Step one is to decide tank size. If you are planning on an all male African Cichlid show tank, you need a tank size of 75 gallons of more. The larger you can go, the more fish you will be able to keep in this type tank.
If you are doing a mbuna only tank, you can go tanks ranging from 40-gallon breeders and 75 gallons.
If you are planning on breeding a specific type, it depends on the size of the fish as to what size tank you need. Smaller peacocks and milder mbuna can breed in 20 to 30-gallon tanks. Some larger Jacobfriebergi type peacocks and aggressive mbuna will need tanks ranging from 40-gallon breeder to a 75-gallon tank. More aggressive types and larger haplochromis types will need a 75 gallon or larger tank.
Now that you have your tank size selected, you will need substrate, filtration, heat, and air. The best substrate for African Cichlids is either crushed coral (I suggest the bigger chunk type) or African Cichlid specific stones. Both of these substrates will help to keep your pH up toward the 7.8 to 8.0 range. If you need to you can add a buffer to keep up pH when you do water changes. You can also use African Cichlid sand; but, keep in mind that sand can be much more difficult to clean.
The amount and type of filtration you need depend on the size tank you are using. I suggest extra filtration. For hanging and canister filters try to get a filter that will turn eight times the volume of your tank water per hour. For 20 gallon tanks I suggest one H-V type hydro-sponge from JEHMCO ( http://www.jehmco.com/) or a hanging filter like an aqua clear filter 50. For 30 to 40 gallon tanks, I suggest two H-V hydro sponge filters or an Aqua Clear 70 to 110. For 55 gallon tanks, I suggest one Aqua Clear 110. For 75 gallon tanks and larger, I suggest Fluval canister type filters. If you are using a hydro-sponge only for filtration, you will need to take some water from the tank and put it into a clean fish only bucket once a week. Then you will need to squeeze the sponge filter out in the bucket water, discard the dirty bucket water and return the sponge to the tank once a week. For Aqua Clear filters, I suggest using all three cartridges. The sponge portion of these filters should be rinsed once a week. The carbon portion of the filters should be back rinsed once a month and replace every three months. The bio cartridge should be left alone unless it becomes totally clogged. In that case, it can be gently rinsed out using the bucket water method. Do not over rinse a bio cartridge or rinse it at the same time as you rinse the sponge or carbon filters. Never rinse a filter the same day that you do a water change.
Next, you will need a heater that can keep your tank at 78 to 80 F. These fish can be rough on heaters. The best heaters for them are submersible hard shell (not glass) types. With a heater, you will also need a thermometer. I suggest a small glass hanging type that you can place in a corner where it is less likely to get bumped or the more modern electronic prove type.
These fish do not do well with live plants. They may dig out their roots unless you tie them down with heavy rocks. For this reason, you are better with fake plants or no plants at all. Without live plants, you do not need special lighting. A standard fluorescent type bulb light on a 12 hour on, 12 hours off timer will do the trick. LED lights will also work; but, are far more expensive.
Hiding places are critical, especially for mbuna. Caves, Texas holey rock, stacked rocks with gaps, and or ornamental caves and fake rocks with holes work well. Each fish will tend to claim one of these caves like areas as its home. Stacked or taller ornamental items help to give fish a place to get out of sight of an aggressor.
Air is also needed. If you are using hydro-sponges with an air pump, you already have this accomplished. If not you will need to use air stones and an air pump or you can use taller H-II or larger hydro sponge in one corner of the tank for smaller tanks and it both rear corners of a tank for larger tanks. In some cases, you may need to add additional steps (HS-A from JEHMCO) to the air sponge if your air pump can not handle the water pressure in the lower part of your tank. Each has their own advantages and disadvantages. Air stones last a long time before they clog and have to be replaced. Most air stones last a year or more. Hydro-sponges provide extra filtration; but, will need to be back rinsed at least every three weeks.
It is important to understand the aquarium ego system. Fish waste, any left over food, and decaying plant matter produce ammonia. Ammonia is consumed by bacteria in the water and becomes nitrite. Nitrite is consumed by good bacteria and becomes nitrate. This is called cycle. Both ammonia and nitrite are very toxic to fish and can cause fish death. Nitrate is only toxic at very high levels and is normally removed with a weekly water change.
When you first start a tank, you do not have any good bio built up in your filter system and substrate that will consume the ammonia and nitrite. It takes time for this to develop. There are some additives that you can use on the market that can help to speed up this process. Some work, others do not. I found that Smart Start (Available in CAS supplies section) works the best for this process. Make sure you have a test kit for ammonia and nitrite so you can monitor your tanks progress.
When cycling a tank, start with only a few fish. For 20 gallon tanks, I suggest one 2.5” or smaller male fish, or a group of three 1-1.5” sex uncertain fish. For 30 to 40 gallon tanks, I suggest two 2.5” or smaller male fish of different types or a group of six 1-1.5” sex uncertain fish. For 55 and larger gallon tanks, I suggest three 2.5” or smaller male fish of different types or one group of six 1.5-2” Sex Uncertain fish. Any more can cause a sudden ammonia and nitrite crash killing all the fish.
It takes about three weeks for the cycle to complete. Generally, around the start of the third week, ammonia and then nitrite will climb. Keep in mind .25 or higher ammonia and especially nitrite can be deadly. When these numbers go up, you need to do a 50% water change, then test again the next day. If the numbers are still above zero for ammonia and nitrite you will need to repeat 50% water changes until both of these numbers stay at zero. When both numbers are at zero, the cycle has been completed.
Once the cycle is completed, you can add a few fish at a time. Just be careful not to add more than your good bio can handle or you will go through the cycle again.
Even with a cycled tank, weekly water changes are very important. I suggest 15 to 25% depending on how many fish you have in the tank and how much other filtration you have. Water changes remove nitrate which is not as toxic as ammonia and nitrite; but, can become a problem if it gets to very high numbers. Water changes also can remove excess ammonia and nitrite if your system is stressed by a heavy fish load. Since crowding can help reduce aggression with these fish, larger water changes are an ideal way to deal with the extra waste products associated with crowding.
Do not over feed or you can cause ammonia and nitrite spikes. I suggest Xtreme cichlid peewee (available in the CAS supply section). For mbuna only tanks, I suggest either Blue Cobalt Spirulina Flake Food.
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