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Dark Start Method

Dark Start Method​

There is a secret "dark start" method out there! Sorry, it's not so new and many people have done aspects of this for various reasons. This article will describe what the "dark start" method is, how to do it if you want to, and some of the benefits.

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You may have heard of the dry start method. Well, this is another type of start method that is designed to help with some common aspects of setting up a planted aquarium. The Dark Start method, or the first time I heard it called that, was in my friend, Jurijs Jutjajevs' "No Water Changes in a new Aquascape! *Secret DARK START method*" video on YouTube. He's very knowledgeable, go subscribe to his channel.

The idea is designed to avoid the large water changes that most people do when setting up a planted aquarium. These large water changes are meant to control the spiking ammonia that happens in the early tank stages, especially if you're using a soil-based substrate such as ADA's AquaSoil. By starting without plants and light, the aquarium is allowed to leach ammonia into the water column, thereby feeding the nitrifying bacteria during the initial stages. By the time you plant, you have passed the ammonia spikes and you won't have to do those daily wate changes. Also, if you added hardscape, it should be water logged by now so no more struggling to hold wood down while also getting the plants to grow.

The 10 steps are basically very simple to do the "dark start" method:
  1. Position all of your aquarium equipment
  2. Add the substrate and hardscape
  3. Flood the tank with treated tap or RO water
  4. I recommend adding a bacterial starter bottle such as Dr. Tim's or Fritz Turbo
  5. DO NOT turn on the lights
  6. Turn on the filter - no CO2 needed (obviously)
  7. Test water to make sure there is ammonia
  8. Wait and test water like you would through any cycle (NH4, NO2, NO3)
  9. Once NO3 is present, 90% water change
  10. Plant and proceed as usual
The idea here is that after doing the Dark Start method, you should proceed to run the tank with a weekly (or bi-weekly) water change without the need for the daily water changes that are normal. The "no water change" that Jurijs mentions means no water changes during the start up.

Is this method revolutionary, no. It's logical and makes sense if you care about water changes AND have the patience to wait about 30 days to plant. It will result in a more stable tank once you plant. Also, you can test all of your equipment to make sure things are working and no leaks. Theoretically, this should also lower the changes of experiencing the "ugly phase" of the new tanks that normally is caused by the instability and ammonia spikes.

Now, I've done this numerous times. Sometimes intentionally. Other times, unintentionally because I was waiting on plants and didn't want to plant until I had all plants on hand. It works as intended. Is it better than not doing it? I don't think so but then again, I was set up to do the large water changes daily with my python so, again, it really depends on you and your setup.

I do want to add something that I don't see the dark method crowd doing too much. I will add my own "secret" to the "dark start secret method". Those of you that have used new ADA AquaSoil will relate. New AquaSoil is a NOTORIOUS phosphate sink! I can deal with ammonia spikes. Heck, my stems love ammonia spikes! Phosphate going down to zero in a couple of days, however, is just nasty. You really have to be on top of the phosphate level in the tank until the soil gets somewhat saturated with it and it slows down.

So, my "secret" is to dump a ton of PO4 into the aquarium during the dark period and let that AquaSoil feast on it!. The last time I did this I was using 5 ppm per day. Your mileage may vary but I was testing PO4 every couple of days and this is what it was taking to keep phosphate detectable. After about 30 days, it started to level off and much less was needed. My goal of saturating the substrate prior to planting allowed me to avoid the phosphate rollercoaster when the plants were in. This certainly did help to maintain a more stable environment that did avoid some common algae issues. IMO.

Obviously, my secret is only applicable if you're using a substrate that will act like AquaSoil or Stratum. If your substrate is inert, then this step isn't needed for the dark method. The other benefits remain.

Lastly, I want to make sure to emphasize the need for a full reset water change at the end of the dark method period. If you can, I would do close to 100% water change just to be sure. I've brought the water down to the substrate top and then refilled.

Have you tried the "dark method" before? What are your thoughts? Anything you can improve?
Doing this now as anyone following the build thread knows

You mention a really good point most people don't think about, you're not just impatiently waiting for it to cycle, you get to still be pretty busy getting to know your system.

Again if you ever checked in on my build thread you can see I planned pretty meticulously, and guess what, as is usual I still ran into some complications!

I had reducers leaking, a doa canister filter, and a couple other odds and ends to get right. A spray bar I had ordered took a little longer than I thought it would. Small things like that, but, I have plenty of time to address and fix those things without worrying over whether plants are being affected or not. You can study and adjust your flow pattern, etc, get everything as close to optimal as possible before you start truly running the tank.

The po4 adsorption too is something that may not be common knowledge to a lot of people yet, I know I experienced it hard with an Amazonia tank and anticipate it going even harder with a Landen tank.