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 sick...by 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
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
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
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
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.
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
Here is a link: http://groups.yahoo.com/group/a-s-k