African Cichlids Tank Setup – Guide for Beginners

Starting up an African Cichlids aquarium is an exciting and rewarding experience for both beginning and seasoned fish keepers. In this beginner’s guide, I will share my personal experiences and valuable tips on setting up the perfect environment for these vibrant fish to thrive.

African Cichlids Tank Setup

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We’ll dive into the essentials of choosing the appropriate tank size, selecting the right substrate and decorations, as well as understanding the unique water requirements necessary for these colorful cichlids to flourish.

So embark on this aquatic adventure with me and discover the fascinating world of African Cichlids tank setup.

African Cichlid Tank Requirements

When it comes to setting up a tank for African Cichlids, there are specific requirements that need to be met to ensure a flourishing and harmonious environment for your fish:

Tank Size

  • Minimum tank size: A 55-gallon tank is generally the minimum size recommended for beginners. This size provides adequate swimming space for these active fish, and also helps in maintaining good water quality.
  • Bigger is better: If you have the space and budget, go big! A larger tank helps in maintaining stable water conditions and allows for more fish and decorative options.


  • Crushed coral or aragonite: These are the two most popular substrate choices when it comes to African Cichlids. The natural buffering properties of these substrates help maintain the higher pH levels needed by these fish.
  • Avoid fine sand: African Cichlids are notorious diggers and can easily stir up fine sand, which can lead to cloudy water and clog filters.


  • Rocks and caves: African Cichlids love to hide and explore, so provide them with ample rocks and caves to satisfy their curiosity. Be sure to stack rocks securely to avoid accidents in the tank.
  • PVC pipes: You can also use PVC pipes to create hiding spots as an alternative to rocks or caves.


  • Powerful and efficient: African Cichlids produce a lot of waste, so a powerful filter is crucial for maintaining water quality. Canister filters or hang-on-back filters are popular choices.
  • Roughly 4-6 times the tank volume/hr: To provide sufficient water movement, aim for a filtration rate that turns over the tank’s volume 4-6 times per hour.

Heaters and Thermometers

  • Maintain stable temperature: Keep your cichlids comfortable by maintaining a stable temperature between 76°F and 82°F (24 and 28°C), depending on the species.
  • Invest in a reliable heater: A good-quality, adjustable heater will maintain the temperature within the desired range.
  • Monitor temperature: Use an aquarium thermometer to regularly monitor temperatures and ensure the health and safety of your fish.


  • Moderate lighting: African Cichlids do not require intense lighting. A simple LED fixture or standard fluorescent tubes can provide adequate illumination.
  • Consider a timer: A timer can help maintain a consistent day-night cycle, ensuring a stable environment for your fish.

By taking these tank requirements into consideration, you can create a stunning and comfortable home for your African Cichlids, setting the stage for a thriving and engaging aquatic ecosystem.

african cichlids

Ideal Water Conditions for African Cichlids

African Cichlids thrive in specific water conditions, which can vary depending on their place of origin within Africa’s rift lakes. However, there are general conditions that apply to most species, ensuring their health and well-being:

pH Level

  • Maintain higher pH: African Cichlids prefer alkaline water with a pH between 7.8 and 8.6. This is where using crushed coral or aragonite as a substrate is beneficial, as it helps naturally buffer the water pH.
  • Adding other buffers: If additional buffering is needed, commercial pH buffers or a DIY solution of crushed coral or crushed limestone can be added to the filtration system.

Water Hardness

  • General hardness (GH): African Cichlids thrive in moderately hard to hard water with a general hardness ranging between 10 and 20 degrees (dGH). The minerals in the substrate and rocks will often help maintain appropriate water hardness.
  • Carbonate hardness (KH): The carbonate hardness should be maintained between 4 and 6 degrees (dKH) to support stable pH levels.


  • Stable and comfortable: As mentioned earlier, African Cichlids prefer a stable temperature between 76°F and 82°F (24 and 28°C). This range can vary slightly depending on the specific species, so research your chosen fish to provide optimal conditions.

Water Changes

  • Frequent water changes: To maintain good water quality and general health, aim for frequent (weekly or biweekly) water changes of about 20-30% of the tank’s volume. This helps remove waste build-up and promotes a healthy environment.

Testing Water Parameters

  • Regular testing: It is vital to test water parameters regularly (weekly or biweekly) to ensure that pH, water hardness, ammonia, nitrite, and nitrate levels stay within the desired range. This can be done using commercial liquid test kits or testing strips.
  • Keep records: Accurate record-keeping allows you to monitor any changes in water parameters over time, helping you identify and address potential issues before they become serious problems.

As a beginner, it is essential to invest time in understanding and monitoring these parameters to provide the best possible environment for these vibrant and fascinating fish.

african cichlids tank

Setting Up the Tank – Step by Step

Now that you have a solid understanding of the requirements and ideal water conditions for African Cichlids, let’s go through a step-by-step guide on setting up their perfect home:

  • Clean everything: Before you begin, thoroughly clean your tank, substrate, and all decorations with a solution of water and white vinegar (about a 1:1 ratio). Rinse everything several times with clean water to remove any residual vinegar.
  • Add the substrate: Spread your chosen substrate (crushed coral or aragonite) evenly across the bottom of the tank to a depth of about 2-3 inches.
  • Place decorations: Start adding rocks, caves, and other decorations to create hiding spots and visual barriers for your cichlids. Be sure to secure heavy rocks and other decor to prevent them from shifting or toppling over.
  • Install filtration system: Set up your chosen filter according to the manufacturer’s instructions. If needed, add additional pH buffering material to the filter media as well.
  • Install heater and thermometer: Attach the heater to the side of the tank near the water flow from the filter (to help distribute heat evenly), and place the thermometer at the opposite end of the tank.
  • Fill the tank: Slowly fill the tank with water, taking care to minimize cloudiness caused by the substrate. Some initial cloudiness is normal; the filter system will help clear this up.
  • Add water treatment: Use a dechlorinator or water conditioner according to the label’s instructions to remove ammonia, heavy metals, and chlorine/chloramine from your tap water.
  • Cycle the tank: Before introducing fish, you must establish a stable nitrogen cycle in your tank. This can take 3-6 weeks. Consider using commercially available bacteria starters to help speed up this process.
  • Monitor water parameters: During the cycling process, keep a close eye on the water parameters (pH, ammonia, nitrite, and nitrate) to ensure they stay within the desirable range.
  • Choose your fish: Research and select the right African Cichlid species for your tank. Consider starting with hardy species that can adapt well to fluctuations in water parameters.
  • Acclimate and introduce fish: Slowly acclimate your fish to their new environment by floating the fish bag in your tank for about 15-20 minutes, gradually adding tank water to the bag. Then, gently release your fish into their new home and monitor them closely for signs of stress or illness.

Now, with your beautiful African Cichlid tank setup complete, you can enjoy the captivating behaviors and pleasing interactions of these vibrant fish as they explore and thrive in their well-crafted environment.

Remember to be patient, take your time during each step, and follow the recommended guidelines to ensure a successful and thriving aquatic ecosystem for your African Cichlids.



Plants for African Cichlid Tank

Adding live plants to your African Cichlid tank can pose a challenge, as these fish are known for uprooting and munching on various plant species. However, plants can also provide many benefits, such as oxygenating the water, filtering pollutants, and creating natural hiding spaces.

If you decide to integrate plants into your cichlid tank, here are some more suitable options that may withstand the boisterous behavior of your fish:

  • Anubias species: These hardy plants with thick leaves are less likely to be eaten by cichlids. They can be tied or glued to rocks, driftwood, or decorations, which also prevents uprooting.
  • Java Fern: Another hardy plant species, Java Fern has sturdy leaves that are less appetizing to African Cichlids. Similar to Anubias, it can be attached to rocks or driftwood, keeping it in place and safe from digging.
  • Vallisneria: This tall, grass-like plant species is great for providing cover in the tank, but it may require some trial and error to see how your cichlids interact with it; some may leave it untouched, while others may uproot or nibble on it.
  • Crinum species: Crinum plants are durable and can fare well in African Cichlid tanks. They produce large, robust leaves that can tolerate some rough treatment from cichlids.
  • Bolbitis heudelotii (African Water Fern): As the name suggests, this plant species is native to Africa and can do well in cichlid tanks. It has strong, leathery leaves that can be attached to decor, minimizing uprooting attempts.

When adding plants to your African Cichlid tank, keep in mind the following tips:

  • Secure the plants’ roots or rhizomes to rocks, driftwood, or other decor to prevent them from being uprooted.
  • Choose plants with strong, thick leaves that are less likely to be eaten or damaged by your fish.
  • Observe your cichlids’ behavior towards the plants and adjust your plant selection accordingly.

Maintaining live plants in your African Cichlid tank may require extra attention and persistence, but the reward of a more natural and visually appealing environment can be well worth the effort.

aquarium water change

Maintaining African Cichlid Tank

To ensure the long-term health and well-being of your African Cichlids, it’s essential to establish a consistent maintenance routine for your tank. Establishing good habits and staying vigilant in observing your fish and their environment will significantly contribute to a thriving aquatic ecosystem.

Consider the following points when it comes to maintaining your African Cichlid tank:

  • Water Changes: Perform regular water changes of about 20-30% every week or every other week. This helps to maintain water quality, remove waste build-up, and replenish trace elements used by both plants and cichlids.
  • Water Testing: Test your water parameters (pH, ammonia, nitrite, nitrate, and hardness) regularly to ensure they remain within acceptable ranges. Address any substantial changes or fluctuations promptly to avoid endangering your fish.
  • Filter Maintenance: Clean and inspect your filter regularly, taking care not to remove or replace all filter media at once, as this can harm beneficial bacteria. Rinse filter sponges and other media in a bucket of tank water (not tap water) to preserve helpful bacteria.
  • Substrate Cleaning: Vacuum your substrate during water changes to remove debris and uneaten food. This prevents excess organic material from breaking down and negatively affecting water quality.
  • Inspect and Clean Equipment: Regularly inspect your equipment (heater, thermometer, filter, etc.) for any signs of wear, malfunction, or damage. Replace or repair any components as needed to maintain proper function and safety.
  • Cleaning Glass and Decorations: Use a non-abrasive algae scraper or pad to clean any algae build-up on the tank glass. Rocks and other decorations can be soaked in a water and vinegar solution (1:1) to remove algae or minerals, then rinsed with clean water before re-introducing them to the tank.
  • Monitoring Fish Health: Keep an eye on your fish for signs of disease, injury, or unusual behavior. Respond promptly to any health concerns by isolating the affected fish (if necessary) and seeking appropriate treatment.
  • Feeding: Ensure you are feeding a balanced diet, specific to your fish’s needs. Cichlids are omnivorous and require a mix of protein and plant-based foods. Avoid overfeeding by providing small, frequent meals and removing any uneaten food after a few minutes.

By following these maintenance guidelines, you will be well on your way to fostering a thriving and engaging African Cichlid tank that you can enjoy for years to come. Regular maintenance and observation are key to a successful aquarium experience, allowing you to appreciate the fascinating behaviors and vibrant colors of these delightful fish.


Embarking on the journey of setting up and maintaining an African Cichlids tank is a rewarding venture for anyone interested in the vibrant world of these fascinating fish. This beginner’s guide has provided valuable insights into tank requirements, ideal water conditions, step-by-step tank setup, selecting suitable plants, and maintaining your aquatic ecosystem.

As you navigate through each phase, remember to be patient, attentive, and committed to providing the best environment for your African Cichlids. Through this dedicated effort, you’ll be able to admire and cherish an enriching and captivating display of colorful cichlids, enhancing your appreciation for the dynamic world of aquarium keeping.

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