Setting up the aquarium - Month 1

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Last month, I wrote about my plan for prepping our first aquarium. I didn't want to just buy whatever (although part of me did after overthinking everything), so I did a lot of research beforehand. One of the biggest surprises I came across was learning about the nitrogen cycle. I'd never heard anyone mention it before.

Super high overview: fish waste and decaying fish food (which contains organic matter) produces ammonia. It'll kill your fish, until bacteria takes hold somewhere in the tank (like on a biofilter or in the pebbles) that converts ammonia to nitrites... which will also kill your fish. Hm. So there's other bacteria that converts nitrites to nitrates, which... still aren't great for your fish. But at least they won't kill them as quickly. To get rid of those, you need Dad's $10 shoes, Mom's new dress, a bowl of milk and a fan... my explanation is starting to sound like a Dr Seuss book.

Setting Everything Up

Here's some pics of my initial setup - the aquarium, gravel, heater, etc.

I picked up a 20 gal aquarium, with a cover, light and a few other things, for $20 at a garage sale.
Picked up 6 bags of gravel for 50¢ apiece from another garage sale.. usually $5 a bag!
I let the gravel soak for awhile. Some dust and tiny pieces of wood floated to the top.

I got an Eheim heater because it has mostly good reviews and it's made in Germany. Who knows anymore, but I've always had an impression the Germans make quality things... hoping that's still the case. For the last month, it's kept the water right where I set it at about 83°F.

It's set to 81°F here, but I upped it a little more to promote bacterial growth.
Everything (so far) in place and ready to go. The aquarium fits perfectly on our hutch.
A closer shot. I installed two biofilters - places for bacteria to thrive for the cycling process.
Initially, the water was in the mid 70s. It was a really warm Sept, and I let the water sit overnight.

Cycling the Tank

Like I mentioned above, ammonia ➟ nitrites ➟ nitrates. So when I started the fishless cycling process using pure ammonia from Ace Hardware, the first thing I did was break open the ammonia and nitrite testing kits and test them with clean water. I just wanted to see what the results were. Both clear, as they should be since we don't have ammonia or nitrites in our tap water!

For good measure, I tested the ammonia kit again, this time by placing a single drop of ammonia directly into the plastic test vial. It almost immediately went orange. Okay, so that gave me confidence that the tests weren't junk.

I kept the water in the mid-80s because the bacteria thrive in warmer temps.

I started out by adding just a few drops of ammonia a day, then increased to about 20, and finally to like 60 when the test wasn't even registering yet. In retrospect, I think I should've just added enough to register strongly from the start - after all, it'll just circulate around the water until the bacteria grows to consume it. If it vanished over time on its own, then none of this would even be necessary!

Day 3 - Not registering ammonia at all, so I started adding more.
Day 4 - Finally registering after increasing the amount of ammonia.

Word of caution... rinse the vials out right after using them! After letting it sit overnight one time, the liquid settled out into a solid. It was kinda cool, but it left a residue on the sides of the plastic that I had to scrub out with an old toothbrush. Bleh.

The nitrite test has you add such a small amount of water for the test (half of what's used for the ammonia test), that it's hard to detect any color through the top. According to the instructions, you can also look through the side of the nitrite test, then divide the result by 10.

Day 5 - Nitrites already registering. It's reading 0.5, but since I'm looking through the side it's really 0.05.
Day 5 - Ammonia registering strongly, after a few days of adding a lot of ammonia.
Day 6 - Still very faint, but nitrites reading about 0.1 ppm.
Day 6 - Looking through the side seemed to agree with above result of 0.1 ppm.
A week in, I took 10 minutes to make a little tray to carry the tests around on. :)
Day 8 - Nitrites are stronger, but still only registering at 0.2. Is that good or bad?
Day 12 - Nitrites registering a little more. Between 0.2 and 0.4 ppm.

Even though nitrites were showing a presence, indicating bacteria was breaking down the ammonia, the ammonia tests were still registering pretty high too. At this point, I started to suspect that maybe I was adding too much ammonia..? I plan on getting a half-dozen small fish, but I have no idea how the waste they'll produce converts to drops of pure ammonia. If you know of a fish poo to pure ammonia calculator out there, please let me know. :p

Day 12 - Ammonia still registering pretty high, at 1.5 ppm.
Day 13 - I was still adding 10-15 drops of ammonia per day, but the tests were registering less!
Day 14 - Nitrites still registering at 0.1 ppm.
Day 15 - Nitrites registering a little less I think.
Day 15 - I didn't add anymore ammonia the night before, and the levels continued to decrease. Success?
Day 16 - Nitrites... doing their thing I guess. Hm. Seems like the levels should be decreasing more.
Day 16 - I added more ammonia the night before and the reading increased. Makes sense I guess.
Day 18 - I cut way back on ammonia to just a few drops a day, and it's registering almost none.

The ammonia is definitely being converted. The fact that the nitrites never got all that high has me concerned, but they seem to be getting converted too. Hopefully, since the bacteria is now present, it'll quickly grow to the needed level once I add fish.

Day 19 - Nitrites also registering less, about 0.02 ppm.
Day 19 - Ammonia registering at about 0.15 ppm.
Day 20 - Nitrites registering at like 0.01 ppm. Very tiny amount.

A Few Final Items

I avoided getting fake plants earlier because I really didn't need them in the way. With the cycling appearing to be complete (or very nearly so.. I hope!), I picked up some that had good reviews, mainly so the fish had somewhere to take cover. Like the gravel, I let them soak overnight. They didn't have a funny smell or anything, which I thought was promising, but I still don't want them going directly in the water with the fish.

Also got some fish food. We'll see how this does. It says "tropical fish" but from the reviews I read, it works well with any of them. It's interesting that it contains fish meal and shrimp meal. The fish are basically eating the odds and ends of other fish. Ew, but that's how nature works folks... and the fish aren't gonna get that stuff otherwise in an aquarium. The kids loved hearing about it though, lol!

Up to the night before we got fish, I was still adding about 5-10 drops of ammonia per day.

Day 24 - Last nitrite test before getting fish. Registering at 0.05 ppm.
Day 24 - Last ammonia test before getting fish. Not registering at all!

Getting the Fish!

Before I headed off to kickboxing this morning, I unplugged the heater. Apparently draining the water with it still hot is bad. Putting new water in that's not as warm as the current water might actually cause it to crack. And I'll definitely need fresh water. I don't have the nitrate test yet, but I imagine they'd have to be off the charts since the cycle is cycling but I haven't changed the water in over 3 weeks. :p

I ended up at a Pet Supplies Plus - the same one I visited a month ago before I started cycling - and I found them to be helpful (both times) without being overbearing. Two different employees, both who keep fish themselves, had some good advice on to do and what to avoid.

I had planned on getting only one or two types that do especially well in higher pH water (since ours is on the higher end) like cichlids, but ended up getting a mixture of "community" fish. They color code (green, yellow, red) the various aquariums for level of aggression, so he was able to warn us off of the types that will basically just tear other fish apart!

In the end, I took my kids and we picked out a variety of fish that should all stay within the 2" - 4" range, and a snail too since my daughter had her heart set on naming the snail Herman. I didn't ask.

  • 2 Giant Danios
  • Dalmation Molly
  • Marble Molly
  • Variatus
  • Fancy Guppy
  • Mystery Snail
The bag floated in the water for an hour so the temperatures matched.

I read a bit about drip acclimating them too. I didn't do it, but if they don't do well I'll consider it next time. It involves setting up a system to slowly drip the tank water into the bag, so the difference in water doesn't shock the fish. There's so much advice online about avoiding shocking fish in a hundred different ways that I half-expected the fish to just explode when I put them in the tank.

Next Steps...

Keep everything alive, heh. I'll be figuring out a water change schedule, how to keep the environment healthy and clean, alternative foods they might like besides just fish flakes.

I found out Pet Supplies Plus sells live plants in little pots with a spongy material the roots can grow in, so you don't have to add a layer of dirt beneath the substrate. I might try a couple of them - they'll provide more oxygen for the water and possibly an additional food source for Herman the snail. Not sure how the plants get fed though, since there's no dirt. Hmm...


Grant Winney

I write when I've got something to share - a personal project, a solution to a difficult problem, or just an idea. We learn by doing and sharing. We've all got something to contribute.

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