Elements of the Aquarium - Nitrogen

N - Nitrogen
NO3- - Nitrate
NO2- - Nitrite
NH3 - Ammonia

Nitrogen is vital to all life on this planet. In fact, Nitrogen composes 78% of Earth's breathing air. However, in the aquarium Nitrogen tells a slightly different story.

The Nitrogen Cycle

This is the cycle that all new fresh and saltwater aquariums undergo. It is the process of establishing a healthy level of Nitrifying Bacteria in the tank to convert ammonia (created by fish waste, excess food, or decomposing detritus) to nitrite. The nitrate in turn is converted into nitrate which is then either used by aquarium plant life as a food source or is removed by regular water changes. All three of these chemical contain the element Nitrogen, hence the term "Nitrogen Cycle". This process requires lots of patience on the part of the owner because it can take anywhere from 2 weeks to 2 months to complete before it is safe for the tanks future inhabitants. It is vital that all aquarium owners understand this cycle.

There are two currently accepted methods to getting the nitrogen cycle started. The first method is by stocking your tank immediately with some fish. This is not a method we recommend as it almost always results in the death of the specimen(s). However, with this method, the fish are fed and they excrete waste into the water forming ammonia. The nitrifying bacteria then attack this ammonia converting it into nitrites. Thus the cycle is started, albeit at the expense of possibly suffocating your livestock.

The second method is to use a pre-prepared bacteria culture or other substance, such as fish food, piece of raw fish or shrimp, a small amount of ammonia, gravel from an already mature tank or live rock/sand (for marine aquariums). This method is more natural and will not endanger fish or other desired aquarium life. As stated above these options come in many forms, but are essentially all intended for the same purpose. They will introduce fairly large amounts of bacteria and/or ammonia into your system at which point the natural life cycle of the nitrifying bacteria begins. At some point the population of the bacteria will stabilize accompanied by a crash in ammonia, nitrite, and nitrate levels. It's very important to have a test kit to be able to see when this has happened.

Electron Shell Diagram

Nitrogen electron shell diagram.



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