eRodent > Tropical Aquarium > Maturing the Aquarium.

Maturing the Aquarium.

On this page I'm going to talk about the process of maturing the aquarium before adding fish. I've described setting it up on the Setting up a Planted Aquarium page and planting the plants on the Planting the Aquarium page. Come back over the next few weeks to see my progress.

Cycling is basically the process of building up the good bacteria in your filter to the point where they break down the waste products, such as ammonia, produced by the fish. I've no intention of using fish to cycle my filter as this will expose them to toxic levels of ammonia and nitrites whilst the bacteria build up, but neither do I want to turn the tank into a chemistry experiment lobbing in loads of Ammonia bought from a hardware store. So I'm going for a middle way. I'm planning to allow the plants to establish and then add smaller amounts of ammonia than with traditional fishless cycling and building it up slowly so that it doesn't poison all of the good bacteria in the tank allowing tough bacteria and algae to multiply out of control. I have some Waterlife Biomature which is ammonia and minerals designed for maturing a filter, yes I know it's a little more expensive but what's seven quid when you've already spend hundreds and I'm not risking hardware store ammonia being contaminated with other things.

There's been a bit of a delay with the cycling as I have had to change out most of the gravel as I was sold gravel with limestone in which was making the water in the tank harder. I'm also being a bit of a wuss about starting cycling as I'm not that keen on adding ammonia to the system. I have this vision of algae going rampant and the whole developing ecosystem getting out of balance and keep putting off starting.

I'm not going to discuss the theory behind fishless cycling because it's covered everywhere, so here are a couple of decent articles to read if you are not familiar with it:

This is a good article on Fishless Cycling and the different ways of doing it.

A very good thread from the Practical Fish Keeping Forums about the amount of ammonia to use.

After Gravel Change
The tank on January 1st after just under two weeks including a gravel change.

Finally got started - Tuesday 6th January 2008.

My nightmare Christmas is finally over so I can't put it off any longer. The plants have been in for 2 1/2 weeks with a gravel change in the middle and are beginning to have some problems with brown algae. Apparently this is pretty normal with a new tank and should clear up - I've cleaned as much as possible off the plants by hand and done a small (10-15%) water change today as I know it could get a good bit worse if the cycle takes a while. There's some green algae on the bog wood but it's not growing anywhere else and it looks quite nice there with little oxygen bubbles on it.

I have rescued as many as possible of the snails and put them in a small tank with some trimmed off bits of plants and some of the Amazon Frogbit which is growing like mad. I feel like I ought to try to find a home for the stuff but I think posting it out to someone will be a real faff. I don't know how the snails and frogbit will do in a small tank at room temperature but the snails would've been poisoned while I cycled and even if I could bear to kill things they would rot and cause water quality problems.

So i have 3 bottles of Biomature, all in date but each with completely different instructions on them. The first bottle said 5 drops per gallon which would have worked out about 250 drops (great measurement). I measured 10 drops in a small syringe and worked out it would be 17.5ml using up the bottle (60mls) in 3 days which didn't sound at all right. The two new 120ml bottles stated 10ml for 300l so about 7.5ml for 230l which sounds better. However each bottle has different advice - one says to add until you get 10ppm on the nitrite test (you'd need the Waterlife one as others don't go up that high), the other says use Ammonia and Nitrite tests and stop when a reading of 5-10ppm is reached on either test. I have decided to go for the advice on the newest bottle and the website and stop when either Ammonia or Nitrite reads 5-10ppm. Of course neither of them have any advice about when to do the test but having discussed this on a forum it seems that you test Ammonia and Nitrite each day before add ding more and Ammonia half an hour afterwards to check the new levels. I'm also concerned that my latest bottle of Biomature states it shouldn't be used with plants - well I have to take the risk I guess as they are quite tolerant to ammonia and nitrite apparently. It's possibly because fast growing plants can confuse the result by using these chemicals as nutrients. One additional note on the nitrite levels,I've had some good advice - don't bother with the rather inaccurate Waterlife test but simply dilute your tank water with tap water (e.g. 5ml tank water + 5ml tap water if the test needs 10ml) and then double the result.

I actually started a couple of days ago and put a half dose of Biomature in the first day as I wanted to see how much it raised the ammonia in the tank 0 answer not a lot. I'm certainly not initially going to get to the often quoted 4ppm in a hurry which I'm quite relieved about as it seems an excessive amount. The pH of the tank before I started was about 7.0-7.2 - which is lower than the tap water 7.6, probably due to the CO2 and bog wood. The CO2 drop checker is showing green for all of the day now but tends to get lighter during the lighted hours. I put some Bacterlife in before I started and then realised that I'm not supposed to before the nitrite peaks - this is Waterlife's bacteria in a bottle product - there is a lot of scepticism about these products around, mostly because nitrobacteria and nitrosomonas need oxygen and nutrients to survive which they wouldn't have for long in a bottle.

Day Ammonia Before Nitrite Before Biomature Added Ammonia After
1 0.1 0.1 3.5ml 0.4
2 0 <0.25 7.5ml 1.2
3 0.6 <0.25 7.5ml 1.2+ (but < 2.4)

I've been faffing about with a couple of different test types. I started off with the Easytest tablets which are not in the least bit easy - all crushing and dissolving. So I now have a couple of liquid tests which are quicker to use. It's worth noting that there was some ammonia and nitrite in the water before I started - presumably because the plants or snails were giving off a bit of ammonia. The 7.5ml a day isn't raising the level very fast but I'm going to give it a chance at the recommended levels. If the bacteria take about 15-20 hours to double then it probably isn't helpful to lob a lot of ammonia in at the beginning. Remember, what we're looking for is the ammonia to rise at first, followed by the Nitrite rising. In traditional fishless cycling you half the ammonia once the nitrite peaks but with Biomature you stop adding it and wait for the ammonia and nitrite to return to zero before it is safe to add fish.

OK so that's it for now - I will update with how things are going. It does seem that some people cycle quite quickly in about 10 days with Biomature, but others experience all sorts of problems. So we shall see.

During Cycling
The tank on January 9th during cycling - the brown algae is getting a bit of a problem.

It's all too much bloody trouble - Saturday 10th January 2008.

So the picture above is after another week's growth, the Hygrophilia has put on about 4 inches and the Allis and Echinodorus are growing well. The Hygrophilia you can almost see growing, when I got home from work yesterday it was about an inch from the surface of the water and it managed to reach it by lights off.

We are beginning to get a bit of a brown algae problem - particularly on the Cryptocoryne which are slow growing but also on the Echinodorus. Today I wiped it off as much as possible and did another 15% water change and changed the filter wool. I've been doing weekly feeds of Ferropol and daily Ferropol 24, possibly I should split the weekly feed into daily doses to reduce the amount of feed in the tank at any one time. Mostly I think it's just that you get brown algae in a new tank - particularly when cycling. What I really need is something to eat it, but cycling is still ongoing. I had to throw away a big handful of the amazon frogbit which kinda breaks my heart as it's beautiful, but I'm restricting it to a filter piping ring and I want it to keep growing. I've also turned up the CO2 a little which is supposed to help reduce algae. I changed the fluid in the drop checker today - it has been reading green all week, tends to be bluer green at the beginning of the day moving to yellow er green towards lights off as the CO2 builds up.

If I'm completely honest I'm utterly peed off with the whole thing at the moment, all I do is chuck chemicals into test tubes and lug buckets of water around, with no actual fish in sight. I had no idea how much work it was going to be and, more importantly, how easy it seems to be to kill your fish if you don't get it right. The cleanup and water change seems to chuck up a lot of dirt into the water. If I could go back I certainly wouldn't bother and still have spells of wondering how bad it would be to just flog the lot on eBay. I keep buying things that don't work that well and need replacing - think I'm likely to need a more powerful power head for the filter as it doesn't get up much of a flow. Ho Hum.

Anyhow back to the cycling. The ammonia has slowly been rising, until this morning when there was still 4.9mmol/l by my liquid test. My plan was to cycle at 2 mmol/l so I'm not going to put any more in for now. Tiny amounts of nitrite are still there but they haven't started to rise yet. I hear that this stage can sometimes take a couple of weeks but I really hope not. I put some more Bacterlife in today to see if that helps. I also measured some other parameters on day 4 - the pH is now 7.0 or even 6.8, presumably due to the CO2, the KH is 60mmol/l, slightly lower than the tap water - again this may be the CO2, and the GH is 180mmol/l which is marginally higher than the tap water, but when you are playing with drops of test solution one either way may not be significant. So I've got slightly hard, neutral to slightly acidic water rather than the hard alkaline stuff which was in there before. Better for tetras but I will need to do small water changes to avoid the pH changing too fast.

Day Ammonia Before Nitrite Before Biomature Added Ammonia After
4 1.2 0.25 7.5 1.2+
5 1.2-2,4 0.1 7.5ml 2.4
6 2.4+ <0.25 7.5ml 4.9
7 (in am) 4.9 0.25 None N/A

My tank is obviously determined to carry on despite the cycling level of ammonia in there. I rescued most of the tiny snails - as much because I hate killing things as through worry that if the ammonia killed them they would rot in the water. They are living in the ultimate low tech nano-tank in my bathroom - i.e. a spare gerbil carrier put in the warmest room in the house with some bits I trimmed from the plants and some frogbit. But there's still a few micro snails wandering around and eating tracks in the brown algae on the crypts. But more interestingly there is a rapidly increasing population of cyclops (litter invertebrates similar to daphnia). They are tiny but you can see them swimming around. You would have thought that the ammonia would have killed them off but there you go. Hopefully they're this resistant to nitrite - mind you I suspect even if they are they won't be resistant to fishes when the cycle is finished!! Also not 100% sure that they survived the latest water change.

Actually getting somewhere - Tuesday 13th January 2008.

Day Ammonia Before Nitrite Before Biomature Added Ammonia After
8 (am) 4.9 0.5 Nil N/A
9 2.4 2.0 7.5ml Not Done
10 1.2 2+ 7.5ml 4.9

Well as you can see, on day 9 I actually started to get some increased Nitrite readings. On day 8 the ammonia was still quite high so I didn't add any more, but this is the only day I have missed. It's now day 10 and the ammonia levels have dropped quite a bit overnight to 1.2mmol/l (unfortunately I forgot to test after adding the ammonia the night before, but it was likely to have been around 4mmol/l) and I think the Nitrite has gone up again. It's actually quite difficult to tell with the tests.

More exciting news is that I think that the brown algae is actually dying away and flaking off the plants. I was told that as the tank stabilised it would disappear but didn't really believe it. It's making a little bit of a mess with brown deposits on the leaves - I was hoping to suck it away with the battery powered tank cleaner but it's not really strong enough - I need to use the proper siphon on it. I note it's also a week since I last added the weekly fertiliser so it's possible the plants have used up all the nutrients in the water out competing the algae. I'm going to divide the weekly dose into daily doses and add it with the daily fertiliser. If this doesn't make sense, basically Ferropol has a plant fertiliser that you add can weekly to the water (30ml in my case) - but some of the nutrients aren't stable enough to last a week so there's also Ferropol 24 which I add 4 drops of daily.

There are little snails everywhere now - there must have been eggs in the plants. I actually quite like them and they are happily munching away at algae and hopefully any dead bits of plants. In theory they shouldn't become too much of a problem unless I overfeed but we shall have to see.

Final news is that my copy of "Ecology of the planted aquarium" by Diana Walstead has turned up which I'm very much looking forwards to reading. It talks about the ecosystem in a planted tank and how to create a natural 'low tech' aquarium.

Nitrite Spike it Is - Friday 16th January 2008.

Day Ammonia Before Nitrite Before Biomature Added Ammonia After
11 1.2 4 7.5 Not done
12 1.2 4 7.5ml Not done
Nitrates 50, pH 7.0, Phosphates 0.5
13 2.4 5 Nil N/A

So on day 13 my Nitrates finally got to 5. The Waterlife Nitrite test has nothing between 1 and 5 and they have been determinedly staying on 1 on day 11 and 12, but my tablet test has been giving me a reading of 4. On day 13 the Waterlife test was saying 5.The instructions say to stop adding Biomature at this point.

Another interesting thing is the phosphate level. It's 5.0 in the tap water but the tank currently has 0.5 - I suspect that the plants have been using it, maybe this phosphate drop is the reason for the algae stopping growing. You'll notice that the nitrates have been going up as well, presumably as Nitrite is turned into Nitrate too fast for the plants to use it.

Another big, expensive delivery has turned up today. I have a spare CO2 canister, some reflectors for the lights, a more powerful power head (the Juwel 1500) and a Rena Smart Heater to heat my water change water.I've also got a couple of little airline suckers so that I can clip the frogbit restraint to different parts of the tank so that one set of plants aren't shaded all of the time.

It's all looking a little bit grubby in there - I will do a bit of a clean up tomorrow. The water is a little yellow - I wonder if the carbon filter is at the end of its life and isn't pulling the tannins from the bog wood out so well.The plants have been in for 4 weeks and done very well indeed - I'll try to get another photo tomorrow.

It's all gone completely pear shaped (again)- Saturday 17th January 2008.

Four Weeks
Four weeks of plant growth and the algae is clearing.

Well I did a small water change and cleaned everything up today - taking out loads of frogbit which kinda breaks my heart but there's a limit to how much I can have. We also studiously removed as much of the duckweed, which has suddenly appeared, as possible because that could be a real nuisance. But, as ever, I've discovered a stonking great problem again.The tank has the wrong filter.

I think I must have some of the worst luck in fish keeping history. I've noticed all along that the flow isn't very good from the filter and it tends to block a bit but hadn't really got anything to compare it with. Anyhow I decided that I'd upgrade the power head - so I got on the Juwel website, worked out it would have a Standard Filter and 1000l/h pump and ordered a 1500 power head to upgrade it. I had also bought some standard replacement carbon sponges and floss. The first sign of problems was when I tried to replace the carbon sponge and the standard ones were too big - thought I'd picked up the wrong ones and cut one down.Then I tried to replace the power head and it was too big. I thought I must have read the compatibility wrong but when I got the existing power head apart to clean it, it was rated a 600 rather than 1000. I phoned up the place where I bought the power head from and the guy was really helpful and told me that I should have the standard sized Juwel filter in my tank and explained that a a 600 power head was not going to cut it for the tank.

So I popped over (by popped over I mean drove half an hour) to the shop I bought the tank from form and lo and behold the filter in the Rio 240 there was much bigger than mine. I definitely have the compact rather than standard filter in my tank. However, to cut a long story short after speaking to Juwel it seems that they have changed the filters in their tanks and I do have the right filter, but the wrong power head - they are sending me a 1000. It looked at one point like I was going to have to swap to an external filter so it is a bit of a relief.

There must be some sort of moral here - probably to make sure you know exactly what you should be getting when you buy something and check every part. But when it all comes sealed in a box, with the filter attached with sealant you don't really think that this could be wrong.

Pretty much cycled - Monday 19th January 2008.

Day Ammonia Before Nitrite Before Biomature Added Ammonia After
14 1.2 5 Nil N/A
15 am 0 > 1 7.5ml 1.2
15 evening 0 Not Done Nil N/A
16 0 0.25 7.5 over evening and in morning Not done

So yesterday there was no ammonia in the morning, so I added more Biomature and the ammonia was gone by evening and the nitrite had started to fall. This evening there was no ammonia and the nitrite was down to 0.25 - I reckon it would have been 0 tomorrow and I could have done a big water change and added fish the following day. As it is I am still waiting to find out about a new filter. I'm getting an external even if I have to pay for it myself - I chased the shop and apparently they had had a power cut and hadn't managed to do anything. I was promised they would get back to me tomorrow. So to keep the filter alive I have added some more Biomature, but not all at once - I will be putting it in a bit at time. I don't really trust the instructions to add it once a week to keep the filter cycled so I think I will add some when the ammonia and nitrite read zero.

Something strange is up with the plants - there is quite a bit of pearling and they had used a lot of the CO2 and the drop checker was indicating it was low - now I think about it, it is possibly the increased lights from the reflectors. I bought a couple of new plants from a fairly local shop that I have found that actually does nice Tropica plants (and wonderful, well looked after fish). I got a couple of Hemianthus callitrichoides "Cuba" which is a tiny leaved foreground plant that may form a mat and doesn't need an awful lot of light to plant around my Echinodorus and Anubia. I also could not resist a beautiful Cryptocoryne becketti "petchii" which has lovely red steps - I haven't had a lot of luck with my other Cryptocornye - they got a bad case of brown algae and are now quite flat although putting on new leaves.You never know the new one might do better. I suspect that they tend to change the crypts quite regularly in those beautiful planted tanks you see. I think that many aquatic plants are actually grown by suppliers with their leaves above water which is why they can get them to look perfect and then they get algae when we put them in our tanks. Hey ho.

That's About It - Tuesday 20th January 2008.

Day Ammonia Before Nitrite Before Biomature Added Ammonia After
17 0 Trace 7.5 Not Done

Well on day 15 we've pretty much got no nitrate (it turned a little pink after 15 minutes, but you are supposed to read it at 5) and no ammonia. So the filter seems to be managing the 7.5ml of Biomature in a day. If I was in the position to stock I would be doing it in a couple of days - I need to keep things going for another week unfortunately, but there will be fish one day.

Cycled but no fish - Wednesday 21st January 2008.

Day Ammonia Before Nitrite Before Biomature Added Ammonia After
18 0 0 7.5 Not Done
Nitrates 50 after 25% water change

Well that would have been it had I been in a position to put fish in this week. Nitrite and Ammonia both at 0 - the Nitrates are of course high as the nitrogen cycle converts Ammonia -> Nitrite - > Nitrates. It's usually to do a large water change to get rid of the Nitrates but I only did 25% today - mostly to suck up all that unsightly dead algae. I will do the big change just before adding the fish as I'm going to be continuing to add ammonia to keep the filter cycled. My new 1000 l/h pump turned up today and there is certainly more movement in the tank now.

The big water change - Monday 26th January 2008.

So we've continued to put 7.5ml of Biomature a day in and it's been cleaning it in 24 hours. Today is the day of the big water change. When you cycle in this way the nitrates build up and before fish are added you need a big change. My nitrates had hit about 50, which isn't too bad and I wasn't keen to do an enormous water change as it's difficult for me to heat the water and I was concerned about shocking the filter if it was too close. So I did a 60% change and happily the nitrates went down to 10 which is pretty much the same as the tap water. I added one last lot of Biomature the plan being to stock some fish on Wednesday, when I can get off work early, if the filter manages it ok.

Cycling Finished
It's all gone a bit jungle.

It's all a bit beyond a joke - Wednesday 28th January 2008.

So I did one last check last night - no ammonia and nitrite so I was planning to stock today. But I did one last check of pH and it was 6.4 which is a lot lower than the tap water at 7.6. When I checked the carbonate hardness of the water (KH) I found that it had dropped to 30ppm - so I've gone from a problem where the gravel was raising the KH to one where the biological processes in the tank have dropped the KH to the point where it is likely to make the pH unstable. I've discussed this at length and apparently I need to add some sodium bicarbonate to get the KH up to the level where it will buffer the pH correctly (about 70-80ppm). Honestly this is completely beyond a joke - no fishies today and an ongoing additional chemistry experiment.I found a calculator which tells me I need to add 3 teaspoons of sodium bicarbonate to raise the KH by the required amount - I'm going to do one and see how it goes.

The plants have continued to go bonkers in there, as have the pest snails. I'm very fond of the little fellas - at least I have some life. I suspect they may become more of an issue later on but we will see.

Update: the three teaspoons of bicarbonate have gone in and raised the KH to 70ppm and the pH to 7.2 so the water is now properly buffered - we shall see about fish now. I've kinda lost my confidence a bit though.

Two months exactly since I bought the tank and we're there - Thursday 29th January 2008.

This morning everything was still stable and after consulting some of the guys on Practical Fish Keeping forums we decided that it was safe to introduce fish. So I've been to the not so local good fish shop and got myself 6 pristella tetras and 2 zebra nerite snails. The are in their last couple of minutes of acclimatisation and then I will be introducing them to the tank.

Fish in the tank - a bit of a shock after all this time!

Doing Well - Saturday 30th January 2008.

Well the tetras seem to have settled in very well. They've stopped dong a slightly stressed tight shoal and now they are all over the tank in and out of the plants. I think we even had some spawning behaviour before lights on this morning. Am having a little bit of trouble feeding them as in such a big tank they are gone before they realise the food is there but I'm going to feed them at the same time and place every day and see if they get it. I'm measuring the ammonia and nitrite daily to check all is well.

Anyhow now cycling diary would be complete without the obligatory graph - bit of poetic licence here as I've smoothed out the lines. I've used the level of the ammonia before adding more every day rather than after as I didn't always measure that, but it shows the typical ammonia spike, followed by nitrate spike, followed by both dropping.

Cycling Graph

I've now set up an Aquarium Residents. and a Maintaining the Aquarium. pages.

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