Planted Tank Guru
Join Date: Jan 2010
Location: Contra Costa CA
The correct nitrifying bacteria were identified about 10 years ago. Active ingredients in the right products include the Nitrospiros species of bacteria. All others that say they are nitrogen cycle helpers, but do not include Nitrospiros have the wrong species of bacteria.
There are other types of bacteria and other microorganisms that live in an aquarium, and probably are part of the fully developed system of a mature tank. These bacteria and others may be in some of the 'wrong' cycle products. Other bacteria thrive only for a short while, then die off. They have not been identified in large numbers in a fully cycled mature system. These are the ones that the label will say you have to add at every water change. (Hint: nature does not work that way. Once the food (ammonia) is present, the right bacteria keep on living and reproducing)
Nitrospiros and the related bacteria are somewhat delicate. They do not enter a dormant phase like many bacteria do. They are hard to package and ship. They must be kept at just the right temperature, that is, cool, but not frozen.
When Bio Spira first came out there were quite a few problems with product that had gotten too hot or too cold. If you get one of the right products it ought to work really well. If it does not work then perhaps it was damaged (too hot or too cold) in shipping.
How these products work:
They are the right blend of bacteria that
a) Remove ammonia and turn it into nitrite
b) Remove nitrite and turn it into nitrate.
The ammonia-to-nitrite bacteria grow fairly fast.
The nitrite-to-nitrate bacteria are slower growing and more particular about the optimum conditions for best growth.
Bacteria grow in what is called a bio-film, on surfaces in the tank, including the filter. (That slimy stuff that you feel on some surfaces is biofilm) The biofilm is a complex web of channels that allows the water to flow through it and bring nutrients to all the organisms that make it up. What is waste to one is food for another, so the organisms live in a blended film of many species of bacteria and other microorganisms.
High oxygen (good water flow)
Not too high water flow. Too high may damage the biofilm or not allow a reasonable flow in and out of the film.
Food. Ammonia, for the nitrifying bacteria, other things (chemicals and organic matter) for the other species.
Dark. Some organisms may live in more light, but the nitrifying ones prefer the dark.
pH in the 7s. They slow down in the 6s, and by about 6.5 are not very active. They can survive, but when you are cycling you want the maximum growth rate.
GH and KH over 3 German degrees of hardness. The nitrifying bacteria need some minerals, they get their carbon from carbonates. Harder water is just fine with them.
No toxins such as antibiotics, or even medicines that slow the growth of bacteria.
No soaps or surfactants.
No chlorine, or anything else that might kill them. (use the right dose of dechlor)
Moderate levels of ammonia and nitrite. These bacteria do not do well when the levels are over 5 ppm.
Name brands with the right species (per labels)
Dr. Tim's One and Only (he discovered and properly identified these bacteria)
Tetra Safe Start (they ended up with the fresh water Bio Spira patent)
Bio Spira (is only a salt water version, now.)
Microbe Lift's Nite Out II
I have also seen some reputable results from a Fritz product, Turbo-Start, but the label does not say what the species are.
Any of these can be used in any of several ways:
Set up new tank, add product, add fish.
You will see a small blip of ammonia and nitrite for a day or two, but it should not rise to toxic levels, and should immediately drop.
Set up tank, add product, add ammonia to 3 ppm and continue with the fishless cycle. It should finish in under a week, probably 3-4 days.
Emergency loss of biofilter:
Do as many large water changes as needed to get the ammonia and nitrite as low as possible. (Remember these bacteria do not like levels over 5 ppm). Add product. Do not do water changes for a few days while the product starts clinging to surfaces. You may then need to do another water change or two while the bacteria are getting going, but the problem ought to be under control in under a week. (Of course you need to correct whatever caused the original population of bacteria to die)
When adding new fish to an established tank:
Add some of one of these products. Check the label, but most can be stored in the fridge for 6 months or longer.
If you are suspicious that the product might not be alive you can do some variation of the above, for example:
Set up tank, add some product, add 1/4 of a load of fish.
If the product works with just a little blip of ammonia and nitrite, go ahead and add more fish and more product. If there is more ammonia or nitrite than you are comfortable with then keep up the water changes, add more product, but hold off on adding more fish until the cycle is complete.
The store does not have all the fish you want at one time:
Add some of the product, and the fish that are available.
Store the rest of the product in the fridge until more fish are available. Add more product whenever you add more fish.