New Tank Syndrome, How To Overcome It

New Tank Syndrome by Aquarium Tales

Did you know that aquarium changes pose certain health risks to your fish? One of the threats that could be awaiting fish in a brand-new aquarium is the new tank syndrome. Typically the first-timers suffer from the syndrome mentioned above in the early stages of their aquarium journey. 

If you don’t take preventative measures and don’t prepare the new aquarium properly, you will most likely encounter the new tank syndrome.

Sometimes, the new tank syndrome affects established tanks too! If you don’t take action, your fish may suffer weakness, illness, grave injuries, and even die.

With that, below, let’s try to understand what the new tank syndrome is and how to deal with it! After reading this article, hopefully, you will be able to solve such problems more efficiently.

What Is The New Tank Syndrome

I assume most of you are familiar with the term’ nitrogen cycle’ in a fish tank. In a healthily established tank, a complete nitrogen cycle will occur. A new tank is not a properly cycled tank.

The new tank syndrome occurs when the so-called nitrogen cycle is disrupted. In an aquarium ecosystem that is more or less balanced, the nitrogen cycle occurs as follows:

  1. Fish waste, dead organisms, and leftover food break down, producing ammonium (NH4+) and ammonia (NH3).
  2. Beneficial bacteria in the tank – called nitrifying bacteria – consume ammonia and ammonium, producing nitrite (NO2-) as a result.
  3. The nitrite is then consumed by Nitrobacter microorganisms, which results in the conversion of nitrite to nitrate (NO3-).
  4. Nitrates are then removed from the tank as you change the water. Additionally, some aquarium plants consume nitrates as food.

Nitrates are significantly less toxic than nitrites and ammonia, but they can harm fish too in high concentrations. Though nitrates result from a nitrogen cycle, they are easier to manage, so a nitrogen cycle is desirable. 

If the nitrogen cycle is disrupted, the aquarium water’s acutely harmful substances will not be removed, and your fish will become intoxicated.

The New Tank Syndrome

Why Is It Called ‘New Tank’ Syndrome?

It is named new tank syndrome but could occur in an established aquarium. Well, how does this fit into the concept of the “new” tank syndrome? In a new tank with clean water, there are too few nitrifying bacteria in the aquarium.

With that, the ammonium, ammonia, and nitrites produced by fish waste are not filtered from the water. As these substances build up, they increase the toxicity of the water for fish. So new tank syndrome basically represents the symptoms of toxicity build-up in the aquarium water.

How To Identify The New Tank Syndrome

To effectively spot and prevent the new tank syndrome, you should monitor the water quality for 6-12 weeks after you’ve built a new aquarium. And even to get early symptoms, make use of ammonia and nitrite test kits to keep track of the tank’s water condition.

In the early stages of the cycling process in a new tank, the ammonia level should be kept below one ppm, while nitrites should be below 1.5 ppm. As the cycling process matures, both should be nearly zero. As nitrifying bacteria colonies develop in the tank, ammonia and nitrites will plummet down.

Aside from test kits, you may also keep an eye out for symptoms of the new tank syndrome in fish:

  • Staying at the surface longer than usual and gasping.
  • Moving the gills vigorously (rapid breathing.) 
  • Damaged gill membranes.

How To Prevent And Deal With The New Tank Syndrome

Here are some primary measures you could take to prevent the new tank syndrome. Though efforts are slightly different for an immature and existing aquarium, the basic principle is the same. Your intention is to remove toxicity from the aquarium water and relief your fish from stress.

Cycling The New Aquarium

The process to establish a nitrogen cycle from the beginning to mature stages is called ‘cycling’ in short. There is no alternative to cycle a new tank to overcome the common syndrome.

I have a detailed article on ‘Nitrogen Cycle in A Fish Tank – What It Is and How To Cycle A Fish Tank.’ You will get all the necessary information about the cycling process there. 

Here I am giving highlighted aspects of the cycling process.

Cycling The New Tank

Slow Cycling With Fish

With slow cycling, you cycle the new aquarium with the fish in the water. Generally, it’s recommended to start cycling with hardy fish that will better tolerate elevated ammonia and nitrite levels. Once their levels normalize, you may add more delicate fish to the tank.

For slow cycling in freshwater tanks, fish species like Bettas and Guppies are commonly used. In saltwater tanks, you may use Damselfish.

It will take 1-3 months until a substantial population of nitrifying bacteria is established in your fish tank. Fortunately, you may make use of fishless cycling to bypass this problem.

Fishless Cycling

With fishless cycling, you keep your fish in the old tank – in the meantime, you should manually add ammonia to the new tank. Usually, 3-5 drops of ammonia per 10 gallons of water are added for fishless cycling. The addition of ammonia to the water will encourage the formation of healthy bacteria.

While adding ammonia to the tank, you should test the water for ammonia, nitrite, and nitrate daily. Initially, the ammonia levels will be high, while the latter two will be very low.

Once you detect nitrite in the water, you may reduce the ammonia to 3 drops per day, but continue to test the water.

Ultimately, your goal is to reduce the levels of ammonia and nitrites close to zero. Once you achieve this, your aquarium will have cycled, and you may safely move your fish.

Seeding The Aquarium

Another good option for cycling is to use bacteria from the old tank. This will noticeably boost the process of cycling. You may seed the tank both with and without fish.

Nitrifying bacteria usually find a home inside the tank filter. Have a look at the old aquarium’s filter media – those that are browned have bacteria cultures on them. You may simply drop the media into the new aquarium or use it in the new tank’s filter.

Additionally, you may move plants, substrate, and water from the old tank to accelerate the process.

With that said, avoid seeding the new aquarium if the old tank is infested with aquatic parasites.

Adding Cycling Bacteria To The Tank

Finally, you may just purchase nitrifying bacteria off the shelf and add them to the water. This is the quickest way of cycling a new tank. Some brands claim that you may relocate the fish immediately after adding bacteria to the new tank!

However, you should wait for about a week just in case to let the bacteria settle in the filter and substrate.

Repair Nitrogen Cycle In An Existing Tank

Even though you were happily maintaining a healthy aquarium, the nitrogen cycle could be hampered from its established stages for many reasons. Once the cycling is retarded, you will observe new tank syndrome in the old tank. In that case, take timely actions to save your fish’s life.

Perform Water Changes

If you observe the symptoms mentioned in earlier sections in the established tank, your first task is, perform a water change. The water test result will guide you on how much water you need to change.

Ideally, the ammonia and nitrite level should be zero, but you have to re-establish the complete nitrogen cycle to achieve it. But by this time, ensure the ammonia and nitrite level do not go beyond 1 and 1.5 ppm, respectively.

Clean The Substrate

Food leftovers and other wastes get trapped inside the substrate and decomposed to form ammonia. If the ammonia level increases, the established biological cycle may not be adequate to convert all the toxicity. In such a case, only water changes may not be sufficient.

I will suggest planning to clean the aquarium substrate thoroughly to eliminate entrapped ammonia. Use a stirrer and gravel vacuum to perform the cleaning task effectively.

Lower The Fish Density

One of the common reasons for new tank syndrome appearing in an established tank is overstocking. Maintaining a high fish density in the aquarium is not at all a good practice. Overstocking causes many problems, including hampering the nitrogen cycle.

If you observe fish suffering from increased toxicity symptoms, you can transfer some fish to another tank or to a quarantine tank if possible. It is tough to re-establish a nitrogen cycle in an overstocked tank.

Final Words

The new tank syndrome may occur in already established aquariums – most often, this happens after spring cleaning or using antibiotics. These disrupt the established bacteria colonies, which may result in ammonia and nitrite spikes.

No matter what you do, make sure to regularly test the water in the tank and keep an eye on your fish. If you see any breathing difficulties or gill damage symptoms, you are most likely dealing with the new tank syndrome.

I would like to hear your experience with this issue, if any. Besides, your suggestion and comment are highly appreciated. 

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