Speeding Up the Nitrogen Cycling Process

Mature Bacteria is Key

Nitrogen Cycle in the Aquarium
Thomas R. Reich PhD

The nitrogen cycling process that all new saltwater setups go through when they are first started is what leads to the birth of the aquarium's biological "bacteria" base. From start to finish, this cycle usually takes around 30 to 45 days to complete its mission and depending on each individual aquarium's set up and care variables, sometimes longer. There are a number of things you can do to speed up the cycling process in your saltwater aquarium.

If you don't want to wait around for nature to run its course and create this needed end result bacteria, there are ways to help speed up the cycling process by "seeding" a new tank with mediums or materials that already have a mature bacteria population established on them. These seed sources are usually obtained by removing them from another saltwater aquarium that is well established, one at least 6 months old, and is disease free, meaning one that is not suspected of having or is undergoing treatment for a disease of any kind.

Seeding Methods

The following seeding methods only help to cut some time off the cycling process, not eliminate it. The three phases of the cycling process will still occur! Just how much faster it reaches completion once again depends on how each individual aquarium is set up and taken care of, as well as how much of a mature and healthy population of bacteria are introduced through the seeded material.

  • Remove a cup or two of whatever type of substrate is being used (live sand, coral rubble, gravel, etc.) and lay it on top of the new tank's substrate, or put it into an appropriately sized mesh bag that will hold the media and place it in the filter. If this cannot be done, you can hang the mesh bag inside the tank directly in the path of where the filter's water return will flow over and through it.
    • This type of seed material might be for sale at a local fish store in your area. However, use cause with these sources, as you do not have control over whether or not the media is disease free.
    • If you are planning on adding live sand as the substrate to your aquarium, often aquarists choose to add a 50/50 mix of non-living sand and live sand (either from an existing tank or purchased) to help cut back on cost.
  • Remove some of the bio-media material from a wet/dry trickle, canister, or similar filter setups that use this type of material and place it into the filter of the new tank, or use the mesh bag method as above.
  • Add a hang-on-tank box, canister, or sponge type filter to the established aquarium and let it run for a week or two to allow the material in the filter to collect bacteria from the water, then move the filter over to the new tank.
  • If you have some type of pre-filter set up on the established tank, when it comes time to change the floss, sponge, foam, or whatever type of material is being used, place part or all of it into the filter of the new aquarium.
  • Add a nitrifying bacteria starter or booster. These types of products are something that can be used during "any" method chosen for cycling a tank to aid in moving things along a little faster as well.

Whether you use one or more of these seeding methods to help cycle a new tank or not, an ammonia source is still required in the aquarium to keep the cycling process alive and going. This is accomplished by adding a few fish or choosing an alternative method of cycling without fish.