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The nitrogen cycle is the basics of any aquarium. This is what happens every time we set one up, or "over clean it", which IS possible. Nature keeps this balance naturally, but when we bring mother nature inside and confine her to a box, we also have to give her some help along the way.
Let's follow the diagram above. The yellow arrows represent the beneficial bacteria growing and reproducing in your tank. Starting with fish waste, which is Ammonia, the bacteria work to break it down, to Nitrites. Ammonia and Nitrites are both toxic to fish, and can be lethal in high concentrations. As the bacteria continue to break things down, the Nitrites is converted to Nitrates. Nitrates is also plant fertilizer. I encourage planting of any/every aquarium possible. If you have followed along in the diagram above, you will then see that we have plant waste, and nowhere for it to go. This is where we step in to help out, by removing 25% of the water once/week to "flush the toilet". With regular maintenance, every aquarium can be healthy!
When we perform a water test on water from a new and cycling aquarium, we watch for the different "spikes" as the bacteria reproduce and break down the Ammonia to a healthy and safe level for fish. The scale above is an approximate. Each tank is an individual, and will cycle at a different rate. Use this chart to make your own, and see how your aquarium compares!
There are many ways to cycle an aquarium without using live fish who must withstand some pretty severe conditions. In the next issue we will discuss "Fishless Cycling Methods".