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Cichlid Tank Setup for the New Cichlid Owner

Blake B

Posted on September 06 2018

There are many reasons that people choose to break into the world of owning African cichlids. It’s a hobby that can very easily become an obsession, and these colorful fishes often have big personalities and interesting behaviors among their many species that they can keep you interested and learning for a lifetime.


Naturally, the first step to cichlid ownership is choosing a species, and there are many things to consider in this regard. You should think about aggressiveness, tank needs, whether they will live alone in the tank or with other fish, and how well they might get along with the others etc.


After you’ve done all of that, it’s time to purchase and set up your tank, and that’s what this post is all about. Here are some guidelines and tips for how to properly set up your cichlid tank, so that your new fish friends will be happy in their new home.


Your Tank Should Mimic Their Lake of Origin

The species of cichlid you’ve chosen will to a large extent determine how you want to set up your tank. This includes factors like water hardness, temperature, PH, etc. More on those soon. The general idea is that you want the environment your tank provides to be as similar as possible to their natural habitat, which are one of the three African lakes, Victoria, Malawi, and Tanganyika.


Even before you concern yourself with water properties, you should consider the geography, so-to-speak, of your cichlid tank. How much space does your chosen species require? For most types of cichlids, it’s a good idea to have some rocks and “caves.” Cichlids are territorial, so you’ll want to give them nooks and crannies to claim for their own. Here’s a post we wrote specifically on the subject of rocks in cichlid tanks, too.

Water Qualities

The water in your cichlid tank should also be dechlorinated (reverse osmosis is best), and heavily filtered, to mimic the purity of the African lakes. This means that you definitely shouldn’t skimp on the filtration system, and you’ll probably want to use a combination of filters, some for larger particulate matter, in addition to sponge filters, which harber helpful bacteria which convert ammonia to nitrates, to mimic the natural ecosystem.


Most cichlid species also require a water temperature around 80 degrees, which means you’ll need a water heater. Aquarium heaters come in a wide variety, but we recommend the submerged type, which are slightly more expensive, but longer lasting. Definitely check the exact requirements of your particular species, for your specific water temperature setting.


You’ll also want to test your water’s hardness and PH, and adjust it accordingly. In general, all of the 3 lakes from which African cichlids derive have relatively hard and basic (high PH) water. Check out our post on using cichlid salts to regulate these water qualities, for more information.

Your First Cichlid

There is a process which needs to occur in the tank called the nitrogen cycle. This is required for your cichlids to thrive, and involves the conversion of ammonia (their excretion) into nitrates. The way this usually occurs is through a sponge filter, which means that you need to sponge filter to already have the required bacteria (from being used in another tank previously), or you should just start out with one cichlid for a few weeks, to begin the cycle.


Finally, after your cichlid is settled in, you’ll want to change out about half the water, every two weeks or one month, depending on how many filters you have running per gallon of water. If you follow these guidelines, you should have a tank full of healthy and happy African cichlids for years to come!

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