Beginners guide to cycling a reef aquarium

Maturation of a marine aquarium is a specific process that leads to self-cleaning of the aquarium, which will then be ready for marine animals. A well-conducted maturation process is of great importance for the development of a marine aquarium. In this article, I will introduce the topic in a straightforward reefing language so that you can easily use the tips.

What is maturation in a marine aquarium?

Maturation in a marine aquarium is the process of leading the tank through the nitrogen cycle, during which bacteria, that converts ammonia to nitrites and then nitrites to nitrates, settle on the rock. In practice, the point is that fish excrement, food leftovers and other impurities turn into ammonia, which is carried out through a nitrogen cycle that ends with the appearing of NO3 (nitrates). Ammonia nitrites are harmful to marine animals while NO3 is well-tolerated by them.

Ammonia is formed as a result of the decomposition of protein and urea, which, depending on the pH of the water, occurs as ammonium ion (NH4+) or ammonia (NH3).

This article is focused on practical knowledge, so I will not delve into the scientific details of nitrification. You can find a scientific article on this topic on ReefPedia.

Why is maturation so important?

In order for an aquarium to be inhabited, it’s necessary for the nitrate cycle to take place in it. Maturation allows the tank to clean itself. A well and patiently carried out maturation process will allow the aquarist to enjoy a beautiful aquarium with healthy animals.

How long does it take for a tank to mature?

Depending on how we start the process, the maturation time can last from several weeks to even several months. In the next section, I will describe how to lead an aquarium through the rapid maturation process.

What affects the speed of maturation in a marine aquarium?

Since I joined the aquarium hobby, I have set up about 100 marine tanks. For the most part, I was able to do it quickly. Several factors have an impact on the maturation speed in an aquarium. In order for the maturation to happen quickly and efficiently, and for the aquarium to function well for many years, it is worth familiarizing yourself with the factors that affect it:

  • A properly built aquarium with a return pump of appropriate power (min. 10x aquarium capacity, the pump power must be calculated from the height of the water column and the pump power at this height; most often manufacturers provide such data on the packaging). Appropriate pump power allows water to circulate in the system. You should also pay attention to the installation of hydraulics with the appropriate diameter. Too small a cross-section will block the power of the pump. Appropriate circulation affects the better oxygenation of the water, which in turn affects the pH.
  • Live rock, with bacteria inside and on its surface, accelerates the maturation process. There are also a lot of micro-animals in the rock, such as sponges and zooplankton, which are allies in the fight for water purity.
  • Water from an already operating tank, in which there are a lot of bacteria and micro-animals.
  • Properly arranged rock, which will not collect dirt underneath and which will allow for efficient circulation. It is best to place it at least ten centimeters away from the walls of the aquarium. The rock should only touch the bottom of your tank in a few places.
  • Well-set circulation – on the one hand, dirt should be blown to the chimney, and on the other – circulation should be aimed at the water surface. The movement of the water surface will cause the water to be better oxygenated, and this affects the pH, which in turn affects a number of processes taking place in a marine aquarium.
  • High quality light – the one with strong intensity accelerates the maturation process. Of course, I know cases (and I’ve done it myself more than once) of the maturation process without the use of light, but my intention is to show you the methods for rapid maturation.
  • An efficient skimmer will remove impurities from the water.
  • Good bacteria and nutrients. In the quick-start process, the presence of good bacteria is crucial. There are several types of such bacteria on the market. I personally used two of them. When we didn’t have our bacteria created yet, I used Zeobak from Korallen Zucht. We’ve already created our bacteria, and that’s what I’m using now. Some people also recommend ATM Colony, but I personally never used it; as I mentioned, I have been using my own proven recipe for years.

Below you will find my recipe for a quick start with Zeobak:

Day 1
  • Zeobak: 5 ml per 100 litres/25 gallons
  • Zeostart: 10 ml per 100 liters/25 gallons
Day 2 i 3:
  • dosing break
Days 4-10:
  • Dosage of Zeobak, Zeostart – dose according to the information on the packaging.
Days 11-14:
  • continue dosing as on day 4.
After day 14:
  • Dose bacteria and nutrients according to the manufacturer’s instructions.

If you decide to use other bacteria, follow the manufacturer’s instructions.

After assembling the entire tank, filling it up with water and starting the aquarium, do not pour bacteria into the tank yet. Wait a while for the water to heat up. Let’s give the whole system time to run well, and then pour in the bacteria and nutrient solution. The water should be at least 24℃ / 75℉.

What mistakes can you make during maturation?

Inexperienced aquarists often happen to read unreliable information about setting up a marine aquarium. Before starting it, they don’t know how to arrange the rock and many other important things that are vital to know before starting the work on an aquarium. Then, as the tank matures, they do more research and notice their mistakes. Then they proceed to corrections on a living organism, which significantly extends the maturation process.

More about reefing mistakes you can read here.

About the author

Picture of Marek Protasewicz

Marek Protasewicz

Reefkeeping has been my passion for over 10 years now. I love learning. The hobby has taught me many valuable lessons, patience being the best example.
Combining work and passion is my path. I run Crazy Coral, a marine aquarium shop, for a number of years. Building this business from the scratch I learnt from my own mistakes at a heavy cost.
Later I managed a project aimed at development of methods for quick growth of Corals in non-natural conditions. The project was carried out by Get Sales, Poland.
Presently, I am responsible for distribution strategy at Reef Factory, of which I am a
co-founder. The company produces smart devices for marine aquaristics.
The last projects I have been involved in are Social Reef and ReefPedia.

My social media profiles

Logo Social ReefLogo instagramFacebook marek protasewicz     youtube marek protasewicz