How to avoid ‘new tank’ syndrome

New tank syndrome is the term people use to refer to unexplained death of fish in an aquarium that is new, or under 3 months of life. Most cases of new tank syndrome can partially be blamed on inexperienced aquarist, but even people who have had aquariums for years lose some fish to this at some point. Thankfully, avoiding new tank syndrome is not so difficult.

Ammonia Poisoning

Most fish who die on a newly set up aquarium do it due to ammonia poisoning, caused by an improperly cycled aquarium. Ammonia is a by-product of animal waste such as fish waste, uneaten food, and the odd dead fish that hasn’t been removed soon enough. Ammonia is highly toxic to fish, but naturally occurring nitrifying bacteria will transform it into nitrites, and eventually into nitrates that are much less toxic and can be removed from the tank through regular water changes.

However, for this to happen bacteria need to have a chance to establish themselves in the aquarium before fish are introduced and ammonia starts being generated in large amounts. Unless you have enough bacterial population to deal with all the ammonia and nitrites, your fish will suffer from ammonia stress that can kill them, or at the very least make them susceptible to diseases that will kill them.

How to fix ammonia poisoning on your aquarium? Easy. Cycle your tank before you add fish, or with some very hardy fish and careful monitoring of the water conditions, and frequent water changes.

Sudden Changes In Water Parameters

Seemingly minor changes on water parameters such as pH or temperature can have terrible consequences on an aquarium if they are very sudden. Fish need time to acclimate to new water conditions, and sudden changes are one of the main reasons for fish stress after purchase. This is even more true on a marine aquarium that requires more stable water conditions than a freshwater one.

Try to avoid sudden changes in temperature by always using water that is at a similar temperature to your aquarium for water changes, and properly conditioned with an aquarium water conditioner. In order to give your fish the best possible environment, it is very important that any changes to the aquarium are done gradually. For example, if you need to raise the aquarium pH using chemicals do it over a few days

Overstocking The Tank

Adding too many fish, or adding them too quickly, can throw your carefully cycled biological filter totally off-kilter. This means your tank will enter a mini-cycle until the bacterial colonies grow enough to maintain the new population. Until that mini-cycle is done, your fish will be subject to the perils of cycling, including ammonia poisoning. To avoid this, increase the number of inhabitants of your tank slowly and gradually. Add a few fish, test the water parameters over a few days, and don’t add more fish until everything is stable and there is no ammonia or nitrite to be seen.

Depending on the strength of your filter and your water changing schedule, your tank will be able to sustain a determinate amount of fish and living organisms. This is known as bio-load. You can help increase your tank’s ability to sustain life by planting (plants generate oxygen and remove ammonia pretty effectively) but fish will also require space to swim and many fish are territorial to a point. An aquarium with few, well chosen fish that are active and happy is considerably more attractive and easier to maintain than an overstocked tank.

Inadequate Water Testing And Maintenance

It is important to get familiar with your water testing kit even before you buy any fish. In fact, running tests during the cycling period is necessary in order to identify the different stages of the cycle. Testing regularly should avoid creeping water parameters changes, such as a piece of non-aquarium safe decoration dissolving and affecting your water chemistry, or excess rotting food increasing the nitrites.

Most fish won’t suddenly die if the water chemistry is off. Instead, they will become stressed. Stressed fish are more sensitive to sickness and parasites such as Ick. Other causes of stress are aggressive tankmates, an environment lacking places to hide, inadequate food, etc… So while you may think that your fish just caught some disease chances are readjusting the aquarium conditions can put them in the way to recovery even before you start medicating them.

Too few water changes can cause algae bloom (due to excess nitrates) and will also stress out your fish. However, be careful not to go overboard and cause new tank syndrome by changing too much water at the same time. Some fish are very sensitive and require frequent but minimal (10-15% water volume) water changes every week.

Correctly balancing an aquarium water chemistry is key to a thriving, algae free, happy fish tank.

Getting The Wrong Fish Stock

Each kind of fish has its own favourite environment, and while most fish will adapt (particularly hardy freshwater fish) this doesn’t mean that you should forget about this when planning your aquarium. Not to mention some fish will not be suitable for community aquariums, while others will require lively tankmates in order not to become the biggest bully in the tank. There are many different types of aquariums and in order for your fish not to be stressed out the right tankmates are a must.

Never go into a fish store without a researched list of which fish you want to buy. Otherwise you will end up with fish that are incompatible with the tap water values on your zone, or even more likely, with fish that will do their best to kill each other. While many fish stores will endeavour to rehome unwanted livestock, if you avoid buying incompatible fish in the first place it will save you money to start with.

Most of the causes for new tank syndrome relate to water quality and inadequate maintenance, but it is easy even for an experienced aquarist to make a mistake, particularly in small aquariums. Large aquariums are generally more novice-friendly because the larger volume can buffer the tank against sudden water changes. Careful monitoring of your aquarium until it’s fully established is the best way to prevent new tank syndrome.

How to avoid 'new tank' syndrome

New tank syndrome is a common first problem encountered by the beginner fish-keeper. Don’t despair, it’s actually easily dealt with, with some patience and basic aquarium knowledge.

Starting your first aquarium requires some basic understanding of what is going on inside the tank. You can’t see, feel, or smell pH, hardness, ammonia, etc.

Pouring in one load of chemicals after the other and trusting this will solve problems overnight, will only end with the lasting memory of stores selling expensive products that do not work.

New Tank Syndrome, as the phrase implies, is related to a newly set-up aquarium. This may be the main obstacle the new hobbyist has to face.

In earlier references, New Tank Syndrome was often referred to as “mysterious” or “sudden” fish death. This definition has been re-defined as “The Cycle”, as the knowledge about the hobby grew within recent years.

During the cycle, two sets of bacteria responsible for breaking down ammonia and nitrite are settling down. As these two compounds will spike to dangerous levels, the “mysterious” and “sudden fish deaths” starts making sense, as both compounds are highly toxic.

How to avoid 'new tank' syndrome

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Ammonia, nitrite, and finally nitrates are nitrogen compounds, that accumulate during this stage and cause problems on a short and long term basis. The highest accumulation can be measured right around the time when the tank has cycled.

While in the past the cycle had been defined as new tank syndrome, today it is separated from the cycle by definition, but still causes a lot of hobbyists to throw in the towel.

New hobbyists often get excited when completing the “cycle”. After all it has a scientific ring to it and it wasn’t too difficult to achieve after all. The next step according to plan is to stock the tank with additional fish, as all levels read safe values. Once stocked, the problems take their course.

The reason is excess nutrients created by the newly introduced fish. The bacteria colonies are not able to readily adjust to the new circumstances, which would allow them to prevent the new tank syndrome. In return bacteria colonies start to grow, sometimes at a rate that significantly reduces oxygen availablity, besides not being prepared to remove the extra waste created.

Stocking the tank slowly can prevent new tank syndrome, giving the whole system enough time to adjust. Another way to avoid the new tank syndrome is by cycling the tank using the fishless cycling method. This method allows stocking the tank as soon as the cycle has been completed.

How to avoid 'new tank' syndrome

One of the most common questions new aquarium owners ask has to do with cloudy or milky water. What does it mean? Why does it happen? And how can I fix it?

The good news is that cloudy water in a new aquarium isn’t necessarily an emergency situation. In fact, there are some very simple ways to diagnose and treat cloudy water and each will be discussed below.

Does your brand new aquarium suddenly have cloudy water after being clear for the first few days? Don’t worry. A newly set up aquarium is a biological blank slate; there are virtually no life forms present on Day One. Within days, variety of microscopic organisms will begin trying to establish themselves in the tank. The beneficial nitrifying bacteria that filter the water and create stability and balance haven’t had a chance to colonize the system yet, so it’s kind of a free-for-all for a week or so. A variety of free-floating bacteria and other microbes take advantage of minerals and nutrients in the water and begin to multiply unchecked – thus causing the cloudiness. The situation is sometimes compounded and exacerbated when hobbyists add too many fish all at once and/or feed too much, providing these microbes with an additional food source.

A natural reaction is to “do something”. There is obviously something “wrong” with the tank, requiring action on our part. However, taking measures to prevent and avoid cloudy water in advance is a far better approach than attempting to eliminate it once it starts. When you begin to see cloudy water in a new aquarium, it’s best to just let it run its course. Continue reading for some additional tips.

Should I do nothing and let nature take its course?

  • Yes! Without question, doing nothing is the best approach for a new fish tank, as long as ammonia and nitrite levels are not on the rise. Cleaning the filter does nothing except disrupt the few beneficial bacteria that have had a chance to get established. These “good guys” will eventually outcompete the cloudy water bacteria for food, starving them out and breaking down their carcasses.
  • Water changes clear the water temporarily, but in a day or two the cloudiness reappears, often even worse than before. That’s because new water provides a fresh supply of nutrients, causing the cloudy water bacteria to populate even more.
  • Left alone, the cloudy water bacteria will eventually consume all the nutrients in the water and die out. This is part of the cycling process!

Should I add live plants or other beneficial bacteria?

  • Yes! Live plants have “good” bacteria and other microbes on them, which help establish the biological balance in the aquarium.
  • Live plants compete for nutrients and help starve out microbes that cause cloudy water. In addition, they produce oxygen during the day, which aids in the breakdown of fish waste, uneaten food, and the cloudy water bacteria as they begin to die off. This third benefit helps clear the water.
  • They also consume ammonia generated by fish and uneaten food, that can build up in newly set up aquariums until the nitrifying bacteria become established.

How to avoid 'new tank' syndrome

Should I change filter media or get a new filter?

  • No! The big thing in terms of the filter when dealing with “New Tank Syndrome” cloudy water is don’t mess with it.
  • Cleaning a brand new filter or replacing the cartridge or media does nothing good, and potentially eliminates the good bacteria that are trying to get established. If the filter pad or media are in need of cleaning sooner than the first 30 days, you may be overfeeding, overstocking, or both.

Should I change the water more often?

  • No! Regular partial water changes are the #1 thing aquarists should do to be successful, EXCEPT during New Tank Syndrome. As mentioned above, water changes may help clear the water temporarily (24 hours at best), but the cloudiness comes back with a vengeance because you have given it a boost of nutrients with the incoming water.

How to avoid 'new tank' syndrome

1. Do not overfeed your fish, follow Aqueon’s 3 Tips to Succeed!

Beginning aquarists often fear their fish will starve to death, so they feed heavily and often. Unfortunately, there are few, if any, nitrifying bacteria present to break down the resulting waste or uneaten food, which the cloudy water bacteria take advantage of and continue to multiply. Even worse, harmful ammonia and nitrite levels may begin to rise. Fish in nature don’t always eat every day, and some predatory fish may only eat once or twice a week. No fish ever starved to death in three days.

2. Don’t put too many fish in your fish tank.

More fish mean more waste and more food for the microbes causing the cloudy water. Too many fish in a new aquarium may also cause a rise in harmful ammonia and nitrites.

3. Add activated carbon media to the filter, whether loose or carbon pads.

Adding activated carbon media or activated carbon pads to the filter will help clear the water and adsorb nutrients that feed the bacteria bloom.

4. Seed the aquarium.

If you have access to another healthy, well-established fish tank, adding a few handfuls of gravel from that aquarium will seed the beneficial bacteria and speed up the clearing process. Aquatic stores sometimes keep filter cartridges, bio-sponges and wheels floating in stocked aquariums to seed them with bacteria and will send these items home with new setups to help get the biological balance going. This has the same effect as adding gravel from an established tank.

5. Test your aquarium water.

Have aquarium water tested for ammonia and nitrite as soon as the water begins to get cloudy. In most situations the levels will be zero, meaning there is no cause for concern.

We understand that seeing cloudy water in a new aquarium, can be alarming. But the best advice is to be patient and wait it out. Don’t add any more fish, feed sparingly once every other day, have your water tested and just leave the filter alone for the time being.

Cloudy water in an established aquarium is another issue. Please contact us for assistance!

Are you looking for more helpful facts and information to keep your fish happy and healthy?

How to avoid 'new tank' syndrome

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What Are the Signs of Ammonia Stress?

(The First Tank Guide)

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Ammonia poisoning is a very real threat to your fish, especially when the tank is new and is still cycling or if the tank has been stressed and the biological filter has been upset or removed.

Ammonia stress is caused by two occurrences in the aquarium chemistry. First is the build up of toxic ammonia and nitrite in the water. This directly affects the fish and can have a number of harmful side effects – from increased disease susceptibility to organ failure. The second component of ammonia stress is the displacement of oxygen in the water by the ammonia. The more ammonia is in the water, the less oxygen is available to your fish and your biological filter. Not only does this further stress the fish and pose a risk of suffocation, but it also decreases the efficiency of the biological filter. This is among the reasons that water changes are so important when your tank is cycling to insure a smooth and headache free cycle.

What is the Difference Between Ammonia Poisoning and Ammonia Stress?

Ammonia stress and ammonia poisoning are really the same thing. It is also referred to as nitrogen poisoning or nitrogen stress as well. Generally, though it is not referred to as ‘poisoning’ until you have actually lost a fish. Until that time, it is referred to as ammonia stress.

Signs of Ammonia stress

The signs of ammonia stress are usually pretty easy to detect, especially if you are paying attention to your fish regularly.

  • Lethargy
  • Loss of appetite
  • Hovering at the bottom of the tank (especially for surface dwelling fish)
  • Gasping at the surface
  • Inflamed gills
  • Red streaks or inflammation in the fins
  • Inflamed eyes or anus

This list of symptoms is by no means exhaustive of the symptoms of ammonia poisoning or ammonia stress. However, these are many of the more common symptoms, and generally they will show up in more-or-less this order. However, since, especially in new or particularly small tanks, the ammonia level can rise quite quickly, particularly if the tank is overpopulated, you may see a very rapid succession between these symptoms.

What Do I Do for Ammonia Stress or Ammonia Poisoning?

Actually, this is quite simple – do a water change. You may be tempted to use an ammonia remover, however, this should almost always be avoided because this can have long-term negative side effects on the tank, and is rarely helpful for very long.

A water change, however, will remove some of the excess ammonia from the aquarium (provided you are not using source water with a lot of ammonia in it), and will allow the biological filter to begin to process the excess waste while relieving the stress on the fish.

when the tank is still cycling, you will need to perform these water changes regularly to keep the ammonia from building up and prevent ‘new tank syndrome,’ which is usually just ammonia poisoning.

What if Ammonia Poisoning Keeps Coming Back?

Once the tank has cycled, you should no longer be seeing signs of ammonia stress or ammonia poisoning. If you are seeing similar stress symptoms, there could be another chemical problem with your water, or your fish may be sick.

However, if the ammonia poisoning keeps coming back, you may have another problem. The most common is overpopulation, though over feeding can also be a cause of ammonia poisoning. Insufficient filtration can be another contributor to high ammonia levels in the fish tank. If you repeatedly run into ammonia problems, provided the tank is cycled, you should look first into your tank population, then at your feeding habits, and then into your filter maintenance, tank cleaning, chemical use, and the overall capabilities of your filter.

How to avoid 'new tank' syndrome

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How to avoid 'new tank' syndrome

New Tank Syndrome in Fish

Similar to “old tank syndrome,” new tank syndrome is a fish disease that occurs in aquarium fish that live in water with high levels of ammonia.

Symptoms

New tank syndrome leads to ammonia toxicity in the fish, which can quickly become fatal. Fish will often die suddenly, without warning.

The aquarium water is frequently cloudy and smelly due to the excessive ammonia and nitrite levels.

Causes

Also known as the “break in cycle,” the cause of the high levels of ammonia in a new tank are due to the lack of beneficial bacteria in the water — bacteria that keep the water levels safe by breaking down ammonia and nitrite into harmless nitrogen compounds. In a newly set up tank, these bacteria have not a chance to establish, allowing the ammonia and nitrite levels to quickly become toxic for the fish living in the water. This usually occurs in tanks that are just 1 to 20 days old, and maybe longer, since it takes a few weeks for the bacteria to establish themselves in enough quantity to keep up with the amount of waste the fish are producing.

This is not limited to new tanks, of course. Some other reasons for a sudden increase in ammonia levels include:

  • Overfeeding of fish
  • Overstocking of fish
  • Improper dechlorination of water containing chloramines (i.e., sodium thiosulfate can create a reaction which releases ammonia)
  • A cleaning that is too thorough
  • Change of old gravel to new gravel
  • Sudden changes in water temperature

Prevention

The key to preventing new tank syndrome is to allow the new water conditions to cycle through the nitrogen cycle before adding fish. Of course, the cycle cannot even begin until fish have been added to the water, so it is not helpful to allow the aquarium to sit for a few weeks before adding the fish. It is only through the cycle of waste and establishment of beneficial bacteria that will begin the cycle. Using a few “starter fish,” to begin the new aquarium — hardy species of fish that are less susceptible to harm from ammonia levels — before adding any new fish will set the cycle in progress. You can then determine the progress of the cycle by checking the water chemistry over the course of about 4-6 weeks.

Some owners have also found it helpful to add already established gravel from an older tank to help speed up the process. If you do not have an already established aquarium from which you can take gravel, the handler that you will be buying your starter fish from may be able to help you with a sampling of gravel that the fish have been living in. It is not wise to change the water until the cycle has completed.

You can also control ammonia levels by avoiding overfeeding, since uneaten food will contribute to organic debris. Perform regular pH tests on the water throughout the initial process will help you to track the progress of the cycle and make changes accordingly, so that you can determine when to safely add new fish to your aquarium. Your tank will be cycled once you can measure nitrates in the water and ammonia and nitrite levels are at zero.

By Fred Goodson on May 10, 2010 with Comments 0

Once you have established a maintenance routine, caring for your fish can be fairly straightforward. In the first few weeks after you have introduced the fish, however, the new aquarium will require more attention, primarily to prevent the risk of deaths from new tank syndrome. This problem arises when the fish produce more waste than the new bacteria in the filter system can break down.

Testing for ammonia

If there is a build-up of ammonia in the water, from waste that has not been effectively broken down, this is toxic to the fish. Effects may include damage to the lining of the intestinal tract, interference with the correct functioning of the nervous system, and harm to the gills. You can buy a test kit to check the ammonia level, but the results need to be considered in relation to the water’s pH. In an alkaline aquarium, the effect of ammonia is significantly greater due to a chemical reaction, so tropical fish in these conditions are therefore most vulnerable to new tank syndrome. Temperature also has an effect, with toxic levels of free ammonia rising more rapidly at higher temperatures.

How to avoid 'new tank' syndrome

Nitrite

Some of the tank’s beneficial bacteria are Nitrosomonas bacteria, which use oxygen to convert harmful free ammonia to nitrite (NOz). While nitrite is in general far less toxic than ammonia, some fish are still very susceptible to it in high levels. For example, discus (Symphysodon discus) are vulnerable at a nitrite reading of just 0.5mg/litre, although many tropical fish are unaffected until the concentration is 10-20mg/litre. Effects of nitrite are most pronounced in soft water.

Nitrite poisoning affects the fish in a highly specific way: it acts on the red blood cells, modifying the haemoglobin which carries oxygen around the body, preventing this reaction from taking place. Fish suffering from nitrite toxicity have gills that are brown rather than reddish as a result.

Nilrate

The production of nitrate occurs due to the action of different bacteria – the Nitrobacter species. Nitrate is not generally a problem as far as freshwater tropical fish are concerned, although fry are more susceptible to a build­up than adult fish. Two exceptions are discus and fish living in brackish water, neither of which will thrive in high nitrate conditions. The simplest way to combat the problem is to carry out regular partial water changes. This is especially important at first, until the filter systems are fully functional.

It is not just the fish’s waste that can influence the levels of nitrate. Uneaten food has the same effect, which is partly why fish should not be fed more than they will consume within a few minutes.

Partial water changes

It is vital for the health of the fish that you change a proportion of the water in the tank on a regular basis, partly because it helps to prevent a build-up of nitrate in the water. It is usually recommended to change up to one-quarter of the water every two weeks, particularly in the first months after setting up the tank. Replace it with water that has been treated with a conditioner and is at the same temperature as that within the aquarium. The easiest way to carry out a partial water change is to use an aquarium siphon, which simply transfers water to a bucket placed on the floor.

Safe siphoning

When siphoning out the water, never, ever start the flow through the tube by sucking the lower end, or you could end up seriously ill. Instead, fill the tubing with conditioned water, using a watering can with a narrow spout, and place a thumb over each end. Then put one end in the aquarium, removing your thumb here only once the end is below the water level, and taking care to prevent the tube from lifting out of the water.

How to avoid 'new tank' syndrome

Once the other end of the tube is safely in the bucket, release the pressure of your other thumb, and the water should then flow into the bucket. When the right amount of water has been siphoned off and you want to stop the flow, place your thumb back over the lower end, lift the tube up into the aquarium so that the water can drain out, and then remove it.

Battery siphons and gravel cleaners

You can also buy battery-operated siphons, but the flow is sometimes less predictable, particularly if gravel becomes accidentally sucked into the machine, which may prove hard to dislodge. A useful additional piece of equipment which may be operated in conjunction with the siphon is a gravel cleaner. This helps to prevent the filter bed from becoming stagnant, with a resulting decline in numbers of beneficial bacteria. It stirs up the gravel and removes the mulm (decaying organic matter), without sucking up the substrate medium. A plastic cup at the base keeps disturbance within the aquarium to a minimum, so that plants will not be uprooted.

Filed Under: Pets & Animals

About the Author: Fred Goodson has a passion for pets and animals. He has 4 dogs and is planning to have another one. He is also a blogger who writes about pets and animals. Currently, he is living in New Jersey.