|The Nitrogen Cycle||Ammonia Levels|
Setting up your first home or office aquarium should be easy, fun and exciting. By taking the first steps slowly and planning ahead, you should be able to make your first aquarium an enjoyable experience.
Below are what we would consider the basic step-by-step guide to getting
started in the fastest growing hobby in the world – Fish Keeping!
These steps will help you to avoid many of the most common mistakes and get you up and running with a fish tank that you can enjoy and be proud of.
- Decide what type of fish you you want to keep – this determines the type & size of tank, the equipment you will need and the care the system will need and the conditions that need to be setup to ensure that you keep the fish and the tank in the best condition possible without stressing you or the fish!
- Research the care and compatibility of the fish – as mentioned above, the type of fish will determine the type of care needed to maintain. It is critical that you understand
The Nitrogen Cycle
All living creatures, including fish give off waste (pee and poo). These nitrogenous waste products break down into ammonia (NH3), which is highly toxic to most fish. In nature, ponds, rivers and lakes (and the ocean) have a massive volume of water per fish and the waste products become diluted to low concentrations. In aquariums the water to fish ratio is much lower and it can take as little as a few hours for ammonia concentrations to reach toxic levels.
The quick answer is: if a test kit is able to measure it, you’ve got too much (i.e. high enough concentrations levels to stress fish). Consider some emergency activities (water changes and zeolite clay) to reduce the dangerous ammonia levels. (A more detailed discussion of ammonia toxicity can be found later in this section.)
In aquaria-speak, the nitrogen cycle” (more precisely, the nitrification cycle) is the biological process that converts ammonia into other, less harmless nitrogen compounds. Fortunately, several species of bacteria do this for us. Some species convert ammonia (NH3)to nitrite (N02-), while others convert nitrite to nitrate (NO3-). Therefore, cycling the tank refers to the process of establishing bacterial colonies in the filter bed that convert ammonia to nitrite to nitrate.
The desired species of nitrifying bacteria are present everywhere (e.g., in the air). Therefore, once you have an ammonia source in your tank, it’s only a matter of time before the desired bacteria establish a colony in your filter bed. The most common way to do this is to place one or two (emphasis on one or two) hardy and inexpensive fish in your aquarium. The fish waste contains the ammonia on which the bacteria live. Don’t overfeed them!
More food means more ammonia! Some suggested species include: common goldfish (for cold water tanks), zebra danios and barbs for warmer tanks, and damsel fishes in marine systems.
During the cycling process, ammonia levels will rise and then suddenly plummet as the nitrite-forming bacteria start to appear. Because nitrate-forming bacteria don’t even begin to appear until nitrite is present in significant quantities, nitrite levels will rise very high (as the built-up ammonia is converted), continuing to rise as the continually-produced ammonia is converted to nitrite. Once the nitrate-forming bacteria take hold, nitrite levels fall, nitrate levels rise, and the tank is fully cycled.
Your tank is fully cycled once nitrates are being produced (and ammonia and nitrite levels are zero). To determine when the cycle has completed, buy appropriate test kits (see the Test Kit section) and measure the levels yourself or take water samples to your local aquatics store and let them perform the test for you (they may charge a small fee). The cycling process normally takes anywhere from 2-6 weeks. At temperatures below 70F, it will take even longer to cycle a tank. In comparison to other types of bacteria, nitrifying bacteria grow slowly. Under optimal conditions,it takes fully 15 hours for a colony to double in size!
It is sometimes possible to speed up the cycling time. Some common procedures for this are detailed later in this section.
Warning: AVOID THE TEMPTATION TO ADD MORE FISH UNTIL AFTER YOUR TANK HAS FULLY CYCLED!
More fish means more ammonia production, increasing the stress on all fish and the likelihood of fish dying. Once ammonia levels reach highly stressful or toxic levels, your tank has succumbed to”New Tank Syndrome”; the tank has not yet fully cycled and the accumulating ammonia has concentrations lethal to your fish.
In an established tank, the level of ammonia should be undetectable using standard test kits. The presence of detectable levels indicates that your bio filter is not working properly, either because your tank has not yet cycled, or the filter is not functioning adequately (e.g., too small for number of fish, clogged, etc.) It is imperative that you address the problem (filter) in addition to the symptoms (high ammonia levels).
The exact concentration at which ammonia becomes toxic to fish varies among species; some are more tolerant than others. In addition, other factors like water temperature and chemistry play a significant role.
For example, ammonia (NH3) continually changes to ammonium (NH4+) and vice versa, with the relative concentrations of each depending on the water’s temperature and pH. Ammonia is extremely toxic; ammonium is relatively harmless. At higher temperatures and pH, more of the nitrogen is in the toxic ammonia form than at lower pH.
Standard test kits measure total ammonia (ammonia plus ammonium) without distinguishing between the two forms. The following chart gives the maximum long-term level of ammonia-N in mg/L (ppm) that can be considered safe at a given temperature and pH. Again, note that a tank with an established biological filter will have no detectable ammonia; this chart is provided only for emergency purposes. If your levels approach or exceed the levels shown, take emergency action IMMEDIATELY.
pH 20C (68F) 25C (77F)
6.5 15.4 11.1
7.0 5.0 3.6
7.5 1.6 1.2
8.0 0.5 0.4
8.5 0.2 0.1
A coldwater aquarium is a great choice for starting out as an aquarist. Because temperature control is not an issue cold water aquariums are easier to maintain than tropical aquariums. Cold water fish are also generally more hardy than tropical fish so they are easier to care for and come in a wide variety of fantastic shapes, sizes and colours!
Before Buying your aquarium you need to decide on exactly what you want from your new hobby.
- What kind of fish do you want to keep and how many? There are many species and varieties of fish that can be kept in a coldwater aquarium.
- Gold Fish. Gold fish come in many varieties of sizes and colors
- Bloodfin Tetras – recognized by their silver bodies & red fins
- White Cloud
- Black Molly
- Black Skirt Tetra
- Kuhli Loach
- Decide available space… now that you know a little more about the fish you want to keep, you can decide on the size of tank you will need. Look around your home and select a location for your new aquarium. How much space can you allocate to the tank and accessories? Remember to account for space between the tank and the wall for filters, tubing, and/or cords.
- Determine budget. How much can you afford to spend on your aquarium? If this is your first tank, how much can you afford to spend on a new hobby that you are not sure you will be pursuing long term? Remember to take into account the ongoing maintenance and feeding costs
STEP 1: Decide on the aquarium’s location
Place your aquarium in an area where the light and temperature of the tank won’t be affected by external sources such as windows and heater vents. Sunlight that enters the room through an unshaded window could affect the temperature of your tank. This could also lead to green algae problems for your tank down the road. You will want to place your aquarium on a stand that will be able to hold its total weight. You also want to be sure that the floor is able to support the total weight of the aquarium and stand. A good rule of thumb for determining the total weight of a full aquarium is 10lbs (4.5kg) per gallon of water or 1kg per 1 litre. For example, a 250 litre tank will weigh approximately 250 kilograms when filled with water!
STEP 2: Buy aquarium and equipment
Now is a good time to decide on the type of aquarium filter you will want to use. You can buy an aquarium light but remember that light and heat go together, you don’t want to buy a light that over heats your tank. Buy the gravel, plants, a power strip and other decorations. A good rule of thumb for the amount of gravel that you will need is 1 to 1.5lbs (0.5 to 0.7kg) of gravel per gallon of water. Make sure that you purchase an air pump with your aquarium as Goldfish and other freshwater fish need well oxygenated water.
STEP 3: Set up your aquarium and stand
Wash out your tank with water only! Do not use soap or detergents. Soap residue left behind will be harmful for your fish. If you are going to use an under gravel filter (not recommended) now would be the time to set it up as well.
STEP 4: Wash aquarium, Gravel and plants
Be sure to wash the gravel thoroughly before adding it to your tank. An easy way to do this is to put some of the rocks in a pasta strainer and wash them out in your bath tub. Then place the clean gravel in a clean 5-gallon (22 Litre) bucket for transport to the aquarium. After adding the gravel you can place your plants and decorations.
STEP 5: Add water and treatments
To avoid disturbing your gravel and plants, place a plate or saucer in the middle of your aquarium and direct the water flow onto the plate. Use room temperature water when filling. To remove chlorine from your aquarium and aid the biological process add stress-coat and stress-zyme on day 1, day 7, and day 14. On day 14 you are ready to add fish. Some hardier species of fish can be added to help aid the cycling process however time is the best solution. Please note that there are other products on the market from companies such as tetra that proclaim to complete the cycle process in as little as three days. You want to be sure that your tank is prepared to process natural waste before adding fish.
STEP 6: Set up equipment
Connect your filter and any other equipment you have, then top off the aquarium water to just under the hood lip. Place your hood and tank light on the aquarium and then check your power cords to be sure that they are free of water. Plug all of the equipment into a power strip and then “turn on” the aquarium.
STEP 7: Wait, wait, wait and then wait some more
I know, you want to add some fish. But, in order to do this right you
must wait until your aquarium has cycled before adding any fish. If you
have used stress coat and Stress zyme you will be ready to buy fish on
STEP 8: Add fish
Only add one or two fish at a time. Adding a couple fish at a time
gives your filtration system the time needed to take on the increased
biological load that the new fish introduce. When you bring the fish
home let the bag float in the tank for about 15 minutes so that the fish
can become acclimated to the temperature and pH of the aquarium water.
After 5 minutes of floating the bag you should add some of the aquarium
water to the bag so that the fish can become acclimated to the pH level
in the aquarium. This will help reduce the amount of stress imposed on
the fish. Stressed fish often leads to dead or diseased fish! Don’t feed
your fish on the first day. They probably wouldn’t eat any food on the
first day anyway. Let them get acquainted with their new home.
STEP 9: Get ready for regular maintenance
Be prepared to spend some time once every week or two to clean your tank. Performing regular water changes will reduce the nitrate levels and keep your fish happy and healthy.