How To Cycle A Fish Tank Fast Safely With No Casualties

How To Cycle A Fish Tank Fast

Most people think they know how to care for pet fish. Throw in a sprinkle of fish flakes, clean the tank every now and then, replace the filter if you remember, then call it a day.

Those people fail to understand how to cycle a fish tank fast. They are under the impression that a fish’s lifespan is measured in months.

In reality, with proper preparation and care, most fish will live from two to five years and a goldfish could even live to the ripe, old age of 20. One of the biggest mistakes that aquarium hobbyists make is not cycling your fish tank or cycling your fish tank incorrectly.

Image showing the results of cycling your fish tank, the water is crystal clear and safe for your fish

What Is Cycling a Fish Tank?

Cycling a fish tank refers to the nitrogen cycle. When fish create waste, or when leftover food decomposes, ammonia is created. Ammonia is deadly to fish, but, thankfully, naturally occurring bacteria (called Nitrosomonas) convert ammonia into the less dangerous nitrite and then to the even less dangerous nitrates. This is the nitrogen cycle, and it’s how fish survive in the wild.

But aquariums don’t come with the bacteria that keep your floating friends from succumbing to ammonia poisoning. By the time a decent bacteria population builds up, your fish could be belly up. That is why you need to step in and kickstart the nitrogen cycle when you set up your fish tank.

There are two main methods for cycling your fish tank and many methods for speeding up the process and creating a healthier tank.
Modestfish.com is a great resource for hobbyists and has a fantastic guide on the nitrogen cycle.

An image showing the stages of the nitrogen cycle, It is important you learn how to cycle a fish tank fast and safely to protect your fish.

How to Cycle a Freshwater Fish Tank with Fish

Cycling a fish tank with fish isn’t ideal. Your new fish have to be hardy in order to survive ammonia and nitrite spikes and it is not uncommon for fish to die during this process. Even if they survive, cycling your tank with fish could cause permanent gill damage.

Ratemyfishtank.com goes into more detail about the effects that cycling with fish has on your pets, but trust us when we say that it’s not the best method.

Setting Up Your Fish Tank

But if you bought fish and a tank on the same day, you might not have a choice. To start out, dechlorinate the water. Chlorine is put in tap water in order to protect us from bacteria and parasites, but this chlorine will kill any good bacteria before they can develop enough of a population to keep your fish healthy.

Next, make sure your filter is running. Filters not only remove waste from your fish tank; they also add oxygen to the water, which is vital for the survival of your fish and the bacteria that will keep them healthy.

Read More: Check Out The Best Canister Filters For Your Tank

If you’re new to owning fish, there are a variety of guides on the entire process of setting up a tank.

Now add your fish. More than 1 to 2 fish per ten gallons of water can lead to excess waste, which results in a spike of ammonia that will kill all your fish, so be careful not to crowd your tank. The safest route is to add fish a few at a time, waiting a week or two between fish so that bacteria can grow gradually to accommodate your fish.

Choosing your fish is important for this method.

You want a hardy fish that can survive drastic chemical changes. White Clouds and Zebra Danios come highly recommended. Other options are Cherry or Tiger Barbs, Banded Gouramis, and most Minnows and Guppies. Do not use any goldfish that you would like to keep alive to start off your tank, as they are more sensitive to chemical changes in the water.

Firsttankguide.net has a more detailed guide on the type of fish that can be used to start a tank. If you’re keeping tropical fish, you may want to check out tropical-fish-success.com

Start Making Ammonia

Research how much food to feed your specific species of fish. In general, fish only need a pinch of fish food every two days. If you notice leftover food, cut back on how much food you give them. More food causes your fish to produce more waste and leftover food produces more ammonia.

Changing the Water

While cycling, only change 10-25% of the water every 2-3 days, removing enough of the toxins to keep your pets healthy, while keeping enough ammonia and nitrite to let beneficial bacteria develop.

Remember to dechlorinate this water too!

Buy a testing kit so that you can test the ammonia and nitrite levels. It’s especially important to test the ammonia levels in the first few days, this is when they could spike out of control.

Your kit should have a chart with the safe range of ammonia. If your ammonia levels test at 3 ppm (parts per million) or higher, change 10-25% of the water. Do this every day to every 3 days. If you’re at a loss when it comes to test kits, you can consult fishlab.com

Finding Nitrite

After one to two weeks, you should start picking up on nitrite in your tank. This is a good sign. Bacteria is present and it is trying to make sure that your fish don’t die. At this point, you should stop changing the water.

The bacteria should take care of it from here, but this doesn’t mean you should stop testing and, if either the ammonia or nitrite levels reach the danger zone, you should change 50% of the water and keep a close eye on the ammonia levels.

Finding Nitrates

After one or two more weeks, the ammonia levels should drop to almost zero and you should start picking up on nitrates. Once ammonia levels are at zero or almost zero for two consecutive days, the nitrogen cycle is complete and a helpful colony of bacteria has been established in your tank.

This doesn’t mean that you should stop testing the level of the tank, but maybe only do it once a week.

Keep in mind that if you want to add more fish, you should only add one or two at a time, and then you will have to repeat the process again.

Fishless Tanks Cycling (The Easy Way)

Fishless tank cycling is the preferred method because your fish won’t even be around for the dangerous ammonia spikes that are necessary for a bacteria population to form.

The steps are basically the same, except instead of letting fish create their own ammonia sources, ammonia is added through other means, either by adding fish food or by adding raw ammonia to your tank.

Setting Up Your Fish Tank For A Fishless Cycle

Just because there are no fish in the tank, doesn’t mean you should set up your tank any differently. The filter is just as necessary for bacteria as it is for fish, so be sure that you don’t skip any steps.

First You Need To Add The Ammonia To Your Tank

First, you need the ammonia that good bacteria will feed on. The easiest way to add ammonia is to sprinkle a pinch of fish food into a fishless tank and let it sit. The fish food will decay as bacteria consume it and they will produce ammonia as a byproduct.

Keep adding fish food about every 12 hours until your testing kit reads 3ppm (parts per million) for ammonia. If your kit reads that there is less ammonia, keep adding food until it does. Do this for about a week.

Ammonia levels should start to rise within three days. If they haven’t risen by day five, your test kit might be defective or you might not be adding enough food.

Algone.com recommends using pure ammonia to cycle your fish tank. Make sure that you get ammonia without any additives, as they can start using five drops a day per ten gallons of water.

As soon as your test kit picks up nitrites, reduce the amount of pure ammonia you add to three drops per day. Do this until your tank completely cycles and the amount of ammonia and nitrites drop to zero.

Ammonia Added Now Let’s Look For Nitrites

After a week, the ammonia levels should start to fall and you should start finding nitrites in the water.

At this point, the process for fishless tank cycling and cycling your tank with fish is pretty much the same. If your test kit picks up on any nitrites, the nitrogen cycle has started.

Make sure that you keep the ammonia level around 3ppm.

Your Nearly There! Look Out For Nitrates

After a few more weeks, you’ll see the nitrite levels fall and you should start picking up on nitrate. Once you find nitrate, the ammonia and nitrite levels should drop to zero, indicating that the nitrogen cycle is complete.

If you find too much nitrate you can always do a partial water change of the water to get the levels back down.

Now It Is Time To Introduce Fish Into Your Aquarium

After the nitrite and ammonia levels are down to zero, you can start adding fish. Add one or two fish then wait a week or two, keeping a close eye on the ammonia and nitrite levels.

Once they’re down to a manageable level, you can introduce more.

If you’re introducing a variety of fish species, introduce fish of the same species at the same time.

Time-Saving Tricks: How To Cycle A Fish Tank Fast

There are a few ways to speed up the 6-8 week nitrogen cycle, mostly by getting your bacteria from other sources instead of breeding them yourself.

Seeding your tank this way only speeds up the nitrogen cycle. You should still go through the above steps. It could take as little as a week to go through the cycle.

Get Your Bacteria From A Friends Tank

One of the best ways to get bacteria into your tank is by stealing a used filter from a friend or a pet shop. These filter cartridges or media already have a family of good bacteria ready to fight the ammonia.

You can also ‘season’ your filter, by placing a new filter in an established tank for a week or two.

Just be sure to use a healthy tank, as parasites or disease can easily transfer from an infected tank.

Use Someone Else’s Gravel To Speed Up The Nitrogen Cycle

If an established tank has an under gravel filter, you can get about a cup of gravel from that tank and either suspend it in your filter with a mesh bag (clean pantyhose work just as well).

If you also have an under gravel filter, you can just spread it over your bacteria-free gravel and the bacteria will circulate throughout the tank.

Consider Adding Some Plants To Your Fish Tank

Live plants not only promote good bacteria growth but naturally moderate the level of ammonia.

You can get plants from an established tank to make sure it happens as quickly as possible. Recommended species include Vallisneria and Hygrophila.

In addition to this, plants will oxygenate your water and give your fish a more natural environment.

Read More: Learn How To Keep Live Plants Alive & Looking Their Best

Try A Bacteria Booster to Speed Up The Process

Using pet shop bacteria boosters is the quick and dirty way to populate your tank with ammonia-eating bacteria.

There are a variety of products that claim they can “cycle” your tank in just a day. I am a bit skeptical and in my experience, the result is often a less stable tank that is subject to spikes in ammonia levels.

SeaChem Stability is our go-to bacteria booster for a new tank.

Now You Know How To Cycle A Fish Tank Fast – It’s Over To You

Keeping a fish tank is a fun and fulfilling experience that requires a little extra care to ensure that your fish are healthy and happy. Learning how to cycle your fish tank fast and correctly is half the battle. Check out what you need to consider here.

Not only does proper cycling ensure that your fish lead long, happy lives, but it will also make your tank look better (clearer water) and prevent problems that make your fish tank hard to clean.

In the long run, all the problems that correctly cycling a fish tank prevent will save you money in potentially expensive solutions. So keep a close eye on the ammonia levels of your tank, change the water regularly, and, most importantly, enjoy yourself.

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