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How to set up an African Cichlid fish tank

By Edited Nov 13, 2013 2 6

Choosing The Right Tank Size

The tank size is relative to the particular species that you plan to keep. I would almost certainly recommend a 55 Gallon (200 Litre) tank as a minimum tank size, however some smaller species of cichlids such as Tanganyikan Shell-Dwellers and Victorian Hap’s may cope in a smaller size tank. It is advisable to conduct some research on the particular species you intend to buy. I would personally recommend that you buy the largest fish tank that you can afford and of course accommodate in your home or office. African Cichlids are very territorial fish and need lots of places to hide therefore when calculating your tank size you must bear in mind that you will need to add a substantial amount of rocks to the aquarium to create the territories that the African Cichlids need. The more territory available the better! Be careful though as the rocks obviously reduce the volume of water the fish will have to swim around in.

Water PH Levels

pH is a measure of the acidity or alkalinity of the water.

All African Cichlids Prefer alkaline water conditions. This means a pH level above 7. The levels of pH vary depending upon the lake.  Below you can see the ranges for each rift lake.

  • Lake Malawi 7.4 - 8.6
  • Lake Tanganyika 7.8 - 9.0
  • Lake Victoria 7.2 - 8.6

Cichlids are quite hardy fish meaning that they can cope with slight variations in pH levels. However, dramatic changes can result in the fish being shocked which will usually result in the fish contracting diseases or dying. It is best to monitor the pH levels on a regular basis using pH testing kits which are available from all good aquatic stores.

If you live in an area with hard water the pH levels will probably be fine straight from the tap but for those who don't there are several simple ways to increase the hardness of your water such as introducing  any one of the following or indeed all of the following items to the aquarium.

  • Crushed coral sand
  • Shells
  • Limestone
  • Ocean Rocks or Slate

The above items raise the alkaline range by adding phosphates and calcium to the water. These alone will typically only drive the pH to 7.6, which is suitable, but not ideal. There are some chemicals that you can add to the water if none of the above methods work, such as pH buffers.


The optimal temperature for African Cichlids

African Cichlid
is around 23-27 degrees C (74-80 degrees F).

High temperatures will increase a fish’s metabolism and boost their immune response, as well as stimulate aggression. The downside to this is that more water changes would then be required. On the flip-side, lowering the temperature in your tank will reduce the amount of aggression. This can be helpful if you need to diffuse a situation where you have some really aggressive fish in your tank. The main cause for aggression within an African Cichlid tank is to do with food. If the temperature is low and the metabolism of the fish has slowed then they are less likely to be hungry and therefore less likely to be aggressive towards each other.


The main types of substrate considered when setting up an African cichlid tank are as follows.

  • Gravel (Several different types and colours available)
  • Coral Sand

This is pretty much down to personal preference, I prefer to use Coral Sand. Cichlids like to dig and sift through the coral sand removing the larger particles from spawning sites. It is much harder for a fish to determine between large and small pieces of gravel and this doesn't help to promote breeding. Also as mentioned earlier in this article coral sand is a useful tool when you need to raise  the waters pH level.

Whichever substrate you use I tend to have an even covering of between 1" and 1.5" on the tank bed. Make sure you place your chosen rocks in the tank before adding the substrate, if you don't the fish will dig and could cause a collapse of the rocks.

Aquarium Decoration

When decorated correctly an aquarium looks fantastic, however when it's done with little care the aquarium can look awful.

This is where you need to put your creative head on, simply placing rocks in the tank without applying any thought can make the tank look dreadful. Also when you consider the weight of the larger rocks it can be quite dangerous for your fish if they are not placed in the aquarium correctly. They could easily slip and fall. Also remember that your tank is made of glass which will not take too much abuse from falling rocks!

The most common types of tank decoration are rocks, plants and backgrounds.


You can choose realistic looking rocks such as ocean rocks which are white in colour and are generally full of holes which create great territories for the fish to live in. Larger caves and gaps can be created by placing rocks on top of each other. The smaller holes in the rocks are great for fry to hide in, should you later choose to breed your fish.


Real plants are considered to be a 'no go' within an African Cichlid tank. The Cichlid species are far too aggressive and cause so much disruption it would be difficult for the plants to survive, also being vegetarians the cichlid species will take great delight in eating any plants you put before them. Luckily artificial plants are available and if you place them carefully they look just as good as the real thing. Plants also provide excellent spawning sites for Cichlids.


The two types of backgrounds I use are the 'Stick On' type and the '3D Insert Type'

Stick On

These are photographs of natural looking environments which are printed to the same dimensions of your tank. There are many designs available and this option is cheaper than the '3D Insert Type' backgrounds. I recommend using a photograph of rocks as the fish will sit higher in the tank if they think that they are among more rocks.

3D Insert Type

This background type is much more expensive but they do look fantastic. They come in a range of designs and are fully submersible. The 3D backgrounds are very useful for hiding aquarium heaters and in-tank filtration systems. Try to choose a 3D background that matches the type of real rocks that you have in the foreground as this will look far more impressive.

Even after taking all the above into account tank decoration is entirely up to you, after all it's you that is going to see the aquarium daily.



Jan 2, 2012 2:11pm
Great information about the Cichlids from the Rift Valley Lakes. Thumbs up!
Jan 2, 2012 2:22pm
Thanks askformore, glad that you liked the article.
Jan 2, 2012 8:36pm
I'm a big fan of African Cichlids. There is a place in my town that has a big display tank with Africans in it. I know it is at least 220 gallons, maybe bigger. I'll have to ask them or measure it. It is totally awesome. I think they are some of the most attractive of all the freshwater fishes.
Jan 3, 2012 3:04pm
This is great. There are plenty of people who love these fish, but don't know how to set up an African Cichlid fish tank. Now they do!
Jan 3, 2012 7:11pm
I used to have a fondness for cichlids. For the most part I had oscars and convict cichlids. I did however have auratus my only african cichlid. The one thing I found interesting about the african cichlids is how they mouth brood.
Jan 12, 2012 2:51am
Informative article about setting up African Cichlid fish tank. It could come out really helpful for those who are interested to setup fish tanks.
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