Main Index of Articles

Main Management Index


Please read the 'Agreement' section on the View Articles page before downloading this article.


Author: Rajendra Kumar G. G
Title: New Aquarium Blues: The Nitrogen Cycle.
Summary: Progression of the nitrogen cycle in new tanks, and how to speed up the process. How to take care of beneficial bacteria in existing tanks.
Contact for editing purposes:
Date first published: 2001
Publication: InfoAquaria, The Aquarist Society of Karnataka. Bangalore, India.

And Raj's egroup in India:
Reprinted from Aquarticles:
Aug. 2002: The Tropical News, Sacramento Aquarium Society
Dec. 2002: Fish Talk, Atlanta Aquarium Association
March 2005: Posted on (with author's permission)
Sept. 2005: Posted by Mike Talbot, of England, as part of the database of his msn group: africanriftlakecichlids.
Internet publication (club or non-profit web site):

1. Credit author, original publication, and Aquarticles.
2.  Link to  and original website if applicable.
3.  Advise Aquarticles
Printed publication:
Mail one  printed copy to each of:

Rajendra Kumar, G.G.
44/10 Race Course Road,
Fairfield Layout,
Bangalore. 560 001
#205 - 5525 West Boulevard
Vancouver, British Columbia
V6M 3W6

New Aquarium Blues: The Nitrogen Cycle

by Rajendra Kumar, G.G.
First published  in "Infoaquaria", newsletter of The Aquarist Society of Karnataka, India

You have bought yourself a new aquarium, filled it up with water then added a few fish and naturally you feed it. The fish digests the food and excretes waste into the water. In nature fishes live in vast water bodies or in flowing rivers that refreshes its water continuously removing its waste. But in the stagnant and limited quantity of water in your aquarium the nitrogenous waste products breaks down into ammonia. Within a day the ammonia reaches poisonous levels in the aquarium. Your see your fish scratching itself. Within a few days the fish look a week the fish are dying. You blame the local aquarium shop for the unhealthy fish and go buy some more. The local aquarium shop owner suggests you to clean the tank and try again - and the deathly cycle begins again.

You have to allow the nitrification or nitrogen cycle to establish itself in your aquarium. In this cycle of events the waste decaying matter is converted to less harmful chemicals which your fish can tolerate and plants can utilize.

The Nitrogen Cycle explained:

When the ammonia levels in your aquarium reach a suitable level (in a few days) nitrosomonas species of bacteria from the air settles in the water and starts to form colonies in your filter or sand, these bacteria convert the ammonia (NH3) to nitrite form (NO2-). At this time the ammonia levels drop to low levels and the nitrite levels starts to increase. The nitrites in the water is also toxic to fish, your aquarium is not ready as yet.. When the nitrite level in the water has reached suitable levels another bacteria of Nitrobacter species starts to establish colonies in your aquarium. These bacteria convert the nitrites to nitrates (NO3-), which are less harmful in small quantities and is absorbed by plants or algae. Now the aquarium is truly ready to host aquatic life. This process takes anywhere from 3 to 6 weeks depending on water temperature. One of the indications of an almost complete cycle is visible algae on the glass. The process looks like this:

Ammonia ->> Nitrite ->> Nitrate

How to speed up the nitrogen cycle:

The beneficial bacteria multiply slowly and to speed up the nitrogen cycle you have to introduce these bacteria into your aquarium in large quantities. The best way to do this is by borrowing some from an aquarium that is already established. An established tank would be one that is at least 3 months old after it has been setup or cleaned. You could

1. Take a cup of sand (with the muck) from an established aquarium and add it to yours. 2. Put a cup of sand from an established aquarium in your filter temporarily. 3. Borrow a filter from an established tank and run it in your tank for a few days. 4. Squeeze the water out of a filter media of an established aquarium. 5. Fill your aquarium with water taken from an established (larger) aquarium.

Taking care of the beneficial bacteria:

NEVER wash and clean an established aquarium. If you have to, try the following procedures. The following steps will save your colony of beneficial bacteria from destruction.

1. Siphon out all the water, filter the water and save for later. 2. Remove the filter and keep filter wet in this water. 3. Do not clean the filter. 4. Remove the sand, rinse, filter the water and save this water as in (1) 5. Now wash tank, substrate (sand), stones etc. 6. After you reset the tank, pour back the water saved in steps 1 & 4. 7. Put back the filter without cleaning. 8. Change water after a few weeks.

NEVER add medication directly to your aquarium unless it is from a reputed manufacturer and the package clearly states that the medication is harmless to filtration bacteria and plants.

NEVER add antibiotics like tetracycline to the aquarium. Treat the fish with antibiotics in a bucket of water. Antibiotic and other Microbicidal chemicals (Betadine) will kill all the beneficial bacteria along with whatever infection you are treating.

NEVER clean out a filter media (sponge) completely. Rinse the filter media gently in clean water to remove surface blockage and re-install. This will retain most of the beneficial bacteria.

NEVER add chlorinated water directly to your aquarium. Chlorine is added to water to kill harmful bacteria; chlorine kills ALL bacteria very effectively. Allow water to sit in bucket with an aerator for some time before adding to your aquarium. Water stored in a sump or overhead tank would have lost all chlorine over time.

And Note:

NEVER add a lot of new fish to your tank in one go. The bacteria colony will not be able to handle the sudden increase in load. Buy and add new fish one pair at a time. Now you know why fish suddenly start dying after you have added a new lot of new fish.

NEVER increase the feed amount to the fish suddenly, the bacteria might not be able to take the extra load of excrement. To prevent overfeeding, when you are leaving town for a few days, put the daily feed amount in small packets with instructions to the person who is looking after your fish.

My fish are already dying, what do I do?

Reduce the levels of these toxic chemicals by a DAILY partial water change. Alternatively you could remove the fish and put them into a large bucket of fresh water immediately. Replace the water in the bucket completely every day till the aquarium has completed the nitrogen cycle.

You can add anti Ammonia compounds like Ammolock, Amquel etc. These compounds lock up the Ammonia and provide complete relief to the fish within an hour.

The author Raj Kumar is a regular contributor to Aquarticles. His articles are:
New Aquarium Blues: The Nitrogen Cycle
So You Want to Grow Plants in Your Aquarium!
Substrates for the Home Aquarium
Imaginative ideas for Your Aquarium
Fishy Cartoons (by his daughter, Pia)
There is an article about Raj in the People Section: People/Raj Kumar

Raj runs a Yahoo Group for Indian aquarists, "Aquarists of India"
Here is a link: