New Tank Syndrome, NTS
Robert T. Ricketts
There are all but constant questions on the boards relating the trials, tribulations, and assorted woes associated with a newly set aquarium. Very few novice tank-keepers have any realistic concept of the complexity of the system they are starting. This is no doubt a good thing – if most of us really knew up front how complex aquarium ecology is, we would probably never start – and think of all the fun we would have missed. The micro-ecology of out tanks is complex. The development of the micro-ecology is a tad demanding of attention, but the chores involved are not complex. After stability is reached, handling is not complex at all. As with many of the things we do, once you understand something about it, it is relatively easy.
The first hurdle a novice must face is the set-up itself – the tank, the filter(s), heater, lights, substrate, aquascaping, timers, buckets, test kits, and the water. Making intelligent choices with no background is all but impossible. Original selections are made on the advice of the store staff from which it is purchased, the experiences of friends, and maybe even the Internet. All that is going to be out of scope for this brief article, it would require a book at the least. It would be colored strongly by my own personal preferences. What I like to use may not be as friendly for you, and vice-versa. Personal preferences are just that, personal and individual. With a bit of experience, everyone learns what equipment they like or don’t like, find easy to work with or not so easy, and that does the job they need. Then they can make wiser choices for equipment upgrades or for new additional tanks. It may also be better that they do not know up front that if they like the hobby at all, there will be more tanks.
The next hurdle is getting healthy stock. If you don’t already know fish, how can you tell what goes with what, what tank size is proper, and are the beasts healthy? That too is out of scope here, too much information is required. It must be learned by reading and questioning, and is not likely to happen before the first tank is started. There the Web is an invaluable tool. You can gather multiple opinions and ideas, selecting or building on those to what suits you. How many people started in this hobby with a quarantine tank as the initial purchase, or maybe the second purchase after a selection of “good” reference materials? I did not.
The primary condition discussed under the heading of “New Tank Syndrome” (NTS) is nitrification, or “cycling” the tank. I have discussed this previously in Aquarium Microbes, Part 1: Nitrification Bacteria and suggest that you read that for a high-level discussion of the process. If you are in the planning stages of a new tank and have not yet started, I strongly suggest that you use “fishless cycling” as popularized by Dr. Chris Cow in earlier articles.Those articles and the process detailed there will get you over the largest single difficulty facing the novice hobbyist. So those bacterial development phases are not going to be repeated here either.
It does need emphasis that NTS is more than just cycling for the nitrification bacteria. There are millions of other microbes and infusoria that must be in balance in our tanks. These others, the heterotrophic bacteria, fungi, algae, infusoria, copepods, nematodes, etc., are just as important to us as the lithotrophs (nitrification bacteria), but much more rarely cause death and destruction by themselves or by their lack than would lack of the lithotrophs. So we don’t talk about them as much. Any one of these can overgrow its “normal” population density due to excess or imbalance in the food and consumer groups in the “young” tank. This was previously discussed in an article but from a different angle: Aquarium Microbes, Part 2: Other small critters
For a fish-only tank (FO), in my experience the whole NTS period is on the order of three months. If any drastic, out of the ordinary practices are required during that three months (medication of the tank, for an example), the clock resets to near zero. Algae outbreaks (attached, or free-floating in the form of “green water”), cloudy water (gray or smoky appearance from free-floating or swimming bacteria), fungus on food particles at the surface of the substrate, etc. are either expected, or should not cause shock or dismay, if or when they appear. Most or all of these episodes are transient and will clear without extreme measures by the hobbyist. Vacuuming the substrate for leftovers before they decay is not extreme. Nor is moderating food input extreme in my view. Cloudy water of whatever color is likely to be self-limited and to clear without intervention. If it is extreme (opaque) and competing with the fish for oxygen (fish are at the surface breathing rapidly), increasing mechanical filtration and frequent (daily to every other day) cleaning of mechanical filters will help. Please do not disturb biofilters any more than necessary while doing this. Cloudy water seems to be a peculiar situation where extra water changes tend to be only of temporary aid. They may even prolong the outbreak by providing refreshed trace minerals needed by the bloom. Medication or flocculants are the same; they effectively cause catastrophic collapse of the bloom, and can easily overload the filters and deplete the oxygen in the tank to the risk of the fish. If such things are used (I do not, and do not recommend their use), mechanical filtration maintenance, water partial exchanges, and vacuuming must be done to protect the needed bacteria in the biofilters as well as the fish in the system. In extreme or prolonged green water blooms (perhaps over two to three weeks), dark treatment by completely blocking light to the tank for several days may help. Mechanical filtration should be boosted and frequently maintained during and after this practice as well. Also do not neglect routine maintenance just because a bloom is occurring. Regular maintenance helps keep water conditions stable, which should aid the stabilization of the tank microflora and microfauna. The most extreme measure I ever take in the face of blooms is added mechanical filtration (up to diatom filtration) with very frequent cleaning of mechanical filter media to remove as many nutrients as possible from the system. In this case, those excess nutrient are not dissolved, but are incorporated into the bodies of the free-floating or swimming bacteria or algae.
Planted tanks are a somewhat different case from FO. You face the same requirement for establishment of balance of all the microscopic or near-microscopic life in the tank as you do in FO tanks. Plus you have the requirement to establish the plants themselves. Plants do not react as quickly as do the microbes to changes in water composition, nutrient availability, substrate differences, lighting strength and spectrum. But they do adapt. If you are a plant novice as well, you are likely to be adding either too little or too much macro- and micronutrients, quite possibly in excess of what the not-yet-adapted plants can handle. And you may lack certain required nutrients (bio-available carbon is commonly limiting in novice setups). Algae can react or adapt more quickly and easily (or just by selective pressure on which type can take advantage of the situation most easily) than can higher plants. Algae can make do with lower levels of many or most nutrients. So you might generate algae heaven, coating everything and further stressing the higher vascular plants by blocking their light.
Personally, I can only rarely initiate a fully planted tank in the aquascape I want it to have at maturity. I consider the NTS period for planted tanks to be at least twice as long as for FO tanks, that is, up to six months minimum time to long-term stability. To the tools discussed for FO tanks, you (and I) may need to add a significant support crew for help. This crew may include animals to do cleaning chores: small or dwarf plecos and/or Otocinclus, Siamese Algae Eaters (SAEs), American (or Florida) Flag Fish (FFF), Cherry Barbs, mollies, snails (red ramshorns, common pond, Malaysian Trumpet Snails/MTS), Amano shrimp (Caridina japonica) or other algae-eating shrimp. The plant help crew also includes fast growing (i.e., rapid nutrient absorbing) plants such as many stem plants which may be either rooted or floating, and water sprite (really a rosette plant but also either rooted or floating), or true floaters such as duckweed. These fast growing floating plants may be the most valuable helpers, in that they can suck up excess nutrients with amazing speed to out-compete the algae even in a novice tank. The ‘floaters” can also provide some degree of shade for the “permanent” plants while they establish, comparable to the use of a lath house or shade cloth in the outdoor garden. These plants are also relatively easily harvested and removed from the tank to control degree of shading and nutrient absorption. The animal crew, selected in part for the type of algae (they do have individual preferences for different types of algae), is quite likely to have to be present in significantly higher numbers than can be supported once the tank matures. As I remove the temporary plants and as any algae load decreases, I’m removing portions of the animate work crew as well. This too can be compared to the outdoor garden, where new plantings require extra attention in watering and weeding, mulching and feeding. More established garden areas need much less work, so we need fewer workers to tend the aquatic garden as it matures. There are learning processes involved in planted tanks that are different and in addition to those of FO tanks, but they are easier to learn with extra helpers during the NTS phase of the tank
If we were all Amano, we might get away with setting finished aquascapes. I’m not that accomplished, and I would not expect any novice to be. I have an advantage that much of the plant stock for any given new tank of mine is likely to come from other existing and established tanks under my care, or from young plants in my grow-out tanks. This minimizes their adaptation to me and my water and lighting, and gives me additional advantage in that I am already familiar with the growth in my tanks under my particular care (or lack thereof) of the plant. But even with those advantages, I still set just the framework of the tank in my mind, top it off with floaters and stock it with soft plant herbivores (read as: algae eaters). This gives the aquascape-to-come protection and “buffering” (not pH, but from algae competition) while it develops. Those extras, both fast-growing plants and worker animals, I know and plan to be non-permanent, and the transients are removed gradually as the tank in my mind achieves reality. When I can see that tank in front of me, and the cleaning crews have been reduced to long-term maintenance levels, I can comfortably tell myself that I have passed the chance of NTS and can start the next project.
NTS Water changes:
This is easier to understand than the regular water change math for established and stable tanks with mature biofilters, as it is not long-term. Each water change during cycling is individual. If you have hobby-test-kit detectable ammonia or nitrate, I would suggest doing a 50% partial to reduce the hazardous material to or below detectable levels. Any detectable ammonia or nitrite is, at the least, a risk to the fish. It is doing some damage if we can detect it and if it is there for any period of time. Only undectable levels should be considered “safe”. As a sidelight, undectable ammonia or nitrite or nitrate of anything else measured by a hobby test kit does not mean a true zero, that none of the material tested is present. It means only “not detectable” by the kit. Those metabolites are still present, just not at detectable levels. This is an important point to understand. So long as you have living fish or inverts in the tank, ammonia and/or nitrite will be there. They hopefully will be below detectable levels so we will not worry about them. If testing after the partial still shows detectable positive result for either ammonia or nitrite, do another water change. The total dissolved solids and other water parameters should not be so far away from tap or source water levels that there is any risk involved in large scale partials.
This article originally appeared in AquaSource Magazine. It has been edited and expanded for this site, Sept. 2010
Robert T. Ricketts, a.k.a. RTR