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Cichlids: A Knowledge Base .: Beginner's Basics .: Setting Up Your New Cichlid Aquarium

Setting Up Your New Cichlid Aquarium

by RustyNut

This article is designed to help the novice fish keeper properly setup and maintain their new tank. It is based largely on my own experiences and opinions from the past 30+ years keeping fish along with knowledge from scientific sources. Hopefully, it will provide the new aquarist all the basic information they need to avoid many of the difficulties faced by beginners. I will include commentary on equipment choices, water chemistry, routine maintenance and basic care. The goal is to acquaint the novice with rudimentary knowledge needed to be successful the first time.

First you should consider that to be successful you need to do a few things
daily or weekly and set aside time for those activities. Ask yourself the following questions: Will you be able to faithfully feed your fish at least once daily, preferably twice a day? Will you be able to set aside about 15-20 minutes each day observing your fish? Will you be able to set aside about 30-60 minutes each week to perform maintenance? There are occasions when you can “skip” a day here and there, but you should be able to answer yes to all the above questions if you wish to be a successful aquarist.

The Aquarium

Cichlids are a relatively hardy family of aquarium fish. However, nearly all species of Cichlid have one common requirement: they need space and plenty of it. As a result, it is always best to buy the largest aquarium you can afford and that you have space for. Far too often a novice Cichlid keeper will join the forums only to find that the size tank they have is too small to accommodate the fish they want to keep. Needless to say it is always a good idea to research the fish you like before you purchase them. Waiting a day or two in order to read about the fish you saw at the local pet store is the prudent way to avoid having to return a fish; often without receiving credit from the store. In fact, it is best to research and plan your stock list even before you buy your tank and equipment! This will prevent you from trying to squeeze something you want into an aquarium you already purchased and gives you more flexibility in the species you will be able to keep.

Additional Equipment Needed

Starter Sets

Typically most pet stores will have a “Starter Setup” that is sold with “Everything you need” to get started. These types of combination deals usually contain the lowest end products and often have high failure rates or are inadequate to meet all but the lightest stocking loads. They can be a cheap way to get started, but often you will have to replace most, if not all, the equipment fairly soon. “Combos” that include just the Tank, Stand, hood/glass-top(s), and light(s) are a good deal, while those that include the filter and heater and other paraphernalia are often not


Many, but not all, aquarium fish are tropical and will need a heater to maintain the proper temperatures these fish live in. I suggest 3 watts per gallon up to 90g tanks and 2.5 watts per gallon for larger tanks provided the room the aquarium resides in doesn't get colder than 65F at any time. It is also wise to use two heaters instead of one large heater providing redundancy and protecting your fish from being “cooked” as easily. Instead of a single 300-watt heater, use two 150-watt heaters and set them in a lead-lag fashion. For example, one heater might be set to 76F and the other heater to 78F so that the tank is maintained at 78F but a cold spell will prevent the tank from dropping below 76F. How does this help you may wonder? When heaters fail they tend to become stuck in the ON position. This means that your fish get “cooked” and you have a ruined day. With two heaters, a single stuck heater cannot raise the tank temperature high enough to kill the fish giving you more time to notice and correct the problem.


You will also need some type of filter. There are many different types of filtration and the choices can be overwhelming for the novice. Common filtration types include: Sponge/Box filters which uses an air stone to drive the operation; Power filters which use a water pump and normally hang on the back; Internal filters which are similar to the power filter but are submerged inside the tank; Canister filters which sit on the floor or under the tank and use siphon hoses to move the water around; and Sump-wet/dry filters which are not really best suited for the novice. A high quality Power Filter (OR HOB) is probably the simplest and easiest for the novice to operate, but canister filters are also a very good choice. The other types of filters (except the Wet/dry) are not suited very well for Cichlids. One more type of filter is an old technology called an Under gravel filter. They are poor choices in the Cichlid aquarium. Cichlids like to dig and uncover the plates; rendering them ineffective. Some people have managed success with the under gravel filter, but far more aquarists have had miserable failures. More so than those who've had success using this type of filter, so I don't recommend it with Cichlids.

Additional Items you will need

Substrate is another type of equipment you will need. Substrates include: Gravel, sand or crushed coral. Decorations such as rocks and plants (Plastic, silk or live) will provide homes for your fish and the Cichlids will establish a territory and use these structures to delineate their boundaries. It is also helpful to have a dedicated thermometer, to monitor your heaters operation. A water test kit is needed which can test for; Ammonia, Nitrite, Nitrate, and pH. I recommend the type that uses drops over the dip-type strips for best accuracy. A net large enough for the fish you plan to keep. And last but extremely important, a chlorine/chloramine neutralizer if you have public water.

Water Chemistry and the Nitrogen Cycle

The single most important piece of information the novice can arm himself with is a basic understanding of water chemistry and the nitrogen cycle. I cannot stress enough the importance of growing your environment for your fish. Many novice aquarists fail to understand that just adding water is not enough to keep fish alive. A fish’s environment is a very delicate balance of different beneficial bacteria and chemistry which provide the “Cycle of life” which in turn keeps the fish healthy and hopefully happy in this mutual relationship.

Exactly what is cycling?

So before you begin adding fish to your new aquarium you first need to prepare the living space by “Cycling” the tank. A fish's metabolism produces toxins in the form of respiration, feces and urea. The main toxin we are concerned within these waste products is Ammonia (NH3), which is deadly to fish in even minute quantities. Fortunately nature has provided a bacteria that uses ammonia as food, yet this bacteria's metabolism then produces another toxin called Nitrite (NO2). Nitrate is still dangerous and can permanently harm your fish or even cause death if concentrations are high enough.

Once again, nature has provided a different bacteria that will utilize this toxin as food; however, its metabolism also produces a mild toxin called Nitrate (NO3) which will not harm your fish at low concentrations (below 40ppm). It will only harm or kill your fish if the levels get quite high (200+ppm). Unfortunately, nature has not provided us an aquarium safe bacteria to effectively metabolize the Nitrate into a non-toxic substance. Over time, Nitrate will build up causing problems for your fish and you. The only effective way to remove the Nitrate from your aquarium water is through regular partial water changes. (I will discuss more on this in the maintenance section.)

So how do we get these beneficial bacteria in our tanks? First, they already exist in tap water in small amounts, but they lack a food source (Ammonia or Nitrite) and they will die off. So we need to provide a food source for these bacteria to nourish and grow. These bacterial colonies can double their size in about 24 hours provided enough food; however, it can take weeks before there is a large enough colony to handle the output of more than a couple fish.

After the first colony of bacteria has established itself we must then wait for the second colony to establish itself which again can take a few weeks. Most tanks will require between 6 and 8 weeks to establish both colonies of bacteria in ample quantities to keep fish wastes from building up and killing your fish.

To begin, we must provide a food source for the bacteria to feed on and grow into a large stable colony. You can do this by adding Ammonia (see note below) to your tank directly or by introducing cheap hardy fish. Personally I do not like cycling my tanks with sacrificial fish as I value the life of even those cheap "hardy" fish. The “Fishless” method of cycling is preferable.

The Fishless Cycle

A large bottle of Ammonia is very inexpensive. It costs less than a single “Cheap” fish so really there is no excuse not to use this method. Another advantage to using the “Fishless” method of cycling is that it gives you time to stabilize the temperature and pH of the water. It should also be noted that by using a “fishless” method we can raise the temperature of the tank to 90-95F which is considered ideal for the bacteria and will maximize its growth rate and shorten the time it takes for the cycle to finish by several days or weeks.

There are a few variations on exactly how to perform a “fishless” cycle, but the most common and simplest method is by adding enough pure Ammonia to the tank until you reach 5ppm on your test kit. The exact amount required will vary depending on tank size and some other factors.

When using pure ammonia, a good starting point is to begin by adding 5 drops per every 10 gallons of water, then test for Ammonia levels and work from there. It is important to measure and keep track of how much ammonia was used to reach the desired level of 5ppm, as you will need this information later!

Ammonia will start to be metabolized (eaten) by the bacteria and converted into Nitrite in a short time, normally around 5 days, but the time period can vary widely. Due to this large variance in time, it is important to test daily observing the Ammonia level. In addition to the Ammonia being metabolized by bacteria, it will gas-off into the atmosphere and will need to be replenished. You must continue to add Ammonia drop by drop each day to maintain a 5ppm level. As the first bacterial colony begins to grow maintaining Ammonia levels will become more difficult, eventually becoming impossible to maintain. At this point you should be seeing a spike in the Nitrite level (NO2), commonly around the 16th day, but again, time periods can vary greatly.

Once you observe that Ammonia can no longer be maintained at 5ppm and Nitrite (NO2) has peaked, you should now add the entire amount of ammonia that you initially added to reach 5ppm on day one. (Remember I said that amount was important for later? This is why!)

After the spike in Nitrite (NO2) level you will see a rise in Nitrate (NO3) levels. Some Nitrate may be present in your tap water, so it is a good Idea to check plain tap water to get a baseline. Over the next week or so as Nitrates continue to climb past 40ppm, Nitrite (NO2) should decrease until it is not registerable on your test kit. Hopefully, this has only taken about 4 weeks to reach, but once again every situation is different and it can easily take twice as long.

Patience is a very important virtue for the safety of your fish. I advise that to help pass the time as you wait for your aquarium to be ready for your fish, spend some time researching your stock list. Learn about the special needs, feeding habits, and territorial requirements of potential stock. I realize this is a poor substitute for dumping a bunch of fish in the tank after buying all that hardware and equipment, but the reward is a happy and healthy community that you can enjoy for years to come. Most Cichlids can live as long as 10 years or even longer, so arming yourself with as much information as possible on their care is prudent and wise.

Water Changes

Once the levels of Ammonia and Nitrite (NO2) have risen and fallen to immeasurable levels, your tank will have completed the cycle. You should now perform a water change to reduce the level of Nitrate (NO3) in the aquarium before adding fish! Change enough water to reduce the Nitrate level to below 20ppm. Every tank will vary on how much nitrate will develop and how much water must be changed to reduce the amount.

Water changes must be performed regularly in order to keep Nitrate levels at acceptable levels. Many different sources disagree on exactly what level of Nitrate (NO3) is safe for fish. Most scientific studies on Nitrate (NO3) toxicity are directed at agricultural animals not fish, and we know fish are more tolerable of Nitrate levels than most livestock. Those studies indicate that Nitrate levels above 40ppm can begin to cause health problems for the livestock, so levels below 50ppm or less (20% higher) should be maintained for our fish to be at their absolute best.

Changing 25% of the aquarium water weekly is commonly adequate to accomplish this task; however, stocking loads will make each tank unique. You will have to monitor these levels to ensure if your water changes are effective or not. Some aquariums that are lightly stocked can be maintained by only changing 25% or the water every other week, while some heavily stocked tanks will require 50% of the water changed weekly!

Adding Fish

As I stated before, your tank has
cycled and you are ready to add fish; however, you must keep in mind that your bacterial colony is still young and fragile, so you can easily overwhelm it by adding too many fish too fast. I am not referring to the number of fish but to the actual biomass of all the fish combined, which is different for different sized fish. This is why giving specific recommendations are so difficult and why there is so much conflicting information about fish keeping found. It is suggested to add only small groups of fish at a time over a period of weeks to prevent your bacterial colonies from crashing, resulting in fish death and a lot of work for you! For many of the Cichlid species adding 3-4 fish per week is a good starting point, but again, size or rather mass, plays a large role in numbers.


For the first year after setting up your aquarium you should test the water every time you perform your regular
water change. Until your tank matures, you may experience a mini cycle, throughout the first 8-12 months. You should follow your test kits directions very carefully when testing as even a small mistake can ruin the results. After your tank has cycled, or if you used an “instant” cycle method, you should test for Nitrates just before your water change. This way you will know the highest levels of Nitrate your fish are being exposed to. You can then calculate what your Nitrate level will be after a water change, we just need a little math.

PPM x (% of water changed) = how much nitrate was removed.

For example: If your Nitrate levels are 80ppm just before you perform a
water change of 25% then your Nitrate level after the water change will be 60ppm. (80ppm x 25% = 20ppm (removed) so 80ppm – 20 ppm = 60ppm). If you performed a 50% water change the levels would be 40ppm. If you changed 75% of the water they would be 20ppm and so on.

Most Cichlids can handle a 75% water change provided the incoming water temperature matches the tank temperature and there is not a drastic difference in pH or Alkalinity. However, I do not advise such drastic steps unless the situation warrants (such as poisoning situations) a potentially dangerous water change of this volume. I like to shoot for 20ppm or less after my water changes to keep Nitrates easily in check and my fish at their best. I also test my pH and KH at the same time, though I admit that if my pH is “normal” then I often skip the KH test unless there is a problem I am diagnosing.

Remember, we only test the water for the most toxic substances to our fish, but there are numerous other toxins that can take months or years to build up and weaken or kill our fish. Water changes remove a lot more substances than just the Nitrates we are testing & measuring. There are also various beneficial minerals and trace elements in water that get used up as time goes by and need to be replaced with the addition of new water. This means that even if our Nitrate levels are “acceptable” we should still perform a small
water change to remove those other toxins we are not testing for and replace those trace minerals that are being used up.


All too often, new hobbyists do not learn the importance of the Nitrogen Cycle or are given bad advice. Maybe they had poor maintenance habits or simply misunderstood his/her new animals and they ended up dying. Either way, after several failed attempts, many new hobbyists give up on this rewarding and relaxing hobby. This is why we find so many incredible deals on aquariums in either the newspaper, at garage sales or on-line; sadly, it is most likely because another potential hobbyist did not learn how to care for his fish properly.

I sincerely wish you do not become one of those people! This is why I will lend you a bit of wisdom I have learned over these past decades Be wary of advice given to you by someone who is trying to sell you something! I have often (not always) found that this advice is not sound for a variety of reasons. Until you learn that you can trust such a person's advice based on your own experiences, it is best for you and your pets to proceed with caution!

Caveat Emptor!

NOTE: Not all Ammonia sold is PURE Ammonia, the label should not list any additives ideally, although surfactants may be listed and do not SEEM to harm anything. Walmart sells a bottle with a purple label that lists Ammonia with surfactants in its ingredients that I have used with success. A simple way to check for contaminants is to shake the bottle and if no bubbles or “suds” are produced then it is “probably” safe.

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