Deborah’s Fishless Tank Cycling Process

Image: Freshwater Aquarium

Deborah’s Fishless Tank Cycling Process

Fish-Keeping History – “For Pete’s Sake”

I’m sure this is a surprise post for you to read here. Welcome to “Deborah’s Fishless Tank Cycling Process.” If you’ve been to my blog before, you’re probably wondering if you’re on the right blog! Inspiration comes from many different directions at times. I’m the kind of person that thinks things happen for a reason and that there are no coincidences. So, let me share with you my latest inspiration that actually dates back to the 1960’s.

My Mother passed away Easter Sunday 2011. I am an only child and she was like my very best friend. It’s only natural that she’s on my mind each day. Recently I started missing having fish. I started reflecting on when my fish-keeping hobby actually began. Then I remembered my Mother back in the 1960’s got a clear fish bowl and bought a gorgeous lavender-blue male Betta Splendens (fighting fish). She also put a large heavy half-clamshell in there for him with an air bubble underneath it. Pete would go to the top and blow bubbles. (I later learned this was his bubble nest indicating he was ready for mating). He would rest under his clam shell and still have air to breathe. He was graceful and his movements were serpentine. To our horror, he also started jumping out of his bowl. My Mother worked from home so thank goodness she would be there to put him back in his bowl. We had concrete floors with black and white tile. When he would jump out of his bowl, it was about a 6 foot drop to the floor and it really scared her. She didn’t know what to do. She didn’t want to cover his bowl because he’d suffocate. One day, she was not at home and he had no one to put him back. She found him on the floor. It made her feel so bad, she never replaced him. This was the beginning of my interest in fish-keeping.

Shortly after that, Mother allowed me to get an aquarium for my birthday. I think I was about 8 years old. Back then, my best neighborhood friend Bob and I would catch juvenile dogfish or catfish and put them in our aquarium. I didn’t know anything about heaters or filters, just frequent water changes. I also kept tadpoles and watched their metamorphosis into frogs. Nature still fascinates me! Since then, I have always had a freshwater aquarium until about 10 years ago when we decided to move from Michigan to Florida. Reminiscing about my Mother and Pete helped me to rediscover that I still had a strong desire to keep fish!

I live in the middle of the Sonoran Desert now and the summers can be very hot. As a photographer, that means that summertime will limit me a bit as far as hiking in the mountains and getting outside for photos. Of course, it’s an excellent time for Monsoon clouds, lightening, and shooting the Milky Way.  No complaints here! I thought about wanting to keep a small fish tank again and it seemed like a great photography project as well! A whole new world so to speak would open up to me that I could in turn share with the world. I did some research and made decisions about what type of equipment I wanted and where I would set up my tank. I chose a community tank versus a species tank. This was symbolic as well as my long-term goal is to set up a supportive artistic online community for fellow artists, photographers, painters, musicians, and so on. ;) This post is an example of how you can take something you are passionate about and write about it in your blog to share with others that might find it interesting too.

NOTE: This post contains some affiliate links which means I earn a small commission at no extra cost to you if you purchase a product through one of my links. Feel free not to click them if this bothers you – otherwise thank you for your support!


The very most important thing I think you need to know is that should you decide to follow my lead and set up a new aquarium, is that it takes commitment. This new world you will be creating will rely on you (or whomever you give the responsibility to) for it’s very survival 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. You will have to be vigilant to make sure illness or disease doesn’t wipe out your tank. You will have daily and weekly duties and responsibilities. You have to feel it is worthwhile on top of the rest of the things you have on your schedule. Do you still want to set up a new aquarium? Okay, here are my recommendations to cycle your new tank. It’s called, the Nitrogen Cycle (i.e. cycling your tank).

It is amazing to me that people in 2015 still believe that you can just go to your local fish store (LFS), purchase fish, and drop them into their new tank and everybody will be happy and healthy. Nothing could be farther from the truth. A shiny new tank has no bacteria present to deal with the waste products from living organisms. Basically, it’s a “dead” tank. But, not for long!

First, set up your tank following manufacturer’s instructions on a safe sturdy surface (remember a filled tank can weigh hundreds of pounds) and keep it out of direct sunlight. When filling the tank with tap water, don’t forget to dechlorinate and remove chloramines and heavy metals from the water to make it safe for living creatures. I use API® Stress-Coat by Mars (as you can see in the photo above). It’s available online or at most local fish stores.

To start the cycle, you need an ammonia source. Some people use hardy fish and snails to create the ammonia. Fish waste, respiration, and uneaten food create ammonia as it breaks down. Many new aquarists through ignorance have a high rate of fish deaths and don’t understand or possibly don’t even know about cycling their tank prior to putting live fish in. Statistically, as much as 60% of the fish sold for a new aquarium will die within the first 30 days. If you choose to put live creatures in to create ammonia and cycle your tank, it will be important to do frequent small water changes during the cycling period. Remove 10-15% of the water every few days. The majority of the ammonia is left in the water, leaving plenty for the bacteria (more about their role in tank cycling below). Your fish will be creating more ammonia so there will be plenty of ammonia for the bacteria to use.

If you don’t do small frequent water changes, have no doubt, the fish and/or snails will be poisoned in this process by the overabundance of ammonia! Have you ever opened a bottle of ammonia, or used it for cleaning? It burns! Now, if your fish survive the ammonia, then they are poisoned by the resulting high nitrites in the next phase of the cycle. Just Google “fish ammonia poisoning” to see what you will be subjecting these creatures to if you choose to use them as a source for the ammonia in your new aquarium and get lazy and don’t do any small water changes. The consequences can be devastating, cruel, and highly irresponsible.

All throughout the cycling process check your ammonia, nitrite and nitrate levels along with ph using a reliable water test kit. I use API® Freshwater Aquarium Master Test Kit available online or at Petsmart and other local aquarium stores. If you have a tight budget, I know Petsmart tests your aquarium water for free. Just give them a sample and they will be able to make sure your aquarium is cycled or when it’s safe to add live fish and other creatures.

Why I Prefer Fishless Tank Cycling

I have decided to cycle my new tank without living fish or other creatures. One choice is to use decaying fish food as an ammonia source. As it breaks down, ammonia is formed. I think that cleaning up fish food is messy and a waste of food. Just mho. At least it isn’t putting any live creatures through ammonia poisoning so if this is your choice, it does work.

Others decide to go to their local supermarket or hardware store and buy a bottle of straight ammonia. Make sure if you do this to use just ammonia, no products with detergents in it. You can find other sites online that describe how to go about using ammonia to cycle your tank and how to test your water to see when to add more and when to stop. This method works well too.

I have a 15.8 gallon National Geographic Aqua Oasis Aquarium.

I have decided to use raw shrimp. I can see the shrimp to clean it up later and I won’t have it floating all over the tank. I rinsed one shrimp and placed it in the tank for Day 1 of Cycling, then I added another on Day 2. The video above was shot on Day 2 and you can see the water is cloudy. Here’s what’s going on.

My raw shrimp are decaying in the tank. This produces the desired ammonia. Shortly after dropping the shrimp in the tank, nitrifying bacteria (species of Nitrosomonas and Nitrobacter) arrive. Now they can’t utilize the ammonia directly. They must oxidize ammonia and nitrites for their energy needs and fix inorganic carbon dioxide (CO2) to fulfill their carbon requirements. About 80% of their energy goes into fixing carbon dioxide; not much energy left for reproduction or growth. This also leaves very little energy for moving about the tank searching for food. They must colonize a surface in your aquarium (your sand and gravel, filter medium, plants, decorations, etc.) for optimum growth. They secrete a sticky slime matrix which they use to attach themselves.

You want to create an environment that speeds the process along as much as possible. The whole cycling your tank process can take from about a week (if you carefully do certain things) to up to about eight weeks. So to make sure these nitrifying bacteria are happy and reproducing right from the start, they need oxygen, phosphorus, and they are photosensitive. If we provide the right conditions, the bacteria cells can double in number in 15 to 20 hours.

  • Optimum water temperature: 77-86 degrees Fahrenheit (another reason I don’t like to use live creatures; this is typically too warm for most freshwater animals).


  • Have your filter running.


  • Have an airstone or two to increase oxygen levels.


  • The optimum pH range for Nitrosomonas is between 7.8-8.0. Nitrosomonas utilize ammonia as an energy source.


  • The optimum pH range for Nitrobacter is between 7.3-7.5. Nitrobacter utilize nitrites as an energy source.


  • Prior to colonizing a surface, while they are “free-floating,” these cells are photosensitive, meaning they do not like blue or UV lights to be on. After they have settled into place, it’s okay. This free-floating and colonizing phase generally happens during the first 3 to 5 days of cycling your aquarium. Avoid blue and UV lights at this time. For more about aquarium lighting, I found this information helpful: Aquarium Lighting Choices.


  • Adding live plants during the cycling process is very beneficial. Choose hardy, easy care plants to help process the high ammonia levels. They will not be harmed like live creatures will.


  • After the tank clears up a bit, I remove 10-15% of the water. Don’t worry about the bacteria starving, you’re only removing 10-15% of the ammonia from the water. The majority of the ammonia is left in the water, leaving plenty for the bacteria to utilize.


So, as you see in my video of Day 2 of Fishless-Cycling in this post above, the bacteria cells are free-floating looking to colonize on surfaces in my tank. I have a water temperature of 79-80 degrees Fahrenheit, and the tank has an “earthy,” not unpleasant smell. The cloudiness is a “good” thing, perfectly normal, and to be expected. It’s only been a couple of days but things are moving right along.

To further speed up the cycling process, I have ordered nitrifying bacteria in a bottle. When I was a hobbyist years ago, I just had to wait out the process. I know things within the industry have advanced so I did a great deal of research and decided to try StartSmart® Complete Freshwater. It doesn’t need to be refrigerated and has a 2-year shelf life. You use it once to assist in cycling the tank and then for maintenance. The manufacturer claims that it will provided the bacteria for the nitrogen cycle to work from the moment it is introduced into the tank. I have also read many credible and professional reviews and tests which appear to back up these claims with very little to zero loss of life and instant cycling! Mine arrives tomorrow so I will report back my findings then.

I have read concerns online about the health of these nitrifying bacteria if they have been processed and packaged. I cIearly understand this concern. How does the nitrifying bacteria have food (ammonia and nitrites) and oxygen when it’s in a bottle? I am not a scientist but I based my decision on two things:

1) The manufacturer states: Our success is attributed to the perfection of another patented formulation process that: “Allows us to maintain large populations of live bacteria in a suspended solution; and also allows us to keep those populations alive for extremely long periods of time (shelf life).” Intrigued? Read more…

2) I have also read many credible and professional reviews and tests which appear to back up these claims with very little to zero loss of life and instant cycling! Here is a good post for you to review:

Freshwater and Saltwater Aquariums :Ammonia Reduction – Instant Cycling

I ordered StartSmart here yesterday so it will arrive tomorrow. I will follow the instructions using 1.5 oz. one time to instantly cycle my tank. I will report what my personal results were after using the product.

Image: star divider


cherry-red-shrimp-masimoball-smallCycling your tank takes patience. Use the cycling time to research appropriate freshwater candidates to put in your tank. My tank is small at 15.8 gallons so I have decided to keep the fish small as well. One thing you don’t want to do is overstock your tank! (This means to put in more fish/creatures than your aquarium environment can safely maintain). My first choice was Cherry Red Shrimp (Neocaridina heteropoda). They are hardy, small, beautiful and peaceful. These will be my scavengers. Now since they only get about 1 inch or maybe 1.5 inches, I want to make sure I don’t get large or aggressive fish that will want to eat them. That’s another reason I chose to heavily plant the aquarium so they have good hiding places both as adults and babies (I chose both fake and artificial plants). I have a couple of Japanese Marimo Moss Balls coming in a couple of days for them. They enjoy eating the small organisms that thrive on these moss balls (see image to the left of a female Cherry Red Shrimp on a Marimo Moss Ball). Isn’t she a beauty? :)

To help decide on the number and size of what I will put into my tank, I used this free AqAdvisor Intelligent Freshwater Aquarium Stocking Calculator at The community tank I am planning will have tankmates with similar temperature, water hardness, and ph requirements. This means it will be easier for me to keep healthy and the community members will be happy too.

Image from AQAdvisor showing results for stocking my 15 gallon aquarium

My cycling process and experiences are mine. You may differ on how you want to cycle your tank. I posted this for entertainment and educational purposes only. Your results may differ from mine. Each aquarium environment is unique and so will be your experience. Please consult with your local fish store or aquarium specialist if you have questions or concerns about your freshwater aquarium habitat.

Image: star divider

I hope you enjoyed coming along with me on my little aquarium project. I will post my cycling results soon. From time-to-time in the future, you will also be able to enjoy being able to have a sneek-peek i into the new world I’ll be creating. :) If you found this information valuable, please share it with those that you think may enjoy it. Please comment below if you would like to share your experience with fish-keeping. Thank you for reading and sharing!

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  1. Lillian De Jesus February 8, 2015 at 4:49 PM #

    Hi Deborah!

    I knew it takes a lot to care for fish but not in the details you specified. This is great to show my daughter as she thinks she can get a fish and plop it in a bowl. LOL

    Thanks for sharing,
    Lillian De Jesus recently posted… or – Which is best for a new entrepreneur?My Profile

    • Deborah February 12, 2015 at 7:02 PM #

      Oh, Lillian! I guess this post was timely then! Lol!

      We don’t want to make any of these beautiful creatures suffer just because we are impatient to bring them home! :)

      Best wishes and much success to you. Thank you for reading and sharing!

      Deborah recently posted…Your Recommended Branding ProcessMy Profile

  2. Jacs Henderson February 8, 2015 at 4:22 PM #

    Loving your combination of Artist and Scientist in this project Deborah. And the way you walked us through the scientific process of creating the correct, natural environment with a balanced habitat and then adding the artistic plants, beautiful shrimp… and finally fish.
    Your care for creating this home is wonderful, researched, dedicated and humane for all your tank ‘residents’.
    I was fascinated and absorbed by the detail…. a fabulous mindset structure for any project or business in life
    I bet your tank will be Beautiful and Colourful and I look forward to your portraits :)
    Jacs Henderson recently posted…Blog Engage… Community… Syndication… ManagementMy Profile

  3. Lesly Federici February 8, 2015 at 8:04 AM #

    Hi Deborah,
    What an interesting post! I have “toyed” with fish. We had fish for my son when he was around 5 … Gold fish and a small tank.. it also jumped out of the tank. We were always home so we could catch him and return him to the tank. But one day, he did jump out again and was on the floor for several hours but still alive. We found him, put him back in the tank and well, died a few days later. That was it for me and I have not had fish since. Now I have a Geiko (sp), Loved your detailed description, and what an interesting project… you are amazing :-)
    Lesly Federici recently posted…The Path To Tomorrow Part 2My Profile

    • Deborah February 12, 2015 at 6:57 PM #

      Hello Lesly!

      I couldn’t believe it, I went into a pet store the other day and actually found another “victim,” laying on the floor all dried up. I told the pet department manager. They were sad too. I beautiful male Betta fish gone too soon. I do plan on adding him, as my show fish, but after my tank is cycled and healthy. I don’t want to buy one and put him through cycling. :)

      I so appreciate you sharing your story. Thank you for reading!

      Deborah recently posted…Your Mission Statement. How To Capture The Essence Of Your BusinessMy Profile

  4. Chery Schmidt February 6, 2015 at 9:57 PM #

    Hello Deborah, I do know that having an aquarium is a lot of work. both of my sons have them but me well I prefer just 1 beta fish LOL

    Great article my friend, Thanks for sharing.. Chery :))
    Chery Schmidt recently posted…My Amazing Work From Home Breakthrough-> Our Fearless Dominators TeamMy Profile

    • Deborah February 12, 2015 at 6:54 PM #

      Thanks for stopping by and commenting Chery! Always a pleasure!

      It is a lot of work, and not a hobby for everyone! I can get lost in that world. It’s fun to see these beautiful creatures live out their life right before your eyes!

      Take care, so glad you enjoyed the post!

      Deborah recently posted…Your Mission Statement. How To Capture The Essence Of Your BusinessMy Profile

  5. Erika Mohssen-Beyk February 5, 2015 at 8:10 PM #

    Hi Deborah ,
    you are doing a amazing job with your aquarium and taking
    good care. I know there are many things to be learned .
    I had in the past one as well,the kids liked it and for me it was like meditation
    to sit and look. Enjoy it and maybe we see pictures ?
    You write all this useful details ,I remember I had a lot of books.
    Thank you
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    • Deborah February 12, 2015 at 6:52 PM #

      Hello Erika!

      Thank you so much! I am certainly going to be taking pictures! That was one of the reasons I set it up. But I do agree. I find having a peaceful fish tank almost as relaxing and refreshing as meditation. I reflect upon the beauty, peace and the amazing world we live in. Aquariums also teach us many things.

      I’ll be sharing more about my hobby from time to time here. So glad you enjoyed the post!

      Deborah recently posted…Your Mission Statement. How To Capture The Essence Of Your BusinessMy Profile

  6. Willena Flewelling February 1, 2015 at 4:56 PM #

    Very interesting read, Deborah, and you certainly know your subject well! I’ve never kept fish, and I doubt I ever will. I’m afraid the poor creatures wouldn’t do well under my care. But I do enjoy watching fish in other people’s tanks.
    Willena Flewelling recently posted…Week 17a (HJ) – R.I.P. and The Hero’s JourneyMy Profile

    • Deborah February 1, 2015 at 11:38 PM #

      You know Willena, that’s what’s great about video hosting sites. You can have the pleasure of the hobby right on your screen without having to do anything to care for the beautiful creatures.

      At least you know what you can and cannot do. That’s very important! :)

      Best wishes and thank you for stopping by for a visit!

      Deborah recently posted…WordPress Security Best Practices For New BloggersMy Profile

  7. David Merrill 101 February 1, 2015 at 4:32 PM #

    This is quite a process, Deborah.

    I couldn’t help but think, while I was reading all the details and the minutia involved, that it’s this sort of focus, dedication and attention to detail that makes for a great blogging business.

    Thanks for the amazing walk-through.
    David Merrill 101 recently posted…Blogging To Make MoneyMy Profile

    • Deborah February 1, 2015 at 7:25 PM #

      Thank you David for your supportive comments. Yes, when it comes to having a home freshwater tank, it takes dedication and being a responsible pet owner.

      I really like the analogy to being successful in business! :)

      I appreciate you stopping by David.
      Deborah recently posted…Your Recommended Branding ProcessMy Profile

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