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Failed to Cycle


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Greetings.  It was suggested to me to bring my question here.  I've been reading and researching for over a year and haven't come up with any solutions.  I am the caretaker of two beautiful male Bettas.  To preface my question, I got the two Bettas on February 14th of 2020.  When I saw them, I knew I HAD to have them, so they were given 5.5 gallon uncycled tanks, and I assumed I would be able to do a fish-in cycle. After all, it's only one little fish, right? A year and two months later, I have had no luck.  Don 't worry.....they are healthy and happy.  I however am not.

Six weeks ago, I started a new 5.5 gallon tank with the intent to do a fishless cycle and give them a temporary home (one at a time) until I could cycle their tanks properly. In the new tank, I have two sponge filters with air stone modification and gravel substrate.  It's been kept at a pH of 7.4, a temperature of 79 degrees F, ammonia at 2.0 ppm using Fritz Fishless Fuel and a healthy dose of Fritz Zyme 7.  It's my understanding, these should be ideal conditions for a cycle to develop.  But, there is still no hint of cycling activity.  I am frustrated beyond belief.

I use tap water, which has a pH of 8.4, a GH of at least 180, a KH between 40-60.  I use API pH Down to bring the pH down to near neutral.  I use API Betta Water Conditioner for dechlorination.  I've even used chlorine test strips to verify that it is working.  It shows there is chorine present, but there is near zero "free" chlorine.  I am at a complete loss as to understand what could be preventing a cycle. Oh....I use an API Master Test kit.

One thing I need to mention....At the time I started the new tank, my mother had an "air scrubber" installed in our HVAC system.  Besides UV, it claims to create "sanitizing ions" and hydro peroxides.  You can smell them when you enter the house from outside.  The odor is not nearly as strong in the basement where my aquariums are, but I am concerned it might be having an adverse effect.  Does anyone else use one of these air scrubbers?

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Hello James.   Well, all I can tell you is what the test kit tells me.  And, it is not out of date, by the way.

From day one, after two days I would get ammonia readings of 8 ppm (or greater), which I understand can stall, or prevent a cycle.  I never thought one little fish could foul a tank so quickly.  After a couple of months, I cut them back to one feeding a day.  At first, all I had was a Top Fin BF5 Betta-Flo internal filter, which has the standard floss and carbon cartridge.  When I set up these tanks, I used an entire bottle of Tetra Safe Start Plus between them.  After a few months of frustration, I added Aquatop's smallest sponge filter.  This changed nothing.  I have to admit, I was not doing a thorough gravel vacuuming like I believed I was, but that has changed.  Even so, the test results are the same.  I have never measured ANY nitrites or nitrates in any of my tanks....ever.  If I had, the ammonia readings should not be consistently so high.

My tap water has no ammonia initially.  However, after dechlorination, I get an ammonia reading of .25 ppm, which indicates chloramine is in the water.  Like I said, after two days, the reading is up to 8 ppm, or higher.

My Bettas are in 5.5 gallon tanks.  I give them a 3 gallon water change every other day.  And, because of the high ammonia readings, I add API Ammo Lock.  If I use Ammo Lock again after two days to delay the water change for a day, it drops the pH even more.  Every few weeks, I will do a 4 gallon water change to dilute any residual Ammo Lock.

I'd really love to have cycled tanks, so I wouldn't have to subject my little buddies to so much chemicals, and I wouldn't have to do massive water changes so often.  But, I can't even cycle a fishless tank.



Edited by Neptune95
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I'd slow down the water changes and ditch using Ammo Lock and the pH adjusting chems. If you're concerned about your fish being exposed to ammonia as it rises in the tank, a dose of Seachem Prime/API Equivalent will bind with NH3 and give you 48 hours of NH4, which is significantly less toxic for fish. I would also stop gravel vaccing during the water changes you are performing. 

As far as the pH Down goes, why are you bothering? Bettas are hardy and thrive in a wide pH range. Keep things stable and they're happy. All of mine have been in 8.0-8.2 pH water without issue. If you're really concerned you could pull the water 24 hours in advance and let it settle and off-gas to see how that affects the pH.

I'm not an HVAC expert, or a biologist, but I suppose the air scrubber could be slowing things down. I figure a trace amount of bacteria might come with livestock, but bettas probably don't come from cycled water. Can you go to a fish store and get some filter squeezings or a mesh bag of gravel? I put very little faith in bottled bacteria. Give me some squeezings from a nasty, brown sponge any day.

Do you have any live plants in the tanks? 

To summarize, here's how I'd try to get things moving.

1. Get your hands on some sponge squeezings or cycled substrate. I'm not sure if big box pet stores are cool with this or not, it might depend on the person manning the aquariums. If you manage to get some filtered material you'll be able to say with absolute certainty that you have live bacteria in your tanks.

1a. Cut out the pH Down (optional, I suppose, but tinkering with pH for every water change is... less than ideal)

2. Feed every second, or third, day and feed sparingly. Being hungry is a normal part of life as a fish. A hungry fish is a happy fish.

3. Keep an eye on ammonia. As things start to approach 1ppm, dose with something like Prime to convert the ammonia to ammonium.

4. Water change some amount less than 50% every 5-7 days or as ammonia starts to crest the 3-4ppm mark. I saw you mentioned hitting 8ppm in two days, which would get me dialing my feeding way back. Either something is rotting in the tank, or the fish is generating a boat load of waste. Don't gravel vac during these. If you're feeding lightly there shouldn't be any food to to remove. Leave all the gunk on the bottom for a while.

Hopefully something in that wall of text is helpful!

Edited by Schwack
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3gal water change every other day in a 5 gal tank, you are most likely resetting the cycle every time. id give it a week before you do another change, and then more like 1 gal. just keep an eye on the fish. if they continue to appear healthy, all is good.

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For me to follow all of this advice, I would have to believe that my test kit is giving me grossly false readings, and I have no way to accurately monitor the conditions in my aquariums.  Right now, it tells me I have potentially lethal amounts of ammonia in my inhabited tanks.  My fishless tank is unchanged at a steady 2.0 ppm under the conditions you all are recommending.  It's my understanding that even without adding bacteria, there should be enough present in the environment to start a cycle albeit more slowly.

I forgot to mention that a few months ago I also bought two Seachem Ammonia Alert devices.  It's my understanding they monitor only "free" ammonia (NH3).  In which case, with the Ammo Lock used, I have no more than .05 ppm free ammonia.  Whereas, the API test kit measures all ammonia....bound and unbound.  Ammo Lock serves the same purpose as Seachem Prime regarding ammonia.  Since both lose their effectiveness after 48 hours, it's fair to assume the bound ammonium (NH4) will become unbound ammonia (NH3) if the pH is 7.0 or above.  At a reading of 8 ppm, that would be lethal.  So, you see my dilemma.  It's my understanding that nitrifying bacteria should consume the ammonia in either state.

As I alluded to, for most of the last year, I have done only a superficial vacuuming of the gravel.   It's only recently that I've done a much more thorough job.  That was because, even with the massive water changes, the water was becoming increasingly cloudy (muddy) even after one day.  Vacuuming the gravel will not destroy all of the bacteria adhering to the surface of the gravel.  I was merely cleaning the excessive accumulated detritus.  The nitrifying bacteria grows on surfaces....not in the water.

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I'm certainly not suggesting that your kit is wrong. Like I said, the first thing I would do is seek out cycled media. At least then you'd know you'd introduced healthy, living bacteria. Between that and dramatically reducing feeding I have a hard time seeing how a cycle wouldn't get going. I might even try doing a water change with water left outside for a day or two. After a year without any sign of a cycle I'd be losing it. You could also try buying some plants from a fish store and plopping the plant + pot and rockwool into your tanks.

Ammo Lock serves the same purpose as Prime, but that doesn't necessarily make them interchangeable. You mentioned that dosing Ammo Lock was impacting your pH, leading to water changes. Its composition appears similar to what people guess Prime to be, but I've never experienced any pH drop while dosing Prime during a fish-in, or out, cycle. This can help stretch the time between water changes. Prime claims to be able bind NH3 into NH4+ regardless of pH. Best I could find was someone corresponding with Seachem about the process ~10 years ago with the advice that 48 hours is best case, 24 is more likely.

Are you using a substrate that would cloud the water? That your tanks are clouding up is a bit odd and depending on the color that could be the start of a bacterial bloom. I've had several tanks go through large blooms as they were cycling, but it's typically a milky white haze. 

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How about, Instead of ammo lock or prime, you get some plants in the tank? Even just pothos, with leaves out the top, and roots in. It won't cycle your tank, but it will serve the purpose of sucking up excess ammonia without chemicals. Once it starts to grow you should see ammonia levels drop, and you can drop the chemical use to zero. You can control climbing pH by using distilled water if necessary, and falling pH with dechlorinated tap water. Just as suggested, also try to get some material from an established tank.

Then STOP changing water. Top up only. Feed every other day, about 5 pellets per betta. For like a month. Maybe even 2. Maybe even forever--because the plants are going to suck up so much ammonia and nitrates that basically it won't matter at all, and you will have to feed more and possibly even start fertilizing them just to keep them growing.

Basically, even with your air scrubber, if you add gravel from an established tank, the water itself would prevent the "sanitizing ions" from affecting your cycle. Water is a pretty good ionic barrier. I think you may have less bacteria in the air to seed the tank, and bottled bacteria is notoriously unreliable.

That said, once you introduce live bacteria below the water's surface it will do fine regardless of what is going on elsewhere in the house, but if you are removing 3g from a 5g tank every few days, you are killing off all the bacteria that was on surfaces above the waterline for however long it took you to refill--even without the air scrubber that is true. 


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Wow!!!  This is a busy forum.  And, it's already been four days since I posted this.

FWIW...I have been slowly reducing the amount of pH Down I've been using.  So as to change the pH very slowly over a period of time.

When I did my water change on Wednesday, both of my filters failed to restart.  So, it was necessary to clean the motor housing and impellers.  I've had to do this at least once a month.  Everything was coated in a brown muck, which I can only hope is desirable bacteria.  But, since I don't have a quality microscope and practical lab technique, I have no way to verify this.

Thursday, I had forgotten to add more Ammo Lock to delay the water change until Friday.  This is something that had been  recommended.  However, when I got home on Friday, I was upset to find my Bettas swimming frantically and erratically.  Something I had never seen before.  So, I added the Ammo Lock until I could do a water change later that evening.  Their behavior returned to normal.

Thank you for all of the advice.  As I originally stated, I want to be able to cycle the fishless tank first before performing any more experiments on my Bettas.

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  • 5 months later...
On 4/12/2021 at 10:28 PM, Neptune95 said:

I use API Betta Water Conditioner for dechlorination

Just for everyone's information.....After a year and a half of pulling my hair out, I discovered this (above) was the reason my tanks refused to cycle.  Evidently, there is an ingredient, most likely the Aloe, that absolutely prevents cycling from occurring.  Apparently, it is intended ONLY for small tanks and bowls that are NOT intended to be cycled.  Nothing in the documentation makes this clear.

Only after I stopped using the product above, and a few water changes over a couple of weeks, did I get ANY nitrites and nitrates.  I now have two fully cycled tanks.  And, the third fishless tank I was attempting to cycle is now well on it's way.  Also, my tank and filters are no longer being gunked up with a yellowish slime.  I believe this is important information everyone should be aware of.

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