Bacteria Boosters the Real Truth
So, let’s talk about all the rage with lazy tank cycle people and bacteria boosters or biological filter starters or enhancers. With a little research we have found that they are both unnecessary and can be damaging to the long-time stability of your betta aquarium. These bacteria boosters are supposedly colonies of the correct bacteria that will get your tank cycled in days or increase your biological filter’s capacity magically overnight. But this is nearly always not the case as we will explain.
Saying the long cycle is more “natural” than a rapid cycle by imported true nitrifying bacteria cultures would be dumb to say does not work unless what you are putting into your tank is not what you think. Not one product we tested was fish specific and later the bacteria was not the same as what it started out with.
There are a number of products that are on the market that claim they assist the cycling process in a tank. Some contain a quantity of the nitrosoma and nitrobacter bacteria which will help cycle your tank faster (some as fast as 1 day) than normal. Others contain enzymes which help naturally occurring bacteria grow more rapidly. Some products are added only at set up, others need to be replenished periodically. Some are liquid and some are powders we tested most of them. 13 brands before we made this post. There are pro’s and cons and all are random colonies and not fish specific cultures. A traditional cycle would be your fish specific.
Nitrifying bacteria don’t just latch on to the first available place. Truth be told, nitrifying bacteria will choose to reside in carbon over any other media nine times out of ten. Therefore, if a system has carbon attached to it, you can expect to find most of it there. In the event that there isn’t carbon, these bacteria will prefer to reside where the majority of the ammonia flow occurs in the aquarium. This will not consist of every square inch of rock or any other media existing in the aquarium. Nitrifying bacteria are choosy. It is to be noted we do not like to endorse media exchange either, because there is risk involved with media exchanges. Pests, disease, and pathogens can be transmitted by moving material from one aquarium to another so caution must be observed.
Because the market is saturated with impostor nitrifying bacteria it seems, their instructions obviously aren’t much use we found and no education is gained in this area by reading a label. Only confusion remains. This has left the hobby without much knowledge of how to utilize and bring along a true nitrifying bacteria culture such as Colony to its full glory.
Have you ever brought fish home and just chucked them in the aquarium straight away? Of course not. The fish are brought along slowly to most effectively embrace their new environment. Once out of their comfort zone they won’t function properly and might even die. Bacteria require acclimation the same as fish.
In order to acclimate bacteria, it is important not to throw the kitchen sink at them. True nitrifying bacteria do not need to be force-fed huge amounts of ammonia foods from a bottle to develop. In fact, a light load allows them to nest and start working optimally much faster and become much stronger. That’s the whole point, not to do this fast. The point isn’t to throw the kitchen sink at them to see how much of a beating they can take to prove their effectiveness. This isn’t done to fish, corals, or inverts and shouldn’t be done to nitrifying bacteria either. They need what they need so they deserve the same care considerations and from what we see it is time and care to achieve the best and correct bacteria types your fish needs.
The bacteria you needed in your biological filter needs really only two things to stay alive. One is food – in this case it comes from ammonia and nitrite – and the other is oxygen. However, keep in mind this bacterium is shipped in sealed plastic bottles – in un temperature-controlled environments, which means limited food and no source of air(O2) in the bottles (first clue to unfound claims or a miracle in a bottle label). Yes, with technology today the bottles can be filled with ammonia and oxygen, but there is not a recurring supply, so once the air or food is exhausted would be a few days at most, it is exhausted. It seems when we tested a few brands we will not name here, in most cases, we found you are receiving cultures of dead good bacteria (not specific to you type of fish) that was O2 starved and passed away long before it reached the shops shelf and heat from the shipping truck, some possibly with a living colony of bad anaerobic (without oxygen) bacteria.
This bad bacterium (milky looking and stinking) is the same bacteria that you do not want to begin growing in your aquarium gravel, and here is my plug for you to keep a cleaner tank and is part of why I stress it is important to clean the gravel as part of your weekly water change even if you are not using an under-gravel filter. Though this bad bacterium will die shortly in the aerobic environment of a well circulating, well maintained fish tank, it is quite possible that it has produced toxins that you are willingly introducing to your fish tank. Now these toxins are exactly why you want to make sure that these anaerobic bacteria do not colonize a hidden corner of your fish tank. The toxins produced by anaerobic bacteria in the bottle (or in the tank) are why using a bacteria booster to try to cycle your new aquarium can make the cycling process take several months longer, as each dose of the toxic bacteria kills off the majority of the filter, forcing the process to start over.
Furthermore, let’s think about this for a second. The good bacteria (nitrosomonas, nitrobacter, and nitrospira) have to have been packed with food for it to survive and O2, and this food is fish waste some tested were just urea, so you are adding unnecessary fish waste or urea to your tank when you add this bacteria booster, should the food not yet all be consumed and the O2 in the bottle is still there. Also, from what we found the bacteria in the bottle are already dead—which is most likely the case you could encounter—you are just adding that much more decaying organic matter to the betta tank. Your few betta fish should be providing your tank with more than enough waste to keep the cycle going, and adding more is unnecessary and undesired.
So, let’s give you more of the why you do not need products like this. These bacteria boosters are unnecessary because the bacteria that they are providing for you are ubiquitous—they are already available everywhere in the environment, so they are readily available to your fish tank. Once they get into the fish tank and have access to that food source, they will begin to multiply. This is what is happening when your tank is cycling.
As far as adding more bacteria booster with each water change, this is only viable as a money-making scheme for the manufacturers of the products. First, assuming that the bacteria are actually live in the bottle (and hoping that they are not so far gone as to be replaced with their toxic anaerobic counterparts), your tank can only support so much bacteria in its biological filter. Your test might show everything is 100% perfect and yet your bacteria is 100% wrong for the fish you keep. A few weeks after or a month after you stop to use this type of product your tank will start to have issues as the correct bacteria and the wrong bacteria fight it out in your tank. The number of the right bacteria that your tank can sustain is governed by several factors, including:
The amount of food (fish waste) available for the bacteria to consume
The PH of the water 7.2 and up (see that betta people, your cycle will take longer)
The water must have a KH and a GH of at least 6d (107.2ppm) (taking notes betta people)
The amount of solid surface area available for the bacteria to colonize
The amount of oxygen available for the bacteria to consume when processing the fish waste (this is in addition to that needed by the fish and plants [yes, your plants need oxygen])
The overall water volume (the depth of the water can have a impact but that is beyond what we will talk about here)
The ability of the water to dissipate the bacteria’s own waste
The flow rate of the water
And the availability of these things in conjunction and consistently over time
Light. Nitrifying bacteria prefer to grow and operate in the dark.
Heavy metals and chemical metal chelators or binder’s slow growth. (the kind of stuff in the dechlor that say removes ammonia)
High levels of NH3 (above 3ppm) suppress the bacteria’s growth.
Lack of suitable surfaces to grow on. Bacteria prefer rough, high surface area surfaces with lots of pores in it.
Denitrifying Bacteria: This is the term used for a range of anaerobic bacteria that feed off oxygen from nitrate and work in conditions where there is no free oxygen to use. (In cases, they can turn nitrate back into nitrite).
On interesting note is that when we took a look under a microscope we noticed some products where just Bacillus it is a genus of gram-positive, rod-shaped bacteria and a member of the phylum Firmicutes. Bacillus species can be obligate aerobes (oxygen depending), or facultative anaerobes (having the ability to be aerobic or anaerobic). They will test positive for the enzyme catalase when there has been oxygen used or present. So, I will give you some info here- Ubiquitous in nature, Bacillus includes both free-living (nonparasitic) and parasitic pathogenic species. Under stressful environmental conditions, the bacteria can produce oval endospores that are not true ‘spores’, but to which the bacteria can reduce themselves and remain in a dormant state for very long periods. These characteristics originally defined the genus, but not all such species are closely related, and many have been moved to other genera of the Firmicutes.
Many species of Bacillus can produce copious amounts of enzymes which are used in different industries. Some species can form intracellular inclusions of polyhydroxyalkanoates under certain adverse environmental conditions, as in a lack of elements such as phosphorus, nitrogen, or oxygen combined with an excessive supply of carbon sources.
Novozymes and partner company Adisseo make a shelf stable bacillus this is one of the companies who we work with for some of our lab products here in Thailand did suggest that they might sell to some fish product company’s but due to legal contracts could not give us more info. When we asked them if it was used to make aquarium tank starters there was a very long silence and then we were given some old research on it. https://www.researchgate.net/publication/24274956_Effect_of_treatment_with_probiotics_as_water_additive_on_tilapia_Oreochromis_niloticus_growth_performance_and_immune_response and Aquaforest is a new company from Poland that makes an interesting line of reef aquarium additives. Aquaforest products seem to mirror many of the additives we’ve seen from Zeovit and Fauna Marin, but they are really emphasizing the probiotic functions of all their supplements. A interesting point is the ingredients list they provided us – Purified water, proprietary blend of natural enzymes and non-pathogenic, beneficial microorganisms. The main ingredient was the shelf stable bacillus from Novozymes? Intresting.
So, you could cycle a tank with ammonia and bacillus but it would not be for each type of fish or environment specific. So, we still feel natural or just ammonia feeding is much better as you get the right bacteria the first time and your tank does not need to adjust to your fish environment type. At the bottom I will show you how to cycle a little faster and more natural.
So, all in all if your tank has finished cycling, it will have just as much of a good bacteria colony as it can support, based on the resources provided to it in your tank. Adding more of a different type of bacteria to the system will only result in a die-off of the right bacteria within the tank as a whole and a temporarily loss in stability of the biological filter until the system can re-assert itself or crash.
Cycling Your Tank in 2019 Without Fish – When cycling without fish you will need to provide the ammonia that is needed to sustain and encourage the growth of beneficial bacteria your fish will need.
Note: Ammonia can be usually be found at your grocery or hardware store. Make sure the ammonia only has ammonia hydroxide and water. Some have detergents and coloring added to it make sure you do not get these forms of ammonia it will kill your fish later.
Step 1: Adding ammonia to your tank – Depending on the brand of ammonia will affect the potency of ammonia hydroxide this makes it so there is no exact quantity to add to your tank water.
You will need to use trial and error to determine how much ammonia to add to your tank water.
Start with adding about 3 – 5 drops per gallon of water, you can add more if you need it. However, it is much harder to remove the ammonia if you add too much. Allow this to mix for a few minutes and then test the ammonia levels with your salicylate ammonia test kit.
Note: You will want to add enough ammonia to simulate the bio-load your tank will have once you add fish to it. For a simple tank setup this is usually around 2.0 ppm.
Once you have tested your water, add enough ammonia to bring the levels up to the 2.0 ppm. A little over the 2.0 ppm is ok. Retest your ammonia level and record your results.
Step 2: Maintain your ammonia levels – Things you need to do to maintain healthy tank water.
Everyday add enough ammonia to keep the ammonia levels at about 2.0 ppm
Test your ammonia, nitrite and nitrate each day
Record your test results
Check your pH levels – Any sudden drop or rise in pH can cause your beneficial bacteria to die off and slow or halt your progress.
Over the next 1 – 2 weeks the beneficial bacteria will consume ammonia and begin to break down the ammonia you have been adding. The bacteria will continue to multiply to meet the demand. The bacteria will give off nitrite as a byproduct and this will start to show up on your tests. Once this happens you will know the cycle is well under way.
Step 3: Cycle Progression – At the point your tests will be showing nitrite levels are beginning to raise and you can cut the amount of ammonia you add each day by half. As ammonia-consuming bacteria multiply, you will see the ammonia levels drop and nitrite levels rise.
A second type of beneficial bacteria that lives in your tank will consume harmful nitrite and give off less harmful nitrate as a byproduct. With this second type of bacteria, you will see the nitrite levels drop and the nitrate levels rise. This usually occurs around the weeks 3 – 4 mark.
When the ammonia levels fall back to zero, the nitrite levels fall back to zero and the nitrate levels are showing on your tests. then and only then, is your tank completely cycled.
Step 4: Partial water change – You will want to do a partial water change to keep nitrates at a safe level. You want the nitrates to be around 10 – 20 ppm.
After this water change treat your water with a conditioner that neutralizes:
Then acclimate your fish to their tank. If you don’t have fish right away, be sure to keep adding ammonia daily to keep the cycle going until you are ready to add fish to your tank.
Step 5: Maintain a safe environment –
Make sure to do partial 25% water changes each week to keep the nitrate levels in the safe range.
You will want to occasionally, test your water for ammonia & nitrite to make sure the cycle is continuing.
Nitrate and pH tests should be performed weekly.
Once your tank is cycled it can stay cycled for many years with just simple proper maintenance.
An interesting test note is when we added shelf stable probiotic’s from Novozymes to the ammonia cycle method the tank cycle was 3 to 5 days. I think if we have time more research should be put into this to see the long tern effects of starting tanks with the wrong fish type bacteria vs adding the correct fish and letting the closed environment grow to the specific fish type. One test was adding a non-milk-based yogurt and the ammonia method and it was a cloudy mess for a few days and then by day 6 it cycled and became stable. So is there something to this I am not sure. But a lot of products we looked at were all ready dead and only a few were active to some point. Some of the off the shelf products has a lot of nasty bacteria growing in them that if added to a tank would for sure make some fish sick. All of the products we noticed that were bad were not clear in color but cloudy and had a very bad almost sulphur smell. None of the tanks cycled with the non-fish methods had the same bacteria or stable colonies a natural cycle had. So once you use a bottle product you could have issues later down the road as the correct bacteria fight it out with the other types for food…..But, more research is needed and for now is only a very limited not to scientific test on small closed systems.
Test tanks were 5 usg, 5 lbs of small natural rock and low light with an average temp of 82f. 6ppm hardness and 8mg/l O2 sats. With 12 tests performed and only 4 cycling correct and 2 never cycled. The other 6 were hard to get a stable cycle as the bottled product added the wrong bacterium that came from products that were dead in the bottle.