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We just started our IBC aquaponics system a few weeks ago.  We're in the process of Fishless Cycling; our fish (channel catfish, black crappie, and bullhead minnows) will be here sometime in May.  We have ten IBC fish tanks and grow-beds.  We're using washed pea-gravel for the growing media.  We have 200 gallons of water in each tank with water pumps in each to deliver water to the grow-beds.  The water in the grow-bed reaches nearly the top of the pea-gravel and the overflow drains back into the tank.  Being a newbie, I'm not sure of the terms I should be using for our system.  You can probably tell from the pictures.  We washed the roots of the seedlings you see in the picture and transplanted them into the grow-beds.  We’ve planted some seeds in the grow-beds too.  We just added some heirloom tomato plants – we’re not sure how well they’ll do, but everything we’ve been doing so far has been trial and error.  The seedlings have grown to almost double in size and most of the seeds are sprouting.  Please keep reading below the pictures - WE NEED HELP...


Here’s our dilemma: we’ve been adding ½ cup of clear household ammonia (because we couldn’t find pure ammonia locally and didn’t want to spend a fortune on shipping) to the tanks each day (to reach 5 ppm) and a quart of Maxicrop Liquid Seaweed (without iron) to each tank for the past two weeks.  We test the water in one or two tanks daily.

The tanks have tested high (8 ppm) for ammonia for the past three days.  The weather is getting warm here in Mississippi now, and as you can see from the pictures, we have an open greenhouse over the tanks, so the water is now nearly 65 degrees.  We’re not seeing any test results for nitrites yet and pH is between 7.8 and 8.  We understand that with the ammonia being so high, it may be hindering the nitrosomonas from colonizing – we’re not sure because we’re getting conflicting information.  Since we don’t have any fish at the moment, should we just discontinue adding ammonia each day (which we already have) and wait for the bacteria to catch up, or drain and refill the tanks?  We really don’t want to have to drain and refill because our only source of water is municipal, so it contains chlorine and may take us right back to square one.

Last week, the water accumulated algae and became a murky green color, so we added some Hydra Bio-Aquatic Bacteria Boost® to the water, hoping that would help rid the water of algae and speed the cycling process since it contains nitrosommonas, nitrobacter, and nitrospira.  The water was much clearer (at least until we added Maxicrop).

So the ammonia is high now and there’s no nitrite according to our tests (we’re using an API Freshwater Master Test Kit).  Our fish will be arriving any day now (sometime in May), so we REALLY need to get cycled.  Can anybody offer some good advice?  Is our system "FUBAR" now?

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stop adding ammonia.. once it reaches 8.0 it starts to inhibit the nitrification process...leave your ph as it is, this will help the nitrification process...

try  10-20% water change, let the system run for a while and test again...if ammonia is still high, do another 10-20% water change the next day (chlorine from the previous day should be offgassed in 24hours) don't need that much maxicrop.. maybe a cap ful for each gb at the most..and that only every month or so unless the plants are really showing some deficiencies

if you have chloramines, treat your water before doing a water change - i'd use ascorbic acid

if your ammonia is still high when you get your fish, the stress of the move + the high readings could be lethal..

and after the ammonia goes down, you'll still be waiting for the nitrite spike,, salt to 3ppt ahead of time to help the fish deal with the nitrite spike.. i would not feed the fish until levels of ammonia and nitrites were at or near 0

Thanks for your response Keith.  We stopped adding ammonia when the test first revealed the ammonia was too high.  We probably needed to stop it a few days earlier when the temperature started to climb.  I don't know if the temperature makes ammonia stronger or not - it sure make it smell stronger!  It's been about four days now without added ammonia - yesterday afternoon, I got the same test result.  We'll probably go ahead and drain/refill about 15% today, leave the pumps running, and test again.  If necessary, we can drain/refill a bit more tomorrow depending on the test results.

I read somewhere that for 200 - 300 gallons to add a quart of Maxicrop.  Well, no dang wonder our plants are doing so well and the ammonia hasn't seemed to affect them!

My husband called the fishery this morning - now they're saying June, so this will buy us some more time to get the tanks cycled.  So what happens when the tanks are finally cycled and ready for fish and we don't have them yet?  Do I need to add a little ammonia and Maxicrop to simulate fish activity to keep the bacteria and plants thriving?  I don't want to have to go through this cycling bit again any time soon!

I was also wondering if anyone else has used Hydra Bio-Aquatic Bacteria Boost® successfully in their aquaponics system.  The brochure says that the uses include ponds and hydroponics systems - so I was just guessing that it could be used in aquaponics systems too.  It's organic and the brochure says it doesn't hurt fish or plants - so that's good.

The brochure said to add 4 ounces of the powder to the water or filtration system (for our volume of water per tank anyway) and then 1 ounce each week for the next three weeks.  We just added the 4 ounces straight to the water - some sunk and some floated for a few days.  The water cleared up within a day or two, but it didn't seem to affect the ammonia level, that I could tell (although the brochure says that it will reduce ammonia) - of course, we were still adding ammonia at that time, so eh - who knows?  Anyway, yesterday afternoon, I decided to mix an ounce with a couple of cups of tank water and pour it directly onto the gravel (and I also sprinkled some of the dry powder down the drain pipe).  I'm hoping the nitrosomonas start colonizing the gravel.  I know it won't hurt the plants because these bacteria are found naturally in soil.  I just hope I haven't overdone it.  I guess I really need to stop rushing Mother Nature - but patience is just not one of my virtues!  When you actually want a "bacterial infection" you just can't seem to get one - go figure!

We've did a lot of work on the greenhouse before these pictures were taken; Mother Nature decided to "remodel" it for us with some heavy winds, so we had to fortify it with wood.  We're planning to close it in on the ends before winter to keep it a bit warmer.  We may have to add some heaters to the tanks.  It doesn't get that cold here in M'ssippi though.  Channel catfish, black crappie, and bullhead minnows (a.k.a. "crappie food") are all native to our area, so I hope the summer heat and winter cold don't affect them that much.  The heat is our main concern; that's why we put the dark screen on the sides of the greenhouse - we can just roll up the plastic to let some air circulate.  We may need to take more drastic measures because there's nowhere for the fish to "dive" in the tanks to get cooler.  Ice cubes?  No, I'm kidding - wouldn't that mess up your water balance, even if you have ice cubes made with filtered water?  Okay, I'm going off in left field...

I don't know if temperature effects the bacteria, but I would bet it does.  At certain levels of ammonia it stunts the growth of the bacteria, I would imagine the higher the temperature the lower the ppm would need to be to be considered toxic to the bacteria.  Here is a chart that shows the toxicity to fish goes up as temp goes up

Right now I would be most worried that the ammonia you're adding has surfactants or additives.  Either of these can completely kill off your bacteria and possibly your fish when they come.  Just because you have some nitrobacters now doesn't mean they they didn't just come from the bottle and they are slowly dying.  Shake your bottle of ammonia, if it suds up at all then it has surfactants in it (most do).  I buy my ammonia from ace hardware or the dollar tree.  I forget the dollar tree namebrand, but ace has 'janitorial strength ammonia' that is pure and super cheap.

edit: if you're worried about water temperatures spiking.  Bury your fish tanks.  The ground is a very constant temperature year round.

Thanks Dan; that's a lot of useful information!  I wish I had joined this site sooner than yesterday; it might've saved me some wasted time, energy, and money.

I looked everywhere for some ammonia without additives.  The kind I bought is from Kroger (Home Sense) and although it's clear, with no fragrance, it does have some surfactants in it, but it doesn't bubble much when I shake the bottle.  I didn't even think to check the Dollar Tree!  We don't have an Ace Hardware anymore; but I checked Lowe's and the "Mom and Pop" hardware stores.  We have a co-op that sells farm supplies; I didn't see any on the shelf, but they may have some if I ask.  I really didn't want to order any of the strong stuff in powdered form.  I'm already buying fertilizer (Maxicrop) and don't want the feds knocking on my door - JK!  They'll really be watching me when I buy a pressure cooker later for canning.  I'm sorry - that was awful; I shouldn't joke about that.  Anyway, thanks for the information - I'm going to be looking for a better source for ammonia - some articles I've read said that surfactants don't really matter, but others say they do.  I'd really rather not use the ammonia with the surfactants anyway, but I was in a rush.  It was cheap though, but cheap isn't always a good thing.  Thanks again Dan!

i froze tap water in half gallon milk jugs and used them when it got real hot and the fish started stressing.. i started with minnows (emerald shiners), then added a few papershell crayfish, then some bluegill, finally some perch.. the perch suffered the most when the water hit 90f, and i lost 3 or my system is in my basement and i've added tilapia

i wouldn't use the Hydra Bio-Aquatic Bacteria Boost stuff... it might be fine for a pond, but most "bacteria in a bottle" aren't what they claim.. you've got time now before you get fish.. just practice some patience..

crappie are one of my favorite food fish, but from everything i've found, they can be difficult to feed train.. but not impossible

Hey that's a good idea, Keith!  I can definitely freeze some tap water in milk jugs for those "110 Degrees in the Shade" days we tend to have in July and August here.  I'd hate to end up with boiled fish - it doesn't taste very good!

We decided on the catfish and crappie because they have the best taste; fried catfish fillets breaded with cornmeal is one of our favorite recipes.  I love grilled tilapia, but they were somewhat expensive - and we checked around.  Since we're new to this, we didn't want to sink a lot of money in fish that we may accidentally kill.  We can always order some tilapia later when we've got this aquaponics thing down pat.

I don't think I'm going to add any more of the Bacteria Boost - it might be making matters worse.  I should know from experience to just let nature take it's course; now we have more time.

We bought the bullhead minnows for the crappie to eat.  My husband is a fisherman and says they love minnows - but of course a tank setting may be different than the river.  If they don't work out, we can always eat 'em and get something else I guess!

Thanks for the great advice - I'll definitely be freezing some water in milk jugs this summer!

Hi Donna

Welcome to the wonderful world of Aquaponics.

Experience - what you get right after you needed it!

Forget the bacteria boost, waste of money.  Maxicrop is okay to a point, you have added too much, stop for now and quit after your system matures.

First off, all is not lost!  You have added way too much ammonia.  A good dose of ammonia is 5 ml a day in a system such as your individual systems - you added 8 ounces or about 235 ml each time.   Go ahead and dump 90% of the water in several of your systems and start them over. Dump 50% of the water in the others over a few days. Don't add any ammonia until the tests show it's down near zero.  When those 90% tanks cycle, you can use them to cycle the rest of the systems by pumping the water throughout the other tanks and by moving some of the gravel.  You want to become familiar with bridge siphons at that point, they help to move water from tank to tank in a daisy chain method without lots of pumps.   Email me when you're ready to start making the bridge siphons.  I will guide you on that 'cause there is trick to making and using them cheaply.

The green stuff you had growing was good stuff, the fish will love to eat it and that algae was using up your excess ammonia - nature always finds a way.  Ace hardware has the right ammonia, shake the bottle to be sure it does not foam before you buy it.  If you can't find real ammonia it's okay, try making your own humonia.  You do that by saving your own urine and storing it in a closed container a few days until it stinks, then you have human sourced ammonia, hence "humonia", you can Google it if you think I'm joking.

Next, after you dump/change a bunch of water (above) from several systems, wait a day for the chlorine to clear, then add some slimy rocks from the pond or stream near your house.  The slimy stuff is the bacteria you are looking for.  Put the rocks in now and remove them after your system cycles.

Next, since you have lots of system tanks, I would dedicate one as a gas-off tank for the incoming water.  Fill it with city water and pump it out after a day into the other tanks as you need it.  You will have plenty of fish water when you get cycled with one tank missing.  In fact, you will need to add plant load when your fish mature.

Dan (above) makes several good points.  If there is sudsy foam on the top of your system, you can scoop that off to rid most of the detergents you didn't want, overflowing the tanks will do the same thing.

We here in Arizona have taken to sinking our fish tanks into the ground to reduce annual temperature swings.  It actually got too cold for tilapia this winter, mine started to die with water temps between 48 and 50f when the air temps went to 27f.  I didn't get my solar heater going soon enough.  The summer heat and glaring rays will bring the water up well into the 90s here, which is too much for the fish and plants both, shade cloth or burlap helps tremendously you are on the right track there.  If you are planning to bury your tanks, I would consider putting the tanks closer together in a row and plumbing so you could turn some on and off as needed while reducing the number of pumps running. Then use the tank top media beds to filter the system water and have them feed a large/long raft bed.  I like narrower (2') U shaped raft beds because the plumbing is easier and you can make the tanks run along the walls saving space.

Good luck, Aquaponics will happen all by itself you just let it.


We have 100 channel cat fingerlings, 60 crappie fingerlings, and 1200 bullhead minnows on order.  We have 10 tanks, so we figured 25 cats in four tanks, 30 crappie in two tanks, 600 minnows in two tanks and leave the other two tanks available for whatever happens - because we know "whatever" does happen.  Does that sound about right?  I mean, after we get the system cycled properly, of course.  We would like to get some crawfish (crayfish) too maybe - can they go in the tanks with the fish - or do they need a tank by themselves?  Would freshwater clams be good for filtering the water - or just let the plants filter waste?  We have a separate sand filter that we use periodically too.  We don't keep it hooked up because we want the plants to make use of most of the waste (unless the water starts getting grungy).  We're not really sure what to expect right now...

Donna, I'm actually researching crayfish, crawfish, crawdads, yabbies (why do these things have so many names?!?!) anyways I've read a lot of good things about australian red claws and I plan on raising some myself in a few months.  I don't know what kind of ammonia output they have and I haven't seen much in that area of research, but I would just assume similar outputs as fish and go with some lower density populations until you've had time to test.  The best thing about the red claws are they prefer to act as detritivore which just means they want to eat the dead stuff (plants and animal dead stuff) and even some fecal matter.  This species has a higher tail meat/body weight proportion than red swamp (the species you've eaten if you live in North America and it didn't come in a can) and grows larger than the red swamp and appears to be less territorial so less cannibalism and massacres!  Keep them well happy and I wouldn't expect them to kill many fishies.

Either way they seem to do just fine as long as you provide plenty of hiding places (like a bunch of cut up pvc pipes).

A side note is that your plants don't prefer using the fish waste as fertilizer.  They prefer using the nitrates that the bacteria are converting from the waste.  The sand filter will provide some great media to encourage more bacteria.  You'd prefer to get the ammonia out as quickly as it comes out of the fish, the more media and more filters the better (although I suppose you can overkill and make your system clogged up etc)

Thanks Jim; you've given me some good ideas.  You're right: experience - what you get right after you needed it!

I just got carried away and added too much ammonia.  The ammonia I bought is likely only 2.8% ammonia - the rest is mostly water.  It took 3/4 cup (6 ounces or 177 ml) per tank to get a reading of 5 ppm in each tank.  After we were staying at 5 ppm, we cut the ammonia down to half (3 ounces) per tank (we read that somewhere).  The tanks are not connected as we didn't want them to share water and possibly spread contaminants throughout the entire system.  If one pump quits or the fish die, the rest of the system goes on.  Ten small pumps were cheaper than one big pump for the whole system.  If one quits, we can replace it and it doesn't affect the entire system - or break the bank.

We're going to drain/refill enough water so that the ammonia level in each tank is reduced to 5 ppm.  We're not going to add any more of the Bacteria Boost and we're not going to use as much Maxicrop either.  We'll continue to test the water - and try to keep it at 5 ppm by adding only a little at a time.  The right bacteria will "find" our system eventually.  I'd hate to resort to using rocks from a local stream or pond - there's no telling what else will be added to our tanks along with the bacteria.  I just need to learn to be patient.  Surely, the system will be cycled by June.  If not, we'll just have to postpone the order of fish until it is.

Thanks again for the advice Jim.

The sand filter is over kill.  Your gravel will filter most of the solids without any problem.  You may want to consider a radial filter to pre-filter the water before it enters the media beds. Here's a link to a good video on radial filters   Radial filters are good for about 50% solids removal.  How a radial filter works is pretty simple.  The water just flows straight up an open pipe into an inner tube where the water reverses flow from up from the pump to down out of the filter to go around the inner tube.  When the water changes direction again to flow up out of the filter,  the solids are overcome by gravity and continue to drop out of suspension. 

As far as fish go, figure  their weight, not the number of fish.  Eventually you'll want about 1 pound of fish per 5 gallons of water.


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