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Discussion Starter · #1 ·
Hi guys,
I know there is millions of posts out there about cycleing but I'm stuck, I can't find the answer I need anywhere. So I started cycleing my 15 gallon the fishless way for the first time. It was a used tank with the odd used trinket includeing the gravel. I heavily rinsed all the gravel and the few rocks I re-used before placeing them in the tank. I rinsed the tank with hot water and a some paper towel.

After I was all set up I added the water and put in about half a capful of Prime to remove the chlorine and the other undesireables from my tap water. I left the water in the tank with the prime for an entire day. Today I bought a new aquaclear filter, heater and bubler pad and installed it all. Everything was working good so I decided to start my fishless cycle. I added just under a capful of Old Country Ammonia which I heard was great for cycleing, plus I gave it the old shake test to make sure it didn't foam indicateing additives.

I got the ammonia level up around 5 with that capful and left it with the filter running for an hour. After that hour I decided to do a water test just to see where I was.

What was concerning me is my ammonia was roughly the same but I already had dark purple for my nitrites indicateing my nitrites are already through the roof? Plus I had very lite purple for my nitrates which indicates they are already starting to form.

How can I already have such high nitrites with brande new water and brande new filter just an hour after adding ammonia? Unfortunately I didn't think to test nitrites before the ammonia addition. I tested the tap water and it shows 7-7.5 PH, 0 ammonia, 0 nitrites, and 0 nitrates. Any ideas whats going on here?

785 Posts
Be sure to check your tap water taken from the faucet, this will give you a base reading of what is already in your water. It could be that you have high base nitrites and low base nitrates. Just keep up with the cycle and things will even out.

Reference Team
7,702 Posts
Well, that IS unusual. You obviously know what you're doing because you're asking the right questions.

Just so we're on the same page, what test kit are you using?

My (API) nitrIte test reads pale blue through lavenders (light purples) to bright pink.

You say your nitrAte test reads purple (?). My API test kit reads nitrates in shades of yellow through orange to dark red.

A capful of Prime is really a lot. Not sure what it might do to your nitrite/nitrate test. Theoretically, it shouldn't effect you ammonia/ammonium reading.

You didn't add any bio-media, so the cycle shouldn't have started, yet.

Please run those tests again, carefully. I'm going to round up the cycling posse. I'm sure we can track this down.

A really interesting conundrum. Welcome to the forum.

1,290 Posts
I'm with Hal on everything. It's odd.

I don't think you can OD on Prime, but don't quote me on that. I know I use more than needed to help protect my shrimps.

Unless you really, really seeded a tank with cycled media I can't imagine you'd see anything other than the ammonia at this point. Speaking of which, that seems like a lot of ammonia? I really don't know because I've never used that method; hopefully a more experienced member can tell you more.

I'll follow along in case I can offer any actual help.
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4,896 Posts
My nitrite test will run dark purple at 3-5+ppm.
If your nitrate test is reading light purple, my first suspicion will be that you are doing the tests wrong. Try again, rinse the tubes really well, and follow the instructions exactly.

Are you sure you only boosted ammonia to 5, and not a higher number beforehand?

If this is not the case, could you please tell us if there are live plants/how many, and what sort of substrate is present.
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868 Posts
have been busy for a couple months. I was asked to add to this:

Okay, this is more an rambling essay than an answer.

The bacterial we use in the nitrogen cycle includes not only the bacteria(s) that consume ammonia and nitrite but also includes the bacteria that decay solid waste. The warmer the water is within the bacteria(s)'s tolerated range the more the bacteria(s) will generally consume. This is the issue that makes goldfish keeping a mild challenge. They're happy at lower temperatures where the bacteria are only about 1/7th as active as they would be in a tank for Neon Tetra and other tropical freshwater.

For starters Prime can easily be lethal to fish. It is an active chemical and can not only poison them it can strangle and asphyxiate fine gilled or air breathing fish. Never use more than the two drops per gallon listed on the bottle unless you know precisely what you're doing. One drop per gallon per 24 hours will make nitrite and nitrate safe.

So, back to the bacteria. Bacteria need not only the ammonia/nitrite to thrive and bloom, they also need calcium and other minerals for their body. Normally this is derived by adding in fresh rock or from using "dirty" water. If you were to use 2ppm ammonia and RO water in an aquarium then the time it took for the cycle to start to grow would be the time it took for household dust to fertilize the mixture with enough bacteria makings for them to grow.

Where is your best source for all these ingredients? Fish food. Not joking.

Honestly I always start a cycle with bacteria. Even when the bacteria doesn't work I still go get a different brand of bacteria. Sometimes I go and get several brands and dump em all in.
I dump em in with fish food either given to the fish or just tossed into the water. You have to nourish bacteria to get them to grow.

Ammonia and nitrite are chemically active. Never let your ammonia or nitrite go over 2ppm if you want to cycle your tank. If you do you're simply saturating the tank. Just like we can be burned by ammonia and nitrite, the fish AND the bacteria can be burned by it. When either of these chemicals rise too high, the bacteria will go dormant. The reason we can take existing filters and stick them into ppm of 4 and 5 and get a result is that the bacteria try to consume the chemicals and usually succeed before we kill them off.

Three years ago I did several tests using high nitrite, nitrate, ammonia and using different water temperatures with the standard API test kit.

At 78 degrees F I discovered that most tanks will stall at around 1.8ppm nitrite and 2.2ppm ammonia, existing tanks will stall around 3ppm ammonia and 5ppm nitrite. A betta-only tank can sustain 6ppm nitrite and 2ppm ammonia and the betta WILL survive it for a short time (days, not minutes like a tetra).

My "greatest" experiment came when fighting a gram negative airborne aquatic bacteria. It was killing JUST the female betta. I had to drive my hardness down to increase the safety and effectiveness of the Kanamycin (KanaPlex, Seachem) which has a high risk of kidney calcification. So my pH swung low, my hardness zeroed and I was obliterating basket after basket of biological media in my canister filter.
A combination of the antibiotics and the negation of available kH was wiping out a full C220's basket about every 8 hours. Some of it was going to sleep and most was dying or being etched off chemically.
The ammonia was spiking to 6ppm and I had sterilized the bio-wheels, seven pounds of media and had to start trimming it with Zeolite in a 250 magnum. (basket full per day). Where was all this ammonia coming from? Dead bacteria decaying in the water column.

I got in front of that bacteria and only lost 8 of my sixteen girls but I had sterilized everything I had on hand, both chemically and then with the oven. In order to keep my girls alive I had to set up and cycle a tank FAST to regenerate the media. All the other fish in the tank were unaffected and thanks to 1 drop per gallon per 24 hours of prime, even the chinese algae eater made it through 6ppm ammonia spikes.

This got me to wondering... what does it take to cycle a tank?

With my girls on the kind of life support that NASA used for Apollo I went looking into the internet.

What cycling takes:
A good home. When you cycle a tank you're making setting up an accident waiting to happen. Think Ford Pinto. Most people use too much or not enough bottom rock, or they use the wrong kinds or they use two inches of sand because two inches of rock is fine. "Two inches" if for under-gravel filtration.
If you're using a biological HOB or Canister or even sponges, you don't need more than 5/8ths an inch of rock in an un-planted tank. Deeper than that and you create stagnation zones underneath anything that blocks circulation. Ornaments, piles of rock, dead leaves, corners of the tank.
Bacteria will grow ANYWHERE in the tank all the time. You can't stop it. It'll grow on itself and kill its own previous generation. If you don't have enough biological surface in your filtration you WILL cycle the tank. The whole point of using biological fitration systems is to control where and how the bacteria grows. Fiber pads, bio-wheels, sponge filters, sand beds, natural planted bottoms, ceramic and fiberous media in canisters and surprisingly common, the return line from canisters to the tank. If you've ever gone to clean your filter and the intake is filled with slime, you don't have enough biological media.

Food and Shelter. The bacteria we want are ones that grow in the dark in brisk flow and eat oxygen. These need calcium and other trace minerals as well as your standard mix of biological ingredients. They eat fish waste OR fish food waste, it matters little to them. A bacteria that eats ammonia isn't necessarily a bacteria that eats nitrite - the reverse is true as well. I've seen tanks stall with 1.8ppm ammonia, 0 nitrite and 30ppm nitrate. I've also seen tanks stall with just under 1ppk nitrate.
At first your bacteria are gonna grow everywhere, on the plants, on the glass, on the rocks and in your filter. The trick here is that the filter is the best environment for the most aggressive forms of the bacteria. The bottom rock is the worst place to have it. In my story about the infection above it wasn't the antibiotics killing my biological media, it was the lack of all the stuff the bacteria needed to survive and grow. The Purigen and Hypersorb took everything BUT the nitrogen compounds out of the water. I had two pouches of each in a canister with 160 flow. The bacteria that form in your bottom rock will consume their stagnant environment then begin to die off naturally. This will always result in an increase in ammonia and nitrite in the tank.
This is why I advise people cycle the tank with fish food. It is literally the whole supply of nutrients and compounds needed for the bacteria, fish AND plants to survive... with the exception of the following item.

Trace minerals. This is crucially important. We call em "electrolytes" or "other" or "natural flavor" in our food supply. But honestly they're a mix of stuff that usually comes in your water. If you have well water you're good! 1/4 teaspoon of epsom salt per 20 gallons of water is what I'm talking about.
These elements and minerals are used as levers and clamps by the bacteria, without them the biology of the aquarium simply has to wait for them. Without them you have to wait for the world to blow dirt into your tank.

Oxygen. Duh. Right. But not right. You simply CANNOT over-aerate a tank that is cycling. You can suffocate it though. An air pump and some stones is a mandatory addition to the hobby. Never rely on agitation, one protein scum and agitation will fail. Aeration by airstone and pump's only real risk is direct injection of atmospheric chemicals into the aquarium. Easily solved by plopping the air pump into a box on a bag of activated carbon. Without the readily available oxygen the bacteria can't leverage the ammonia and nitrite to their needs. In my experience bacteria can get oxygen from two sources, O2 and H2O. Yes, they actually do eat water!

So with all the above in mind...

I set out one day to see just how fast I could cycle a filter. Screw the tank, I want my filters cycled.
I mixed up a couple flakes of epsom salts, some calcium shaving from a pill, some flake fish food (omega one fry flake, but any will work -any-), one grain of actual salt and some treated tap water. I made a slurry paste of this with the shaken up liquid of one bottle of TLC's bacteria culture and then rubber rollered it into the card of a new bio-wheel on a brand new filter. I let it dry out some and folded it back onto the plastic bits and stuck it in the filter on the tank. The tank already had 1.6ppm ammonia at 79 degrees and no nitrite or nitrate.

Won't even let you guess. Under four hours. In less than four hours I had cycled a filter and consumed 1.6ppm ammonia to nitrAte in a ten gallon tank. Using fish food, dirty water and a bacteria culture.

Clean empty tank.
"dirty" water.
Fish food to under 1.5ppm ammonia, sparingly, doesn't take much.
Bacterial culture and filter to taste.

The most important thing is to only cycle the media you want the bacteria to colonize. So literally an empty tank with a heater and only the biological media in the filter you will use. Bio-wheels are cool because they aerate. I've done this with sponge, sand, ceramics and even some plastic media. My two favorite media are bio-wheels and highly porous ceramics/fired clay. Never had a bio-wheel fail, even when I was burning out pound after pound of ceramic media, that Pro-60 return on the back of the tank was eating every molecule of nitrite. I was STILL getting nitrate from that tank.
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