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How To Setup a Rift Lake Aquarium
by Marc Elieson
This is a very thorough explanation of what is required to set up an aquarium for African cichlids. In this article I cover the tank, water requirements, temperature, water changes, filtration, substrates, decorations, feeding, and controlling cichlid aggression.

Choosing the Right Size Tank

Often, the size of the tank is not the optional factor, but rather, hobbyists are forced to ask, what will work in my already existing tank? Well, there are too many fish out there to go species by species, but in general, I recommend a 55 gallon tank as the minimal size. This is the same as a 200 Liter tank. Smaller tanks will work for some dwarf species, Tanganyikan Shell-Dwellers, and Victorian Hapís, but even for these, I would not go under 35 gallons unless you are willing to house just one or two of these fish. Many species require an aquarium aquascaped with lots of rock. Once you get the rock in your tank, you have lost much of the available swimming space and available oxygen. Plus, a smaller tank will heighten aggression, because there is less territory to claim.

In general, the larger tank the better. The more water you have, the more stable their aquatic environment will be. The temperature will not fluctuate as much, nitrates will not build up as quickly, and there will be more swimming space available. Also, if you put your hands in the tank, and by accident have some toxic chemical on them, it will be less likely to harm the fish due to the dilution factor. But not all large tanks are created equal. Aquariums that are long and skiny, allowing a large water-to-air interface are best because they permit a greater amount of water oxygenation. If this value ever gets too low, your fishes's health will quickly become compromised.

pH Levels

pH is a measure of the acidity or alkalinity of the water, or in other words, the availability or unavailability of Hydrogen ions. What does this mean for your fish? Well, African Cichlids enjoy alkaline water conditions (i.e., pH above 7.0). pH levels vary depending upon the lake. The ranges for the three East African lakes are as follows:

Lake Malawi..................7.4 - 8.6

Lake Tanganyika............7.8 - 9.0

Lake Victoria.................7.2 - 8.6

These values are approximate ranges. In nature, the pH levels will vary somewhat as the levels of the lakes will rise and fall through the years, making them either less salty or more salty. In the aquarium, African cichlids can adapt to wide ranges of pH. What you need to be mindful of is to not make any rapid adjustments to the pH level. Such a careless or unknowing act will severely shock your fish, suppressing their immune system, making them more susceptible to disease. Keeping in mind all that I have said, I recommend keeping African Cichlids at a stable pH of 8.2 - 8.4. Fish from all three appreciate pH levels within this range. Cichlids from West African or the rivers and streams of East African require water that is more neutral - pH 7.0.

The water from these lakes is very hard, containing many dissolved minerals and salts, such as Carbonate and Magnesium. If you live in an area with hard water, you may count yourself very lucky. But for those who do not, there are many easy measures you may take to make your water more alkaline and "hard." Crushed coral sand, shells, limestone, and other rocks such as slate are good at pushing the pH of the water up into 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. Remember that Africans can adapt to a wide range of alkaline levels. If after using these measures, you still want to raise your pH, there are many commercial Cichlid buffers on the market. Several manufacturers also offer Cichlid Salts and Trace Elements, which try to simulate the exact salt and mineral conditions of the rift lakes, in addition to raising the pH. Alternatively, you can make your own for a fraction of the price, using the Homemade Rift Lake Buffer recipe.

If your tap water has chloramines, you will need to use a conditioner (dechlorinator) to remove them. Many of these are good; however, I like use AmQuel because I can buy it by the gallon. But, thatís because I go through a lot of it as I do water changes on the scale of 100 gallons a week between my three tanks. A gallon lasts me a little over a year.

You should also be aware that ammonia can be much more stressful to your fishes at a high pH, such as African cichlids require. At a pH of 8.0, for example, the ammonia in your aquarium is effectively ten times more toxic than at a pH of 7.0. That is because the ammonia is in the NH3 form at a higher pH (instead of NH4+), which is more toxic.


The optimal temperature is 76 - 80°F. I keep my tank at a constant 78°F. I never have to worry about my temperature fluctuating, be it winter or summer. This is in part due to the very large water to air ratio (which helps to cool it off), and more importantly, three submersible pumps (which heat the water slightly). I donít use heaters on my fry or grow-out tank, and so the temp is naturally a little lower (76°F), however, I know of people who aim for temperatures of 80°F or even 82°F with their fry tanks. This brings me to my next point.

High temperatures will increase a fishís metabolism, boost their immune response, as well as stimulate aggression. So, by raising the temperature to 80°F for a fry tank, one would speed up their metabolism, causing them to eat more and grow faster, but also require more water changes. Conversely, you could lower the temperature in your tank as a means of stemming aggression. This can be helpful if you have some really nasty fish on your hands (e.g., Melanochromis auratus, Metriaclima lombardoi "Kenyi"). This is due to the fact that the number one cause of aggression among Cichlids is food-related. If they are not feeling a need to eat as often (because their metabolism has slowed), then they are less likely to be territorial and feisty.

Water Changes

No matter how good your filter is, you will eventually need to do water changes, although filters certainly help in keeping the water quality in good shpae for a longer period of time. Because African cichlid setups usually lack plants, and are "crowded" (more on this below), the water quality can quickly deteriorate. Experts suggest that 10-20% water changes every week are best. And then, if you go every other week, double that. I will admit, I am a little on the excessive side, but thatís because I have heavily stock some of my tanks, which I feed several times a day. With most setups, it is also important to vacuum the gravel. I rigged a setup, which I call Under Gravel Jets, which has permitted me to escape the need for vacuuming. The reason for vacuuming is because waste can build up in the gravel, and anaerobic pockets can form, leading to a suboptimal condition because your aerobic bacteria can't get to it. Vacuuming these spots will prevent this situation.


There are so many different types of filters, not to mention all the variations on a filtration system one could devise with these. Because there are so many types, brands, and setups, I wonít discuss specifics here (for the most part). Instead, I want to talk about a few generalities.

If you have a small tank (i.e., 10-35 gallon), then a simple hang on the back filter will work just fine. You want the gallons per hour (gph) flow to be 4 - 6 times the volume of your tank. So if you have a 20-gallon tank, you will want a filter that cycles 80 - 120 gph. If you have a larger tank, you will need a more sophisticated filtering system, mostly because many "hang-on-the-back" filters arenít adequate and canít meet the gph requirements. AquaClear and Emperor power filters are exceptions.

I have never used an undergravel filter, but almost everyone I have spoken with has at some point switched from these to some other form of filtration. I am not saying you shouldnít use one, but here are a couple of reasons why I would discourage you from using one: First, African cichlids are diggers in the full sense of the word. Undergravel filters require that they be covered with your substrate (e.g., gravel) to be effective. Well, African cichlids donít cooperate. I have seen undergravel filters made 30% bare within a few hours and these tanks had a good 4" of substrate! Second, they require a lot of attention because they can get dirty very quickly. They pull the water down through the gravel, trapping any fecal wastes in the gravel; therefore, frequent water changes with mandatory vacuuming, are required. You donít want to miss more than two weeks or youíll find algae and fungus growing on your gravel. I have found that a system that works the opposite works well, with currents rising upward, and then water off the top gets filtered.

I recommend submersible pumps with sponges. These are good because they grab waste, provide an additional niche for beneficial denitrifying bacteria, and when mature, can become a backyard garden on which algae can grow and the cichlids can harvest. I also like them because they are placed at the bottom of the tank, where most of the waste is deposited or accumulates. Outside power filters with biological wheels and or sponges with carbon are also a good choice. Whatever you choose, itís a good idea to clean out the impeller shaft, the impeller, and the sponge every few weeks. Otherwise, the flow rate will slow, sponges will get clogged, and your filter will stop doing its job.


There are several options. Gravel, sand, crushed coral, even crushed marble or granite. There are also all sorts of color one could select for their substrate.

A very popular substrate is crushed coral gravel or coral aragonite sand. I have used these for years and really like them for several reasons. First and foremost, I like the way it looks. Itís very white and clean. I also like the occasional shells my Cichlids dig up. Second, the coral slowly dissolves and thereby increases the hardness of the water. My water is already hard (GH 14), but it helps to stabilize my pH and the hardness of the water. Hard water, if left alone and tested a week or so later, would show a decrease in its hardness. This is because minerals, which make the water hard, donít stay suspended for very long. Unless you use buffer, have rocks in your tank, or use crushed coral, water changes are necessary not only to reduce nitrates, but also to restore the pH and hardness of your water. I have read claims that crushed coral irritates the gills of cichlids, but have yet to see any conclusive data affirming this.

Dolomite (crushed limestone) is also used specifically as a buffer, but it does not dissolve as well as coral, and is not as desirable for that reason. It may also contain copper and other miscellaneous metals found in limestone. I use limestone for decoration, but use NovAqua and AmQuel to remove the copper and other toxic metals that may potentially be present.

Peacocks and many of the Tanganyikans prefer sand. You can keep them with gravel, but will be missing out on many of their unique, endearing behaviors. You can either purchase sand from your LFS or you could acquire regular sand from a pool and spa retailer, as they use sand as a filtering substrate. If you get silica sand, be sure it's 99% quartz. The reason for this is because a friend of mine used to use silica and he frequently had algae blooms of diatoms, who's outer shell is made of silica. He was convinced that the sand led to an excessive amount of dissolved silica in the water, which enabled the unicellular algae bloom. When he replaced the substrate with crushed coral sand (which is Calcium Carbonate based) the problem disappeared.

Some people prefer black substrates while other prefer white, and some even mix the two. Depending upon the fish, some look best against a dark substrate, while others do not. If a fish is kept over a dark sand, for example, it will darken up, in an effort to blend in with its environment. Any black markings will be more obvious. The opposite is true for the same fish kept over a light-colored substrate. So, pick your substrate (when possible) based upon the fish you plan to keep.

Because most African Cichlids are diggers and can rearrange your tank quicker than you can reset it, I recommend using at least 2" of substrate in your tank. This is equivalent to 1 pound of gravel or 2 pounds of sand for every gallon of water. For more on substrates, see Aquarium Substrates.


Decorations is perhaps the second most important point to consider when setting up an African Rift Lake aquarium. You should decorate your tank with lots of rock to provide caves and hiding places for your cichlids. Aggressive fish usually claim a territory. I have noticed that by providing them with lots of caves, dominant fish claim less territory. Egg layers absolutely need a cave to spawn and then to guard the eggs. Mouthbrooders tend to have less of a need for a permanent territory, but they still like to have a place (particularly, a flat rock) they can claim and on which to spawn.

Cichlids and flowerpot in the aquariumThere are lots of options here. This is where you really need to get creative. I use holey rock (a.k.a. honeycomb limestone), which has dozens of tunnels through it. At night, many of my fish will sleep in these holes. I have seen many people use clay flowerpots; either turned on their side or turned upside down and given a hole. I donít like the unnatural color or look these give, but do what you will like. Some people even disguise these by gluing sand, gravel, or rocks to the pots. Most often people will just stack limestone or some other rock with slate, creating layers with caves between.

Rocks I would recommend include limestone, slate, petrified wood, lava, granite, tufa, "pagoda," and "lace rock." Before you put these rocks in your tank, be sure to clean them with bleach. And then be sure as heck to rinse that bleach off before you put it in your tank with the fish. The sniff test works for me: if I can smell it, I know itís still got bleach on it. I have purchased limestone that was purportedly "clean." When I got to cleaning it, I found all kinds of dirt and roots in some of the holes of my limestone. I was glad that I took the extra precaution.

There is one thing that you should keep in mind when doing a little rock-hunting for your aquarium, that is that some rocks contain a large metal content that will leak into the water. These heavy metals include iron, lead, and copper. Heavy metal poisoning is always fatal to fish and it usually doesnít have any warning symptoms. To avoid using any rocks that have metal content in them, there is an easy way to check them. Simply look for any veins with a metallic color, such as a rusty iron orange, and add lemon juice or vinegar. If you observe any fizzling then this rock will leak metal into your tank. This rock is best left where you found it. Double check this test using a magnet as vinegar is a weak acid and won't react with heavy metals.

Because of the immense weight of your rocks, especially if they are stacked, you should consider how they are placed in your tank. This is especially important because your cichlids will dig and could undermine a rock formation that could come tumbling down. Egg crate in new tankTo prevent such a disaster, glue rock formations together with silicone. Some people use egg crates on the very bottom of their tanks, before laying gravel. This prevents a rock from applying pressure to a single point on the glass, which could lead to crack. In addition to silicone, there is a product called AquaStik®. It is an epoxy putty that is non-toxic and is made specifically for aquariums. It even cures underwater. Just knead the two compounds together and then use it to secure your rocks together, just like gum. It cures rock-hard in 24 hours. It is made by Two Little Fishies, Inc. out of Florida.

I recently read about a clever trick, which would prevent any of the above catastrophes. This ingenious aquarist used pumice stone, which is an inert volcanic rock that floats. It is also soft and very porous. To prepare the pumice, he boils it in a large pot, holding them under with a heavy piece of granite or basalt. After 10 minutes or so, he removes the pumice and drops it into a bucket of cold water, and again weights it down. Once the pumice cools, it will now sink like a feather through the air. How does this prevent toppling or possible cracking? Well, with ever so light rocks, you can pile these up high in the tank without having to worry about their pressure on the glass. And their rough surface helps hold them together. They have two other advantages. Their porous interior provides yet another niche for denitrifying bacteria to live. You could easily drill pumice with a two-inch bit if you wanted to create tunnels or caves.

African cichlids and live plants are often a "no-win" combination. Most plants have a tough time growing in very alkaline water because of the high levels of Magnesium. Besides, many cichlids do a good job of trimming down plants. Still, live plants can be kept if you know what you're doing. Either way, live or fake plants will provide yet another niche or territory for a fish to claim or hide in.

There are a few species of plants that they donít seem to like and that are well adapted to their alkaline water. These include Java Fern, Vallisneria sp., and the Anubias family: A. barteri, A. congicus, A. gigante, A. gracilis, A. heterophylla, and A. nana. If you decide to take a stab at growing these plants in your tank, be aware that mbuna are terribly adept at digging up plants. For this reason, you should plant your plants in pots. Some plants can also take up too much swimming space for Haps and Mouthbrooders in general.

I discourage the use of driftwood in any African Rift Lake setup. It can lower the pH of your water and stain the water yellow with tanic acid.


There is a whole section on this Web site dedicated to just this topic alone, so I wonít say much about feeding here. Briefly put, however, Africans do extremely well if feed Spirulina flake, with an occasional treat of live or frozen food. Never feed them more than they can consume in 2 minutes totalled over an entire day, not 5 minutes! Cichlids have sensitive bowels and so food should be selected and fed with care so as to prevent "Bloat."

Controlling Aggression

As I mentioned earlier in this lengthy article (hopefully you can remember that long ago) that the primary reason for Cichlid aggression is driven by food. You can control aggression by feeding your fish less, but more often. They are territorial because they want to stake out their own backyard garden from which to hunt and harvest. Conspecifics (i.e., similar looking fish) are seen as a threat (because if they are similar, they will compete for the same foods), and are chased off. Therefore, by having fish from a wide variety of species you can cut down on intra-species aggression. I have read and heard of several accounts of people keeping only Pseudotropheus demasoni. The result was that a colony soon turned into a lone, victorious male. Also, by giving your fish lots of room to swim, and lots of territories to claim and caves to hide in, you can reduce inter-species aggression.

Dueling Julidochromis transcriptusWith few exceptions, males are the more aggressive, and they tend to rough females not interested in mating. For this reason, almost everyone recommends keeping at least 2 females per male of a given species (for polygamous mouthbrooders only), that way his aggression and frustration are not received by just one female. Instead, it gets distributed.

Also, by "crowding" your tank, you can distribute inter-species aggression. Not just one fish is a target of abuse, and aggressors tend to lose victims more easily when the tank is crowded. Just be sure that you "over filter" your aquarium if you are going to "crowd" it.

African cichlids are a higly rewarding fish to keep and breed. If you follow these simple recommendations and tips, you'll soon be on your way to enjoying those cichlids. □

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