Setting Up An African Cichlid Tank: Beginner’s Guide

Author: Hasty Fish

Last Updated:

African Cichlid Tank

Originating from the varied habitats of Africa’s Great Rift Valley lakes, African Cichlids offer a rich palette of hues ranging from electric blues and radiant yellows to deep reds, making them a compelling choice for anyone looking to introduce an element of aquatic vivacity into their homes.

The exciting journey of setting up an African Cichlid tank may appear daunting at first glance.

Still, fear not, for this comprehensive beginner’s guide is designed to ease your passage into this dynamic pastime. From understanding the specific needs of these magnificent creatures to the intricacies of establishing their optimal living environment, this guide will illuminate each step of your aquatic endeavor.

So, without further ado, let’s dive headfirst into the rewarding and stimulating world of African Cichlid tank setup!

What Are African Cichlids?

When pondering over which freshwater fish to add to your aquatic family, African Cichlids emerge as an exceptional choice for several reasons.

  • Colorful Display: African Cichlids are unrivaled in their vibrancy and diversity of colors. They paint a mesmerizing spectacle of blues, reds, yellows, and oranges, making your aquarium a focal point of fascination in any room.
  • Diverse Species: With over 1,200 species, African Cichlids present a wide array of options, each with unique traits and characteristics. From the gentle, blue-colored Placidochromis to the rock-dwelling Mbuna, like the Yellow Lab, you’ll never run out of intriguing species to explore.
  • Engaging Behavior: These fish are not only beautiful but also showcase interesting behaviors. From their territorial displays to complex mating rituals, watching African Cichlids in their day-to-day activities is as thrilling as it is educational.
  • Easy Breeding: Many species of African Cichlids are quite easy to breed in a home aquarium setup. Their fascinating mouth-brooding behavior, where the female carries the eggs in her mouth to protect them, provides an exciting dimension to your hobby.
  • Hardy and Resilient: African Cichlids are robust and adaptable fish, capable of thriving in a range of water conditions. With proper care and maintenance, these freshwater fish can prove to be remarkably resilient, making them suitable even for those new to aquarium keeping.

Choosing the Right Aquarium for African Cichlids

African Cichlid Aquarium

Choosing the right home for your African Cichlids is the first step toward a thriving aquatic environment. The choice of an aquarium revolves around three crucial aspects: tank size, tank material, and tank shape.

1. Tank Size

The ideal tank size for African Cichlids largely depends on the species you intend to keep, as they range in size from a few inches to over a foot in length.

However, as a general rule, a larger tank is always a better option. African Cichlids are territorial creatures, and a larger tank provides them ample space to establish their domains.

A 55-gallon tank is often considered the minimum size for these active swimmers, but if your space allows, opt for a 75 or even 100-gallon tank for a more comfortable habitat.

2. Tank Material – Glass vs. Acrylic

Both glass and acrylic tanks have their merits. Glass tanks are generally more scratch-resistant and maintain their clarity over time, while acrylic tanks are lighter and more impact-resistant, making them easier to handle and less prone to cracking.

The choice between the two depends on your personal preference and the specific needs of your setup.

One thing, though, is certain: the quality of the material used in making the tank is key. The strength of glass or acrylic tanks ultimately determines how well it holds up over time, so always opt for aquariums made by reputable brands.

3. Tank Shape

While African Cichlids adapt to various tank shapes, they particularly thrive in long, horizontal tanks. These replicate their natural habitat in the wild, providing more swimming space and allowing for better territorial distribution.

Note: Remember, setting up a cichlid tank is a commitment. When selecting your aquarium, keep the future in mind, as African Cichlids can live up to 10 years or more under optimal conditions. An appropriately chosen tank will serve as a long-term home for your aquatic companions and ensure their health and happiness.

Setting Up the African Cichlid Tank

Once you’ve chosen the ideal aquarium for your African Cichlids, the next exciting step is to set it up. The ultimate goal is to replicate their natural habitat as closely as possible. This involves thoughtful selection and placement of substrate, rocks, and decorations.

  • Substrate Selection: The substrate forms the base layer of your aquarium, and it plays a crucial role in mimicking the natural environment of your African Cichlids. Sand or fine gravel is often the best choice, as many cichlids exhibit a digging behavior. And if you ask me, I prefer sand because it looks cleaner and is easier to maintain, and a light-colored substrate is preferred as it showcases the vibrant colors of your fish.
  • Rocks and Hiding Spots: African Cichlids hail from rocky habitats, so it’s important to include rocks in their aquarium setup. Limestone and lava rocks are popular choices. Arrange the rocks to create caves and hiding spots, emulating their natural territorial boundaries. This will help reduce aggression and stress among your fish.
  • Positioning of Plants and Decorations: While African Cichlids are not known for cohabiting well with plants due to their digging nature, if you still wish to add greenery, choose hardy plants that can withstand their antics, such as Java Fern or Anubias. Use robust decorations that cannot be easily moved or toppled by the energetic cichlids.

Water Quality and Parameters

Aquarium Water pH Test
Caption: Monitor the aquarium water with a pH tester

Water quality is pivotal in keeping your African Cichlids healthy and vibrant. These hardy fish can tolerate a range of conditions, but they flourish best when their environment mirrors the mineral-rich waters of their native African lakes.

  • Water pH: African Cichlids thrive in alkaline water, with a pH range of 6.5 to 8.6. Monitor your pH levels regularly, ensuring they remain consistent to avoid stressing your fish.
  • Temperature: A temperature range of 75 to 85 degrees Fahrenheit is optimal for most African Cichlids, meaning you may need to use an aquarium heater and a reliable thermometer to maintain this steady temperature.
  • Water Hardness: African Cichlids originate from hard water habitats. Aim for general hardness between 160 and 320 ppm.
  • Filtration: Filtration is essential for African Cichlids. A high-quality canister filter, like the Fluval FX6, is ideal for delivering physical and biological filtration, keeping the water clean and healthy while also providing oxygenation.

Note: Regular water testing is essential to maintain these parameters and to quickly rectify any discrepancies that may emerge. A suitable water environment not only ensures your African Cichlids remain healthy but it also enhances their coloration and encourages natural behaviors.

Cycling the African Cichlid Tank

Before introducing African Cichlids to their new home, it’s essential to cycle the tank – a process that establishes beneficial bacteria necessary to convert harmful waste products into less harmful substances, thereby establishing a healthy, balanced ecosystem for the fish. This is also known as the Nitrogen Cycle.

  • Understanding the Nitrogen Cycle: The nitrogen cycle begins when fish waste and uneaten food produce ammonia, a harmful compound. Beneficial bacteria in your tank convert this ammonia into nitrites, which are also toxic. Another type of bacteria then converts these nitrites into nitrates, which are less harmful and are eliminated through water changes.
  • Starting the Cycle: To start the cycle, you can introduce a source of ammonia to the tank, such as fish food or a commercial ammonia solution. Over time, this will break down and initiate the cycle.
  • Monitoring the Cycle: Using a test kit, regularly monitor the levels of ammonia, nitrites, and nitrates. Initially, the ammonia level will rise. As the beneficial bacteria develop, the ammonia will decrease, and nitrites will increase. Eventually, the nitrites will also decrease, and nitrates will increase.
  • Cycle Completion: The cycling process is complete when readings show zero ammonia, zero nitrites, and some nitrates. This process can take anywhere from 4 to 6 weeks.

Note: Cycling your tank before adding your African Cichlids is crucial. It ensures your tank environment is stable and safe, effectively reducing the risk of fish loss due to ‘New Tank Syndrome.’

African Cichlid Tank Maintenance

African Cichlid Tank Maintenance

Maintaining your African Cichlid tank is crucial to ensure a healthy, thriving environment for your fish. While these hardy creatures can tolerate a range of conditions, regular maintenance can help avoid potential issues and promote optimal health.

  • Regular Water Changes: Water changes are a vital part of tank maintenance. Replace 20-30% of the tank water with fresh, dechlorinated water every week to reduce nitrate levels and replenish vital minerals.
  • Water Parameter Checks: Regularly monitor the pH, temperature, and hardness levels of the water to ensure they are within the ideal range for your African Cichlids. Use a reliable aquarium test kit to measure these parameters.
  • Filtration System Maintenance: Your filter plays a pivotal role in keeping your tank water clean and well-oxygenated. Rinse and clean the filter components monthly in the water taken out from the tank during a water change to avoid killing beneficial bacteria.
  • Substrate Cleaning: While siphoning water during your water changes, use an aquarium vacuum to clean the substrate. This helps to remove any leftover food and fish waste that might have settled.
  • Visual Inspections: Regularly inspect your fish for any signs of disease or stress. Similarly, check the tank and equipment for any damage or signs of wear and tear.

Note: Regular maintenance is a preventive measure that helps to keep potential problems at bay. A well-maintained tank not only ensures your African Cichlids remain healthy but also enhances their colors and vitality.

Common Mistakes and How to Avoid Them

While setting up an African Cichlid tank can be a gratifying journey, there are some common mistakes that beginners may encounter. Being aware of these pitfalls can help you avoid them and set your tank up for success.

  • Overcrowding the Tank: African Cichlids are territorial, and each fish needs sufficient space to establish its territory. Overcrowding can lead to increased aggression and stress, affecting the overall health of your fish. To avoid this, ensure your tank size is appropriate for the number and species of cichlids you intend to keep.
  • Inadequate Filtration: These fish produce a significant amount of waste, and an inadequate filtration system can quickly lead to poor water quality. Ensure you have a robust filter capable of turning over the tank’s volume 4 times per hour.
  • Neglecting Water Parameters: While African Cichlids can tolerate a range of conditions, they thrive best in specific water parameters. Regularly test your water to ensure it stays within the optimal range for temperature, pH, and hardness.
  • Skipping the Cycling Process: Introducing fish to a tank that hasn’t been properly cycled can expose them to harmful levels of ammonia and nitrites. Always make sure to cycle your tank before adding your cichlids.
  • Incompatible Tank Mates: African Cichlids can be aggressive, and not all species of fish can coexist with them. When adding other fish, ensure they are compatible with the temperament and water parameters favored by your cichlids.
  • Inappropriate Diet: These cichlids have specific dietary requirements that differ across species. Feeding an inappropriate diet can lead to health problems. Research the dietary needs of your specific cichlids and provide a varied, balanced diet.


Embarking on the journey of setting up an African Cichlid tank can be an incredibly rewarding endeavor. These vibrant, dynamic creatures offer endless fascination and charm, making them a captivating addition to any home or office.

The key to successfully setting up an African Cichlid tank lies in thorough planning and meticulous care. Choose the right aquarium, simulate their natural habitat, maintain optimal water parameters, and provide them with a balanced diet. Understand their unique behaviors, accommodate their territorial nature, and give them the care they deserve.

Remember, establishing a thriving aquarium doesn’t happen overnight. It takes patience and perseverance, but the reward of a vibrant, active African Cichlid community is well worth the effort. Happy fishkeeping!