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
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.
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.
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
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
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
which uses an air stone to drive the operation; Power
which use a water pump and normally hang on the back; Internal
which are similar to the power filter but are submerged inside the
which sit on the floor or under the tank and use siphon hoses to move
the water around; and Sump-wet/dry
which are not really best suited for the novice. A high quality Power
Filter (OR HOB)
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
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.
Items you will need
another type of equipment you will need. Substrates include: Gravel,
sand or crushed coral. Decorations
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
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
if you have public water.
Chemistry and the Nitrogen Cycle
single most important piece of information the novice can arm himself
with is a basic understanding of water chemistry and the nitrogen
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.
what is cycling?
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.
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
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.
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
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.
are a few variations on exactly how to perform a “fishless”
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
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!
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
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.
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!)
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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.
the first year after setting up your aquarium you should test the
water every time you perform your regular water
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.
x (% of water changed) = how much nitrate was removed.
example: If your Nitrate levels are 80ppm just before you perform a
of 25% then your Nitrate level after the water
will be 60ppm. (80ppm x 25% = 20ppm (removed) so 80ppm – 20 ppm
= 60ppm). If you performed a 50% water
the levels would be 40ppm. If you changed 75% of the water they would
be 20ppm and so on.
handle a 75% water
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
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.
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
to remove those other toxins we are not testing for and replace those
trace minerals that are being used up.
too often, new hobbyists do not learn the importance of the Nitrogen
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.
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
wary of advice given to you by someone who is trying to sell you
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!
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.