Our New Aquarium

Friday, 13 March, 2009
Last week we decided to take the plunge and set up that long desired aquarium. We ordered a 40 gallon tall tank with plain pne cabinet from Tropical Imports on Colorado Boulevard in Glendale California. The staff, especially Dean, has been most helpful with advice, remaining courteous despite often numerous telephone calls a day. It took a week for the aquarium to arrive, but Monday past, 9 March, it arrived and we brought it home. Luckily Frank was riding his bicycle past the house and he helped us carry the heavy aquarium into the living room. That day we stained the cabinet Mediterranean Olive with the left over stain from the bathroom remodel. Tuesday afternoon we polyurethaned the cabinet and asked neighbor Daryl to help put the tank on the stand. It took several hours to set up the Rena XP3 cannister filter, fill the tank with three bags of flourite gravel, arrange the stone bridge, plant the Amazon Sword, Giant Sagittaria Eel Grass and Papyrus from the outdoor fountain, and finally fill the tank with water. We primed the filter, dechlorinated the water and tested the Ph which came in at 7.6. Since we put peat in the filter, we hoped to reduce the alkalinity in a few days so we could add some Amazon Tetras. Dave from Tropical Imports convinced us to buy a CO2 system to keep the plants healthy. In two days after the Ph had dropped to 7.2, we returned to Tropical Imports and bought the “canary in the coal mine” which consisted of six Glowlight Tetras, Hemigrammus erthrozonus, which are barely visible on the left side of the tank under the thermometer. Our impatience began to get the best of us and we were chomping at the bit to buy a school of Emperor Tetras as well. We returned to Tropical Imports a few hours later and bought twelve of the little beauties, only to find after doing some web research that there are several similar looking species that are sold as Emperor Tetras. We believe we got the Blue Emperor Tetra, Inpaichthys kerri, which has an adipose fin, and not the true Emperor Tetra, Nematobrycon palmeri, which has the trident tail on the male. Alas, we will grow to love our Blue Emperor Tetras despite the error in our purchase. In the future, we plan to get additional Tetras, Angel Fish, Rams, and maybe even a Discus or two.

Aquarium:  March 12, 2009
Aquarium: March 12, 2009

Next Morning: Friday the 13 of March, 2009, all the fish are still alive and swimming.

Update: Monday 16 March 2009
Against the advice we received at Tropical Imports, we decided to introduce more fish. First, we returned one Blue Emperor Tetra that was not eating and was looking kind of bloated with portruding scales. Nervous that it might have some contageous disease, and without a proper quarantine area, the tetra went back to the store and we didn’t even ask for a refund. It seems the delicate amonia/nitrite/nitrate balance is still a bit confusing to us. Fish produce ammonia, and that contributes to the nitrate levels. Plants help convert the toxic ammonia and nitrite into nitrate, and bacteria is also necessary for this whole process. At our age, the learning curve on this might be steep.
Until the aquarium finds a balance, it is typical to just introduce a few “cycle fish” until the tank is seasoned. But we were impatient, hence the purchase of the Blue Emperor Tetras. Things did get worse. We bought 10 Cardinal Tetras, Paracheirodon axelrodi, on Saturday from Sunset Aquarium for $23. Alas, this morning, there were two fatalities. If that wasn’t bad enough, we went to Petco in Pasadena yesterday and fell in love with 4 Black Phantom Tetras, Megalamphodus megalopterus, and two more Glowlight Tetras. The new Glowlight Tetras do not have as pronounced an orange stripe as the original 6, but we hope they color up soon. Our tally is now 8 Glowlight Tetras, 11 Blue Emperor Tetras (one of original 12 having been returned), 8 Cardinal Tetras (2 of original 10 deceased after 36 hours) and 4 Black Phantom Tetras. We know we have two many fish right now for an unseasoned tank that needs cycling, but our error will hopefully not result in mass annihilation if we monitor our tank balance. Our reasoning was that the fish were small, and they have more than a gallon of water each. This morning we plan to buy a few more plants and get a siphon hose so we can do a partial water change soon. We are about to test and post our water results.

Water Test 20090316
Water Test 20090316

Here are the results of our water tests from bottom to top
Nitrate: .25 ppm
Ammonia: 1.0 ppm
pH: 7.2
Nitrate: 5.0 ppm
We now must buy some siphon tubing in preparation for a partial water change. We also want to get a few more plants and a tool to reach the bottom of the very tall tank.

We did buy the siphon system as well as a long handled plant pruner/planter. We got a few plants, but the names escape us. One looked like a spadderdock, and Dean through in a few clippings of water wisteria that are floating on top. When we siphoned out 8 Gallons of water, we replaced 5 gallons of Yosemite bottled water.

Update: 19 March 2009
We tested the water again and the nitrite levels seem to be rising. Here are the results.
Nitrite: 2.0 ppm
Nitrate: 5.0 ppm
pH: 7.0
Ammonia: .5
We added more of the Cycle Bacteria culture and we had a few more fish casualties. We lost one Blue Emperor Tetra and one of the Petco Glowlights.

Water Test 20090319
Water Test 20090319

Update: 21 March 2009
We tested the water this morning and have these results.
Nitrite: 2.0 ppm
Nitrate: 5.0 ppm
pH: 7.0
Ammonia: .25

We have also had additional fish losses. We currently have 8 Blue Emperor Tetras (though one does not look so good), 7 Glowlight Tetras, 8 Cardinal Tetras and 4 Black Phantom Tetras (perhaps we are being paranoid, but one does not seem as active as the other three). The algae is starting to grow on the glass, so we may head to Tropical Imports to buy a glass scraper. The papyrus is beginning to throw up new shoots. We will do a 5 to 8 gallon water change today and add more Cycle. The last time we changed water, we didn’t fill the tank to the top, allowing about 3 inches for plants to grow out of the water.

Water Test 20090321
Water Test 20090321

So, the ammonia is improving, but the Nitrites are still high.

Update: 22 March 2009
After testing the water yesterday, I changed about 8 gallons of water. I carefully tempered the water so it would not be too cold, but after changing the water, the aquarium temperature was 72 degrees. I discovered that the heater wasn’t working and returned it. I checked the names of the plants I last bought, Cryptocoryne red wendtii and Java Fern. I also bought a new Cryptocoryne spiralis. I also bought an algae scraper. When I planted the new plants, I rearranged the rocks a bit to provide more planting room behind and on both sides.

Today, I found a new aquarium store in Pasadena called Pasadena Tropical Fish. Imagine my delight to find 4 gorgeous striped Angelfish, but upon talking to Natalie, she persuaded me that my water was still not properly cycled to introduce new fish. I did buy $28 in plants and convinced Natalie to hold the Angelfish for a week. I came home and tested the water. Nitrate is between 1. and 2. ppm and Ammonia is still a nontoxic .25 ppm. Natalie believes in a week my tank should be ready for the Angelfish. There have been no new casualties with the Tetras.

Aquarium 20090322
Aquarium 20090322

Update: 23 March 2009
I tested the water first thing this morning because I am eager to get those Angelfish. Here are the results.
Nitrite: 2.0 ppm
Nitrate: 20.0 ppm
pH: 7.2
Ammonia: 0 ppm

Water Test 20090323
Water Test 20090323

Unlike the first image, I am standardizing my water tests from left to right: Nitrate, Nitrate, pH and Ammonia. I should probably do a bit of research on this entire nitrogen cycle thing.

“Nitrogen Cycle by Shirley Sharpe

Call it cycling, nitrification, biological cycle, startup cycle, break-in cycle, or the nitrogen cycle. No matter what name you use, every newly set up aquarium goes through a process of establishing beneficial bacterial colonies. Older aquariums also go through periods during which the bacterial colonies fluctuate. Failure to understand this process is the largest contributing factor to the loss of fish. Learning what it is, and how to deal with critical periods during the nitrogen cycle, will greatly increase your chances of successful fish keeping.

The Waste Problem
Unlike nature, an aquarium is a closed environment. All the wastes excreted from the fish, uneaten food, and decaying plants stay inside the tank. If nothing eliminated those wastes, your beautiful aquarium would turn into a cesspool in no time at all.

Actually, for a short period of time, a new aquarium does become a toxic cesspool. The water may look clear, but don’t be fooled. It’s loaded with toxins. Sounds awful, doesn’t it? Fortunately bacteria that are capable of converting wastes to safer by-products begin growing in the tank as soon as fish are added. Unfortunately there aren’t enough bacteria to eliminate all the toxins immediately, so for a period of several weeks to a month or more, your fish are at risk.

However, you need not lose them. Armed with an understanding of how the nitrogen cycle works and knowing the proper steps to take, you can sail through the break-in cycle with very few problems.

Stages of the Nitrogen Cycle
There are three stages of the nitrogen cycle, each of which presents different challenges.

Initial stage: The cycle begins when fish are introduced to the aquarium. Their feces, urine, as well as any uneaten food, are quickly broken down into either ionized or unionized ammonia. The ionized form, Ammonium (NH4), is present if the pH is below 7, and is not toxic to fish. The unionized form, Ammonia (NH3), is is present if the pH is 7 or above, and is highly toxic to fish. Any amount of unionized Ammonia (NH3) is dangerous, however once the levels reach 2 ppm, the fish are in grave danger. Ammonia usually begins rising by the third day after introducing fish.

Second stage: During this stage Nitrosomonas bacteria oxidize the ammonia, thus eliminating it. However, the by-product of ammonia oxidation is nitrite, which is also highly toxic to fish. Nitrites levels as low as low as 1 mg/l can be lethal to some fish. Nitrite usually begins rising by the end of the first week after introducing fish.

Third stage: In the last stage of the cycle, Nitrobacter bacteria convert the nitrites into nitrates. Nitrates are not highly toxic to fish in low to moderate levels. Routine partial water changes will keep the nitrate levels within the safe range. Established tanks should be tested for nitrates every few months to ensure that levels are not becoming extremely high.

Now that you know what is happening, what should you do? Simple steps such as testing and changing the water will help you manage the nitrogen cycle without losing your fish. For details about what to do next, continue to Page 2.

(Continued from Page 1)
What To Do
The key for success is testing the water for ammonia and nitrites, and taking action quickly when problems occur. To aid in tracking the status of your aquarium, links to charts for logging your tests can be found under the charts section of this page. Each chart shows the danger zones and offers steps to reduce toxins before they result in loss of your fish.

Test for ammonia: Begin testing on day three after adding the fish, and continue every day until the ammonia begins to drop. After it begins to fall, continue testing every other day until the ammonia reaches zero. Using the chart provided, plot the ammonia levels. Should ammonia reach the danger zone, take steps as shown on the chart. If at any time fish show signs of distress, such as rapid breathing (gilling), clamped fins, erratic swimming, or hanging at the surface for air, take immediate action to lower the ammonia level. Chemicals such as Ammo-Lock will quickly neutralize toxic ammonia.

Test for nitrites: Begin testing one week after adding the fish. Continue testing every second or third day, until it reaches zero. Using the chart provided, plot the nitrite levels and take steps as shown on the chart if nitrite reaches the danger zone. If at any time fish show signs of distress, such as rapid breathing or hanging near the surface seemingly gasping for air, test for nitrite. If levels are elevated perform an immediate 25-50% water change and test daily until levels drop.

What Not To Do
Don’t add more fish – wait until the cycle is completed.

Don’t change the filter media – the beneficial bacteria are growing there. Don’t disturb them until they have become well established.

Don’t overfeed the fish – when in doubt underfeed your fish. Remember that anything going into the tank will produce wastes one way or another.

Don’t try to alter the pH – the beneficial bacteria can be affected by changes in pH. Unless there is a serious problem with the pH, leave it alone during the startup cycle process.

Have questions? Continue to Page 3 for answers to the most commonly asked questions.

(Continued from Page 2)
Q: Will adding bacteria solutions, such as those available at pet shops, eliminate the break-in cycle?
A: No, due to lack of an ongoing supply of ammonia and oxygen, the nitrification bacteria cannot survive in a bottle for a prolonged period of time. There are manufacturers making special preparations of the nitrogen fixing bateria. However, what you see on the shelf at the store is simply the bacteria needed for the first stage of the cycle, not nitritfying bacteria. Since the bacteria needed for the first stage of the cycle is already present in the tank once it is set up, there is no need to purchase more of what you already have.

Q: Will changing the water lengthen the time of the cycle?
A: It is true that partial water changes decrease the level of ammonia and nitrites, which in turn triggers less growth of the bacteria that feed on them. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t perform water changes. If the ammonia or nitrite levels become too high, the fish will die. That means that partial water changes should be done whenever toxins reach dangerous levels, even if it means if it slows down the completion of the cycle.

Q: Won’t filling the tank and letting it run for several days before adding the fish get the nitrogen cycle going?
A: No, the cycle doesn’t start the instant the tank is set up. An ongoing supply of ammonia must be present for the process to begin. That only happens if fish are in the tank, or ammonia is added regularly, as is done in “fishless cycling”.

Q: A friend started a new aquarium and didn’t test the water or do water changes. In spite of all that, he didn’t lose a single fish. If he can get away with that, why can’t I?
A: Your friend probably had the magic combination of several of these key factors; relatively few fish, very hardy fish, a large aquarium, minimal feeding, live plants, and water with a low pH. While it is possible to get through the startup-cycle without doing anything, it is not wise to leave it to chance. The only way to be sure you don’t lose fish is to test your water to monitor what’s happening, and take steps if ammonia or nitrite levels soar too high.

Q: What if nothing works to bring the levels down?
A: Keep performing water changes and don’t give up. If ammonia or nitrite levels still remain elevated, feel free to e-mail me for help. Be sure to mark your e-mail URGENT, include all the testing values in your e-mail, as well as the size of your tank, number of fish in the tank, and how long your tank has been running. If you wish to have me call you, include a phone number where you may be reached.

Nitrite Poisoning
Nitrite Poisoning
By Shirlie Sharpe , About.com

See More About:
nitrogen cycle
aquarium salt
water changes
Disease Type: Environmental

Cause: Nitrite

Names: Brown Blood Disease, Nitrite Poisoning

Description: Nitrite poisoning follows closely on the heels of ammonia as a major killer of aquarium fish. Just when you think you are home free after losing half your fish to ammonia poisoning, the nitrites rise and put your fish at risk again. Anytime ammonia levels are elevated, elevated nitrites will soon follow. To avoid nitrite poisoning, test when setting up a new tank, when adding new fish to established an tank, when the filter fails due to power or mechanical failure, and when medicating sick fish.
Fish gasp for breath at the water surface
Fish hang near water outlets
Fish is listless
Tan or brown gills
Rapid gill movement

Also known as ‘brown blood disease’ because the blood turns brown from a increase of methemoglobin. However, methemoglobin causes a more serious problem than changing the color of the blood. It renders the blood unable to carry oxygen, and the fish can literally suffocate even though there is ample oxygen present in the water.
Different species of fish tolerate differing levels of nitrite. Some fish may simply be listless, while others may die suddenly with no obvious signs of illness. Common symptoms include gasping at the surface of the water, hanging near water outlets, rapid gill movement, and a change in gill color from tan to dark brown.
Fish that are exposed to even low levels of nitrite for long periods of time suffer damage to their immune system and are prone to secondary diseases, such as ich, fin rot, and bacterial infections. As methemoglobin levels increase damage occurs to the liver, gills and blood cells. If untreated, affected fish eventually die from lack of oxygen, and/or secondary diseases.
Large water change
Add salt, preferably chlorine salt
Reduce feeding
Increase aeration

The addition of one half ounce of salt per gallon of water will prevent methemoglobin from building up. Chlorine salt is preferable, however any aquarium salt is better than no salt at all. Aeration should be increased to provide ample oxygen saturation in the water. Feedings should be reduced and no new fish should be added until the tank until the ammonia and nitrite levels have fallen to zero.
Nitrite is letal at much lower levels than ammonia. Therefore it is critical to continue daily testing and treatment until the nitrite falls to zero.
Stock new tanks slowly
Feed sparingly and remove uneaten food
Change water regularly
Test water regularly to catch problems early

The key to elminating fish death is to avoid extreme spikes and prolonged elevation of nitrites. When starting a new tank, add only a couple of fish initially and do not add more until the tank is completely cycled. In an established tank, only add a couple of new fish at a time and avoid overstocking.
Feed fish small quantities of foods, and remove any food not consumed in five minutes. Clean the tank weekly, taking care to remove an dead plants or other debris. Perform a partial water change at least every other week, more often in small heavily stocked tanks. Always test the water for nitrite after an ammonia spike has occured as there will be a nitrite increase later. ”

4 thoughts on “Our New Aquarium”

  1. Congrats on your new planted headache, I mean aquarium! Seriously though, planted aquariums are a blast. I’ve been trying to get my 10gal (office) tank where I want it for a couple years now. It started out as an alternative to our home tank because I wanted a Bamboo Shrimp and Clown Loach+Shrimp= well fed Clown Loach. You will definitely need the Co2. I was so reluctant with putting it in my tank because of my Rummy Nose Tetras but then there was an incident and I lost all but one so I said “Why not?” I’m happy I did it. I’d recommend aquahobby.com for information on plants, fish and general aquarium advice. I don’t know what I’d do without it. It’s too late for you now but with plants you can cycle your tank without subjecting fish to the high ammonia and nitrites. If you don’t have it I’d suggest buying your own master test kit. Hopefully you didn’t buy too many fish to start with. Good Luck!

    • Thanks for the advice and link Nihil. Of course, we have been very bad and purchased more fish than Dean recommended. We did get the master test kit and we are trying to test the water every day or two. We are nervous about the aquarium posting spinning off into its own website that we have absolutely no time to update, so instead of adding new postings, it is probably a better idea to just keep a running log of aquarium activity on the same posting. at least until there is some major change. Thanks again for the advice.

  2. Daniel,
    Sorry about all your fish loss and the heater. 🙁 Unfortunately fish loss happens, especially in a cycling tank. Can’t say that we (hubby and I) didn’t screw up the whole cycle process in our tank at home before we knew all about how that works. If you’re showing little to no ammonia and you’re getting nitrAte production, then you’re getting very close to have your tank cycled. It’s easy to get impatient but hand in there any it’ll happen. Getting that pretty blue nitrIte test is pretty exciting.

    Your aquascaping looks very cool. Makes me wish I had a bigger tank so I wasn’t so limited with my 10gal but I like the challenges a “nano” tank brings on or at least that’s what I keep telling myself.

    Speaking of plants, you’ll probably get snails at some point so look into get tank size appropriate loaches to gobble them up. (when you’re cycled) Burmese border loaches are petty neat looking. I will warn you that our clown loaches like to lay on their side and I’ve heard that other loaches do as well.


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