View Full Version : fishless cycling and cloudy water

12-21-2002, 3:00 PM
I am hoping for some advice on how to proceed with my problematic fresh water tank that just can't seem to get going.

I have been in the aquarium hobby since 2000, and had a successful little 5 gal tank for two years.

In Sept I decided to finally set up the new 33 gal tank my other half bought the year before (we thought we were moving and we wanted to wait to set it up).

This time I wanted to do a planted tank, and after some research decided on a vermiculite and laterite kitty litter substrate.

I dumped a bag of vermiculite into the empty tank and mixed it with water until mud consistency. Then I put in the kitty litter (pure laterite, no additives) and mixed it up a bit before topping it off with pea sized gravel (probably should have gone for smaller though).

I then planted java fern, two Amazon swords and a crypt before gently filling the tank with water. Everything looked great that first night- hadn't kicked up any substrate and the water was nice and clear. No sediment.

However, the very next morning to our horror, the tank had turned to milk! I thought a bacterial bloom was suppose to take three days or so to show up in a new tank? I didn't treat the water so the chlorine should have kept the bacteria level down for a couple days, right?

I was planning to do fishless cycling this time anyways, but it is now three months later and we still don't have fish because there is still cloudy water and the tank must still be cycling.

The cloudiness of the water has improved 300% at the end of the first month/month and 1/2, however it is still cloudy and I have to do water changes every 4 days to keep it on the level/slightly improve.

I have been putting a little food in the tank on a regular basis, seeded the tank with Cycle bacteria, have used BClear enzyme and Bright n Clear and tried a Green-X pouch, plus have a snail family that hatched after a month (came along with the plants obviously).

I know cycling can take quite a few weeks, but 3 months? Did I do something wrong with the substrate (I washed the gravel as usual, but didn't wash/squeeze the vermiculite as some articles have suggested....

The problem had to be nutrient based originally, but to still not have completed the cycle did I not supply enough fuel to kick start the system? The pinches of food and the snails poop is not enough I guess?

Should I try adding ammonia directly? If so, how do I do this? I am fresh water, so when people say clear liquid ammonia- do they mean the ammonia you buy in jugs to clean with? And how much do you put in the tank each time and how often+ for how long?

The plants have grown wonderfully and the snails are amusing to watch, but I am getting a bit impatient. I want fish in there!

Could someone please tell me how to proceed so I can get this tank up and running!

Thanks very much for any help!

Wishing for fishies,


12-22-2002, 3:20 AM
ok first off here's a good site http://www.tomgriffin.com/aquamag/cycle2.html and also http://www.skepticalaquarist.com/fcycling.html that talk about fishless cycling.

i think that the problem you're having is that you haven't had enough ammonia to cycle the tank, while at the same time you are adding other nutrients (in the form of the food) that are feeding other bacterial growth.

in fishless cycling you basically add "pure" (not 100% ammonia but free of additives) ammonia until the ammonia levels reach 5ppm and continue adding enough ammonia daily to keep it about at that level. once you get nitrites in the tank, drop the amount down to 3ppm and continue. when the nitrites finally get down to 0 that means the tank is cycled.

now where you are in that process is hard to tell. because its been running for a while i'd say you would need to do at least initial testing before knowing how to proceed with a fishless cycle.

to me it almost seems like it would be worth it to cycle it with fish because it is already planted. the plants will help buffer the high spikes in ammonia and nitrites, as well as help get rid of nitrates (frequent water changes will help if you are really worried about the fish by also helping to buffer the spikes, but i would still get "expendable" fish). so i think you could add a few hardy fish and let it run the course and monitor it until the ammonia/nitrite levels reach 0.

however, like i said i would make sure to do some testing first and see what state it is in. it may already be cycled (3 months is a long time) and having other problems that you are not seeing. like people here usually say, knowing what is going on with the water chemistry is essential to figuring out what the problem is so that it can be solved.

12-22-2002, 3:31 AM
I do not suggest doing a fishless cycle on an already planted tank. You are only asking for algae bloom if you do so. If your plants cannot take in the added ammonia fast enough, algae will take advantage of the extra ammonia floating around and will go insane. The standard procedure if you want to have a planted tank right off the back is to stuff the tank with as many fast growing/cheap plants that you can. Give it a day or two to settle, then add a few herbivores (algae eaters). Let that settle in for a month, then start to slowly add the fish you want. After a few weeks of doing that, you can being removing plants here and there and start your aquascape (slowly of course).

Without the proper readings from your tank (ie. ammonia, nitrite, nitrate) it is difficult to tell if your tank is cycling. However, since you have no fish in there, and you never mentioned anything about rotting plants, I highly doubt your tank is cycling. Did you do anything with the vermiculite before adding it to your tank? As of now, by best guess would be somehow the vermiculite is getting through your gravel and clouding up the water column.


12-22-2002, 1:20 PM
Thank you both, quick061 and Richer for your input! :)
And thank you for reading such a looong post! :p

I will go out and get ammonia, nitrite and nitrate tests today. I think you're both right that the first thing I should do is test the water to see if the tank has even started to cycle.

I'll start from there before deciding to add ammonia or fish. If the levels aren't too out, I think I will take both of your suggestions to put a few hardy fish in as the plants should help with buffering the spikes as pointed out.

As for the vermiculite getting through the gravel and clouding the water, I'm not 100% sure, but I am not convinced this has been the main culprit of cloudiness. If anything is in the water column it is the laterite (which is generally on top of the vermiculite and directly under the gravel) and is much finer than the vermiculite.

I think the cloudiness is all bacteria bloom though because after a water change/for 4-5 days after the cloudiness is white. If I don't do a water change, by the 6th/7th day the cloudiness has a progressively brownish tint to it. As well the water did continually get clearer after the first 6 weeks. If sediment was a real factor, shouldn't it have continually leaked into the water and continually clouded the water to the same extent?

I do have a feeling though that because I didn't do anything to the vermiculite (didn't rinse it/squeeze water through to wash) that the bacteria in it may have been responsible for severeness of the white bacterial bloom right off the bat.

Well I shall test the water and see what results I get. Thanks again for your help and the articles (very helpful)!

Tetra_girl :)

12-22-2002, 7:37 PM
I'm sure you'll find 0 ammonia, 0 nitrite and some nitrates when you test. I'm sure that your tank set up in September and planted from the start has cycled.

My feeling is that your "whitewater" biotope (!) is just colloidal silt. I'm pretty sure it's not bacterial.

This is what I'd recommend, but it's radical:

Get some more plants. You need some fast-growing stem plants and some more rooted plants.

Get coarse sand: flintshot poolfilter sand or plain construction sand, but not aquarium gravel. Wash about ten pounds of it very thoroughly. (You already have all the fine stuff you'll ever need). Keep stirring and rinsing it till the water stays clear.

Turn off the filters. Take out most of the water. Plant the additional plants, working in shallow water. Then add a light covering of super-washed sand, riffling it into the pea gravel with your fingers. Gently pull up the plants so their crowns aren't buried. Refill with dechlorinated water. Let the tank sit 48 hours or even more, lit but with no filtration, till the water clears. You can knock silt off the plant leaves, but don't disturb the settling. When the water is really clear again, gently vacuum all surfaces and refill. Float the stem plants. Then restart the filters.

Now, don't bury everything with the new sand, just work it into the uppermost part of the substrate. It's only there to keep the silty laterite in place, because your pea gravel is too coarse to do this. As your tank matures, humus floc will bind the silt in place and you won't have trouble with it in the future.

No replanting for the first six weeks, or you'll be sorry! Don't disturb the gravel when you siphon over it. In the long run you're going to have a very satisfactory planted tank.

12-24-2002, 1:30 AM
Well, wouldn't you know it. You were right!

Went out and got a new master test kit tonight and sure enough when I tested, 0 ammonia, 0 nitrite. The tank has cyled already!

So guess it is the laterite silting up everything. I'll follow your advice and get some sand and some more plants (been itching to anyways). :)

I'll wait for the silt to settle and monitor the water chemistry closely before putting any fish in.

Darn! Knew I shouldn't have gotten the pea sized gravel! (But my other half liked the look of it better). ;)

Thanks so much for your help and hopefully we'll have something that resembles nice clear water soon!


12-24-2002, 1:44 AM
Be careful when adding your fish... add them very slowly and only 1 or 2 at a time. Although it may seem your tank has cycled, it has cycled on a somehwat light bioload at best (since your tank only has plants in it). Unless a part of your plants are actively rotting all the time, the nitrfying bacteria that has been establish would be low in numbers at best. Cram your tank with a bunch of very fast growing/cheap plants, then slowly add your fish. The added plant matter should help take off the edge of any potential ammonia spikes. You can slowly remove the plants and add others at a later date.


12-24-2002, 11:55 AM
Taking it slow and easy is the plan. :)

I wanted quite a few more plants, and had planned to plant quite a bit more anyways. When I first set up the tank I was waiting to see if I had a green or black thumb (have always had plastic plants before) , but all the plants have done really well and I don't have any problems with rot or otherwise. I will stock up on some easy to care for plants.

I agree, the tank is used to a very light load with the small snails and bits of food and think I will have to gradually increase the bio-load to stay on track.

I will only add fish in pairs every few days or so, and will use the water chemistry as a gauge. I'm not stocking the tank too heavily anyways (want them to have as much room as possible). :)

I will pick up the sand and plants in the next couple days and hopefully will be able to start adding fish some time next week.

Thanks again,

01-04-2003, 11:32 PM
Yeah! I have clear water! :)

I did take your advice Wetman and got some sand and stem plants. Home Depot only gave me a choice of either an 80lb bag of construction sand, or a 50lb bag of play sand. Geesh! What every happened to 10lb bags? Oh well, the sand all looked the same, so I lugged home the play sand.

I actually decided to go all the way and tore down the whole tank and scooped out the gravel so I could make sure I had a proper layer of sand to seal in the vermiculite/laterite and not miss any spots.

Besides, I got a bit carried away when I originally set up the tank and needed to scoop out some of the 'mud'. Otherwise I would have ended up with a mile high substrate by the time I got the sand in there! ;)

Holly cow does it take forever to wash sand though! Ended up using a kitchen strainer/sifter to sift out the finer sand particles before washing and washing and washing the coarser stuff.

Anyways, I took the vermiculite/laterite down to 2.5 inches, capped it off with 1 inch of the sand and topped it off with about 1.5 inches of the gravel (washed again, took forever to get rid of all the mud!).

Planted some Hygrophila, Rotala, Wisteria and Cabomba before putting in all the sand and gravel. The tank has been sitting for 2 days with everything off like you said and the water was actually clear right off the bat, and has stayed that way.

Guess I'll have to cycle the tank all over again but that's fine. I don't mind after all this. :p

Well, just thought I'd tell how things turned out and thank you Wetman for the solution!

tetra_girl :)

01-05-2003, 12:41 AM
I always did like a tale with a happy ending.

Watch out the next six weeks or so not to replant plants that float to the surface. You can do that later, after some floc has developed in the substrate to glue everything together. My Botia modesta can still dig the underlayer cat litter up after a couple of years, when the devil gits in 'em.

01-05-2003, 4:43 AM
if you're using the same gravel and didn't rinse it in too hot of water it should still have the nitrifing bacteria. it should keep your tank from having to fully cycle like it would from scratch.

01-05-2003, 3:07 PM
I'm hoping the tank won't have to cycle fully. :)

I did wash the old gravel in cold to luke warm water, saved a few cups of established water + have the used sponge media in the filter still so you're right, the tank isn't totally starting over from scratch.


No way will I risk fiddling with the plants for the next month and a half! :D

That's funny though about your Loach. Guess when they want to have a good dig, they just go for it. I knew someone who had a Cichlid which insisted on excavating and burying certain tank decorations every water change. Who knows what goes through their little minds, lol.

I was actually trying to figure out what kind of bottom fish would cause the least amount of mess uprooting plants, mucking up the water with substrate and chewing up driftwood.

My other half really wants a pleco so he can watch it 'window clean'. I told him we can only handle a clown pleco size wise, but don't really want to deal with one if he will create too much of a mess and a metric ton of poop (I'm the one who takes care of the tank). ;)

Oh well, I'll put in all the other fish and let the substrate gel up first before deciding on what little sucker mouth if any to add. I'm just ecstatic we'll have some fishies soon!