Fishless Tank Cycling

vieja argentea, silver cichlid, vieja argentea picFishless tank cycling is the new trend in the fish tank cycling process. The fish less cycle is easy, does not stress fish, and teaches you to effectively test your aquarium water regularly.

Tropical fish keepers are turning to this process more and more because you do not have to purchase fish to cycle your aquarium.

The fishless cycle is favored because you do not put tropical fish under so much stress. As ammonia builds up in the aquarium water, it burns the gills and tissue of the tropical fish. This is called ammonia poisoning and often can be deadly to your fish.

The traditional fish tank cycling process is fine as long as you are conscience about the amounts of ammonia in the tank. You just do not want toxic levels to build up during the aquarium nitrogen cycle and end up killing your aquarium fish.

Fishless tank cycling is not hard at all. You still must have patience, but usually this process is a week or two shorter than the traditional aquarium nitrogen cycling process.

Seeding the Fish Tank

Just as I would suggest you seed your tank in a traditional cycling process, I strongly urge you to seed your aquarium during the fishless tank cycling process also.

Seeding the tank means introducing established, healthy beneficial bacteria colonies into your new aquarium. This will speed up your fishless tank cycle tremendously.

Here are some ways to seed your new aquarium:

  • Use a filter cartridge, sponge, or other filter media from an established tank.
  • Fill a media bag, or a rinsed off pantyhose stocking with gravel from an established tank.
  • Use a few gallons of an established tank’s water in your tank.
  • Use decorations such as gravel, driftwood, and even artificial plants from an existing cycled tank.
  • Purchase live plants and put them in your new tank.

Please note that you should only use the above-mentioned items from a disease free tank. If you suspect any illnesses in the other established tank, DO NOT seed your tank with anything from that tank.

Seeding the aquarium is not mandatory, but it will speed up the process significantly. If you do not have a source to get beneficial bacteria from, do not worry. Your cycle may take a week or two longer but everything will be just fine.

Ammonia Source

Many hobbyists often use pieces of raw shrimp or tropical fish food as their ammonia source. I do not like this process. Uneaten fish food also introduces phosphates into the water resulting in cloudy water or algae problems.

I suggest you purchase pure ammonia to complete the fishless tank cycling process. You can find this pure household ammonia in many hardware stores or grocery stores.

You must purchase ammonia that has no additives. Many manufactures add color, scents, and other detergents to the ammonia. Make sure it is not colored, or has a special smell or perfume added. If you shake the jug, and it creates foam on the top, there are additives. Be sure to read the label and ensure you have pure household ammonia.

Step 1: Adding Ammonia

So how much Ammonia do you add to your aquarium?

There is no one true amount of ammonia I can tell you to add. Start off adding one teaspoon per ten gallons. The reason for this difference or uncertainty is because each “brand” of pure ammonia has different strengths.

Make sure you have a good freshwater aquarium test kit and begin testing your ammonia levels after you allow an hour or so for the water to circulate the ammonia. You want to get your Ammonia (NH3) levels to measure 4-5 ppm on your test results. If you need to add more Ammonia(NH3) to get the levels to 4-5 ppm, dose slowly.

Once you get your Ammonia levels up to 4-5 ppm, this is all you need to do on day 1.

Step 2: Monitor and Manage Ammonia levels

For the next several days, test your water daily and be sure to keep your ammonia levels at 4-5 ppm daily. If your test results show you need more ammonia, just add enough pure ammonia to your water daily to keep the levels at the needed 4-5 ppm range.

After 5-8 days, you should see Nitrite showing up on your test results. Now you should be testing ammonia and nitrites daily. When you notice significant nitrites, you should cut back the amount of ammonia that you are adding to the aquarium water.

You should now add just enough pure ammonia to keep the ammonia levels around 2-3 ppm. This should be enough ammonia to keep your beneficial bacteria busy and happy.

The nitrite will spike and this is an excellent sign. This tells you that the beneficial bacteria is reproducing and breaking down the ammonia. If your nitrites spike higher than your test kit will measure, retest the water once more.

Now if the second test shows nitrites reaching extreme levels (off the chart), change 10-15% of your water. Be sure not to change or clean any filter media and do not vacuum your gravel. Ensure that you dechlorinate your new water that is being added.

Step 3: Measure and Manage Nitrites

During this stage of fishless tank cycling, you should be reading 2-3ppm of nitrite on your test results. This stage lasts 5-14 days on average. You will slowly begin to see nitrites declining. This is perfectly normal and a great sign!

When nitrites begin declining, this means that the beneficial bacteria is now able to break down the nitrites into nitrates.

You should still be adding just enough ammonia to register 2-3 ppm on your test results. If you stop adding the ammonia now, you will starve the beneficial bacteria of their food.

Somewhere after 5-14 days of keeping ammonia at 2-3 ppm, and keeping nitrites under control, you should now begin testing nitrates.

Step 4: The Home Stretch

At this stage, you should be testing daily and noticing that your ammonia is near or at zero, nitrites are near or at zero, and your nitrates are rising. This means everything is going as planned.

When you notice after two consecutive days of dosing ammonia that your levels are stable and in the safe zone, you are ready to reduce the amount of nitrates in the aquarium water.

Perform a large 50-70% water change. DO NOT clean your filters, and DO NOT vacuum the aquarium gravel. Cleaning your filter and gravel would reduce your beneficial bacteria colony.

Dechlorinate your water and let the system run for a day or overnight so the water conditions can stabilize.

fish border, fish picture, fish graphics

Now it is time to go out and buy your aquarium fish.

By performing the fishless tank cycling process, you have built up enough beneficial bacteria so that you can purchase a larger quantity of fish initially as compared to the traditional aquarium nitrogen cycle.

The first days of having fish in your aquarium, you will need to test your water daily. If you see a spike in ammonia or nitrite to dangerous levels, perform a 25-30% water change until your test results show safe levels.

Ensure that you feed lightly and perform weekly water changes.

Congratulations on successfully completing the fishless tank cycling process.

Fishless Tank Cycling Review

  1. Seed your new tank with something from a disease free, well established tropical fish tank.
  2. Purchase pure/clean ammonia. NO additives.
  3. Dose ammonia at 1 teaspoon per 10-gallons to start. Test your water. If needed, increase dosage to get the desired 4-5 ppm ammonia reading on your test result.
  4. Monitor and test ammonia daily for the next 5-8 days. Keep ammonia at 4-5 ppm.
  5. After 5-8 days nitrites should begin building up. Start testing ammonia and nitrites daily.
  6. Decrease ammonia dosing to around 1/2 of what you previously dosed. Ammonia should read 2-3 ppm. Nitrites will be OK until they test off of your chart.
  7. If nitrites get to a dangerous level, perform a water change. 10-15% is normal, but you can do more if needed. Do not clean filters or gravel.
  8. After 5-14 days of monitoring nitrites, you should start testing nitrates.
  9. When nitrites begin building up, you should notice that your ammonia is near or at zero. Nitrites likewise should be at or near zero. When you have two consecutive days of ammonia and nitrites near or at zero, you are cycled!
  10. Perform a large 50-70% water change. Do not clean filters or gravel.


Congratulations, you are cycled!


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