How To Guide: Cycling Your First Fish Tank

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How To Guide: Cycling Your First Fish Tank

How To Cycle Your First Fish Tank


Many first-time fish keepers are unaware of the cycling process that goes on in every fish tank. This one crucial step is vital to maintaining a successful tank. Unfortunately, one of the key steps involved is patience. A properly cycled tank can take weeks to months to fully establish. The time frame is dependent on various factors. The good news is that much of the process is automatic and all you have to do is have a little patience and test your aquarium water from time to time. There are various freshwater testing kits to choose from. They range from test strips that you dip in your tank water to liquid test kits that require a little more attention to detail. Both testing kits have their Pros and Cons. Strip test are relatively cheap and take seconds to get a reading. However, they tend to be less accurate than the liquid test kits. Liquid-based testing kits are little more expensive and require some more work than the testing strips. However, they tend to be more accurate. So, which one should you choose? It’s personally down to the fish keeper. If you have the time and energy required for the liquid test kits, by all means, go for it. However, if you don’t have the time or have multiple tanks and want fast results the testing strips are the tests for you.

 What Do These Test Kits Test For & What Do They Have To Do With Cycling?

Testing kits are required to monitor the ammonia, nitrites and nitrates levels of your aquarium. These three compounds make up the cycle. Fish waste is the main culprit when it comes to ammonia. When the waste hits the water, it releases ammonia into the tank. Ammonia is very toxic to fish and even in low amounts will kill or severely damage any fish. So, how do fish live in the ocean and lakes if their waste is toxic to them? Bacteria! There are certain bacteria that eat up and use the ammonia as a food source. In turn, this bacteria releases nitrites as their waste. Nitrite is also very toxic to fish and will kill or severely damage your fish. Once again, a new type of bacteria comes into play and consumes nitrite and releases nitrate. Nitrate isn’t as toxic as ammonia and nitrite. Nitrate is safely removed from the tank when you follow along with your water changes. This cycle takes a while to form as it takes time for the bacteria to colonize your filter and tank itself. When it comes down to cycling there are two popular methods. The hardy fish cycling method vs the fishless cycle.


This method involves a small number of fish that are known to be hardy or beginner fish. Some examples include Guppies, Danios, Whiteclouds minnows. These fish will be the ammonia producers that the bacteria will feed to start the cycle. It’s very important not to overstock your aquarium and only add a fish or two to your tank. The fish added to this aquarium are likely going to be stressed due to the ammonia in the water. Don’t feed too much or often as this will only add more waste and let more ammonia build up. Remember that most fish stomachs are relatively small. In addition to this, fish can last a couple of days without food. Multiple water changes every couple of days are crucial here to help get rid of some of the ammonia in the tank. Adding a good de-chlorinator will help with this process. Prime, for example, will help detoxify some of the ammonia. Please be aware fish might get sick during this phase or possibly die during the beginning stages of the cycle.


The other method mentioned is the fishless cycle. This cycle doesn’t involve the use of fish and instead uses other methods for ammonia. Small amounts of ammonia can be placed in the aquarium with a small dose every day or so. If you don’t have ammonia on hand you could add some fish food daily to the empty running tanks. This might take a little longer but it will cycle given enough time.

How Do I Know When The Cycle Is Over?

The cycling process as discussed earlier can take a couple of weeks to months. It’s important not to stock heavily during this time. Aquarium water should be tested weekly or every couple of days if using the Hardy Fish Method as you want to make sure the ammonia levels don’t get too high. When both the ammonia and nitrite show up as 0ppm the cycling is complete. During the initial stages of the cycle, ammonia levels will be high. As time progresses ammonia will lower and nitrite will rise as the ammonia eating bacteria will arrive. Towards the end of the cycle, the nitrite eating bacteria will colonize the tank and lower the nitrite levels. After, nitrate will show up on the testing kits. This can be safely removed with a routine water change schedule.

Useful Tips

Live plants can help speed up the cycling process. Plants will help soak up these compounds. Try to find someone who has an established aquarium and ask for some filter media to help jumpstart your cycle. Some substrate from their tank also works wonders! A common misconception is that the aquarium water itself houses the bacteria. While some bacteria may be free floating in the water column. The vast majority of colonies are housed with the filter, substrate, decorations, and plants. Remember, this is a general guide for fish care. This isn’t an all-encompassing guide that everyone must adhere to. Do what you think is best for your fishy friends and do more research if necessary.

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