New Tank

Fishkeeping is a funny hobby. It’s infectious. While I worked on setting up my freshwater planted community tank, N had the urge to start up a marine reef tank again.

On Christmas Eve, we got up at 5am and drove down to the airport to pick up three boxes of live rock and sand.

Live tropical fish
live tropical fish

We arrived home and N worked quickly to get the live sand and rock into his 29 gallon tank. Fairly quickly a bunch of hitchhikers showed themselves:

It's a hermit crab!

The tank is still cycling now. We’re working on capturing a few unsavory characters — a gorilla crab and a bunch of whelks. There are a couple of fish in it now, a blue devil damsel and a domino damsel.

Tank Layout

The day after Christmas, I checked my water parameters. I was shocked to see that while my ammonia and nitrite were still at 0ppm, my nitrate levels had dropped from 10ppm to 0ppm. I have a fairly heavily planted tank so it’s not beyond the realm of possibility that my plants are managing the nitrates for me.

in progress

I need a bit more plants in front, between the rainbow rock and the lava rock. I’m thinking about some java moss.


Last week my tank finally finished cycling on Monday — I was shocked to check my nitrite levels and see that they were down at 0! I did a 50% water change and added more plants — an amazon sword, a green ozelot, some grasses, and some rotala macranda.

That evening, after the tank had settled down, I finally picked up some fish.

here fishy fishy fishy
neon tetras

I got 8 neon tetras and 1 albino bristlenose pleco. I wanted a non-albino bristlenose, but they didn’t have any.


The pleco is pretty awesome.

Fishless Cycling & Planaria

I noticed fairly early on that I was getting some weird white spots on the inside of my fish tank that looked like water spots. Except that of course water spots on the inside under the water level didn’t make much sense.


In browsing fish forums, I discovered that planaria thrive on high ammonia levels. They are a sign that you have an ammonia problem if you have a stocked tank (good to know!). If you are like me and are cycling a fish tank without fish by using household ammonia, then they pop up during the time that the nitrosomonas bacteria is building up. They will stick around through the fishless cycle because you keep adding ammonia to the tank to keep the nitrosomonas bacteria from dying off while waiting for the nitrobacter to build up. They don’t mention this in any of the fishless cycle tutorials!

The good thing about planaria is that they will die off when the ammonia source goes away. Also many fish like to eat them. They are fairly harmless.

First Week Or So

In the first week of fishless cycling, I’ve seen my ammonia drop off, my nitrites go off the chart, and my nitrates start to register. All good things!

On Saturday I was checking my ammonia level, which was at the same level as it was on Friday. Due to this, I wasn’t going to check my nitrites or nitrates. N suggested I check both nitrites and nitrates anyway, so I did.

Sure enough, on Saturday I was registering a lot of ammonia — 3-4ppm. I was also registering 2+ppm of nitrites and just barely registering some nitrates. Woo!

Sunday I checked all three again, and my ammonia was about the same, but my nitrites were off the chart (>5ppm) and my nitrates were above 5ppm.

DateTimeTemp(°F)pH Ammonia(ppm)Nitrite(ppm)Nitrate(ppm)Notes
6 dec1800767.5 .25 0 planted grass, ozelot sword, anubia nana narrowleaf
7 dec 1800 76 .25
8 dec160082 .25base test before adding ammonia
8 dec163082 4after adding 5 mL 10% ammonia to 29 gal tank
9 dec103082 3
9 dec203082 3
10 dec120082 2added 2mL 10% ammonia after test
10 dec130082 4after ammonia addition
11 dec120082 32>0 ; <5hooray, nitrites and nitrates
12 dec113082 3>5>5 ; <10nitrites off the chart
13 dec113082 1>55nitrate drop? weird. added 2 mL 10% ammonia
13 dec121582 4after adding ammonia
14 dec103082 0>55ammonia at 0! nitrites off the chart
14 dec103082 2after adding 2mL 10% ammonia

– indicates no reading taken

Today my ammonia was fully processed to 0ppm in under 24 hours! My nitrites are still off the chart but my nitrates are growing (or at least staying put).

I added 2mL of 10% ammonia to the tank to ensure that the nitrosomonas don’t die off with nothing to oxidize. Now I am just waiting for more nitrobacter to develop to handle this massive quantity of nitrite. Once we get the nitrite spike down to 0, we will do a 50% water change and finally stock with fish.

At the Start

In order to start my fishless cycle of our aquarium (nitrogen cycle), I did a few things.

First, I planted a handful of plants that I bought at the local fish shop. Plants carry some beneficial bacteria on them and they also help manage nitrates. They also tend to survive alright despite the currently changing water conditions. We’re not done adding plants yet and my ozelot sword is looking pretty sad right now so I am a little loath to add more plants just yet.

side view
side view

With just the plants, rocks, driftwood, and substrate, I was registering tiny amounts of ammonia, but not enough to get the tank started.

After a day or two, I added some household ammonia (without surfectants or fragrance — if it’s yellow, scented, or bubbles when you shake it, DO NOT USE IT in your tank). The nitrosomonas need ammonia in order to develop and then oxidize the ammonia to turn it to nitrites.

I sort of winged it on the ammonia — I added 5mL of 10% ammonia solution to our 29 gallon biocube and after it had processed a couple of times through the filter (to disperse throughout the water) and tested the ammonia level, which was around 4ppm — thankfully the target.

I started testing ammonia every day. Until the ammonia starts to drop, there was not much of a reason to test the nitrite levels. Tomorrow I’ll post a chart showing the levels for the first week.

pH is still fluctuating due to the substrate, ammonia level, and tannins given off by the driftwood (despite boiling for a while, it is giving off some tannins). I will probably test pH weekly though.


Fish Tank Cycling

Before we made the decision to get an aquarium for the house, I started reading up on the process. While I kept a freshwater tank as a kid, I had very little recollection of how we set up the tank initially and I knew that was the important part.

In reading about getting a tank ready for fish, I read about fishless cycling.

testing – at the beginning

It seems to be a more recently popular process for cycling a tank. Instead of stocking a tank with a couple of fish whose excrement produce ammonia, you can add household ammonia (with no surfectant or fragrance) instead. This prevents the fish from being subjected to high levels of ammonia and nitrites while the bacteria multiplies.

N was skeptical, having always cycled tanks with fish. It made sense to me though, so I started a fishless cycle.

New Hobby

N and I went back to DC for Thanksgiving to see our families. We had a lovely trip!

One unexpected result of this trip is that I fell in love with my BiL’s salt reef tank.

Starfish prime! BiL's new salt tank is pretty awesome.
brittle sea star [I think]

I’ve always been a water type. I’ve always loved creatures in the water, loved being on and near the water. The calendar on my wall is of National Wildlife Federation sea creatures. I’ve been fishing since I was a little kid. I had a planted 10G freshwater tank when I was a kid that my grandfather (the oceanographer!) helped me set up for one of my birthdays (11th? 12th?).

I always wanted a saltwater tank as a kid but it was deemed too complicated, too expensive. After my fish in the 10G freshwater died (a year or two later), I didn’t keep fish again. I thought about it but never really got motivated enough to do anything.

But then I found myself mesmerized sitting in front of BiL’s salt reef. Fish, crabs, stars, fan worms, snails, shrimp, anemone, live coral… So incredibly awesome.

N and I talked about it over the next week. N suggested we start with a freshwater tank instead of a saltwater reef. I checked a ton of books out from the library on freshwater aquariums and read them. I read a bunch of things about fishless and fish-in cycling for setting up a new tank. I came up with some ideas, made some decisions, talked about it more with N.

It just so happened to coincide with a tank sale at one of the local pet stores. So! A new hobby for us. I don’t remember a lot about my fishtank back when I was a kid, so I am very much re-learning all of this stuff.