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Cichlid Tank Setup, from Start to Finish

Blake B

Posted on September 03 2019

One question we get a lot from new cichlid owners is about setting up the cichlid tank. Cichlids are unique from many other types of fish and require certain conditions, such as hard water and specific rock or decoration setups. Although we’ve written about cichlid tank setup before, it’s helpful to know exactly what to do as a new cichlid owner, from beginning to finish, step-by-step, to safely get your cichlids into their new home. 

Step 1: Tank Prep

One thing you may not have thought of is that getting the conditions right for your cichlids is something that takes time, so you should plan to have the tank set up about a month ahead of time. Why so long? Mostly because it takes some time for the correct bacteria and ecosystem to develop. So, step one is to plan accordingly, and start early. 

Step 2: Choose Your Tank Wisely

With cichlids in particular, having the right size tank is very important. As highly territorial fish, they will not do well in too small a tank. That means you’re looking at at least a 29-50 gallon tank for a few cichlids, and ideally more of a flat rather than a tall one. 

Step 3: Pre-Cleaning

This is the part where you clean your tank, and anything that will go into it. For this, you’ll want to use only hot water; soap or other detergents can cause problems for the fish, since some trace amount will always remain after. Pro-tip: put your gravel (substrate) into a strainer and run hot water over it. 

Step 4: Tank Placement

The main thing, beyond your aesthetic “feng-shui” considerations, is that you put the tank somewhere that doesn’t get too much natural light, as this contributes to algae growth. The one exception to this is if you are using one of the few aquarium plants that do well with cichlids

Step 5: Place the Filter and Water Heater

The ideal place for these two elements is usually near the back, and they should be close together, since the current from the filter is essential for equalizing the temperature of the tank from the heater. 

Step 6: Insert Gravel 

You’ll want to put about 2”-3” of substrate, of a size that is big enough that cichlids can’t swallow it, but small enough that they can still shift it around for their “volcano-building.”

Step 7: Place Rocks and Any Plants

As mentioned before, your options with plants are limited, but if you’re adding them, now is the time. You should definitely add some rocks, as they are important to cichlid well-being, which you can read about in our previous writings on rocks for cichlid tanks here. 

Step 8: Add Water and Conditioner

This is the part where you fill the tank, and one trick is to place something flat like a plate on top of the substrate so that it doesn’t get disturbed by the water pouring; of course, you can also simply use a hose, or siphon. It’s important to add tap water conditioner, as well, at this point. 

Step 9: Add Cover and Lights

Place the cover and lights on top of your tank, and refer to my writing on choosing cichlid lights for picking out the light you want to use. If the water gets cloudy at first, just wait for it to settle. At this point, everything should be plugged in, filter, heater, and lights. 

Step 10: Monitor and Wait

Now you wait for the proper water conditions for cichlids in your tank to become what your cichlids need, which varies by species, so be sure to have a plan as far as which type(s) of cichlid you plan to have, and what their needs are. 

Step 11: Add Cichlids

Of course, which cichlids to choose and how many of which sex is a whole other topic ( three girls for every boy ), but once you have all that worked out, you can now safely add your cichlids to their new home. Don’t forget to keep a close eye on them for the first few days, just in case something is amiss.

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