New Tank Syndrome (Explained For Beginners)

Image of a man setting up a new fish tank

The water of a fish tank is unstable until the helpful bacteria establish their colony and stabilize the nitrogen cycle. The toxin levels of the water fluctuate rapidly during this time. This causes various problems for the fish in the tank. These issues are collectively called new tank syndrome.

Although frustrating, these problems will subside over time. You can even speed up the maturing process by following certain steps. So…

What Causes New Tank Syndrome?

New tank syndrome usually affects new aquariums when the filter is still maturing.

However, it also occurs in established tanks when you strip the filter of its good bacteria by cleaning it thoroughly.

NTS or New Tank Syndrome is characterized by high levels of toxins in the water and the lack of helpful bacteria to treat it.

Nitrifying bacteria play an important role in establishing the nitrogen cycle in a tank.

They convert ammonia in the organic waste produced by fish into less harmful nitrates.

These bacteria are present in the tank filter.

They begin acting on the waste from the time they are introduced into the environment.

However, they need time to establish their colony and get the nitrogen cycle up and running smoothly.

Until then, there will be sharp ammonia and nitrite spikes.

Now, to understand why this is a problem, let us look at the nitrogen cycle in detail.

The fish in your aquarium expel natural waste into the surrounding water.

This organic waste is rich in nitrogenous compounds. When it breaks down, it releases ammonia and other toxic substances.

In the wild, this is not a concern as the ammonia is diluted by the huge volume of water in the environment.

However, the concentration of ammonia becomes problematic in the confines of a small fish tank.

When the level of ammonia becomes too high, it adversely affects the fish and may even kill them.

Fortunately, nature has devised a clever system to combat this problem in the form of nitrifying bacteria.

Nitrosomonas bacteria convert ammonia into nitrites, and Nitrobacter species convert nitrites into nitrates.

Nitrifying bacteria are present everywhere and will eventually find their way into your fish tank.

But rather than wait for it to occur naturally, it is easier to introduce the bacteria into a fish tank through biological filters.

The bacteria in the filter will act on the organic waste in the water and convert harmful ammonia to less harmful nitrates.

The bacteria will slowly proliferate and establish colonies of a suitable size to cycle all the waste in a tank.

When the filter is fully matured, it establishes a continuous nitrogen cycle.

It is a self-sustaining arrangement that continuously eliminates all the nitrogenous toxins in the water.

New Tank Syndrome Symptoms

New tank syndrome is characterized by the increase of ammonia and nitrite levels of the water.

Ammonia and nitrites are clear substances.

So, you may not be able to identify an ammonia or nitrite spike by just looking at the water.

Nevertheless, it can affect your fish significantly.

Your fish may show sudden behavioral changes or signs of distress when the toxin levels of the water increase.

Look out for any sudden deaths or ill-looking fish.

You can also suspect new tank syndrome if your fish display any of the following symptoms:

  • The fish look lethargic,
  • They avoid eating,
  • They seem to gasp for air,
  • The fish stick to the bottom of the tank,
  • Their movement is affected, and the fish appear to roll over,
  • Severe poisoning causes bloody veins and gills.

How Long Does New Tank Syndrome Last?

New tank syndrome lasts till the helpful bacteria in your tank establish a proper nitrogen cycle.

This process usually takes between two to six weeks.

It may take even longer if you keep too many fish.

A large fish population will produce more waste than the bacteria can process.

Temperature also affects the time needed for a tank to mature.

If the tank temperature is lower than 70°F, it will take longer to cycle.

Incorrect cleaning of the filter medium and low oxygen availability will also delay the process.

Can New Tank Syndrome Kill Fish?

An established tank will not have unpredictable ammonia or nitrite spikes.

The toxin levels will be under control, and the water will be safe for your pets.

If you test for ammonia levels in an established tank, it will be undetectable.

However, a tank that is not fully cycled is prone to sudden increases in the ammonia level.

If the ammonia and nitrite levels rise to 1ppm and higher, it can be disastrous for your fish.

Nonetheless, the extent of damage it causes will depend on the type of fish you keep.

Some fish are more resilient and able to withstand such stress.

Others will simply perish at the slightest change in water chemistry.

If your fish seem to be gasping for air, move very slowly, have reduced appetite, or inflammations and bloody streaks in their gills and veins, it can indicate NTS.

If you do not promptly attend to the problem, it causes permanent damage and even lead to death.

How To Treat New Tank Syndrome?

If you react quickly when you notice your pets displaying the symptoms of new tank syndrome, you may be able to rescue them.

The first and most important thing is to check the nitrite and ammonia levels of the water.

If it is above the permissible limit, promptly change some of the water.

It will dilute the ammonia and reduce the stress on your fish.

Additionally, stop feeding your fish. The more you feed them, the more waste they produce.

This will aggravate the problem. Reduce or completely stop feeding them till the problem is fixed.

How To Prevent New Tank Syndrome?

While setting up a new tank, a few precautions will help you avoid new tank syndrome.

Here are some of the ways to prevent new tank syndrome.

1. Cycle the tank without fish.

When you add fish to a tank before it is cycled, they will be exposed to toxins that may rise or fall unpredictably.

Till the bacteria pick up and establish the nitrogen cycle, the fish must tolerate sudden ammonia and nitrite spikes.

Cycle the tank in advance to avoid putting your pets through this stress.

You can use filter maturation liquids containing bacteria and an artificial ammonia source to kickstart the process.

Dose the tank daily with ammonia and give the bacteria a helping hand. Keep testing the water to assess the progress.

Once the bacteria can handle the ammonia you add, you can transfer the fish into the tank.

2. Pay attention to the filter.

Never skimp on the filter you use. Choose a filter with a large biological capacity, and it will be more reliable.

Not only will such a large filter hasten the cycling process, but it will also benefit your fish by cleaning the tank more efficiently.

Always make sure that the filter is plugged in and functioning efficiently.

Seed the filter with good bacteria before introducing fish into the tank.

You can also use a filter from a matured aquarium initially to quickly establish the bacteria colonies.

If new tank syndrome appears in an older tank, check the filter. Clogged or overly cleaned filters cause this condition.

3. Avoid overfeeding your fish.

The root cause of new tank syndrome is excess waste.

Even if beneficial bacteria are present in the tank, they cannot do a good job when there is too much waste.

Fish produce too much waste when they get too much food.

Excess waste will also affect the efficiency of your filter. Hence, it will make the environment unhygienic for your fish.

To avoid this problem, always limit the feed.

Give your fish just enough food for their health and promptly clean up any uneaten food to prevent polluting the tank.

4. Don’t keep too many fish till the tank cycle is established.

Overstocking a tank or adding too many fish at a time increases the bioload of the aquarium drastically.

It throws the nitrogen cycle off balance.

If the tank is yet to mature, it could lead to unnecessary ammonia spikes that can kill or harm your fish.

So, wait until the tank is fully matured before adding more fish to the tank.

When introducing new tank members, don’t forget to reassess the filtration capacity of the tank.

Upgrade to a bigger or better filter if the need arises.

Also, look out for symptoms of new tank syndrome, which may indicate that the system is overburdened.

5. Never clean the filter components with tap water.

Tap water contains chlorine which kills the harmful bacteria in your fish tank. So, avoid cleaning the parts of the filter with tap water.

Nonetheless, you should clean the filters regularly. Use old tank water to clean the filter.

Good bacteria also reside on the substrate, rocks, and tank decorations.

So, avoid rinsing these under tap water, or you could kill them off.


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