A lot has been written about reef aquariums and their cycling process, starting with â€œcuredâ€ live rock, how much live rock to purchase because it is needed in the tank, and what kind you should get. These methods certainly work and lead to tanks that will, in the long run, do just fine and will allow you to maintain corals and fishes using any one of the filtration methods now in vogue (trickle filter, Berlin, Live sand, plus combinations of any of these which, I find through personal communications with them, many, many hobbyists nowadays do).
My personal experience confirms this and, therefore, I certainly do not want to discourage you at all from adhering to any of those suggestions since they are all viable solutions to running successful reef aquariums. I would like to propose though that you can cycle the aquarium with â€œuncuredâ€ rock and end up with more life-forms on the rock than when you use cured, yet have as good a water quality at the end of the biological cycle, if not better. Note that I wrote the better aquarium as that is indeed what I have found. That is the method I now follow myself as well as recommend and that I would like to suggest to you too because I have had such good success with it. The only caveat is that you will need a little more patience. Indeed, you will have to go through a full 28-30 day biological cycle without any additional animals added to the tank.
Uncured live rock tends to be less expensive and, in addition to giving you very potent biological filtration and denitrification (nitrate reduction), this method thus saves money at the same time! With all the other expenses you face this is a benefit that is not to be overlooked. Curing the â€œlive rockâ€ yourself also has the advantage that you are in full control of the process. Donâ€™t overlook this benefit! You decide what to scrape or clean off the rock at all stages of the cycle beginning with â€œbeforeâ€ the live rock is placed in the tank and continuing through the entire cycle when the rock â€œisâ€ in the aquarium. Would you not prefer to be in charge rather than have to rely on what you were sent by the supplier and the manner in which he or she cured the rock you received, often with very few life-forms left on it? The manner in which they cycle does just that. The rock you get will be pretty bare. I certainly would, especially after having seen how the cured rock comes in and how it is shipped. Very few life-forms are left and the only thing the supplier concentrated on was getting rock to you that had a bacterial bed. But, then, how much of that bacterial growth bed is really left after an overnight shipping trip? Not much, in my experience, as the half- life of the bacteria is around 4 to 5 hours. The trip takes 24, or more, which is likely to kill off most of the bacterial bed anyway. What you end up with is â€œcleanâ€ rock with very few, if any, bacteria on it! You will have to cycle that rock all over in your tank. Because of the little amount of life-forms left this may take quite some time, unless you add organic material to the tank to create ammonia and start the biological growth cycle up. Having said all that, I prefer to start with totally uncured live rock and go through all the steps myself, keeping control over what happens all the time.
Here is an outline of the method I use:
* Order live rock, about 1 lb per gallon and have it shipped â€œwetâ€, not with paper, but with a small amount of water. Tell the supplier to put the pieces in double bags.
* When the rock arrives, open all the bags, spread the rock out on a piece of tarp and start looking at sizes and shapes. This will allow you to decide which piece goes where. The tank should be up and running and should have been circulating salt water through the filtration system for about 2 to 3 days. No animals at all are in the tank.
* Select pieces of live rock one by one, based on how you will place them in the tank. Clean each piece in a bucket of salt water. Remove dead or dying material. Be careful not to remove animals, worms, rock anemones, mushrooms, higher algae if they are alive. Scrub off what ever is dead or looks like it is dying. As this process goes on place the clean rocks in the tank. Remove water from the tank as needed. Adding rock will raise the water level. Excess water needs to be taken out and can be used to put clean water in the bucket you are using to clean the rock. Indeed, as you clean the rock this water will become cloudy and polluted.
* When all the rock has been cleaned and properly and firmly stacked in position in the tank we move on to the Next step which is adding â€œenzymesâ€ to the aquarium to speed up the cycling somewhat.
* Next comes a waiting and cleaning period. As the cycle progresses living matter left on the rocks will die off. Not all of it but some. Siphon this dead or dying material out of the tank as soon as you notice it. No need to let it decay in the aquarium and pollute the water.
* The cycle goes on and soon ammonia appears at first, followed 10-12 or so days later by nitrite. Let the cycle complete itself and keep siphoning dead and dying material out. During this entire process the protein skimmer IS running. The total time the cycle will take is between 20 and 30 days.
* When nitrite peaks and then drops down to zero ppm. the cycle is completed. During the cycle (the entire period from day 1 onwards) run your lighting for about 4 hours a day and increase it gradually each week by one hour. After four weeks you should be running your lights for 8 hours.
* Now that the tank has cycled and that the live rock contains many bacteria the aquarium is finally ready to receive animals. Start by putting invertebrates in the tank first. Do not place any anemones in it yet though.
* When the tank has been running with invertebrates for about a month (I know you need patience when you use this method) start adding fish.
* The key to adding more invertebrates the second month is to make sure the tankâ€™s water does not contain ammonia and/or nitrite. If it does you need to wait before adding more invertebrates until both have gown down to zero ppm. again. When they are absent you can add one or two animals again. You then wait until no ammonia and/or nitrite is measurable before adding more of them. And so on.
* The true reason for not placing fishes in the tank the first two months is to let the tank â€œageâ€ and allow invertebrates and live rock to add â€œbeneficial elementsâ€ to the water. This will greatly reduce stress factors when you finally put fishes in the aquarium, reducing the risk too that these fishes will break out with parasites. I have proven this empirically in my own tanks over and over again and can assure you that this method works much better than other suggested ones.
* I know that most hobbyists do not want to wait two months to put fishes in their tanks. The patience you demonstrate during those two months will save you lots of aggravation afterwards though as you will not have to deal with fishes infested with parasites. This alone is well worth waiting!
* Implementing my method anemones are not placed in the tank until the fourth month when the aquarium water has â€œthoroughly agedâ€. These more delicate animals fare much better as a result and will not give you much trouble.
* In addition to the above steps the following additional measures need to be taken:
o I repeat, remove all detritus and dying matter as soon as you notice it. Siphon it out. Do not let it decay in the tank. ~ Phosphate, nitrate and silicate removing compounds are placed in the filtration from day one. Use the appropriate bags.
o A super complete general additive is added from day one. So is iodine.
o Kalkwasser is added from day 1 as well.
o I repeat, the skimmer runs from day 1 onwards. Preferably you should be using a high flow/high turnover model. These newer models are not widely available.
o Use a strong pump on the skimmer. When live rock is the main organic and other pollutant remover, the skimmer needs to be very efficient!
o Keep a close eye on its operation as it is my experience that it will require several readjustments while the cycle is running its course. This is to be expected considering all the chemical and biochemical reactions that take place during the cycle.
o Watch the pH and the KH and adjust both if necessary.
This method has worked for me and many others to whom I have recommended it. It will work for you too. A last note: as you increase the biological load in the tank you should add more rock as well. The procedures that apply to this additional rock are the same as the ones explained. Because you already have a biological filter established when you add this supplemental rock, the cycling will go much faster. You may,in fact, not even notice it. Add about 0.5 pounds per gallon, at a time. Stop when you are satisfied that you have enough rock in the aquarium.