direct result of the massive amount of nitrification going on. I know that the gold standard on most guides out there is 4-5ppm dosing, but I personally think its overkill in most cases, and the subsequent pH crashes in some systems helps support that notion. I have yet to have a system, even a heavily stocked one, that produces 4-5ppm daily. Not to say it’s impossible, of course, because a system with ammoniated tap water and/or heavy feeding could easily get up to that 4-5ppm range, but it’s not something I’ve experienced under normal circumstances.

    The subsequent pH crash results in slowed/stalled nitrification, since we know that nitrification slows greatly as the water goes from alkaline, to neutral, then to acidic. Once it gets down into the 6’s it slows greatly. The good news is that in a fish-in situation, the ammonia also becomes virtually harmless (nh+4).

    I digress, in most of the standard fishless cycling guides, there is a recommendation to add a buffer, like crushed coral and baking soda, to help counter this acidification problem. The only thing is, they say you can remove these buffers after the fishless cycle is complete. So if we have to add it to keep from crashing during the cycle, and can remove it after, doesn’t that mean our calculation on how much ammonia to be dosing is a bit…erm..steep?

    I guess my point is I think it would save a lot of fishless cyclers a headache if the ammonia dosing recommendations were reduced. Would it make the cycling process slower? I’d say it would be negligible, and that as long as there is ammonia present in the water, the colony is growing. The bacteria colony, being dynamic, grows and wanes depending on the factors it needs to survive and thrive. I think we tend to look at it as this static thing, build the bacteria colony (i.e. cycle the tank) and then it will be nice and strong for the fish. The truth is that it may be overkill initially, it will die off to match the output created by the bioload. The bioload is not going to be dumping 4ppm instantly, like an ammonia dose does, so there is bound to be dieoff. And likewise, a biofilter built with far less concentration of ammonia could possibly be too weak to support an introduction of a heavy fish load, but it will adapt, just like it does in our cycled tanks every
    Regarding nitrates, I don’t know how they’d stall the process, especially considering that some well seasoned tanks by those who don’t practice regular maintenance can often be off the 160ppm charts when we test them, but the tanks are still processing ammonia.

    I honestly think that many (not all, of course) of the cases of perceived nitrite/nitrate stalling the cycle are the result of a nutrient/buffer deficiency (back to the pH thing again), but since the direct course of action is a large water change or two, not only is the nitrogenous waste level lowered, but the micronutrient levels are restored via the introduction of fresh water.
    Regarding bacteria boosters and their use, I would say both yes and no. Not all bacteria boosters are equal, there are a few out there that utilize the same nitrifiers that we have in our systems, so they do work. (Dr Tims, TSS, Angelsplus sponge, etc). These are still hit and miss because they are alive, so it’s just like any other living thing that can die if not stored properly. The vast majority however utilize a different type of bacteria that does the job, albeit inefficiently. This can help in a cycling process in the respect that it does give a perception of nitrification, although it is unpredictable and some just plain don’t work so it’s not generally recommended.
    I don’t know how applicable any of this is in a guide, but just my thoughts on the matter.
  7. ryanrModeratorModerator Member

  8. GrdnDeliteNew MemberMember

    Thank you, carolo, Jaysee, & jetajockey, for the extremely useful (and, in my particular case, timely) information, observations, and musings.

    I've lost count of how many articles on tank cycling I've read now. Some of the information on this thread makes particular sense to me. Overwhelming the process with too much ammonia while waiting for nitrite to nitrate conversion to increase and stabilize seems especially counter-intuitive to me. I've been raising ammonia to 3 ppm each day. Once I see good nitrite conversion, I can increase the ammonia and wait again for the BB to catch up. I believe this will prevent a cycle stall. (I guess we'll see.)
  9. carolo43Valued MemberMember

    jetajockey......I have only heard of pH crashes maybe 5 times in several years of keeping fish. During a cycle, the pH is never stable anyway and can change a few points. I think if the tap water is a proper pH then we should use that as a base to go by. If my tap water was 7.5 and the pH in the tank should crash (for unknown reasons) I would do a water change rather than adding coral shells. Once the tank was cycled and again you were adding your tap water, you might then have to contend with a much higher pH than you wanted due to the addition of the coral. I definitely recommend crushed coral when the tap water has a low pH, however.

    What I see far more than crashed cycles are stalled cycles and it comes back "every time" to too much ammonia added for the tank size and the filter that's on that tank. Although there are many articles for fishless cycling, a starting dose of 4-5 is generally recommended but very few of them mention that dose is much too high for a small tank.

    I also agree that 4-5ppm's is far more than our fish produce in one day but it does allow us to stock heavily starting right out which is good for mbuna tanks that should be stocked all at once. But it is silly to grow a huge amount of bacteria and then stock slowly. Rather defeats the whole purpose of why we did the fishless cycle to start with.

    Jaysee mentioned stalled cycled due to nitrites too high. I have seen that one often and it all goes back to too much ammonia with a filter that simply can not handle anymore bacteria while more and more ammonia is being added. A big water change will get it back on track so the cycle can finish up in that case.
    Last edited: Dec 3, 2012
  10. carolo43Valued MemberMember

    Thank you Ryan. Sorry I plopped this in the wrong area.
  11. jetajockeyFishlore VIPMember

    I have seen them a lot probably because I've answered countless threads on the topic over the years. In many of them, the stalls come along with a rapidly dropping pH level, so that's why I make the connection.
    4-5ppm is a measure of concentration in the tank, so tank volume is irrelevant. 4ppm in a 10 gallon is the same as 4ppm in a 100 gallon.

    Aside from that, I do agree that 4ppm is too high of a dose in general, although you'll find that 95% of the fishless cycling guides out there recommend it. According to Hovanec concentrations above 5ppm are where the nitrifiers start to have issues, so in that regard it makes sense why most people recommend a 4-5ppm concentration. My argument is that most fully stocked tanks don't create 4-5ppm ammonia daily, I know this from testing dozens upon dozens of my own tanks as well as stores tanks that I've set up from scratch. Exception can be made to this, an overstocked african tank or goldfish tank would be fine examples.


    If a person has an inadequate biofilter media space then there is a bigger issue at hand as well, since an appropriately sized filter should have way more than enough biomedia to handle a full stock load in the tank it's rated for.

    I do agree there is some benefit in fishless cycling, like heavily stocking a tank all at once, or for cycling a SW tank obviously since it costs a lot to do water changes. I think at the end of the day we end up saying the same thing, if one has a serious pH issue (or stalling issue) and is dosing 4-5ppm then they should cut it back and see if it resolves it before having to add GH/KH buffers.
    My best regards.
  12. carolo43Valued MemberMember

    I agree. The problem with dosing a small tank with 4-5, is due to the filter. And since they won't be stocking a whale in the tank. :;hi1

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