How To Cycle a Tank in 24 Hours: A Comprehensive Guide




how to cycle a tank in 24 hours

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Ideally, you would have a few weeks or months to prepare your fish tank for new friends. In reality, most people purchase their fish tanks the same day they purchase their fishy friends. So, what can you do?

How to cycle a tank in 24 hours? Keep reading to find out.

Can You Cycle a Tank in 24 Hours?

You can get the nitrogen cycle going within 24 hours with the right tools. Just because you can, however, doesn’t mean you should.

If possible, set up your tank 10-14 days before adding fish to protect your new additions better.

If you’re in a bind, follow the instructions below:

What You’ll Need To Cycle Your Fish Tank in 24 Hours

Before you set up your tank, grab the following items (you can find most of them in local pet stores or online):

  • A fish tank (10 gallons or larger)
  • Filtered tap water or pre-treated aquarium water
  • Aquarium substrate
  • A good water conditioner
  • An aquarium heater
  • A fish tank filter (preferably used)
  • A tank thermometer
  • Aquarium test strips
  • Bottled beneficial bacteria 
  • Fish food or waste products
  • Live plants

Once you have all these items, you can kick off your nitrogen cycle by getting started on the following steps:

Step 1: Make Sure Your Tank Is Clean and Dry

Give your aquarium a good rinse with warm water (no soap or cleaning products!), dry it with a paper towel, and place it wherever you want it to live.

Once you fill your tank with water, it will become much heavier, and you won’t want to move it.

Step 2: Set Up Your Tank

Before adding water, set up your tank with the substrate, a heater (to ensure comfortable water temperature), and a gentle aquarium filter. If you have an old filter from a previous tank, use it, as it likely contains good bacteria.

This is also the best time to get decorations exactly where you want them. Still, you should wait to set up plants.

Step 3: Add Water

This step is deceptively simple because you cannot add just any water to a fish tank. Instead, purchase pre-conditioned aquarium water from a pet store or prepare tap water for your tank.

Some people like to use bottled water in their fish tanks, but this is not only expensive but also inefficient. Some bottled water brands contain chlorine, and others filter out beneficial minerals to get a cleaner taste.

Use tap water instead.

To prepare tap water for fish tank use, boil it to get rid of excess chlorine, filter it to get rid of any other nastiness, and treat it with an aquarium water conditioner.

Let the water cool down to room temperature before adding it to your tank, then heat it from 68°F to 85°F to make a nice home for bacteria and launch the nitrogen cycle.

Step 4: Introduce Live Plants

Plants are a key component of the nitrogen cycle and can help get things moving immediately. Once your water is treated and has the correct temperature and acidity (ideally a pH between 7 and 8), add plants to your tank.

Depending on your chosen plants, you can float them on the top of the tank, plant them in the substrate, or drop them in! Everything from water lettuce to a Java fern to a Marimo moss ball can do wonders for your tank.

Pro tip: you may want to turn off your heater and air filter during planting and turn them back on after your plants have a few minutes to settle in.

Step 5: Add Waste and Bacteria

Aquarium plants need food, just like fish. They turn nitrogen into oxygen, but they can’t do so without waste or bacteria in the tank.

Add fish food or waste to your tank and let it disintegrate and rot. This will create ammonia. Add “bacteria in a bottle,” too, because nitrifying bacteria will help turn the ammonia into nitrites and nitrates, feeding your plants and kickstarting the nitrogen cycle in your tank.

Once you have set up your tank and introduced waste and bacteria, wait as long as you can before adding fish — even if that is just overnight. This is essential to give the ammonia cycle enough time to support the fish’s normal process.

Also, don’t forget to test your tank for nitrite levels before introducing a fishy friend.

Step 6: Test Your Tank

You may be anxious to add fish to your tank, but make sure you test your water first. Remember, you are aiming for a neutral pH between 7 and 8 (or whatever your fishy friend prefers), a constant temperature, and low nitrate levels.

Ammonia must be at 0ppm before you can add fish, nitrites should be below 5ppm and as close to 0ppm as possible, and nitrates should be below 20ppm.

If you cannot get these numbers right, do not add fish! Your fish are better off waiting in a bag from the pet store until your tank is ready — because even 2ppm of ammonia could kill them.

To solve high nitrate levels, try a partial water change (20-30%) and wait a little longer before testing again. You can add a few more drops of bottled bacteria and vacuum up some of the debris in your tank to obtain ideal water conditions.

Note: when performing water changes, ensure the water you add is pre-treated and at the same temperature as your aquarium.

Step 7: Add Fish

Fortunately, fish are part of their tank’s nitrogen cycle, so adding fish can help you get your tank in shape.

If introducing multiple species to your tank, start with the hardest one, as they are more likely to contribute to the nitrogen cycle without suffering negative side effects.

When introducing a new fish:

  • Float it at the top of the tank for 15-20 minutes.
  • Add a cup of water from your tank to the bag and wait another 5 minutes to stimulate the fish’s biological process.
  • Add water to your tank every 5 minutes until the bag overflows into the tank or your fish has been in the bag for 30 minutes (whichever comes first).
  • Drain as much water as possible from the bag.
  • Submerge the empty bag and let your fishy friend swim into the tank.
how to cycle a tank in 24 hours

Feed your fish lightly and carefully monitor your tank’s ammonia levels.

The nitrogen cycle is complete when you can feed your fish regularly, and your tank can handle the waste with partial water changes every 7 to 10 days.

*Note: these steps are optional.

Frequently Asked Questions

If you’re new to fishkeeping, the concept of cycling might be new to you. Don’t worry; this section is for you!

The answers to these frequently asked questions can help you, whether you have two weeks or two days to cycle your fish tank.

What Is Cycling?

The nitrogen cycle occurs both underwater and above ground. Cycling is the process by which bacteria convert ammonia (waste) into nitrates and nitrates (nitrogen) — and by which plants convert nitrogen to oxygen. This occurs through the nitrification process. 

Nitrogen cycling occurs all around us, all the time, and cycling a fish tank simply creates a tiny, controlled ecosystem that undergoes this natural process on a smaller scale.

Just like indoor plants help purify the air in our homes, live plants can help you establish a nitrogen cycle in your aquarium.

Is It Essential To Cycle a Fish Tank?

Yes! Although some fish are hardy enough to survive in a fish tank long enough to get the cycle going, a fish tank that doesn’t go through the nitrogen cycle will quickly become toxic for your fish. This is because of toxic nitrogen-based compounds from the organic compounds. 

What Happens if You Don’t Cycle Your Tank?

If you do not cycle your tank, pollutants will build up to unacceptable levels, and your fish will die. This might be because of the high concentration of nitrite.

How Long Does It Take for a Tank To Start Cycling?

Full nitrogen cycling takes 6 to 8 weeks. Of course, fish contribute to the nitrogen cycle, so much cycling occurs with fish in the tank.

Once your nitrogen cycle is established, the tank will keep cycling with nothing more than regular maintenance.

How Can I Speed Up My Fish Tank Cycle?

Adding live nitrifying bacteria to your tank can help speed up your fish tank cycle. Pro fish keepers also swear by using a pre-cycled (used) aquarium filter to help introduce a good colony of bacteria.

Live plants can also speed up your fish tank cycle because they hasten the nitrification process. 

When it comes to natural cycles, live components always move things along and give a quick cycle. The nitrogen cycle should establish itself quickly if you have live plants, special bacteria, and fish in your tank.

Can You Instantly Cycle an Aquarium?

No. There is no way to cycle an aquarium instantly. Nevertheless, proper aquarium setup can go a long way for the health and safety of your fish.

An air filter will likely keep your fish alive until bacteria grow and the nitrogen cycle kicks in, and live plants will help, too. Of course, adding bottled bacteria by hand can kickstart the cycle and help keep your fish safe.

Ensure you do not overload your tank, check your water regularly, and always add the hardiest fish first!

What Is the Fastest Way To Cycle a Freshwater Tank?

The fastest way to cycle a freshwater tank is with all the strategies we have gone over in this blog. Clean your aquarium, pre-treat the water, add plenty of live plants, introduce bottled bacteria, and use an aquarium filter already in a cycled fish tank.

Kick off the nitrogen cycle by adding some waste or ammonia yourself. If the water parameters are correct, introduce a hardy fish to get the ball rolling with its waste.

Whatever you do, never place a fish into the water with more than trace amounts of ammonia, and always keep a careful eye on your tank.

Where Can I Find Other Resources?

Here at Aquariadise, we have plenty of resources to help you set up your fish tank and take care of your aquatic plants and freshwater fish. Check out:

Good luck setting up your tank, and thank you for reading our blog!

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