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The Nitrogen Cycle for aquariums

Updated on April 22, 2011

The Nitrogen Cycle, an accessory article

I thought I would add an accessory article about the Nitrogen Cycle. This is not a hard concept to understand, it is just a lot of information. Which sounds contradictory, but I promise, it’s easy.

Remember my planet analogy in my first hub? Ok, so in this case, the water is, obviously, the atmosphere. The pollutants in this case are mostly the fish’s waste, ammonia, which VERY toxic. So how do you get rid of it? Is there something that breaks it down? Aha! This ladies and gentlemen, is the nitrogen cycle!

There is a reason GOOD fish experts tell people you to wait to put fish in your tank when you first set it up. It is to wait for the this cycle to jump start. It can take roughly 4 weeks to complete, but you don’t need to necessarily wait that long. But I’m getting ahead of myself! First, let put three words out here that you’ll need to learn to understand this cycle. Ammonia, Nitrites, Nitrates. I’ll go into detail, so you can understand these better.


Ammonia, as far as I’m concerned, is the biggest fish killer in aquariums. It can come from many different sources. In this case, it is either straight from the fish, as waste; or from fish food. Remember, fish food is organic material! Now, bacteria colonies called nitrosomonas will start to develop in your tank to start breaking down the ammonia, this is your beneficial bacteria! However you choose to begin the cycle in your tank it will decay into ammonia, and this bacteria will begin to work its magic and break toxic ammonia into nitrites!

Are you with me so far?

Nitrites are the by-product of ammonia, still toxic to your fish though. We’re not in the clear yet! It can take a week or two to get to this process, sometimes a little longer, it’s all chemistry! A new group of bacteria will move in now, called nitrobacter and break down your nitrites into nitrates!

Nitrates is the end of cycle. When you start getting high readings of nitrates from your testing,(your testing, right??) it is time to do some sort of cleaning. This is the easiest thing to get rid of! Now its not always in one shot, but is always a cleaning issue, the other two are more about chemistry, this can be fixed by water changes and/or gravel vacuuming.

Now, nitrates, are by no means the end of the battle, but once you get this far it should be easier to manage provided everything else you do from here on out is done in moderation. Such as adding too many fish at any one time will make all this work go out the window.

So let’s sum this all up in a sentence or two. Fish go to the bathroom which releases ammonia, which gets broken down into nitrites, which then gets broken down into nitrates.

There you are! Hope this helps people understand this a little better and I hope my first article makes a bit more sense to some with this new article!

I would also like to thank a co-worker, (you know who you are!) for giving me the idea to go over this cycle!

**Author's note: This hub is now linked to my first one through the nitrogen cycle link! 


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