How to Set up a Cichlid Tank

Three Parts:Preparing the TankDecorating the TankStocking the Tank

Cichlids can be easy to take care of, but they are different from other types of freshwater fish in terms of behavior and water requirements. How you set up their tank is very important, and this article will show you how.

Part 1
Preparing the Tank

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    Plan ahead. It is not a good idea to add fish into your tank the instant you finish filling it up with water. In order to be safe for fish, a tank needs time to build up the good bacteria and establish a natural cycle. Plan on setting up your tank about a month before adding your fish.
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    Get a large enough tank. Most cichlids grow to be 6 inches (cc centimeters) long, but some can grow up to 12 inches (cc centimeters) long. Plan on getting a tank that is at least 29 gallons (109.78 liters), although a 50 gallon (189.27 liters) tank would be better.[1] Also, because cichlids like to hide amongst rocks, a long, low, horizontal tank would be better than a tall, thin, vertical tank.[2]
    • If you are starting out with a 29 gallon (109.78 liter) tank, you will need to upgrade to a larger tank after about 1 year as the fish grow larger.
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    Clean everything using hot water. Rinse your tank, gravel, and rocks under hot water. Do not use any soap or detergents. It would be a good idea to clean even store-bought and packaged items, as they usually contain dust and traces of chemicals that may be harmful to your fish.
    • To clean your substrate, place it in a strainer, and rinse it with hot water until the water runs clear.
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    Place the tank in a place that does not get too much sunlight. Live plants don't fare well in cichlid tanks, so sunlight is not necessary. Also, too much sunlight will encourage algae growth.
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    Add the water filter and heater. Place the filter and heater in the back so that they will be hidden by rocks when you add them in. Also, try to place the heater near the water filter. The water current will help distribute the warmth throughout the tank.[3]
    • Don't skimp on the filter. Cichlids can create a lot of waste. A good quality canister-style filter would be ideal, even for smaller tanks.
    • Try to get a metal heater instead of a glass one. Cichlids like to move rocks about, which can easily break a glass heater. [4]

Part 2
Decorating the Tank

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    Fill the bottom 2 to 3 inches (5.08 to xx centimeters) with a clean substrate. Try to choose pebbles for the substrate. It will look the most natural. Avoid using fine gravel, as it can easily by swallowed by larger cichlids.[5]
    • The gravel layer does not have to be even. Consider making it thicker in some parts, and thinner in other.[6]
    • Consider adding some crushed coral to maintain pH levels. Because crushed coral is very sharp, it might be better to place the crushed coral into bags, and keep the bags in the filter.[7]
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    Don't worry about plants. Most plants don't handle the high pH levels and hard water necessary for cichlids. Usually, aquarium hobbyists will use plants to control nitrates. Because of the water requirements for a cichlid tank, this is not possible. Instead, hobbyists will control nitrate levels by changing the water regularly.
    • Cichlids may also uproot or eat the plants.
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    Choose some clean rocks with caves, pockets, or holes, and arrange them in your tank. This will give your fish some hiding places. To create the most natural look, try to use an odd number of rocks. Don't spent too much time and effort arranging your rocks. Cichlids like to excavate and move things around.
    • Consider including some white limestone rocks to help maintain the proper pH levels.
    • You can even use pieces of coral or small clay pots. Avoid driftwood, as it can change the water pH and hardness.[8]
    • To create more depth, consider placing the larger rocks towards the back, and the smaller rocks towards the front.[9]
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    Fill the tank with water. To keep the water from disrupting the substrate too much, consider placing a place on the substrate first. Use a rubber tube to siphon the water into the tank. Fill the tank until the water level is about 1 inch (2.54 centimeters) away from the top. This will ensure that your fish get enough oxygen.
    • If you use a plate, be sure to take it out when you are done filling the tank.
    • Do not add your fish yet.
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    Place the cover on the tank and plug everything in. Don't worry if the water flow churns up the sediments and makes everything cloudy. Things will settle down.
    • Covers are good ideas for any fish tank. Not only do they help keep the water clean from dust, but they also prevent fish from jumping out.
    • Because cichlid tanks don't have live plants, bright lights are not necessary. A soft light, however, can help bring out the colors of your fish.

Part 3
Stocking the Tank

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    Wait until the tank cycle has established before adding your fish. This can take anywhere from several weeks to a month. Perform a water test every week. When the nitrate and pH levels are appropriate for your fish, you can go to the fish store and buy your fish.[10] The specific pH, temperature, and water hardness levels will vary depending on the species and breed of cichlid, but listed below are the most common ones:
    • The pH should be between 7.8 and 8.5. Some dwarf cichlids prefer a pH between 6.0 and 6.5.
    • The water hardness should be between 10 and 15dH. If the area you live in has very soft water, you can add some aragonite.[11]
    • The temperature should be between 72°F and 82°F (22°C-28°C).
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    Stick with only one species of cichlid. Cichlids tend to be aggressive even towards other species of cichlids. It might be a good idea to just choose one species and stick with it. The two main species are African and South American. There are many different breeds within each species, and it is generally safe to mix those.[12]
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    Buy cichlids together when they are about the same size. This will help ensure that they all grow up to be a similar size. It is not a good idea to mix small and large cichlids together. Some of the larger ones may try to bully the smaller ones.
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    Plan on having 2 female cichlids for every male. This will prevent aggression and fighting among the males. It may also help prevent aggression towards female cichlids as well.
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    Choose tank mates with care. Many fish do not do well in a cichlid tank, partly due to the high pH, acidity, and water hardness required for cichlids to flourish. Another reason many fish do not do well in a cichlid tank is because of how large and aggressive cichlids can get. Many hobbyists have witnessed cichlids bullying and even eating smaller fish.[13]
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    Consider adding a bottom feeder. A snail, such as an apple snail, would be great for keeping the walls of your tank clean. A bottom feeder, such as a plecostomus, would be great for keeping the substrate clean. The plecostomus is an appropriate tank mate for a cichlid because it has thick skin and sharp spines.[14]


  • Try to get a 20+ gallon (75.71+ liter) aquarium, as most species get bigger.
  • Keep only cichlids that have the same size and same region.
  • Stock the tank according to the potential size of the cichlids.
  • If you start out with a smaller tank and smaller cichlids, plan on upgrading to a larger tank after about a year. The cichlids will grow.
  • Try to find African cichlid sand if you have African cichlids.


  • Never use any kind of soap or detergents to clean your tank, rocks, or substrate. Doing so can kill your fish.

Things You'll Need

  • Aquarium
  • Gravel
  • Rocks
  • Water
  • Filter
  • Heater

Article Info

Categories: Aquariums