Solutions for New Tank Syndrome

OB Guy

What is New Tank Syndrome - NTS?

New aquariums ruin many a hobbyist’s first experience into fishkeeping. All aquariums require a period of running in, or establishing before holding their first full compliment of fish. New Tank Syndrome (NTS) is caused when this introductory phase is imbalanced by adding too many fish at once. In this article you will find information about New Tank Syndrome and solutions to prevent NTS.

The problem begins to manifest itself as fish produce wastes that build up in the aquaria. Bacteria will then culture inside the filter and consume this harmful waste. However, these require many weeks of growth before they can cope with the amount produced. There are products on the market now that help speed up the process of establishing beneficial bacteria in your aquarium and aquarium filter where most beneficial bacteria lives. Products like Seachem Stability or Aquavitro Seed will speed up the cycle and actually allow you to start adding fish into your aquarium right away.

Adding too many fish at one time will produce fish waste quicker than the bacteria can reproduce to consume it. Once waste production exceeds beneficial bacterial growth, fish will be subject to poisonous levels of their own pollution, causing illness.

How does it kill the fish?

The toxins fish produce are highly poisonous. In the initial stage of new tank syndrome there’s a build-up of caustic ammonia, although the amount that will actually harm fish depends heavily on other factors, such as pH and temperature. A hot, alkaline tank is much more dangerous than a cooler, acidic one.

Ammonia burns the fish and the symptoms are obvious. The fish gasps at the surface, its delicate gill membranes having been damaged — or it just tries to escape the hell of the aquarium’s conditions.

Nitrite is another nasty produced in this initial phase. It kills by altering the blood of the fish, saturating it with something called methemoglobin which then competes with hemoglobin for the uptake of oxygen.

Methemoglobin adheres to oxygen but does not release it, causing the iron in the blood to rust and become useless. In this way the fish will actually suffocate from within.

Both chemicals, when present in the water, will eliminate the immune system of the fish and leave them susceptible to further diseases and infections.

Why does it last so long?

The beneficial bacteria required to convert these chemicals take a long time to find their correct home in the filter, as well as paradoxically being inhibited by the high levels of the very waste that they’re supposed to be consuming. Other factors inhibit their growth, such as oxygen level which needs to be very high. However, the biggest hindrance to the growth of bacteria is usually down to any incorrect cleaning of the filter medium on which they are growing.

What does beneficial bacteria need to grow?

Food is important, in the form of fish waste. They also need somewhere to live and often a filter will have a dedicated home in the form of filter media with a high surface area. All the better to house more beneficial bacteria. Possibly the most pressing requirement is oxygen. They require oxygen to function and the moment levels start to drop then water quality will rapidly follow suit.

Why has it affected me?

You’re not alone if you suffer. Everyone who sets up a new aquarium, from absolute beginners, through breeders, to hi-tech public aquariums, will be subject to new tank syndrome of one severity or another. It’s perfectly normal and sadly an unavoidable part of the fishkeeping process.

How do I address the problem?

There’s no easy fix. Many people have tried to find one and although we seem to have some short cuts, there’s no real way to avoid it. Like mentioned earlier Seachem Stability and Aquavitro Seed will speed up the process of establishing beneficial bacteria. I have set up new aquariums and added fish the first day without having New Tank Syndrome using Seachem Prime as a water conditioner and either Seachem Stability or Aquavitro Seed.

What do I need to see me through?

The most important things you’ll need are a length of syphon hose, Seachem Prime is recommended for removing chlorine, ammonia and other harmful chemicals in your tap water, reliable test kits and a reserved approach to feeding fish. If you want to add fish to your new aquarium right away you'll also need Seachem Prime or Aquavitro Seed and following the dosing instructions.

Monitor water quality frequently over the initial period of establishing the tank. Test kits for ammonia and nitrite are crucial and if you can afford no others ensure you have at least these two. They’re not perfect, but will help.

Be in control of feeding for the first few weeks and remember that underfeeding is preferable to overfeeding. Excess food produces higher levels of waste, making more work for you and unsuitable conditions for the fish. You can fatten the fish back up once this dangerous first stage is passed.

If the ammonia starts to get anywhere around 1ppm then change some water and use Seachem Prime in the new tap water you add to your aquarium. Likewise, aim to keep the nitrite level low, under 1.5ppm if you can. These levels will eventually go altogether once the beneficial bacteria start to do their thing, but they’ll need to be diluted down with water changes if they start to creep up. There’s no need to be too drastic and smaller, more frequent changes are preferable to large intermittent ones if for the sake of the beneficial bacteria alone.

When you perform a water change or clean the filter don’t use any water containing chlorine. This is put into tap water to kill off bacteria and is very efficient is doing so. Always use water syphoned from your aquarium to clean your filter media and always use Seachem Prime or another water conditioner to remove chlorine from your tap water.

How long until the aquarium is fully mature?

Technically it never is! The tank will only ever develop enough bacteria to cope with the waste of the fish in it. If you have ten fish then you have a corresponding ten fishes’ worth of bacteria. Add another ten and suddenly the tank needs more maturing time to cope with the extra levels of waste.

This way, the beneficial bacteria can be seen to be fluid in their population, not static. Sudden overfeeds that cause a spike in pollution can affect their numbers and, in extreme cases, they just can’t cope with sudden onslaughts of waste. So basically you should never add large amounts of fish to your aquarium at the same time.