Cycling reef tanks using store bought ammonia
Cycling reef tanks does not need to be a long, drawn out, boring time in the life of you tank. It also doesn’t need to include the use of live fish.
All successful tank setups begin with a proper and a complete nitrogen cycle before any livestock are added to the system. There are various methods, and many will debate their own preferred way, but this method is both quick and humane.
The details of the nitrogen cycle have been extensively covered by many others, so I will just say that if you are new to the hobby you should have a good understanding of the cycle basics, I.E. Ammonia, Nitrite, Nitrate, and the all-important water changes.
With a new tank, you have fresh clean water, maybe some rock and sand, and a shiny clean filter of some kind…but this is too clean, you are missing nitrifying bacteria essential for the survival of aquarium inhabitants. This is why you need to thoroughly cycle your tank.
How to get those beneficial nitrifying bacteria
1. About 20 years ago when I first started in this hobby, the common process was to get a damsel or some other cheap fish and put it in the tank…They are fairly hardy, and like all fish their waste is primarily Ammonia. While this method does work, it is a cruel way to treat a living creature, and very unnecessary.
2. Another method many used was to throw a raw dead shrimp from the grocery store into the tank. The shrimp would slowly begin to decay and produce the ammonia. This can be a VERY slow process and you still need to introduce the bacteria into your system somehow.
3. If you are lucky enough to have a friend with a mature, established tank, you could ask them for some of their ‘Seeded’ sand or filter material from their tank. Not everyone has a friend with those resources though and local fish stores can be a little stingy on giving that stuff away. In addition, you risk introducing undesirables into your tank, such as harmful bacteria, protozoans such as ICH, or various algae.
4. This last option and the one I am going to talk about, is probably the safest, most humane and efficient methods I have come across to cycle a reef tank, and is the method I used on my newest tank. The process still introduces ammonia to the tank to start the cycle, but that ammonia comes out of a jug, usually found in a grocery store, and the initial bacteria comes from over the counter products such as Brightwell MicroBacter
Cycling reef tanks – The humane process
1. Set up the aquarium; fill it, add sand and rock (preferably dry/dead rock), make sure the filter functions. You may want to keep the water a little low so you create more aeration in the system just do not run the pumps dry. If you cannot run the water level low to get additional aeration, then you may want to add an air stone for the cycle process (remove it when the cycle is complete).
2. Turn the temperature up to the low to mid 80’s, as this is the ideal temperature for nitrifying bacteria. You cannot have livestock in the tank at these temperatures, you will turn it back down to normal after the cycle is complete
3. Start the filter and keep it running, make sure nothing leaks
4. Add your bacteria source, either material from another established tank or an over the counter bottled option
5. Add 3-5 drops of ammonia in the tank, do not use ammonia sold for cleaning as this usually has chemical additives for that ‘fresh smell’. Use a reliable test kit to check the level, it should be detectable, but if not then add a little more
6. Wait a few days and test your ammonia level, when it reads ZERO add more ammonia and repeat the process
7. Repeat step 5 and 6 until the test kit reads ZERO within 8 hours of adding the ammonia to the system. This should take about two weeks, but sometimes a bit longer.
8.With the ammonia level safe, test for Nitrite. It most likely will be elevated at this time but in some cases it to will be at zero. If it is elevated, repeat steps 5 and 6 a few more times, as you need more nitrifying bacteria in your system to handle both the ammonia and nitrite
9. When both ammonia and nitrite levels are at ZERO you can adjust your heater and water level to normal operating settings, and remove the air stone if you used one.
10. Do a large water change! I did about 70% over the course of a week; some people recommend up to 90%. Personally, I would do that amount over a longer period as some of your beneficial bacteria are present in the water column.
11. When all this is done and you are positive your parameters are in an acceptable range (take a water sample to your LFS for testing to be sure), then you can start to slowly add livestock
You made it!!!!
While you enjoy this moment, prepare yourself for the changes your tank will experience over the first 6-12 months. Things like Cyanobacteria or red Slime, Hair algae outbreaks, Diatom blooms, maybe some bubble algae if you purchases live rock.
With some live rock, you will have to deal with pests such as Aiptasia, that will be covered in another blog. It is all part of the process, and it is why so many experienced hobbyists will tell you to take it slow and steady. It is also why those who jump into the hobby and expect immediate results often quit and sell all their equipment off in a few months.
Cycling a reef tank the correct way and seeing it through to completion is perhaps one of the most important steps in successful reef keeping. If you’ve made it through this part, you have provided yourself with a strong foundation to build upon.
A couple links for reference: