Need advice on recovering from cycle crash

Manhole17

Hi everyone, first post on here. I'm a long time fish dad but recently began caring for and maintaining my own tank. My experience up until now was strictly visual (we have a fish guy that maintains our tanks at work) so I've been trying to research things as best as I can before making decisions.

I have a 40 gallon breeder that I cycled using Seachem Stability with 2 goldfish and a minnow (I later discovered that this is not recommended). I followed the instructions on the bottle, but also bought a second, larger bottle that I continued using daily up until now as recommended by my fish guy. I'm using sand for substrate, Seiryu stones, a few fake plants, and a piece of Mopani wood. The filter I'm using is an Aqueon Quietflow 50. Started cycling in the beginning of September and the parameters were stable by 10/09. I continued checking the water every few days and decided to bring some fish home from the office on 10/16, so roughly 6 weeks of cycling. The fish I brought home are a single Red Tail Shark and 4 African Cichlids, all about 3.5"-3.75". I also picked up a Bristlenose pleco the following day.

When transferring the fish, I dumped some of the water from my office tank as well thinking it would benefit my tank. This water had poop and debris in it, but I didn't think much of it. The fish seemed to be fine, but the water hadn't cleared up much the next day, so I did a 10% water change and rinsed the filter media in the old tank water. At this time, I added a piece of Fluval Bio-foam behind the filter and a bag of Purigen in front of the filter to absorb the tannins from the wood. The tank still had not cleared up the following day, so I did another 10% change, vacuumed uneaten food, and looked at the filter again. Seemed the water was flowing over the filter so I tried to give it another rinse and instead ended up tearing part of the media, likely due to the Bio-foam catching onto fibers from the filter pad. Replaced the filter pad with the old media behind it in the hopes to avoid a crash. On Tuesday, there was much less debris floating around in the tank, but it was still a little foggy so I proceeded with another 10% change and vacuumed the uneaten food again.

Here's where the bad stuff starts.
Yesterday afternoon, I decided to test the water again because the water looked exactly like it did a month ago when I was in the middle of a bacterial bloom. I'm using the API freshwater kit. The below are my water parameters before the change.
PH : 8 - this has remained consistent.
Ammonia : .25 ppm -.50 ppm - couldn't tell for sure
Nitrite : 2 ppm
Nitrate : 40 ppm

I began freaking out and did another water change, this time at 50%. I also vacuumed all of the waste with the exception of the two back corners where I have rocks and plants surrounding air stones. I had about a quarter of a bottle left of Stability and dumped the whole thing in there as well as some Prime in the hopes that it would detox the nitrites/nitrates. Tested the water again 2 hours later and got the following.
PH : 8
Ammonia : .25 ppm
Nitrite : .50 ppm - 1 ppm
Nitrate : 20 ppm - 40 ppm

I'm assuming this means that I have over worked my biological filter and have stalled or restarted my cycle. I plan to buy another bottle of Stability and continue dosing the tank as if I were starting a fresh cycle, and I have reduced the amount of food as well. Is there anything else I can do besides large water changes? I've read mixed results on using chemicals as a long term solution, but I don't want my fish to suffer, especially due to my stupidity. I'm going to talk to my fish guy when he comes in later today, but I would appreciate any additional advice you guys might have for me.
 

Revan

Keep doing water changes to get down the ammonia and nitrite levels. I haven't used Stability and am not familiar with it, I don't really recommend the use of bottled bacteria due to how inconsistent they are. I have a few questions about your tank.

Do you still have the fish in there? If so, you're doing a fish-in cycle, and you can find some articles about doing those here on FishLore.

What filter are you using? (sponge filter, Hang on Back filter, canister filter, etc. )

Don't worry, you're not stupid, this is just unfortunately common with water parameters. Just do a few water changes, keep ammonia and nitrite levels low, and let your filter grow beneficial bacteria in order to help deal with the ammonia and nitrites. Don't worry about nitrates. Also, I'd recommend getting some live plants to help with ammonia levels. I'd recommend easy beginner plants like Anubias plants and Java Ferns.

I'm not sure why your water is still murky though, if anything, it should clear up with a water change. I don't think you need to use that much Stability, it probably just won't work at this point.

There is one important thing I'd ask your fish guy: Can he get you some filter media from the aquarium at work? It helps much more than bottled bacteria, and will cycle your aquarium much faster (at times reducing the process to only 4-5 days).
 

carsonsgjs

Sounds like you have overloaded your cycle by adding so many fish in at once. I’d keep up with daily large water changes using prime until you get through it.

10% weekly changes won’t make a dent long term either - I’d be doing 50% a week as a minimum. Watch the amount that you are feeding too - if you have to syphon out uneaten food then you are feeding too much.
 

kansas

Prime locks up the ammonia for a short time. You may want to dose with Prime until you filter catches up with the bioload.
 

mattgirl

Welcome to Fishlore :)

I agree with carsonsgjs You had grown enough bacteria to handle the bio-load of the original fish. By adding so many more all at the same time you overwhelmed the bacteria. Time and water changes should get the cycle back on track.

Since you added a pleco along with so many other fish I fear this tank is under filtered. I would be either adding another filter to run alongside of the one you have or get one rated for a much bigger tank. We can never have too much filtration. Too much water movement is possible if it affects the fishes ability to swim but never too much filtration.
 

Manhole17

Keep doing water changes to get down the ammonia and nitrite levels. I haven't used Stability and am not familiar with it, I don't really recommend the use of bottled bacteria due to how inconsistent they are. I have a few questions about your tank.

Do you still have the fish in there? If so, you're doing a fish-in cycle, and you can find some articles about doing those here on FishLore.

What filter are you using? (sponge filter, Hang on Back filter, canister filter, etc. )

Don't worry, you're not stupid, this is just unfortunately common with water parameters. Just do a few water changes, keep ammonia and nitrite levels low, and let your filter grow beneficial bacteria in order to help deal with the ammonia and nitrites. Don't worry about nitrates. Also, I'd recommend getting some live plants to help with ammonia levels. I'd recommend easy beginner plants like Anubias plants and Java Ferns.

I'm not sure why your water is still murky though, if anything, it should clear up with a water change. I don't think you need to use that much Stability, it probably just won't work at this point.

There is one important thing I'd ask your fish guy: Can he get you some filter media from the aquarium at work? It helps much more than bottled bacteria, and will cycle your aquarium much faster (at times reducing the process to only 4-5 days).
I do still have the fish in there. I didn't want to stress them out further by bagging them and bringing them back to the office. I have an HOB filter, rated at 250 gph. I did consider live plants, but was under the impression that cichlids will just make a mess of them. Are there any floating plants I can try?

I did go to grab a piece of media from my tank at work, and noticed that there was nothing there. Fish guy's new assistant dropped the ball. He's getting an earful from me today...
Sounds like you have overloaded your cycle by adding so many fish in at once. I’d keep up with daily large water changes using prime until you get through it.

10% weekly changes won’t make a dent long term either - I’d be doing 50% a week as a minimum. Watch the amount that you are feeding too - if you have to syphon out uneaten food then you are feeding too much.
Will do. Should I bother with a daily dose of the bacteria still?
Welcome to Fishlore :)

I agree with carsonsgjs You had grown enough bacteria to handle the bio-load of the original fish. By adding so many more all at the same time you overwhelmed the bacteria. Time and water changes should get the cycle back on track.

Since you added a pleco along with so many other fish I fear this tank is under filtered. I would be either adding another filter to run alongside of the one you have or get one rated for a much bigger tank. We can never have too much filtration. Too much water movement is possible if it affects the fishes ability to swim but never too much filtration.
This is exactly what I was worried about lol. My current filter flows at 250 gph. Can I get away with using a sponge filter, or would I be better off getting the next size filter? The larger one flows at 400 gph.
Thanks everyone for the input so far.
 

mattgirl

This is exactly what I was worried about lol. My current filter flows at 250 gph. Can I get away with using a sponge filter, or would I be better off getting the next size filter? The larger one flows at 400 gph.
Thanks everyone for the input so far.
Adding a sponge filter is never a bad idea. Sponge filters are a perfect place for growing and holding lots of bacteria. Getting a more powerful filter will pull more of the waste out of the tank though. The more the water is turned over the better it will be. We want the ammonia pulled through the filter as quickly as we can.
 

Revan

Will do. Should I bother with a daily dose of the bacteria still?
I wouldn't, it didn't look like it worked. I doubt it could hurt though, and unless you're looking to add another tank, you probably won't need what's left in the bottle.

This is exactly what I was worried about lol. My current filter flows at 250 gph. Can I get away with using a sponge filter, or would I be better off getting the next size filter? The larger one flows at 400 gph.
You can use a sponge filter, but they do have a few more parts. I'd just get a larger HOB filter and return your current filter. Although it doesn't really matter, you can just choose what you'd prefer doing.

I did go to grab a piece of media from my tank at work, and noticed that there was nothing there. Fish guy's new assistant dropped the ball. He's getting an earful from me today...
Oof. Well, I guess just try again tomorrow? A piece of media would be really helpful.
I did consider live plants, but was under the impression that cichlids will just make a mess of them. Are there any floating plants I can try?
I have no idea about floaters, but I do think Anubias plants can survive in cichlid tanks, since they're leaves are thicker and they have a better cuticle. I'd just plop a few in there.
 

Cherryshrimp420

You dont have to keep buying bottled bacteria. Just stop feeding and let the ammonia get processed.
 

mattgirl

You dont have to keep buying bottled bacteria. Just stop feeding and let the ammonia get processed.
Just stop feeding. Are you serious? I can never agree with just stop feeding a pet just because it is a water pet. Feed lightly, yes but not just stop feeding.
 

Cherryshrimp420

Just stop feeding. Are you serious? I can never agree with just stop feeding a pet just because it is a water pet. Feed lightly, yes but not just stop feeding.
Theyre cold blooded animals, they dont have the same energy requirements.

Its also wrong to assume that by not feeding they are not eating food.

Like I said, wait til the ammonia gets processed, that'll take a few days. The fish wont starve
 

mattgirl

Its also wrong to assume that by not feeding they are not eating food.
I do agree that there is food in an established tank that fish can survive on (notice i said survive, not thrive) for a while but not in a brand new tank. It hasn't had time to grow the microscopic food present in an established tank. I am open to differing points of view but can't agree with not feeding the fish while doing a fish in cycle. To grow stronger the bacteria actually needs the food feeding the fish provides.

For some tanks it takes weeks for the ammonia to drop to zero. Are you recommending withholding food that long?
 

Manhole17

Little update, here are the water parameters from yesterday afternoon.
PH : 7.8 - 8
Ammonia : .25 ppm
Nitrite : 2 ppm
Nitrate : 40 ppm

The water was a little more clear. All of the fish are acting normally, but my shark looks a little pale. I proceeded with another 50% water change and re-checked the water several hours later. I made sure to vacuum the two back corners that I previously mentioned I did not clear out. Forgot to record the numbers as this was late at night, but levels were roughly half of the above numbers with PH being a clear 7.8. The water was much more clear.

I am being more careful with food at this point. The cichlids are getting 12 floating pellets (Hikari Cichlid Excel) between the 4 of them twice a day. For my shark, I've been dropping 8-10 sinking pellets (New Life Spectrum). She's unfortunately been a picky eater since coming home and doesn't seem to care for them anymore. I do see her picking around in the substrate and on the rocks though so she's eating something at least. The cichlids are eating the sinking pellets too so there's no additional food waste. I'm feeding brine shrimp tonight and going to try some fresh vegetables tomorrow. The pleco is doing great, just hanging out in the corners cleaning off the rocks. I was worried that little guy would get eaten.

As for filtration, I decided on buying an additional filter of the same size rather than a larger one as I can no longer return the one I currently have. It'll provide me with 500 gph total and I believe that should be more than enough. I'm going to look around and see if I can find some of the mentioned plants as well. Thanks again everyone for your suggestions.
 

Cherryshrimp420

I do agree that there is food in an established tank that fish can survive on (notice i said survive, not thrive) for a while but not in a brand new tank. It hasn't had time to grow the microscopic food present in an established tank. I am open to differing points of view but can't agree with not feeding the fish while doing a fish in cycle. To grow stronger the bacteria actually needs the food feeding the fish provides.

For some tanks it takes weeks for the ammonia to drop to zero. Are you recommending withholding food that long?
Maybe we are talking about different threads cus im on mobile, but iirc op's tank was already cycled and he was seeing an ammonia spike. To me seemed like excess food/waste in the tank so all he needs to do is pause food input and let the bacteria catch up, which should not be long if the tank is cycled with lots of surface area.
 

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