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Guide to Aquarium Starter Kits, Sets and Bacteria

Brief Description

This guide will help you understand the purpose of aquarium starter kits since proper ratio and existence of beneficial bacteria are crucial for every fish tank no matter whether it's a newly setup one, being cleaned after curing diseases or a fully running a couple of years. Aquarium starter sets are widely available in local pet stores, are relatively inexpensive and should be used whenever the colonies of nitrification bacteria in your filtration system or gravel have been reduced dramatically or even killed (never use tap water when cleaning filtration media!!!).


Fish keeping has been a large hobby for many years but in the early days it was not fully understood, fish were placed in aquariums because they looked nice and unusually marked fish were sought after, but their needs and acceptable water parameters were never considered. Inevitably this led to many early mortalities in the fish and a lot of potential keepers simply gave up the hobby due their inexperience and inability to keep fish for long periods of time. Thankfully nowadays there is a lot more information freely available and fish keeping has taken leaps and bounds into becoming one of the most popular hobbies around.

It is now fully understood that any aquarium that is set up needs to be fully cycled to maintain the life inside the tank and provide a perfect balance of the miniature eco-system that you have created.

Basically the term “cycling” is creating a nitrogen cycle inside the aquarium where any toxic waste can be converted by beneficial bacteria to less toxic substances that can be removed by performing regular water changes . All fish produce waste which adds ammonia to the water, this can also be produced by plants or uneaten food left to rot. This is highly toxic to the fish and will lead to their early deaths, bacteria will convert the ammonia to nitrites which is less toxic and another beneficial bacteria will then convert the nitrites into nitrates which are removed by water changes. Simply adding fish to a new aquarium is asking for disaster so the tank needs to have established colonies of the beneficial bacteria living in the filters, décor and even the tank glass to control the water parameters and deal with any levels of toxic waste that the fish you add can produce.

But how do I get the bacteria into the aquarium to start with?

There are two ways of starting of the cycle in your aquarium, they have all been tried and tested, different keepers have different opinions on both of these two methods so this article will briefly explain them and it is up to you to decide which is the best method for you.

Cycling with fish

This is the first method ever used by fish keepers once they understood the importance of establishing the nitrogen cycle into the aquarium. It is simply a matter of adding a couple of hardy fish to start producing fish waste and kicking the cycle in. This is frowned on by many keepers nowadays as it does put undue stress on the fish and things can go wrong, especially if the fish added are not as hardy as you thought and will simply die in the aquarium.

Fish-less cycling

This is now the most accepted method of cycling your tank. Ammonia is produced in the water column by either adding pure ammonia to the aquarium in controlled doses or adding fish food and leaving it to rot to produce the ammonia. The newest innovation for producing a fish-less cycle is the introduction of a commercial product - aquarium starter kits - that directly places the beneficial bacteria directly into your tank. Adding ammonia or fish food to the tank can mean that a cycle will take anything up to 6 weeks to fully cycle, manufacturers claim that their aquarium starter cultures can fully perform the cycle within a two week period. These cultures are often used by pond keepers nowadays to restart their cycle in the pond after is has gone through the winter period with the filtration system turned off. As the fish are still in the pond it requires the filters to be back up to speed as son as possible. Some keepers are still wary of this new product claiming that the bacteria cannot survive fully being placed inside a plastic bottle for weeks on end but I have actually asked this question of the suppliers and they all have the same response. Apparently the bacteria are stored in a fluid that feeds them constantly thus keeping the colony healthy ready for use as required.

The aquarium starter cultures are proving to be the preferred method of cycling by novice fish keepers as they are easy to use, all instructions are clearly marked on the label placed on the bottle, some people are very wary of using neat ammonia as it can be a bit daunting pouring it into the aquarium water and can easily be misjudged as regards the correct quantity. Fish food can also produce other by products as it breaks down, the main one being phosphates which will in turn encourage algal growth in the new aquarium, this is the last thing you want when you are first starting out.

Aquarium starter cultures will contain both sets of bacteria require for cycling the tank, bacteria for converting ammonia into nitrites and bacteria for converting nitrites into nitrates. The labels on the bottles will explain clearly how much of the starter culture to add to the tank and which days to add it after the aquarium has been filled with water ( the day of the filling is classed as day one). All that the keeper has to supply is a media for the bacteria to colonise by adding a filter to the aquarium that contains media and provides a water flow to keep the oxygen content high in the water allowing the bacteria to grow and increase the size of the colony.

Several well known companies supply aquarium starter sets so I will add a brief list here for you to look at:-

  • JBL Denitrol - this aquarium starter kit allows a keeper to add fish to the tank after 48 hours according to the manufacturers. It is available for £17.50 per 250 ml bottle and this is able to treat up to 7500 litres of water. Each bottle is capable of adding 100 million bacteria to the aquarium.
  • API produce a starter kit called stress-zyme, this is available in various sized bottles, the smallest being 120 ml which sells for £3-£4. This product has been available for quite a while is the most common one used by fish keepers in Europe.
  • Oase are more renowned for pond products but their starter culture that was previously sold for pond starters is now available in aquarium starter sized bottles. The price is very good, a 500 ml bottle will sell for £19-£20 and will last for several months. This can be used on several aquariums as and when required.

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