11-05-2008, 12:05 PM
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It's not that adding fish food helps it along a bit, it's that you need an ammonia source in the tank for it to cycle at all. Rotting fish food provides a source of ammonia that allows the beneficial bacteria in your tank to grow.
Softening the water and lowering pH are two different things. Hardness and softness relate to the amount of dissolved materials in your water (calcium and carbonate being the most important ions). pH is a measure of the acidity or alkalinity of your water. Often, the two go hand-in-hand as water that is very hard is also often very basic. However, it's definitely possibly to have very basic water that is also very soft. You can purchase GH and KH test kits to test your water's hardness, or you can have it tested for you at a fish store. Harder water has much more buffering capacity than soft water, and thus if your water is very hard it might be difficult to lower your pH to the range you want. Good ways to gently lower pH include adding bogwood or driftwood to your tank as well as using peat in your substrate or filter. The ability to lower pH of these materials will be greatly reduced by hard water. I suspect that Proper pH 7.0 would also prove less useful if you have very hard water, so it would be worth it to find out just how hard your water is before attempting to lower the pH.
Also keep in mind that pH swings can be deadly. Using a lot of chemicals to mess around with your pH can destroy your water's buffering capacity, which can result in a pH crash that's fatal. Also, even if you do lower the pH of the water in your tank to the desired level, it's important to remember that the water coming out of your tap will still be very basic and thus every time you do a water change a pH swing will occur. You will have to come up with some way of preventing this, such as pre-filtering the water you'll use for the water change with peat or using distilled or RO/DI water in addition to tapwater during water changes.