Fishless Cycle Stuck - No Nitrites

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Andy90

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Oct 21, 2020
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Hi everyone. I'm probably going to provide way more information than is necessary but hopefully it'll be enough to start figuring out what I'm doing wrong.

I got my first aquarium (55 gallon) in May and set it up and added water on August 13th. After reading about how harmful it can be to add fish right away I opted to do the fishless cycle. I treated my water with conditioner (API Tap Water Conditioner: 1ml to every 5gallon bucket of water) to take all the chlorine/other bad stuff out, turned my heater up to about 81-84 degrees, let my air bubbler start powering my two little decorations that bubble and turned on my two tank filters (one MarineLand Penguin 350 Biowheel power filter and one aquatech power filter that came with the aquarium which is sized for 30-60 gallon aquariums). Next I added pure ammonia (Austin's Clear Ammonia which after researching it seems like it has an ammonia concentration of 2 percent). I dosed the water with ammonia to about 4-5 ppm and the pH has stayed at about 7.7 or 7.8 on the API master test kit (I'm not good at comparing the colors on the chart, it seems to be too light to be 7.4 but too dark to be 7.8). After about 3-4 weeks the ammonia level fell to about 2-3 with no nitrites/nitrates so I dosed the tank back up to about 4-5 ppm. I've done this process about two or three times as of a few weeks ago per the advice of a few fishless cycling guides I've seen but never saw any nitrites or nitrates at all, confirmed with two different test kits (API master and test strips of a different brand). After about 6 weeks I got frustrated and read about adding bacteria in a bottle (in my case I used API Quick Start using the usual 10ml for every 10 gallons of water) so I dosed that appropriately and waited. All that happened was my water went cloudy with only a small drop in ammonia (about 2-3) but again no change in nitrates or nitrites. I had my water go cloudy after about the first 2-3 weeks into the cycle which I read is/was a bacterial bloom and it cleared up on its own in less than a week. My water right after the quick start addition went cloudy for close to three weeks. After changing the carbon pads in both filters the water has gradually cleaned up. I added water probably every two-three weeks as needed due to evaporation. I had never vacuumed out/taken out water to do a proper water change, only added water. I was hesitant to replace the carbon filters as I was afraid of throwing out any beneficial bacteria that had grown on them but after my water remained cloudy I determined the carbon was the problem as after the pads were replaced the water gradually cleared and is almost back to crisp like it was before.

So I asked around for advice and was told I was doing the right things but I had hit a snag and could probably get back on track fairly quickly. I started doing (as was suggested to me) to start changing out half the water every two days. Allow the tap water conditioner to sit in the 5 gallon bucket with the new fill water for at least 15 minutes before adding it to the fish tank. And once the tank was refilled, to add the appropriate amount of quick start to the tank (in this case about 25 ml as I was adding about 25 gallons of water). This helped clear my water up for sure but...still no nitrites in the least bit. At all. I think at one point during this whole process I may have seen the nitrite level get to maybe like a .15 or .10 but definitely not even the next color level up on the API test kit (the one right after the blue 0, the light purple color). Of course, nitrates have obviously never shown above 0 either. I was also informed that I'm adding too much ammonia, that I should let it fall to 0 before adding more, so I've been doing that.

I have people who are telling me "just add a few fish, they'll be fine and the tank will cycle through with them" but I don't want to do that after reading how harmful it can be to fish. I'd love to just add fish so I can have them to look at but I'd rather think of the fish being comfortable first and my being amused by them second, so waiting it out until it's safe to add them. But I am getting a little impatient at this point. Am I doing something wrong? Did I do something wrong? Do I just have to continue to wait this out? I know cycling in general is a waiting game and fishless cycles can seem like they take forever since there's no fish to look at but...I think something should have been happening now as I'm now 10 weeks into the cycle.

Additional information that might be helpful:
-I have no live plants in the tank. Only artificial.
-I have not/never added any other chemicals other than water conditioner, ammonia, and quick start.
-I've put fish food in there on many occasions, especially over the last two weeks where I have been doing it daily.
-My regular tap water seems to read about...20 mg/L for alkalinity (sorry if that's not a good unit of measurement...just using what's on the test strip).
-My tap water pH is almost the same as the aquarium water, if not almost then exactly the same.
-Tap water hardness is at about 50 mg/L (again, sorry if sucky measurement unit, I'm only going by the test strips).
-Tank water temperature has been about 83-85 depending on the time of day.

I'd provide links to everything I'm using but I'm not able to because of low post count/new member. But what I'm using/what I have isn't anything fancy so hopefully it's clear what I've got going on here.
 
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fishorama

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Jun 28, 2006
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Welcome Andy!

I would suggest only keeping ammonia at 2 -3 ppm. More than than ~4ppm can stall the cycle. I'm not sure I have digested all your info...too close to my bedtime. But keep testing & posting, we'll help soon.

I "think" you need 5 or maybe 10 posts before you can do pics...I'm not much into photography, wrong hobby ;) But we like to see!
 
Apr 2, 2002
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Hi Andy and welcome to the sites and to the hobby. You do not indicate in what country you live. This matters in terms of what may be available to you as i am in the states. So what follows indicates things you may want to purchase in the states. You are about to learn i am a bit long winded. Most things worth knowing take more time and space.

The best advice I can offer you is to start over. Most of what you have been told is not the best of advice. You have been adding too much ammonia. Adding fish food to cycle a tank makes more of a mess than anything else.

If you are willing to start over I can offer you a step by step guide to doing a fishless cycle. You need to measure a bit more accurately. You will also need to follow the directions faithfully. If you really want to use a bacterial starter to get a jump start, you should be using either Dr. Tim's One and Only or Tetra's SafeStart. At this time they are the only products which contain the bacteria that science has shown end up in a cycled tank. The only other help to speed a cycle is to add things from established tanks and/or to add live plants. These use ammonia and they also have some amount of the bacteria on them as well.

The speed of a cycle depends on how many of each type of needed bacteria one has at the start. Normally, there is no way to know this and it will vary from person to person. This is why the normal fishless cycle is said to take between 5 and 6 weeks.

With either of the two mentioned products above it is normally possible to complete a full cycle in 10 to 14 days.

Which ever way one choose to go, accurate ammonia dosing is important. Dr. Tim's also sells ammonium chloride which will give one an accurate ammonia level.
add 4 drops of Dr. Tim's Ammonium Chloride solution per gallon of aquarium water to achieve an ammonia concentration of 2 mg/L-N (2ppm) of ammonia.
Note: 1mg/L = 1 ppm. Also the 2 ppm has a -N which means it is using the nitrogen scale rather than the total ion scale most hobby ammonia kits measure. One can convert these scales like miles <--> kilometers. 2 mg/L-N (or 2 ppm -N) equals 2.43 ppm on our test kits. So, to produce 3 ppm on a hobby kit means it takes 4.8 drops. This is impossible to measure, but do not despair.

Your 55 gal. tank does not hold 55 gallons of water for several reason. Depending how much substrate and decor you have it will likely hold about 47 gallons. Dr. Tim's bottle helps by letting one know that 1 ml in 20 gallons will produce the 2 ppm-N. 47/20 = 2.35 ml. The adjustment factor to get one to 3 ppm is 1.2 times. This means 2.8 ml should give you the target 3 ppm. You should be able to get a way to measure ml at any decent drug store or chain.

Example not an endorsement: MLSyringeNeedleless $5.99
I would also suggest a blunt needle, another $4.99 BluntNeedle

Now comes the part where you may balk: https://store.drtimsaquatics.com/one-only-nitrifying-bacteria.html
4 oz size is good for 60 gals and costs $18.48. it looks like the 2 oz. which is good for up to 30 gals is out as no price shows up.

The Ammonium chloride is another $6.95 Ammonium Chloride

You look to be spending between about $31 - $36 to do the Dr. Tim's route.

If you are willing to go the traditional 5-6 weeks, then all you need is this FritzAmmoniumChloride for $11.99. You will have to do a few measuring/dosing tricks to get to the target 3 ppm. But all you will also need kitchen measuring spoons and a measuring cup for the Fritz.

Whichever route you want to go, I can walk you through it. I am not a fan of most test strips. The API liquid kits are better in most cases. You need to measure ammonia and nitrite for sure and nitrate is a plus to have as well. You do need to know your Alkalinity which is also know as KH. This is what prevents one's pH from dropping. If your number is accurate, you may need to take action to raise it. This can be done with baking soda.

The cycle itself tends to create acid which in turn drops one's pH. If this moves below 7.0, it begins to inhibit the ammonia bacteria. As the pH heads towards 6.0 and below it will appear that the cycle has stopped. It has not. However, the bacteria need time to adapt to this (I will not explain the chemistry causing this here). So for all intents and purposes, you do not want this to happen.

Phew, that is a lot of stuff. If you would like my help, let me know as well as which route you want to go. If you want to do the traditional fishless cycle, I will send you a site PM with a link my article as it is on another site. If you want to go the Dr. Tim's route, then you will follow the directions here https://www.drtimsaquatics.com/resources/library/quick-guide-to-fishless-cycling-with-one-and-only/
His method uses a bit less ammonia than the 3 ppm in my article. However, either method will get you cycled. If you want to use my 3 ppm, the info I showed above in ml will work as well. It may add a couple of days to the whole process since I use a tad more ammonia.

If you prefer to listen to a different voice than mine, that is fine. But whatever you decide to do, only listen to a single voice at a time. Like the old saying goes, "Too many cooks spoil the broth." That way if you fail, you will learn what not to do and that you need to listen to a different voice. If you succeed, then you will have learned what to do in the future as well as having a cycled tank.

p.s. There are ammonia calculators into which you feed the strength of the ammonia, the volume of water the desired ppm you want to achieve. Example http://spec-tanks.com/ammonia-calculator-aquariums/ You said 2%. But this must be accurate. I am not sure it is. I cannot vouch for the below either.

I did some research on the Austins, I came up with two things:
Question: Most household ammonia is 3% and the strength of the janitorial grade ammonia is 10%. which is this?
Answer: This ammonia is 3%
By Cat Face on August 17, 2017
From here https://www.amazon.com/Austins-00051-Ammonia-Multipurpose-Cleaner/dp/B002M8NEDS

or look here Safe for aquarium use for a fishless cycle
 

FreshyFresh

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Andy, just to back waaaaaay up. You can start off from scratch with just a few fish in a 55gal tank and make it work with zero harm to the fish to establish a nitrogen cycle. Something like 6-8 zebra danios in a 55gal come to mind.

It takes patience, light feeding, daily water testing, a dechlorinator product that can temporarily detoxify ammonia and nitrite (if needed) and the potential of multiple weekly water changes may be needed.

The problem is, it takes a long time just like a fishless cycle and do you want the zebra danios anyway? The difference between fish-in and fish-less is you should never see ammonia or nitrite with your frequent testing when there's fish in the tank. I've seen it referred to as a silent cycle. One day all you should see is nitrate.

If you want to add stock at that point you've got to do it slowly. Most newbies don't have the patience or discipline which is why more seasoned people in the hobby will frown upon the fish-in cycle.
 

Andy90

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Thanks for the welcomes all.

Sorry I forgot to mention where I'm from, I never even thought to put that. I'm in the US, Texas specifically.

As for starting over...while it's disheartening to hear I was afraid that might be coming. I'm not so much concerned about the lost chemicals and such that would result in starting over somuch as I'm disheartened by the wasted time. But I'd rather start over correctly then keep trying to make this current cycling worth it.

Now, in order to start over properly I know draining out all the water is mandatory. But do I need to remove everything from the tank as well? Like all decorations/substrate and the like? I ask because I'm sure the rotted fish food is probably in bits and pieces throughout but if it's not going to make a big deal by leaving everything as is then I'll do that. What about the filters? Do I need to clean those out or can those be left alone?

As for some more accurate readings: after doing another high PH test with the API kit of my tap water (and really trying to look close to compare the color) it looks as if the reading is 7.4 (though the regular ph test shows it to at least be a definite 7.6 or above as the blue is a very bright and light color). My pool liquid test kit (that I forgot all about using) reads almost about an 8 but I think for this purpose I'll stick with what the API kit is showing. Again, I can't post pictures just yet due to post count so I'm trying my best to describe the color here.
As for alkalinity, I used my pool test kit this morning and came up with 30ppm for the number. So, it's actually a bit lower than the aquarium test strip showed. Usually for my pool I'm having to dose it up with either an alkalinity increaser or regular baking soda so I'm not surprised if I need to start raising my alkalinity for the fish tank as well.

As for which method I'd like to go...at this point I'm alright with whatever gets this done quickest. The only reason why I'd use the tetra safe start over the dr tim's for the bacteria in a bottle is because I can find the tetra locally and wouldn't have to wait on shipping. But if tim's works better, I'll use that.

So if I'm understanding correctly, in general the steps I need to take to restart would be:
-Know my measurements of tap water levels before I start
-Drain my tank
-Re-add tap water
-Dechlorinate tap water once its in the tank with the API conditioner
-Add ammonia source (Tim's instead of the Austin's for accuracy purposes)
-Add bacteria in a bottle
-Follow new cycling guide

I have questions about most of that of course but I want to make sure I've got the grasp of what needs to be done first.
One thing that's always kind of bothered me since day one is how to use the dechlorinater. According to the instructions on the API bottle it seems like I'm using way too much but it doesn't dose below 1ml which is supposed to detoxify chlorine/metals for up to 20 gallons but then it says to use 5ml for 30 gallons to detoxify chloramines. So...should I be doing the 5ml for every 30 gallons? What about when I'm adding less than 30/20 gallons of water, like with a partial water change, how much do I use then? And I'm still a little conflicted on how/when I should be adding the dechlorinater really. I know when it's a brand new tank you can just wait until it's fully filled up but what about every time after that? Do I keep adding the conditioner to each bucket and let it sit for a while or do I just add all the water back in then dechlorinate then?

Sorry if this is all pretty basic questions. I've read through three fish books and went through countless articles and videos before setting up the aquarium but I still feel like I don't have a grasp on all this yet.

Edit: Just saw the most recent post (it came in while I was typing this out). I've never really considered doing the fish-in cycling. Mostly because I'm a little leery about adding in another parameter (the fish) that can further complicate the setup/lead me to making mistakes. I'm fine with screwing up when I'm just wasting water/a few chemicals but I'm a little more hesitant when it comes to using the fish as guinea pigs.
Now I'm definitely not trying to balk at your advice at all! Just saying I'm not too confident in my ability to maintain the tank properly enough to keep the starter fish alive without the protection of a fully cycled tank just yet.
 
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Apr 2, 2002
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it is possible to do fish in cycles if one knows what they are doing. Most do not, especially those new to the hobby. As FF observed, fish in means month and months to fully stock a tank. A fishless cycle lets you fully stock in about 6 weeks.

Dr. Tim's and SafeStart Plus (the Plus was added not too long ago) are almost the same thing. The patents involved are owned by Dr. Timothy Hovanec and Marineland where he worked as chief scientist. Marineland was bought by a conglomerate with a pet division, they also owned Tetra and Dr, H. left Marineland to start his own business. So the use of the patents and products are used in bot One and Only and SafeStart Plus. Tetra did make a few changes but the two products are still very similar.

I do not agree with the idea one should set up a tank, pour in the bacteria then add fish. I prefer to do a mini fisless cycle to insure the bacteria are functionng at their peak. This involves adding ammonia before you add the bacteria. So I would use Dr. Tim's Fishless cycling using One and Only even if you use SafeStart.

When the bacteria go into the bottle there is basically no ammonia, nitrite or oxygen. The bacteria can sense this and they will go into a state of dormancy. These bacteria do not form spores to survive, they essentially "hibernate."They will stay this way until they are poured into a tank where there is ammonia and oxygen and a few other things they need. This causes them to wake up and get back to work. However, depending how long they have been dormant they can take more or less time to revive fully and to resume maximum levels of ammonia and nitrite oxidation. What doing a mini-fishless cycle does is to insure the bacteria are in maximum condition before adding a full load of fish.

I have cycled about 200 tanks and filters over the years, maybe more. Only the very first time was with fish. I am happy to help you get cycled and offered you two options. Because I do not wish to promote cycling with fish, I do not help folks do it. I did write two articles on "Rescuing a Fish in Cycle Gone Wild" as well as a fail-safe method for fishless cycling the normal way, i.e without bacteria starters or seeding it from other tanks and even having it lightly planted. Well planted tanks are usually handled very differently.

Let me know if you want my help or not. I am never upset when somebody turns me down. But please pick one voice to which you will listen and shut the rest out. Trying to follow several different people's advice at the same time is usually a good way to get really confused.
 

Andy90

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Sure, I'd appreciate your help. If I wanted to use the safe start, wouldn't it become redundant if I used the Dr. Tim's bacteria? Or am I missing something here.

I've decided tomorrow I'll drain the tank as much as I can with the vacuum but do I have to get every drop of water out? That'd be kind of difficult considering everything that's in there but if I just need to remove as much water as possible then that's fine.
 

fishorama

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Vacuum out ALL the old food including any in the decorations & substrate (yuck!). Then use TTA's help, he's done this many times. Use EITHER Dr.Tim's 1 & Only OR Tetra Safe Start, they're the same thing, you don't need both. You want to remove food & debris (rotting food mostly).

This is a good time to practice your vacuuming skills ;) . & if you decorations trap "stuff" you might want to rethink using those that do.

I have never used either Dr. Tim's or Tetra Safe Start but I have confidence TTA will talk you through it! Let him help you & let us all know how it goes as your tank moves towards being cycled & fish!
 
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Apr 2, 2002
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No you do not need to use both products. They are very similar in what they contain which is what matters. But tetra does not work with the idea of adding ammonia and making sure the tank is where you want it. They do not provide instructions for this. Dr. Tim does. So just use SafeStart but follow his directions. You need to vacuum any uneaten food and other organic waste off the substrate. No you dot need to get every drop of water out of the tank.

The thing about the nitrifying bacteria is they are killed by freezing or by heating to high (above 104 or so and up for a length of time). This means during hot summers and sub-freezing weather, improper handling will result on one receiving a bottle of dead bacteria that will be useless. We have no way to know if this is the case until we use the product correctly but it fails.

I normally keep a bottle of Dr. Tim's in my fridge. It can remain usable in there for about 1 year from the date on the bottle. However, before I pour it into a tank, I take it out and let it get closer to room temperature.

I do not use dechlor because we have a private well. I did use it when I would vend at events or do room sales. Hotel water needs to be dechlorinated. But I was setting up tanks before the fish went in and I added the dechlor before they did. There are only three options here. If one batches water in advance and then pumps/pours it into a tank, I would put the dechlor for that amount of water into wherever the water is batched. The other options are to dose the tank with that amount of dechlor and then do the refill or else do the refill and then add dechlor. Here are the instructions for using Seachem Prime one of the more popular dechlor products:

May be added to aquarium directly, but better if added to new water first. If adding directly to aquarium, base dose on aquarium volume. Sulfur odor is normal. For exceptionally high chloramine concentrations, a double dose may be used safely. To detoxify nitrite in an emergency, up to 5 times normal dose may be used. If temperature is > 30 °C (86 °F) and chlorine or ammonia levels are low, use a half dose.
https://www.seachem.com/prime.php

If I understand the above correctly, it means, if you pre-batch changing water, add the dechlor to it based on it's volume. If you are going to add the dechlor directly into the tank, then the amount to be used is based on the the entire water volume the tank holds. Since they indicate on the linked page one can dose prime at 5 times the normal dose, it should not matter if you add that full tank dose to the tank before you add the refill tap water. I am overly cautious, so I would tend to add the dechlor to the tank before the refill.

For the most part, the levels of chlorine/chloramine in tap water are pretty low. So it may not matter whether one adds the dechlor directly to the tank before the refill or after. However, sometimes water companies will need to treat the water with a much larger amount of chlorine/chloramine and in such cases the levels from the tap might be of concern. Since we are human and we forget, adding the dechlor before the refill as a habit will minimize the possibility we might forget after the refill.
 

Andy90

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Thanks a lot for all the advice. I ended up not getting a chance today to vacuum so I'm going to do it this weekend. I'll take out most of the small things out (the artificial plants and small decorations) and vacuum all the substrate well plus anything that appears to be on/around the larger decorations.

I like the idea about just putting the conditioner directly into the tank and then adding water by the bucket fulls after that. To me it seems like I'm overusing the conditioner when I do it by the bucket load as again, it's a 5 gallon bucket and the smallest amount of the conditioner at a time I can add treats 20 gallons. So essentially if I pour in 5-6 bucket fulls I'm only adding 25-30 gallons of water but pouring in enough conditioner to treat 100-120 gallons. I'm not sure if there's such a thing as over treating/dechlorinating the water but it feels like if there is that's what I'm doing and I don't want to continue a bad habit if that's the case. I was just worried about adding untreated water directly into the tank as I was thinking it could cause problems to the fish as soon as its added but if adding the conditioner beforehand is just as safe as adding it afterwards then I'll do it that way.

As for the safe start, I noticed at the store they sell safe start and safe start plus. I couldn't really tell what made them that much different but is the plus supposed to be better in some way? Or am I better with just the regular? And just to make sure, you're saying if I buy safe start then I can still follow Dr. Tim's directions, just substitute safe start anytime he mentions the Dr. Tim's bacteria instead.
 
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