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Setting up a Beginner Cichlid Tank in your Mid 20’s

Ngara FlametailThat’s an interesting title right? What is there about setting up a beginner African Cichlid tank in your mid-20s that differs from setting one up at age 47 for example? Well, based on some of the responses to my questions from the cichlid gurus I’m surrounded by (check out some of Jose’s articles here, here and here: this guy’s enthusiasm for these fish is totally contagious both on paper and in real life) I have a different take on my tank’s setup and what I want from it, than other folks, and I’m going to talk about that here.<!–more–>

First a little background. My name is Matt R, and I work in the marketing department at TFP/TPP. Prior to working here, my fish experience maxed out with a few freshwater angels, and the obligatory carnival goldfish once in awhile (may they RIP). I recently bought my first house, and, in addition to wanting to try something new to expand my knowledge, I wanted something cool for my place. So here are my top 5 reasons why this setup works best for me.

1. Quick Reward

I’m from the video game generation. I grew up on Mario and I play Call of Duty. From everything I’ve seen and observed of fish, Cichlids give the best chance to see something cool quickly. I’m not going to sit there and watch my tank for 20 minutes at a time, but I can check out my Ngara and Taiwan Reef and figure out who’s dominant, who’s ready to breed, and who’s so stressed they’re going to have to “leave the island”. It’s like a reality TV show in an aquarium, each episode 5 minutes.

2.  Upside – More Bang for the Buck

Ok, so I’m a big baseball fan, and I play in Rotisserie leagues. Anyone who knows anything about this knows that players with upside and little investment are the ticket to victory, and this carries over for me with my Cichlid tank.  With Cichlids, you get the insane color options of saltwater fish and reef tanks, but without having to add salt, run a skimmer, or invest in High Output lighting. It’s easier on my budget.

3. Many are Mouth Brooders

Taiwan ReefSeriously…they keep their kids in their mouths? Maybe I’m kind of nerdy, but that’s a pretty cool thing to watch. Have you seen this in action, or on the Planet Earth series? It deserves to be on anyone’s top 5 list for a Cichlid tank.

4. You can be lazy (Kind of)

I love my tank, but I’d be lying if I said I focused a lot of time and energy to it all the time.  I’m legally required to endorse water changes, water testing and gravel vacs, and I do them regularly..but…well…sometimes I may not be right on schedule. Based on my own experiences, and from what I’ve heard from the experts here, Cichilds are pretty darn resilient…which leads me to reason number 5

5. Cichlids are tough

They are. It’s a fact of life when you evolve in an isolated lake. Though they may live in a community, it’s a dynamic, angry, restless community..and…call me dark..but that’s somehow appealing to me. In a cichlid tank, you have to live with the reality that turf wars are an everyday threat. Nothing against them, but you’re not going to get that intensity with a cory cat and danios (sorry Craig).

Thanks for reading. 

If you have any comments or questions, I’d love to hear them below, or just say @MattR on our Facebook page .


  1. avatar

    Great post, Matt – I thought about these same things when I was in my very early twenties. Unfortunately, didn’t have the money and space at the time to go all the way with an african cichlid tank. I ended up, instead, with a south american cichlid tank, which allowed me get away with a smaller tank tank size. South Americans definitely don’t have the same level of exotic variety, but you still get to follow the drama of who’s who in the tank, all the while becoming fascinated with the breeding and fry-rearing behaviors. So, for anyone who’s been in my situation, South Americans are a great alternative!

    Of course, who doesn’t aspire to eventually get that uber-awesome african cichlid aquarium? I’d like to try this out but wanted to ask what the most cost-efficient African cichlid tank setup would include? Matt – what kind of set-up did you eventually get and how much of an investment would this be!?

  2. avatar

    Hi Chris,
    Thanks for the S.A. shout-out..I wouldn’t mind trying one of those as well. The article is slightly misleading cost-wise, because I actually already had a 55 gallon tank/stand/hood and a Rena XP2 Filter coming in from that Angelfish tank I mentioned I had years ago. And, though lots of folks here were pushing me to go saltwater, I definitely didn’t want to dish out the $$ for a skimmer, advanced lighting (if I went coral), and (ideally) wet/dry filtration (DISCLAIMER though TFP does have the best prices on this stuff :). I’ll mention a few things I was told/implemented/learned from that seem to be working and saved/are saving me money, though I am no expert.
    1. With the expenses I had left (tank layout, livestock, media, etc.), I found the most expensive to be the bedrock (aragonite) used to maintain the hardness cichlids require. We have it here at TFP/TPP retail store, but I surmise it may be found elsewhere as a lot of these kinds of things crop up at garden supply stores. This being said, this is the ONLY thing you need in the tank. For a substrate, I was recommended play sand..really, really cheap at any garden supply store, and way cheaper than getting standard aquarium gravel. I like a natural setup, and wanted to drop some cash on driftwood, but was shot down entirely by the experts here due to the tannins it releases and their effect on the pH/water color, so I guess I saved there. The porous rock actually provides a good place for biological bacteria too..helping filtration more than regular tank deco.
    2. I pushed Jose (our Cichlid guy) hard on what lighting to get, because I assumed to get the best color I would need something amazing…but he was quick to point out that the diet of the fish, if correct, should bring out great coloration regardless..so I went with a simple Perfecto Fluorescent hood setup. So worry about diet, not lighting. In this case, I was guided to marine flakes (better ingredients) and a quality frozen mysis or formula food.
    3. For the livestock, you can save if you buy SMALL…and ugly..haha. As I’m sure you know, most of the awesome looking cichlids start out really basic and the colors only emerge later. My tank was seeded with 10 zebra danios (which I have to admit, I thought would “thin out”, but are still going strong and are starting to grow on me), then I gradually added 4 tiny Ngara Flametails, 4 tiny Taiwan Reef Cichlids and 3 Synodontis Cats (not sure which species). The idea with a group of each species, according to Jose, is to wait for a dominant male to emerge, than get any rival male out of there…(which is why my tank was so LOADED to start out).
    4. As I said, I’m a big “natural” guy, so I don’t use alot of additives, and things seem to be working great. I really just use a dechlorinator when I add water. My filter is packed with pads and TONS of biological media..and I usually keep a chemi pure in there too. My water parameters rarely vary, and if water tests indicate a rise in Ammonia or Nitrates, I do a water change.

    So I guess the overall theme is get aragonite but keep your setup basic, buy livestock small and weed them out as dominance issues arise, focus on good diet over amazing lighting, and stick to basics (lots of bio filtration, basic water tests and necessary water changes) rather than expensive additives…has worked for me. Good luck if you decide to go African..I hope this helps.

  3. avatar

    Hey there, nice write up!

    I agree that cichlids can be a very frustrating species if you do not have the knowledge.

    Selecting the proper fish is the most important factor in having a peaceful aquarium.

    I also tend to slack off with my tank sometimes, and fail to do water changes as frequently as I should. I think it’s human nature 😛

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