Cycling a Saltwater Aquarium


Cycling a Tank

Once you're done setting up your first saltwater tank you'll need to cycle it. Please refer to our Starting a Saltwater Tank page to make sure you have all of the necessary equipment before continuing with this section. If you cycle a tank before making sure you have all the proper equipment, you may be your wasting time. You can potentially throw your tank into a new cycle if you try to cut corners in an effort to establish your tank in an expedited manner.

Once you have all of the equipment you'll need to decide on a salt. Here we prefer either Instant Ocean or Tropic Marin. Both of these salts have outstanding buffering capabilities and very impressive chemical makeups when it comes to the basic elements that your tank needs.

You'll want to at least have a sand bed and preferably some sort of live rock in your tank. Both live rock and sand beds allow for the colonization of aerobic and anaerobic bacteria. Both of these forms of bacteria allow your tank to perform the breakdown of nitrogen, also known as the nitrogen cycle. The most harmful compound in the nitrogen cycle is ammonia. However, with the proper cycling of a tank, your tank will have the ability to turn toxic ammonia into nitrite and then nitrite into the much less harmful nitrate. Nitrate is then removed from the tank via several different methods naturally.

Important Testing Information:

When you first start cycling your tank you should purchase test kits for ammonia, nitrite and nitrate. You should be able to see each of these elements rise and then fall as the next one rises. At the end of your cycle you should have no detectable amounts of ammonia or nitrite, but your tank will usually always show a small amount of nitrate. This will happen as your beneficial bacteria establish throughout your cycle.

Next you may ask how you acquire this bacterium though. The recommendation I am going to make, if you follow any of this advice, it is at your own risk and you agree to not hold is responsible for any outcome that should occur... here's why. It is very important to support your LFS (local fish store). One of the quickest ways to add beneficial bacteria to your aquarium is by acquiring sand or rock from an already established tank. BUT, you want to make sure your rock or sand comes from a reputable source or it can potentially harm your tank by introducing something to your tank that may cause future issues. Make sure to discuss with the LFS or tank owner if the tank has ever had any issues.

We believe the live rock or live sand method is the best way to cycle a tank. There are a lot of people that recommend using "cycle fish" also known as damsel fish. Thing is that this too is rather unfair to the fish. It is extremely stressful to the fish and not necessary to subject a living critter to those conditions when there are other options that are just as good. Plus, it can be rather difficult to remove the fish from your tank at a later point.

Timeframe & Algae Blooms

Onto timeframe. When cycling a tank there is absolutely no way to speed it up. There's dozens of products on the market that claim to speed up or even eliminate tank cycling. We wouldn't use any of these products and that's just personal preference. It's common biology that bacteria takes time to develop and there is no substitute for time. At MINIMUM a tank should take 5-6 weeks to cycle before it is ready for any actual animal life. Please be responsible when cycling a tank and your tank should reward you for years to come.

Most people notice either a light dusting of what looks like brown powder (diatoms), green "hair-like" algae (bryopsis) or a rust/red colored "slime" type algae (cynobacteria). All of these algae are completely normal and will usually disappear with time as your water chemistry improves. The majority of the time that a problematic algae pops up it's due to an excess of any number of harmful nutrients in your aquarium, including Nitrates, Phosphates and several others. As your tank ages and becomes more reliant upon it's own natural filtration these nutrients should be consumed by other beneficial tank members, which causes problematic algae to disappear. 

Should you have any further questions feel free to contact us and we will happily help with additional information to help ensure every tank achieves success. For more information about water chemistry and parameters please visit our Water Chemistry Page.