Cycling a tank means to grow the beneficial bacteria that will help to decompose the fish waste (especially ammonia). These bacteria need ammonia to grow. There are 2 sources of ammonia that work to do this. One is fish. Unfortunately, the process exposes the fish to ammonia , which burns their gills, and nitrite, which makes their blood unable to carry oxygen. This often kills the fish.
The other source of ammonia is... Ammonia. In a bottle.
Using fish is a delicate balance of water changes to keep the toxins low (try not to hurt the fish) but keep feeding the bacteria. It can take 4 to 8 weeks to cycle a tank this way, and can cost the lives of several fish. When you are done you have grown a small bacteria population that still needs to be nurtured to increase its population. You cannot, at the end of a fish-in cycle, fully stock your tank.
The fishless/ammonia cycle takes as little as 3 weeks, and can be even faster, grows a BIG bacteria population, and does not harm fish in any way.
Both methods give you plenty of practice using your test kit.
How to cycle a tank the fishless way:
1) Make sure all equipment is working, fill with water that has all the stuff you will need for the fish you intend to keep. Dechlorinator, Peat or Coral sand if needed for pH, salt, if you are creating a brackish tank...
2) Add some source of the bacteria. Used filter media from a cycled tank is best, some decorations or a few plants... even some water, though this is the poorest source of the beneficial bacteria.
Bio Spira is a source of these bacteria, but if you add a full measure for your tank, you ought not to need to do the fishless/ammonia cycle. If you add a smaller-than-required amount of Bio Spira, this method will grow more bacteria for you.
3) Add ammonia until the test reads 5 ppm. This is the non-sudsing, no-fragrance-added ammonia that is often found in a hardware store, and sometimes in a grocery store. The concentration of ammonia may not be the same in all bottles. Try adding 5 drops per 10 gallons, then allowing the filter to circulate for about an hour, then test. If the reading isn't up to 5 ppm, add a few more drops and test again. (Example, if your test reads only 2 ppm, then add another 5 drops)
4) Test for ammonia daily, and add enough to keep the reading at 5 ppm.
5) Several days after you start, begin testing for nitrites. When the nitrites show up, reduce the amount of ammonia you add so the test shows 3ppm. (Add only half as much ammonia as you were adding in part 4) Add this reduced amount daily from now until the tank is cycled.
If the nitrites get too high, and seem to stay up for several days or a week, not coming down, reduce the amount of ammonia you are adding, or even skip a day. If this does not budge the nitrites, then a partial water change may help. It can happen that the bacteria growth is slowed because of the high nitrites.
6) Continue testing, and adding ammonia daily. The nitrates will likely show up about 2 weeks after you started. Keep monitoring, and watch for 0 ppm ammonia, 0 ppm nitrite and rising nitrates.
7) You can test the system by adding more than a regular dose of ammonia, and it should be able to handle it.
If you will not be adding fish right away continue to add the ammonia to keep the bacteria fed.
8 ) When you are ready to add the fish, do at least one water change, and it may take a couple of them, to reduce the nitrate to safe levels (as low as possible, certainly below 10 ppm)
9) You can plant a tank that is being cycled this way at any point during the process. If you plant early, the plants will be well rooted, and better able to handle the disruption of the water change.
Yes, the plants will use some of the ammonia and the nitrates. They are part of the nitrogen handling system, part of the biofilter, they are working for you.
Happy fish keeping!
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