What is fishless cycling?
Cycling is the setup process required to create an environment that will naturally maintain safe levels of ammonia, nitrate, and other elements in your tank. Shrimp and fish will naturally increase ammonia levels in an aquarium by releasing waste, which is toxic to anything living in your tank. The solution to this is cycling – a properly cycled tank will have grown a bacteria colony able to convert ammonia to nitrite, and then nitrite to nitrate, in levels perfectly harmless to your aquarium. While traditional cycling methods require the sacrifice of fish or shrimp, in this guide we will outline the process of fishless cycling, which uses pure ammonia as an alternative to ammonia produced by fish or shrimp, and is a quicker method which can usually be completed within four weeks.
What will I need?
Besides your materials outlined in the starter guide, you will need a freshwater test kit, pure ammonia, and a dechlorinator, all of which are common and cheap items. Note that if your bottle of ammonia that contains any ingredients besides water and ammonia, do not use it!
How do I cycle my tank?
The first step to cycling is to get your aquarium up and running- filter, heater, substrate and all. Note that for this cycling process, you should have your heater set to around 80°F if possible to encourage maximum bacteria growth and thus speed. Once you have your aquarium setup, use your dechlorinator as directed by the bottle, followed by your ammonia. Start by adding several drops slowly and use your test kit to aim for 4ppm ammonia. Once there, begin to test ammonia levels every few days and you should see them gradually declining. Once you see the level drop down to 1ppm, at this point you will want to raise it up to 4ppm again.
Once you’ve added your ammonia for the second time, start using your kit to test for nitrites daily. If everything is going smoothly, the nitrite levels will begin to rise. Continue checking daily and dosing ammonia back up to 4ppm each time it falls as your nitrites increase, and once your nitrite levels approach 5ppm, begin to test for nitrates. When the nitrates show up, you can be assured that the process is working.
Soon enough your nitrite and nitrate levels should be higher than your test kit can even measure for – at this point you’re going to want to replace about 50% of your tank’s water with dechlorinated water from another source. Keep dosing ammonia up to 4ppm, and soon you will end up testing your water and finding only nitrate, with all traces of ammonia and nitrites gone. Raise ammonia to 4ppm one last time, and if it is completely cycled to nitrates only within 24 hours, congratulations, your tank is cycled! The last step is to set the heater to an ideal level for your tank inhabitants (72 -76°F for Red Cherry Shrimp), and do a water change of about 70% – again with dechlorinated water from another source, then test one last time to confirm nitrate levels are below 20ppm. If you were able to measure no ammonia or nitrites, and nitrate levels under 20ppm, then congratulations, you’ve created a safe home for your friends! You can now move your fish or shrimp into the tank with confidence and move on to enjoying their addition to your home.
Note: If there will be a significant delay (more than 2-3 days) between cycle completion and the addition of your shrimp, dose 1ppm ammonia daily to keep the bacteria alive.