Having trouble with water chemistry and I don't know what to do!
I could really use some help. I'm going to try to keep the story short so it isn't such a long read. I got my son a dwarf puffer fish in a 5 gallon tank for his birthday knowing nothing about aquariums (pet store said it would be fine!). Naturally, it died from ammonia poisoning about a month ago since the tank wasn't cycled. In the meantime, someone gave us a betta. It is in a vase right now, but I would like to put it in the 5 gallon. I haven't changed the water in the 5 gallon since the puffer died because I was hoping to cycle the tank. I have been monitoring the conditions and the ammonia is slowly increasing (it's at 1.5 ppm today). Nitrate and Nitrite are at zero. PH is 6.0 or lower. It has a heater and stays at 77 degrees. A fliter has been running on it (the carbon insert hasn't been changed in 5 weeks). When I initially set the tank up, I added Stability for 7 days to help kick start the cycle, aquarium salt, and Prime water conditioner. A few weeks into it, I added PH up. After talking with 3 different pet stores now, they all tell me to do a complete water change and throw the betta in. They seem to know nothing about cycling a tank, though. They all look at me like they have never heard of such a thing; hence the reason my puffer died! I realize that there is a huge difference in caring for a betta and caring for a puffer, but I was also hoping to put some other compatible fish in with the betta, which is why I want to cycle the tank. I noticed today that there is some fuzzy growth on one of the ornaments in the tank, which makes me think that is a good thing. I would like to know from some experienced aquarist if I should do a complete water change and just put the betta in or if I should wait out the cycle. How much longer would it take? It's already been about 5 weeks since the last water change and I feel like I'm getting no where.
Thank you so much for taking the time to help me with this!
I know I don't have the experience you're looking for, but I've done a lot of research and at least I think I could make a few suggestions.
First, I tend to raise an eyebrow at "bacteria-in-a-bottle" products. I tried one of them and absolutely nothing happened. They have very mixed reviews and there are claims that people who have used these products to cycle a tank experienced a bio-filter crash weeks, even months later and traced it back to the bacteria in a bottle. One theory is since the bottle is obviously an oxygen-deprived environment, the good aerobic nitrifying bacteria dies on the shelf and is replaced by less efficient, less reliable anaerobic bacteria.
If you really want to jump start your cycle safely, get your hands on some real cycled material, such as some filter media from a healthy established tank, or even some gravel, decorations, or plants would help.
If your filter uses carbon filter cartridges, I would suggest replacing the whole deal with a custom filter media. Carbon works for only a couple weeks at best, and isn't really necessary unless you're removing medication from the water. Save yourself some expense and get some combination of bio-sponge, porous ceramic rings, nylon floss, or something of that nature. You want to find preferably two different things, one that will mainly screen out physical particles, and one that will provide an ideal habitat for beneficial bacteria. These materials should only be replaced one at a time when they're literally falling apart, and cleaned only when they are clogged or no longer filtering effectively.
To actually answer your question, it's really your choice whether or not to put the betta in the tank now. A fishless cycle would obviously be less stressful on the betta, but there is nothing wrong with a fish-in cycle. Although you generally want to avoid adding extra chemicals to your tank, prime has been said to make cycling easier on the fish. Seachem claims that prime "detoxifies" ammonia and nitrite, while still leaving it available to the bacteria. I've heard of people doing a fish-in cycle and using daily or every other day prime doses to keep the fish safe.
If you want to continue fishless, your pH seems a pretty low and that might have stalled the cycle. It sounds like a large water change is in order regardless of whether you're going to add fish or not. You need to replenish your buffers (kH) and preferably keep that pH within 6.5-7.5. Fishless cycle in no way means "no water changes until it's finished" - you still need to do a few to make sure the pH is stable and trace elements are present for the bacteria.
Seek out a pure ammonia source (if you haven't already), without any scent or surfactant (detergent) and dose the tank to around 3 ppm, maintaining that level until nitrIte appears, at which point you should cut your ammonia dosage about in half. NitrIte will likely skyrocket and be way off the scale, so water changes are in order to keep it at 2-3 ppm or at least readable - and don't forget to keep dosing ammonia at this point. When your tank can convert 3 ppm of ammonia to nitrAte in 24 hours or less, it is ready for fish.
Personally I would suggest a fishless cycle since it would be safer and faster, especially if you can find material from a cycled tank to stick in your filter. The fishless cycle can take 4-6 weeks if done correctly, and a fish-in cycle can easily take twice that long, mainly because you have to do so many water changes to keep the levels down to a tolerable point for the fish. I cycled my tank in about 3 weeks using a lot of material from an established tank, so I have no doubt that it works.
Remember these are only suggestions based mostly on a lot of reading I've done! Good luck with whatever you decide.
The easiest way to cycle is with live plants. There will be no discernible "cycle" and no harm to the fish, especially when it is a single Betta in a 5g tank. As Betta spend a lot of time near the surface they appreciate floating plants, and these are the easiest to grow. I can go into this more if asked, but I want to comment on a couple other things.
Never mess with the pH until you have all the chemistry worked out. The pH is tied to the hardness, and rather than go into all that here, I will refer you to this article:
In summary, leave the pH alone for the present; the adjusting chemical may have been the issue with the death of the puffer. Many fish do not take well to chemicals. A Betta will be fine in an acidic pH anyway. What is your tap water pH? I ask this to see if there is any issue with the tank pH by comparison.
In an acidic pH, ammonia changes into ammonium which is basically harmless to fish. The nitrifying bacteria use ammonium/ammonia regardless, though at a low pH the bacteria function very slowly. You can read about that in this article:
My tanks all run at a pH of 5 to 6, though they are well planted. But this is not going to be an issue in your situation.
Let me know the tap water pH, and ask if you want any further info on plants.
First, no product (yet developed) will instantly cycle a fish tank. The bacterial supplements that work will seed the tank and quicken the cycling period, but nothing more. Whether or not they are beneficial depends upon the specifics of each new aquarium.
In aquaria with live plants, one doesn't need to bother about cycles, so my first choice is always to have sufficient live plants and few fish from day 1. The plants need nitrogen, and aquatic plants prefer to take up nitrogen as ammonium. In acidic water, ammonia automatically changes to ammonium and plants grab it. In basic water, the plants can take up the ammonia and change it to ammonium to assimilate as their source of nitrogen. Plants are very greedy at doing this, and out-compete the nitrifying bacteria. Provided there are sufficient plants that are relatively fast growing (fast growing means using more nutrients including ammonia/ammonium) and not too many fish, the plants will easily assimilate almost all of the ammonia; what's left is readily taken up by nitrosomonas bacteria. This is so effective that in well-planted new tanks, you will not detect any ammonia or nitrite during the "cycle" period.
Without the benefit of live plants, seeding the tank with nitrifying bacteria is the best way to establish the cycle. Bacterial supplements will do this, much the same as using bacteria from an existing established aquarium. In both cases, the seeding simply establishes the bacteria faster. Very few fish is recommended to avoid overloading the cycle. I know of two products that are scientifically proven to do what they claim. Seachem's Stability and Tetra's SafeStart. There may well be others, I simply don't know. The Tetra formula I believe is the one developed by Dr. Timothy Hovanec (he led the team in this work), who discovered the true aquatic nitrifying bacteria species and this work has been confirmed by many other scientists in the field. You can read a bit about his discoveries in the section on Nitrifying Bacteria in my article:
And there are links to his papers for those interested in the scientific data.
Products such as "Cycle" do not claim to include live bacteria, but Dr. Hovanec ran tests and discovered that they will speed up the cycling process by a couple of weeks. I am going from memory now, but I believe his finding was that the bacteria in the product, though dead, had some effect on quickening the establishment of live bacteria in the aquarium. Not quite the same as the afore-mentioned products which do contain live Bactria.
Hope this helps to explain this a bit.
Thank you both for the informative replies! I don't plan on putting the betta in until the chemistry is right. I don't want to put him through that stress.
My tap water ph is 7.2. I will leave the ph alone for now.
I will look into changing the filter to a custom filter media. Is that something that you purchase at a pet store? I have only seen carbon filters. Although, I have no idea what I'm looking at when I'm there, so it may have been right under my nose and I didn't know it!
It seems that you both feel that it would be best to work on correcting the current water conditions by using plants or added ammonia rather than starting over with a clean tank. Is that right? Someone from another forum suggested that the fuzzy growth on the ornament could be a fungus and recommended that I start with a fresh tank. How would I know the difference between fungus and good bacteria?
I don't know anyone that has an aquarium to get any material from a cycled tank :(
Although, I am anxious to get the betta into a bigger home, time is not an issue. I want to take my time and get it right this go around, so if starting over is better, I'm fine with that. I just don't want to ruin what I may have already developed in the tank if I'm close.
I had previously assumed the "fuzz" was probably algae. Is it green, black or brownish (algae), or whitish (likely fungus)?
Yes your pet store should have all sorts of filter media. The things I mentioned are usually intended for canisters. If you have trouble finding them, there are a ton of choices on the internet. Correct me if I'm wrong but I assumed you're using a hang-on-back filter. I have that type, but I removed the carbon filter cartridge and replaced it with a modified fluval water polishing pad and some ceramic rings. The combination has kept my water crystal clear and ammonia/nitrite free so far.
The fuzzy growth is probably some sort of water mold (which is a fungus, like the other forum said), especially if it is whitish. Water mold resembles a white algae, and it's usually the result of unstable water conditions. Once your tank is cycled and the pH stabilizes it will probably stop growing. The mold has trouble growing in clean, well-circulating water. You shouldn't need to restart your tank because of it. I had a white water mold growing on my heater's suction cups while the tank was fishless cycling. I just took it out and wiped it off every once in a while. Almost as soon as my tank was cycled, it stopped growing back.
Your best bet is waiting until your new 5-gallon is cycled, especially if the bowl that the betta is in right now is stable. Just to make sure you understand, both the plants and the bacteria use ammonia. You will need to manually add a source of ammonia no matter what if you want to fishless cycle. Plants will keep the water safer if you're cycling with fish, but they will not necessarily speed up a fishless cycle. I believe plants to be beneficial to an established tank, but that would be up to you. They really dont require much extra attention.
If you can't find cycled material but you still want to speed up your cycle, try the "active" filter sponges from this website. (I swear I don't work for them!) They breed angelfish so their tanks should be pretty clean. I used one of their sponges and it helped my tank cycle in about 3 weeks. It's going to be the next best thing to fresh cycled material, and has proven itself to me to be more reliable than bottled bacteria. Just be aware that the filters will probably come with some snail hitch hikers.
The fuzz is a light grey color...it looks like dust bunnies that you would find in the corners of a hard wood floor. It's only on one of the ornaments. Should I take that one out and clean it?
Yes, I am using a hang on filter box. I will check out the website...I really don't want snails though.
Byron, is there a certain type of plant that I should look for? How many plants are sufficient for a 5 gallon?
Where do I get ammonia to add and do I need to do that if there is already some in there?
Surely, there is more fungus in the tank than just on that ornament though, right? I will clean the ornament, but I would think there would still be some left behind. Am I understanding correctly, that once I add my plants and the water quality starts leveling out that any remaining fungus will dissapear?
Do you have to feed anything extra to the snails? Are we talking about the little pond snails or the big pretty ones? I've read that the tank can get over run with them and they are hard to get rid of. That's the only reason that I shy away from them.
What type of filter media do you recommend? I'm reading up on the other things that smiles told me about. I had no idea that there is so many different types.
Ok, so my plan is to do a 50% water change using Prime to condition the new water, clean the ornament, add some plants, and change the type of filter that I am using (I just have to figure out what to change it to). Does that sound like a good plan?
Oh, and one more thing....do you use aquarium salt with a betta? The pet store told me to use it for the puffer because they need brackish water.
Thanks for the plant recommendations!
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