So, I thought I’d share my experience in failing and being successful in keeping a non-cycled aquarium versus keeping an aquarium to its cycle and beyond! A while ago, I had decided to create an aquarium. I had no idea what exactly I was getting into. I didn’t really know anyone who had an aquarium themselves, and I hadn’t read up on all the different parts there are to keeping one. I think all the information I had read was not up to date or was not fully correct.
I skipped off to my local pet store to acquire some fish and fish tank/accessories. While I was there I was in awe of all the amazing brightly colored fish they had along the walls. I couldn’t choose just one so I chose many! – That was my first mistake. I wish I had known that before you have your tank cycled (I’ll explain in just a moment) you should only have a few hardy fish – meaning that they adapt to a large range of water conditions. Unfortunately many large pet store’s employees have not had enough experience with all the products they sell – therefore they don’t always give the best advice.
As I took my fish home, I was so excited. I quickly plopped my fish (still in their bags) in the tank water I had set up and waited about 30 minutes for them to acclimate. Once I thought time was up – I poured the bags into the water and watched the fish swim around. The fish seemed to be doing wonderfully for about 2-3 weeks. After that, ammonia levels in the water from their food/waste were rising like crazy. A few of my Neon Tetras died … which I’ve heard are pretty sensitive to ammonia in the water and a few other fish were having a really hard time breathing etc.
I couldn’t figure out what the issue was. Since I knew the ammonia was high, I kept changing the fish’s water and vacuuming out their gravel – and because I was doing this… the ammonia was still high because the cycle wasn’t going into full effect. It was a perpetual cycle that wouldn’t end. Most of my hardy fish seemed to be doing ok but I’d say 4-5 fish died which really sucked. 🙁 I ended up giving my tank to a friend because I was moving but that was probably for the best.
Here’s what I didn’t know and some tips…
- When you start a fish tank you need to start out small. I now have a 40 gallon fish tank – I started my new fish tank with 5 hardy fish. Mollies and Platys are great fish because they’re tough and able to deal with different water parameters.
- Buy your fish from a smaller, established pet shop or fish store that specializes in only fish or they know about how to take care of fish. When I bought my fish from the previous store – I noticed that a bunch of the fish tanks had fish that were already dead or their tanks were dirty. You don’t want to buy fish that may be susceptible to disease and other problems. I bought my current fish from a small pet store near me where 100% of the workers have or have previously owned a fish tank and know how to take care of them. I have asked them countless questions and they’re so knowledgeable. They tell me what fish will get along with each other, what not to do with my tank, how to care for my fish and all sorts of things. I feel like they take care of their fish tanks, too and have a good selection. All of my fish look vibrant and are full of life. You’re able to sometimes get better deals from places like that as well.
- Unless you’re starting out with cycled water – You will need to cycle your tank. What is cycling? Cycling is allowing bacteria colonies (that get rid of harmful components in the tank) to get big enough to keep your fish healthy. The bacteria builds up – mostly on your gravel, filter, and decorations and eats up the ammonia from your fish’s waste and rotting food. Ammonia is bad for your fish and can be extremely toxic and cause death. Whenever the bacteria eat this waste – the ammonia turns into nitrites. Nitrites are also not good for your fish. There is another bacteria that eats the nitrites which happens a bit later and secretes nitrates. Fish are able to acclimate to nitrate – as it’s not as harmful to fish. When you’re cycling your tank – initially your ammonia levels will be pretty high, but don’t freak out. It will eventually get better. Leave your tank alone. Eventually these ammonia levels will lower and the nitrite levels will start rising. This is still not great, but you have hardy fish which will be able to deal with these conditions. After a few weeks, you’ll start to see that the nitrite levels will spike pretty high. Eventually, nitrate forming bacteria will form, which will lower your nitrite levels. Once your nitrate levels have risen and your ammonia and nitrite levels are at 0, your tank is cycled. Yay!!
- It will usually take about 4-6 weeks to cycle the tank and to learn how to do this – I did NOT change my water, which I had done before, and I did not vacuum my gravel. I only added a little water when it evaporated. I also didn’t add any kind of ammonia reducing chemicals (which I thought I needed to do with my old tank). A lot of ammonia reducing chemicals actually stop the bacteria in your tank from growing, which is not good. I’ve heard that “Prime” is a good de-chlorinator and that it converts the ammonia in your tank to a non-toxic form for the fish. But you’ll probably only want to ever use that in emergency situations. You’ll want to most likely leave your tank alone to let the bacteria colonies grow. I used a water de-chlorinator called “Aqua Safe Plus” ( but I’ve heard Seachem’s “ Prime” is a great product) and something to put some beneficial bacteria into the water called “Stress Zyme”. They’ve seemed to work wonderfully for me. Starting an aquarium takes tons of patience. You will wait.. and wait.. and wait some more.. but it will be TOTALLY worth it! 🙂
- You will need a good filter for the size of tank you have. I am currently using the Marineland Power Filter Penguin 200 with Bio-wheel filter. It filters up to 200 GPH (gallons per hour). I believe it goes up to 50 gallons – so with having a 40 gallon tank I thought having more filtration than less is probably better 🙂 It’s been working like a charm. I don’t have to clean it out unless I want to trade out filters. The Bio-wheel is good to just stay put. Having the beneficial bacteria inside is great for my tank. A rule of thumb I’ve heard from several aquarium enthusiasts is that you will want a filter that goes through 5-10 times the volume of your tank. So if you’ve got a 40 gallon tank – get a filter that does at least 200 gph.. or if you’d like a bit more filtering, you can get 2 of those filters or just buy a big filter that will give you 10x the filtration at 400 gph. Do whatever works for you. You can’t really have too much filtration on your tank , unless maybe all your fish are getting sucked in. Lol. Then you might wanna tone it down.. 😛
- Sometimes getting substrate or gravel with beneficial bacteria already inside is good for your tank. I got some Eco Complete Planted Black Aquarium Substrate which is safe for the fish. You don’t need to get substrate or gravel with bacteria already in it, though. My water was pretty cloudy, at first. I’d say about half a week to a week.. but it cleared up nicely.
- Always have a good amount of decorations. In my first tank, one of my fish had several dozen babies! Lots of the babies were eaten by the other fish but the ones that survived are the ones that hid in the decorations and plants. Make sure if you have lots of male/female fish that you have decorations in case they do happen to have babies. The babies will be able to hide until they are either big enough, or you get a divider or another tank to put them in. It really is so cute seeing baby fish!
- Make sure there’s some aeration getting into your tank. The fish will need their water to be a little agitated so that oxygen gets in the tank – either from an air stone or from the filter. (Mine is up top.) They need oxygen for their metabolic processes. They’re able to extract this oxygen from their gills.
- Make sure NOT to over feed your fish. So many people want to feed and entertain their fish several times a day. It makes sense because that’s how you bond with your fish.. but, you only need to feed your fish maybe once or twice a day. Feeding too much can cause a buildup of decaying food – leading to ammonia. What most people do is make sure their fish eat everything they give them in “x” amount of minutes… usually a minute or two. I like to feed my fish 2 times a day – usually about 9 am and then again at 9 or 10 pm. They always get excited when I come over and have the food bottle.
- Have a thermometer and a heater so you know the temperature in the aquarium is at a safe temperature for your fish. I have tropical fish and they seem to like temperatures in the 70s to 80s. The water is constantly being heated up so my fish are thriving.
- A few accessories that have helped me :
5 gallon bucket – for adding water more easily and water changes
a net – for fetching things in the water or catching fish when you need to
a bottle of different fish foods – so you can switch up what you feed your fish – if you like.
API testing kit – great for testing ammonia, nitrite, and ph levels. Excellent kit.