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How to fix ammonia spikes, nitrite spikes and new tank syndrome

Even if you have a fully cycled tank, you may still run into issues with water quality after adding fish.

This guide at Aquarium Blueprints will help you fix ammonia spikes, nitrite spikes and new tank syndrome.

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What is new tank syndrome?

A new tank syndrome occurs when your fish or other aquatic life is producing too much bioload for your beneficial bacteria to handled. When starting a new tank, you need to establish a colony of bacteria that will break down ammonia, which is what fish excrement and other decomposing organic matter eventually turn into. One bacteria specie will convert the ammonia to nitrite and then another bacteria strain will convert nitrite to nitrate.

Both ammonia and nitrite are extremely toxic to the fish in your aquarium.

So, before you begin to add fish to your tank, you first need to establish a colony of beneficial bacteria. This process is called cycling and can take up to 8 weeks when starting from scratch. Most new fish keepers are naturally either too impatient and/or do not know how to cycle properly.

How to prevent new tank syndrome

To prevent new tank syndrome, you should follow our cycling guide carefully. You want to make sure that your beneficial bacteria will be able to handle the ammonia being produced by your fish.

Once you believe that you build up your beneficial bacteria colonies, start adding a few fish at a time and test your water daily in the beginning to make extra sure that there aren’t any spikes of ammonia and nitrites. If you test kits are showing results of 0 ppm of ammonia and nitrites after a week, then you can add another a few more new fish and repeat the same process over again.

We also highly recommend having live plants in your aquarium. Not only will they consume ammonia and nitrates, they will also provide surface areas for your beneficial bacteria to grow on. We suggest using low light plants such as Hornwort, Java Fern and Java Moss if you want to keep it simple.

How to identify ammonia and nitrite spikes

The only way to accurately tell you have ammonia and nitrite spikes in your fish tank is by using a water test kit. A fully cycled tank show have 0 ppm of ammonia and 0 ppm of nitrites at all times.

If your kit shows that you have ammonia and/or nitrite present, it could mean that something has gone wrong with the cycle and you may have to go through a partial cycling period again to build up your beneficial bacteria.

If you don’t have a test kit, we recommend getting the API Master Test Kit, which is available on Amazon. (#CommissionsEarned)

Another way to tell if you have ammonia spikes and/or nitrite spikes is by noticing dead or diseased fish. Of course, you most probably don’t want to get to this point. Thus, you are better off testing your waters at regular intervals (we suggest doing weekly test, preferably before doing a water change).

How to prevent ammonia and nitrite spikes

To prevent ammonia spikes and nitrite spikes, you should make sure that your fish aren’t creating more ammonia and nitrites than what your tank can handle. For example, if you see a dead fish, you should remove it as soon as possible. We also recommend removing any dead or dying plant matter as they will produce ammonia as well.

Decomposing fish food can also pollute your water column. If you still see food floating on the surface and/or dropping to the substrate after around 5 minutes of feeding while your fish is uninterested in eating more, then you might want to consider feeding less during future meals.

You should also periodically clean the filter media and substrate in your aquarium. Fish excrement and uneaten fish food can build up overtime, which could lead to spikes in ammonia, nitrites and/or nitrate if not removed from the water column.

When cleaning your filter media, make sure to use the old water you are removing from the tank as water from your tap contains chlorine and chloramine, which could kill the beneficial bacteria (the opposite of what you want to happen when it comes to ammonia and nitrite spikes).

How to fix ammonia spikes, nitrite spikes and new tank syndrome

To get rid of ammonia spikes, nitrite spikes and new tank syndrome, we recommend using Seachem Prime (which is available on Amazon) (#CommissionsEarned). This solution will detoxify ammonia and nitrite in your tank at up to 48 hours. When adding it in, you should dose for the entirety of your tank volume every time. For instance, if you have a 10 gallon tank, you should treat for all 10 gallons.

We also recommend doing daily water changes of between 10% to 25%. You should not go higher as you need ammonia in your tank in order to grow your beneficial bacteria.

To perform a water change, you first remove water from your tank. During this time, you should clean your filter media and/or substrate using the water you are removing. Afterwards you should dose the aforementioned Seachem Prime solution to your aquarium. You can then add the new water from your tap or wherever you get it from.

Continue to do water changes and test your water parameters daily to reduce the ammonia and nitrite levels in your fish tank. If you finally get readings of 0ppm of ammonia and nitrites for several days in a row, then you can stop doing water changes. However, you should continue to test your water for several more days as an extra precaution to ensure that you aren’t getting any more spikes.

If you have exceptionally high ammonia concentration of more than 2.0 ppm, then you might want to use Seachem AmGuard in conjunction with Seachem Prime.

If you use both, make sure you spread out the dosage to be at least one hour apart. You can take a look at our Prime and AmGuard comparison guide for more details.

How to speed up the cycling process

There are several ways to speed up the process of getting rid of the harmful spikes, which we recommend doing since ammonia and nitrites are toxic to your fish at small amounts.

The first is to add live bacteria. The best way to do so is by purchasing a commercial product. We recommend the Seachem Stability Fish Tank Stabilizer, which you can buy on Amazon. (#CommissionsEarned)

You might also want to consider adding more surface area for your beneficial bacteria as a precaution. Surface area include filter media, rocks and decoration.

We don’t recommend adding live plants as the plants will most likely melt and die off in the beginning when added to your tank, which could lead to ammonia and nitrite spikes. With that said, live plants are an excellent long term solution.


A properly cycled tank, as well as regular maintenance, should prevent ammonia spikes, nitrtie spikes as well as new tank syndrome.

If you do get spikes, we recommend doing small daily water changes while adding Seachem Prime in order to safely grow out the colonies of beneficial bacteria.

To speed up the process, you can add live bacteria as well as more surface area to your tank.