The New Tank Syndrome

Most of us start that way. One day you decide to get an aquarium, so you go to the nearest fish store, you buy a tank, some gravel, a filter and go home. You happily find a place for your first aquarium, add the gravel, water and set up the filter. The next day you happily go to the fish store to get some fish. The salesperson is happy to see the previous day’s customer again. You ask him/her what fish you can add in your tank and you go back home with a dozen of cute blue neon tetras or with some goldfish. You also buy the fish food together with the fish.
One week later, you notice some fish are getting sick and dying. After two weeks, all are dead, or worse, almost dead. You are disappointed and sad. You give up and then decide that fish-keeping is not for you. You think that it was all your fault and you are not worth keeping any fish. And you quit this wonderful hobby.

But what happened exactly?

You’ve just experienced the New Tank Syndrome. Generally, most beginners of the hobby get into that phase. It is the results of not respecting the natural cycle through which your aquarium goes through. The main cause of the New Tank Syndrome is the premature addition of fish to the new tank. A new tank is not cycled yet.

What is cycling?

Cycling is the process of setting up a colony of beneficial bacteria in your aquarium. You can add fish safely when you have these bacteria in your tank.

Ammonia, Nitrite, Nitrate and the Nitrogen cycle.

You should appreciate the difference between nitrite and nitrate. They are written in two different colours here to avoid confusion. During the cycling process, you’ll be allowing two types of bacteria to colonize your aquarium. The first one will convert harmful ammonia (from fish wastes) to another harmful substance called nitrite. The second batch of bacteria will convert this nitrite to a relatively less harmful substance called nitrate. The latter is only harmful when it is present in large quantities. Ammonia and nitrite are harmful even in low concentrations. No bacteria will further decompose the nitrate. Nitrates should be eliminated via regular water changes. Having plants in your tank will also remove some nitrate.

How to cycle your aquarium?

Although there are many methods for cycling an aquarium, this article will focus only on the traditional method – cycling with fish. Add some small hardy fish – like zebra danios, white clouds or guppies – to your tank. Feed your fish lightly so as not to pollute the water more since they are already in a hostile environment. The cycling process usually takes about six to eight weeks.

The Cycling process

Having water test kits handy will help you a lot in evaluating the cycling process. You’ll need three kits: Ammonia test kit, Nitrite test kit and nitrate test kit.
Phase 1: At first, you should get only a reading for ammonia. It is normal since not bacteria are present to break down the ammonia.
Phase 2: The level of ammonia decreases and there is a rise in the level of nitrite. This implies that the first batch of bacteria have started to convert ammonia to nitrite.
Phase 3: After some time, you’ll notice that the level of nitrite is decreasing. You’ll also note an increase in the presence of nitrate. At this point, the second batch of bacteria are converting nitrite to the relatively harmless nitrate.
Phase 4: You can consider the cycling process to be done when both ammonia and nitrite levels are zero and only nitrate is present. This means that both batches of bacteria are doing their job right.

Where are these bacteria found?

Most of these bacteria live in your aquarium gravel and your filter biological media (the filter’s sponge for example). By the way, always rinse your filter media with dechlorinated water so as not to kill the colony of bacteria.

Can your aquarium cycle faster?

Fortunately, there are some easy ways to speed up the cycling process.
1. Increase temperature. Increasing the temperature to about 26°C will accelerate the cycling process.
2. Seeding – Seeding refers to the addition of bacteria directly from a settled tank. You might add some gravel from a settled tank. Alternatively, if you have another tank running, you can add your filter to that cycled tank and transfer it to your new tank after some time. By that time, there will be some bacteria present in the filter media.
3. Add live plants. Although they wouldn’t make the process faster, the plants will consume a lot of those

Your aquarium can uncycle too!

Fish-keeping is about caring for your bacteria too. Killing them will make your tank get “uncycled”. It means that no more bacteria are present to perform the Nitrogen Cycle.
Cause 1: You forgot to dechlorinate the water. Chlorine killed the bacteria.
Cause 2: You rinsed your filter media with chlorinated water. Same problem as above. Use tank water from a water change to rinse the filter media effectively
Cause 3: Your tank suffered from a long power cut. During that period, bacteria present in the filter died due to lack of oxygen (from the continuous water flow). It also means that you should not switch off your filter at night!
Cause 4: You changed your filter media. You have to replace all the lost bacteria. The process will be quicker since you already have lots of bacteria in the aquarium.
Cause 5: You just added lots of fish to the tank. Although you didn’t kill bacteria from this process, there is now more waste to handle. Therefore, the population of bacteria should be bigger to handle that waste. Always add a small number of fish at a time.
Cause 6: Medications you add to your tank will also kill the helpful bacteria present.