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Question: Tank STILL Uncycled After 9 Weeks

kaypluslee

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I apologize in advance for the length of this post but I have two months of readings and updates to get through so bear with me and I appreciate any advice offered.

I do have a poor 6 month old axolotl, Quinoa, who has been tubbed for a large chunk of this ordeal. Quinoa’s in a tub with an air stone, daily water changes, temperature kept between 58-64 degrees Fahrenheit (normally around 60-61) through use of frozen water bottles on either side of tub or a desk fan. Quinoa is eating daily axolotl pellets, and an earthworm every other day or every two days. Quinoa seems to be very healthy but I would really like to get them into their tank.

There was a reptile and exotics show coming to my area in a couple months time and when I looked into it I discovered the axolotl. I researched for about three weeks before deciding that I would like to welcome one into my home. I gave my tank a few weeks time to begin cycling before the show where I purchased Quinoa, and only expected to tub them for a couple weeks time while the cycle finished as I read it takes around 4-6 weeks typically. I am now almost 9 weeks in trying to cycle my tank and I don’t see any end in sight.

Fishless cycle. All tests done with API Freshwater Master Kit. Water conditioning done with API Aqua Essentials or SeaChem Prime. Ammonia supplied with Dr. Tim’s.

Tank Set-Up Info:
On July 2nd, 2022 I set up my 29 gal Top Fin aquarium. The initial filter I received with the tank was faulty, so it wasn’t until July 5th that I was able to set up my filter and begin cycling my tank. The filter I am using is a Fluval AquaClear rated for 20-50 US gal. I also have a Marineland “bio-foam/pre-filter sponge-type product that fits over the filter intake, as I was worried about creating too much flow. Where the filtered water returns to the tank, I have a suction-cupped toothbrush holder I got from Target with a filter sponge to help disperse the flow, again because I was worried about creating too much flow. My initial set up included two halves of a 10” terracotta flower pot, a third half a 6” terracotta flower pot, 5 2” terracotta flower pots filled with a mixture of aquarium gravel and aquarium silicone, with a fake aquarium plant inserted into the pot. I mixed the gravel and silicone so that I had no loose gravel in the tank, and to hold the plant into the pot. For substrate I opted to cut three pieces of slate tile from Home Depot. All decor and substrate was washed throughly with hot water and vinegar. The slate was also sundried. I was nervous about the slate because I had never used any substrate other than gravel or sand, and opted not to silicone it to the bottom of the tank in case I noticed any issues with it so that I could remove it easily. I also only fill the tank up partially, about 4-5 inches of space from water surface to rim of tank. No tank cover.

July 2nd, tank filled with water and treated with API.
July 5th, filter installed.
July 9th, 4ppm of ammonia dosed to begin the cycle.
July 11th, first water test. 7.6ph, ammonia 4ppm, nitr(i)tes 0ppm, nitr(a)tes 5ppm.
I begin testing every other day.
This reading did not change for several weeks.

Week of July 25th, I added 4 Aqueon “PURE live beneficial bacteria and enzymes” which are small, clear and squishy orbs that apparently contain beneficial bacteria. The orbs release slowly into your tank and shrink in size as they are depleted.
Reading remained same as July 11th until August 3rd.

August 3rd, nitr(i)te spike? 7.6ph, ammonia 2ppm, nitr(i)tes 2-5ppm, nitr(a)tes 10ppm.
The ammonia continued to slowly decrease the next week.
August 9th, first ammonia free reading. 7.6ph, ammonia 0ppm, nitr(i)tes 5ppm, nitr(a)tes 40ppm.
August 11th, same reading. 2ppm ammonia dosed.

This is where everything seemingly spirals out of control.

A week after dosing, my cycle seemingly stalls other than off the chart nitr(i)te and nitr(a)te growth. The ammonia stays at 2ppm, but the nitr(i)tes grow to unreadable levels, as soon as a single drop of the solution hits the water in the test tube it is deep purple, no mixing, no gradual color change, it is immediate. The nitr(a)tes got to 80ppm readably, before testing as a strange light yellow color not on the chart. I begin reading various forums and come to the conclusion that I must do a partial water change to bring these levels down. I also read that high nitr(i/a)te levels can bring ph down and stall the cycle.

August 18th, pre-water 60% change. 6.6ph, ammonia 2ppm, nitr(i)tes 5+ppm, nitr(a)tes ?ppm.
August 19th, post-water 60% change. 7.2ph, ammonia .75ppm, nitr(i)tes 2-5ppm readable, nitr(a)tes 80ppm.

I wait and start to test daily. I remove 2 Aqueon orbs thinking perhaps they are “over-dosing” my tank with bacteria, leaving 2. No change in readings for the next week other than dropping ph and rising nitr(i)tes.

August 25th, pre-water 90% change. 6.8ph, ammonia .75ppm, nitr(i)tes 5+ppm, nitr(a)tes 80ppm.
I also remove 1 of the large terracotta flower pot hides. I also remove all of the remaining Aqueon orbs. I do NOT dose any ammonia.
August 26th, post-water 90% change. 7.2ph, ammonia 0ppm, nitr(i)tes .25ppm, nitr(a)tes 5ppm.

The next week, I test 0ppm ammonia and up to 10ppm nitr(a)tes. The nitr(i)tes continue to rise daily despite having no ammonia source, until they reach 5ppm. The ph dropped back to 6.8 after a couple days, so I add crushed coral to a filter bag and set it in the toothbrush holder under my filter return to raise and stabilize the ph.

September 1st, pre-water 100% change. 7.6ph, ammonia 0ppm, nitr(i)tes 5ppm, nitr(a)tes 10ppm.
At this point I am suspicious that something has to be feeding the nitr(i)tes as their growth continues. I also notice small black particles beginning to grow on the remaining terracotta hides—it looked like someone had sprinkled planting soil on top of them, and the gravel vac does not suck them up, and out of water they smear like dirt if you touch them. So I decide to remove the slate tiles from the tank thinking something organic is happening underneath them despite their extremely tight fit. The water was extremely dirty under the tiles, very dark brown, lots of particles floating around, perhaps from the tiles themselves. I remove all of this water and use towels and paper towels to wipe the tank bottom completely clean, there was nothing more than a few drops of water here and there remaining. I wipe the hides down with vinegar. The tank is now bare-bottom. Installed an air stone.
September 2nd, post-water 100% change. 7.6ph, ammonia 0ppm, nitr(i)tes 0ppm, nitr(a)tes 5ppm.

September 3rd. 7.6ph, ammonia 0ppm, nitr(i)tes 0ppm, nitr(a)tes 5ppm. I dose 1ppm ammonia to see how it cycles.

The ammonia tested 0ppm for the first time TODAY September 7th. It took the tank a week to cycle 1ppm ammonia. Nitr(i)tes are once again at 5ppm, it takes about 2 mins for it to reach the dark purple color, so I believe it is still readably 5ppm. I don’t feel it was a slow crawl to 5ppm either, a day after ammonia dosage it tested around .50ppm and has been testing around 2ppm or between 2ppm-5ppm since. Nitr(a)tes are between 10-20ppm. 7.6ph reading, 7.4 high ph reading.
I am concerned about the black substance that was growing on my decor prior to the 100% water change, like if it could be present in my filter media or not completely wiped from the tank, and that it could possibly grow back, which could be impeding my cycle.

To summarize, my tank is now bare-bottom, 1 large hide, 1 small hide, 5 fake potted plants, crushed coral in the toothbrush holder under my filter return, same filter, same filter media since day 1, same “sponge” over the intake.

Issues, seemingly out of control nitr(i)te even without a known ammonia source, slow cycling for ammonia and nitr(i)te (I have never seen the nitr(i)te drop without doing it myself through a water change), possible organic issue (black soil-like particles?).

So what steps can I take to successfully cycle my tank? Is the best bet to start from scratch and clean down tank, filter, and decor with vinegar in case of mold/mildew/algae issue and purchase brand new filter media? Is there anything else obvious that I am missing? I know I can add a heater to speed up the process of bacteria growth, but it seems my major issue is the slow cycling rather than the presence of bacteria, especially because of how quickly my nitr(i)tes grow.
I have read multiple different ways to fishless cycle, including repeatedly dosing ammonia to 2ppm or 4ppm whenever it drops, but I am hesitant to keep dosing ammonia when I have not seen any kind of decrease to nitr(i)tes *ever* despite nitr(a)te growth, as I have also read that you do not want nitr(i)tes to go over 5ppm. So I have not dosed any more ammonia since getting my 0ppm reading today.

I’d love for you to share your thoughts with me! I really need some guidance.

I have attached photos of my initial set-up with the slate substrate, my current set-up with bare-bottom, as well as a closer look at toothbrush holder and pre-filter sponge to slow the flow, also included a few pictures of Quinoa’s tub set-up.
 

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wolfen

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first of activated carbon only lasts for about a month so by now it will need changing.
second is never do a water change until either the cycling has finished or the nitrates are 110ppm or higher.
would be an idea to get some more ceramic bio media and place in the filter just over the water line.
to cycle a tank put everything needed into the tank ie.. filter, air stone, then add any ornaments, then add water, best to include heater whilst cycling.
add 4ppm ammonia and leave running for a week, then test ph/ammonia/nitrites/nitrates, if ph lower than 7 add enough bicarbonate of soda to bring it to 7.4 - 7.6, top ammonia back up to 4ppm, test 24 hours later top up ammonia, then retest after 24hrs and top up, keep repeating this process until after 24hrs ammonia and nitrites are zero then top back up to 4ppm just to make sure it is completed, if your axolotl isn't going straight in then ammonia will need to be topped up so as to feed filter bacteria.
once the cycling is complete do a water change to remove nitrates, the percentage of water removed is the percentage of nitrates removed, try not to remove more than 50% as to much of a water change can shock the bacteria.
make sure to remove heater as it will no longer be needed after a cycle is complete.
when you cycle a tank you are establishing a bacteria colony that is large enough to cope with an adult axolotl ie..4ppm ammonia.
first bacteria that is able to consume/convert ammonia into nitrites are formed then bacteria that consume/convert nitrites into nitrates are formed and then the bacteria colony is allowed to grow large enough, in this process if the kh is low then the water can start to become acidic (low ph) and restrict the bacteria's ability to consume ammonia hence the adding of bicarb if ph drops below 7.
a few things that caused your cycling to go bad, you did water changes, you did a full clean of the tank when algae started forming (the black substance) and when bacteria started forming under the slate, the ph was irratic, using a heater would help, ammonia level should be kept at 4ppm, unless there is an animal in the tank nitrite testing is just done to check for nitrites regardless of level it is only at the end of cycling that they need to be zero.
algae growth is a good sign, and in a tank with no plants it helps reduce nitrates.
always make sure that any water is dechlorinated before adding.
 

kaypluslee

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first of activated carbon only lasts for about a month so by now it will need changing.
second is never do a water change until either the cycling has finished or the nitrates are 110ppm or higher.
would be an idea to get some more ceramic bio media and place in the filter just over the water line.
to cycle a tank put everything needed into the tank ie.. filter, air stone, then add any ornaments, then add water, best to include heater whilst cycling.
add 4ppm ammonia and leave running for a week, then test ph/ammonia/nitrites/nitrates, if ph lower than 7 add enough bicarbonate of soda to bring it to 7.4 - 7.6, top ammonia back up to 4ppm, test 24 hours later top up ammonia, then retest after 24hrs and top up, keep repeating this process until after 24hrs ammonia and nitrites are zero then top back up to 4ppm just to make sure it is completed, if your axolotl isn't going straight in then ammonia will need to be topped up so as to feed filter bacteria.
once the cycling is complete do a water change to remove nitrates, the percentage of water removed is the percentage of nitrates removed, try not to remove more than 50% as to much of a water change can shock the bacteria.
make sure to remove heater as it will no longer be needed after a cycle is complete.
when you cycle a tank you are establishing a bacteria colony that is large enough to cope with an adult axolotl ie..4ppm ammonia.
first bacteria that is able to consume/convert ammonia into nitrites are formed then bacteria that consume/convert nitrites into nitrates are formed and then the bacteria colony is allowed to grow large enough, in this process if the kh is low then the water can start to become acidic (low ph) and restrict the bacteria's ability to consume ammonia hence the adding of bicarb if ph drops below 7.
a few things that caused your cycling to go bad, you did water changes, you did a full clean of the tank when algae started forming (the black substance) and when bacteria started forming under the slate, the ph was irratic, using a heater would help, ammonia level should be kept at 4ppm, unless there is an animal in the tank nitrite testing is just done to check for nitrites regardless of level it is only at the end of cycling that they need to be zero.
algae growth is a good sign, and in a tank with no plants it helps reduce nitrates.
always make sure that any water is dechlorinated before adding.
I am seeing a lot of conflicting information about nitr(i)te levels during cycling, even on the Dr. Tim’s bottle it reads for nitr(i)te levels not to exceed 5ppm; are you suggesting that I can essentially ignore the nitr(i)te levels? I am just worried that the exceedingly high levels of nitr(i)tes will stall the cycle somehow. I was reading that high levels of nitr(i/a)tes can lower ph which can then stall the cycle, so that is why I performed water changes to drop the levels of nitr(i)tes specifically when I noticed the ph begin to drop. Since adding the crushed coral around a week ago, my ph has been stable around 7.6, regardless of nitr(i/a)te levels, so I think I am better equipped now to handle a large spike without the ph dropping.

It almost feels like the nitr(a)tes are not processing the nitr(i)tes at all, and the nitr(i)tes are processing ammonia at a snails pace.

This is what I plan to do:
I dosed my tank up 4ppm ammonia as suggested. I will continue to monitor ammonia level and dose back to 4ppm when the level drops. Watch ph level to ensure it stays stable and above 7. Watch nitr(a)te level to ensure it does not exceed 110ppm, if it does exceed 110ppm, do a partial water change not exceeding 50%. Do not worry about nitr(i)te level until 4ppm ammonia is able to be processed in 24 hours, only then do I need to worry about the nitr(i)te level dropping and eventually testing at 0ppm.

I will look into replacing my activated carbon media and adding more ‘Bio Max’ media, as well as adding a heater.

As for the algae, do you know if that will harm the axolotl once my tank cycles and is ready for habitation? Would snails or something similar be beneficial to help control algae growth and be safe to house with an axolotl? Or are there products that are safe to use in axolotl tanks that combat algae growth? Just looking for different perspectives!
 

wolfen

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algae wont harm axolotls provided it's on glass/ornaments etc.. when it is in the water ie.. green water, it removes valuable oxygen from the water, small soft shelled snails are fine as are shrimp for algae removal, plants will also out compete the algae for nutients.
crushed coral helps the ph by increasing the kh, which is good as axolotls prefer hard water not soft, just make sure to top up regular.
 

kaypluslee

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algae wont harm axolotls provided it's on glass/ornaments etc.. when it is in the water ie.. green water, it removes valuable oxygen from the water, small soft shelled snails are fine as are shrimp for algae removal, plants will also out compete the algae for nutients.
crushed coral helps the ph by increasing the kh, which is good as axolotls prefer hard water not soft, just make sure to top up regular.
Thank you, I appreciate the feedback!
 

elliot7rrr

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Just want to say that this thread has been immensely helpful for me! I’m a beginner and definitely got into the hobby without adequate preparation (oops). Axle’s tank has been hard to get balanced, and I only gave it about 24 hours with minimal testing prior to introducing him. (Please don’t scold me too much - I know now that this was a huge mistake but thankfully the little guy is just fine).
I’ve gotten the levels pretty happy, but the algae growth was horrific, so I ended up adding a few of the biggest “mystery snails” I could find and it’s helped a TON. They don’t bother Axle at all, and he has only tried to mess with them once when I was feeding him and he got a little confused about what was friend and what was food.
 

kaypluslee

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Just to give an update, as I posted this about a month ago. I am now 13 weeks in and my tank has yet to complete cycling.
Last month I added a heater (78F), changed my activated carbon, washed the sponge filter media in tank water, and have more bio media above water level in the filter. I also had to swap out my media bag of crushed coral with a new one last week, as it became ineffective. My ph remained at 7.8 until last week when it dropped to 7.2 before the new coral was added.
9/8 I was hesitant to begin dosing at 4ppm in fear of overloading, so I dosed at 2ppm. My first reading was ammonia 2ppm, nitr(i)tes 5ppm, and nitr(a)tes 10ppm. This was the only time I tested for nitr(i)tes until last week.
9/16 A week after dosing 2ppm and dosing up to 2ppm to replace any processed ammonia, my nitr(a)tes became unreadable. The highest readable level I noted was 40ppm. The next day they tested at 5ppm. And the day after as well, 5ppm.
I performed a 30% water change to explore whether or not the nitr(a)te level was so high it was not registering or if they had indeed plummeted in numbers. The day after the water change they tested again at 5ppm.
Also during this time, my tank began processing 2ppm ammonia in 24 hours. So I continued to dose 2ppm ammonia daily.
9/23 A week after the first water change, my nitr(a)tes continued to test at 5ppm. So I performed another water change, this time 50%, to again see if it would effect the reading. Nitr(a)tes tested at 5ppm the next day, as it did last water change.
At this point I tested my nitr(i)tes, and of course they turned the tube deep purple as soon as the solution hit the water, so they were well over 5ppm.
9/27 I performed another 50% water change, as I was concerned the extremely high nitr(i)tes were inhibiting the growth of nitr(a)tes, as both levels continued to test at 5+ppm and 5ppm respectively. The day after this water change, the readings did not change. I also stopped dosing ammonia at this point.
9/30 I performed a 75% water change. The day after the water change my readings were 0ppm ammonia, 5ppm (readable) nitr(i)tes, 80ppm nitr(a)tes, and 7.8ph. So it would appear that my nitr(a)te levels were too high (unreadable) although they consistently tested at 5ppm.
By 10/3 my nitr(i)tes had dropped to 0ppm, and my nitr(a)tes tested between 40/80ppm.
Yesterday (10/4), I decided to finally dose more ammonia in hopes it would process. I only dosed .5ppm to test.
Today (10/5) my results are ammonia .25ppm, nitr(i)tes 2ppm, and nitr(a)tes 40/80ppm. So sadly my hopes are dashed and my tank still isn’t able to process even “small” doses of ammonia without any trace of nitr(i)tes. :(
I am using Dr. Tim’s ammonia to cycle, so I am going to try to follow that guide for fishless cycling and see if I have any success.
I have plenty of nitr(a)tes already present so it isn’t a matter of dealing with a nitr(i)te spike as the nitr(a)tes grow and establish, it just seems my nitr(a)tes are having a lot of trouble processing nitr(i)tes.
If anyone has any idea of what I am doing incorrectly, please let me know. This is becoming extremely frustrating and disheartening. I welcome any advice. Especially if you know how to dilute the tank water to test if your levels are higher than what is on the chart and how to read that information. I’ve seen split the tank water with tap water in a certain ratio, I’ve seen split the tank water with bottled water in a certain ratio, but nothing solid. I’ve seen if you do 20% tank water and 80% other water, and test at 2ppm for example, then that means you multiply 2ppm by 5 (because 1/5 was tank water) and your reading is 10ppm. I have also seen that reading it like that is incorrect. So I’m at a loss.
I will also update how this process plays out, so if anyone else is having a lot of trouble, hopefully this can help them as well.
 

wolfen

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whilst the tank is cycling the activated carbon isn't required, so it can be removed for the time being to reduce cost (when it is used replace every month)
crushed coral doesn't become ineffective it just dissolves and has to be replaced, this is because it is a form of calcium carbonate.
doing a water change during a cycle affects the bacteria that is forming and also reduces the ammonia/nitrites artificially causing errors in testing.
for the tank to cycle a few conditions need to be met, 1.. the bacteria needs plenty of places to grow ie.. a large enough filtration system, ornaments etc.. 2.. the right water conditions ie.. good ph, as ph drops less free ammonia (toxic but also what bacteria consumes) is broken away from ammonium (non toxic and bacteria has difficulty consuming), plenty of oxygen (aerobic bacteria require oxygen to convert ammonia to nitrites and nitrites to nitrates), for cycling warming the water will encourage bacteria to grow/reproduce quicker, they will still grow/reproduce at colder temperatures just not as fast, 3.. a food source ie.. ammonia and nitrites, reducing one or the other artificially via water changes won't encourage the bacteria to grow as the food source is being removed and by reducing the amount of ammonia given will just make it so less bacteria is required to convert/consume.
provided the conditions are met then it's just a case of waiting, do not do a water change unless nitrates are at 110ppm or higher or the tank has finished cycling, do not clean bacterial or mechanical filtration whilst cycling as you are disturbing the bacteria, keep an eye on ph and don't let it go below 7, if it does add enough bicarbonate of soda to increase the ph to 7.4 - 7.6 if crushed coral or other source of carbonates is introduced make sure it is in the tank not filter, as placing in filter will just reduce precious space that can be used for bio media, if the ammonia levels are reading zero after twenty four hours then test nitrites, do not reduce ammonia dosing because nitrites are high (the bacteria needs to be grown to cope with the nitrites just as much as for ammonia) do not do a water change because nitrites are high as you are removing a food source. if the nitrites are high/unreadable whilst cycling don't worry, whilst the tank is cycling and there are no inhabitants high nitrites are harmless.
it is very important that the water is oxygenated as the bacteria that consume/convert ammonia/nitrites require oxygen as well as any tank inhabitant that will be placed in there, so air stones are recommended.
once the cycle has completed a water change to reduce nitrates is required, always dechlorinate before adding to tank not after.
 

kaypluslee

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Updating again—4 and a half months and still no luck cycling! At this point I have used an entire API Kit and two bottles of Dr. Tim’s!

I believe that the filter I had just simply could not keep up with the biological load. I had a filter rated for 20-50 gallons, but I also have a bare-bottom tank without real plants and minimal fake ones. I’m thinking I just did not have enough surface area for the bacteria to flourish. Kind of like a grocery store; if you have three cashiers working and have three customers, everyone is being helped! But if you now have six customers, you have a line, and it’ll take some time to process. Now say that line gets three more people every few minutes, then you have a huge back up of customers and it is going to take longer and longer to process them through! That is how I imagine my filter worked anyway. I had 80ppm nitrates but it was taking 3-4 days to process ammonia and nitrites in just a single 2ppm dose, let alone 4ppm. I only had three cash registers and I needed more! Haha.

So I ended up buying a larger filter rated for 40-70 gallons. Hopefully this can give me more surface area for my bacteria (it is almost double in size), so I can finally process a cycle in 24 hours! I used some media from my old filter to help establish bacteria in the new one and my water has maintained 40ppm of nitrates over the last two weeks. Unfortunately I used my last bottle of Dr. Tim’s, and two new bottles will arrive tomorrow after almost a week and a half. I won’t know for sure until I am able to dose again if I am correct in my thinking, and a larger filter was the correct call.

I think this has been stated before, but I will restate here: if a filter is rated for 20-50 gallons—this really means 20 gallons with minimal decor and substrate or 50 gallons heavily planted and substrate, and all that in between. If your axolotl tank is very bare-bones, all of your beneficial bacteria will need to live in the filter rather than in substrate or plants, so you will need to consider getting a larger filter. I’m hoping I am correct in saying that, and I’m hoping this was my issue.
 
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