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The most difficult and stressful part of my Aquarium experience was my first tank setup. After a month of constant vigilance and worry, I wondered if I’d ever enjoy my tank. However, once I recognized normal behavior and conditions, I began to enjoy the experience.

There are many important considerations when establishing an aquarium. An aquarium is a replication of a natural ecosystem. As such, it needs to regulate itself as an efficient closed cycle.


Following the written instructions of each product, I was able to assemble my tank without much difficulty, although I needed help lifting my 55 gallon tank, and a lot of trips to the sink to fill 5 gallon buckets using my siphon hose. My previous article outlines the equipment I purchased. However, I would like to point out a few important points that nearly escaped my attention.

First, it is not advised to use soap or detergents to clean any aquarium components. These products are harmful to fish. Although I’ve read that a 10% bleach solution is effective at cleaning things, as long as they are thoroughly rinsed, I just rinsed everything with hot water before assembly.

Also, any cords leading to an outlet or power strip need to have a “drip line,” or a portion that sags below the plug in juncture, that way water doesn’t seep into the outlet.


Too much light and algae flourishes. I like late viewing of cichlids, so I have a plug in timer set to start at 4pm and turn off at midnight. 8 hours seems manageable for algae growth.

I have curtains blocking out any direct sunlight from entering the tank. Sunlight increases the production of algae.

Tank Cycling

Fish excrete nitrogenous wastes into the water. The waste breaks down into ammonia. Because an aquarium is a small closed system, levels of ammonia can build up quickly. High ammonia levels will stress or even kill fish.

A healthy colony of bacteria is required to convert ammonia into nitrites, and nitrites into nitrates. Finally, nitrates are removed by regular water changes.

To establish a healthy colony of bacteria, a tank needs to be stocked with a small quantity of hardy fish. The fish provide the waste required for bacteria to feed on. Over time, the bacteria grow to sufficient quantity to neutralize ammonia inputs. Then, more fish can be added slowly.

The important thing is to start out with a few fish and build up over time, monitoring ammonia levels daily with test strips. Do not overfeed fish, as food is the basis of ammonia production. If a spike in ammonia occurs, water changes up to 30% will remove ammonia without substantially affecting cycling time. Reduce feeding, or do not feed fish at all if ammonia levels keep spiking. Freshwater fish can last days without food.

Once ammonia and nitrates decline to trace levels, more fish can be added. Websites vary on estimates, anywhere from one to two months at 78° F-80° F. I used as a point of reference for choosing fish and cycling procedures.

To jumpstart the cycling process in my tank, my brother gave me the carbon filters from his aquarium, as they contained the bacteria required for breaking down ammonia and nitrites. I took a gamble and purchased two small African Cichlids, not more than an inch long each, and started them in the 55 gallon tank, at 76° F-78° F. I acclimated them to the water by placing their bag in the tank, slowly mingling the water they came in, with the water of the tank.

I made sure to test ammonia levels in addition to observing the cichlids. According to ‘The First Tank Guide’, I looked for the following symptoms of ammonia poisoning:

  • Lethargy
  • Loss of appetite
  • Hovering at the bottom of the tank (especially for surface dwelling fish)
  • Gasping at the surface
  • Inflamed gills
  • Red streaks or inflammation in the gills
  • Inflamed eyes or anus

After a few days of monitoring test strips, I noticed no readings on ammonia. I added two more small African Cichlids and monitored ammonia. Again, I noticed negligible differences. I waited about a week before I added the final two.

The process was against the recommendation of everything I previously read; starting with cichlids and adding them at short intervals was not advised. However, I was able to monitor the ammonia regularly and cut feedings to zero for a few days and make water changes as the levels became elevated. A few times, I read dangerous levels of ammonia, but I was surprised to find none of the symptoms associated with ammonia exposure.

Although my method lacks supporting documentation, my cichlids have grown large and healthy. It may be the size of the tank relative to the size of the fish that allowed me to stock them so quickly or my reaction time to ammonia levels, or even the hardiness of the cichlids themselves.

Water additives

My water has an alkalinity conducive to cichlid health (8.2-8.4). However some water may appear too acidic or basic for cichlids.

Adjusting pH with chemicals can be dangerous because buffers in the water may need to be overcome before changes occur. This process can lead to wild swings in pH. recommends not changing pH, as fish are tolerant of a wide range. Due to the complexities of water chemistry, water cannot be reliably altered to a consistent pH each water change. For acidic waters, crushed coral, shells, and limestone can raise pH more consistently.

Chlorine may reliably be removed from tap water using a product like Stress Coat water conditioner. Chlorine must be removed from water before entering a tank because it irritates fish and kills the bacteria required for cycling ammonia. For my cichlid tank, I use the measured dosage on the Stress Coat bottle cap per 5 gallons of water. This treatment contains a general tonic for fish scales too.

I add a level tablespoon full of aquarium salt per 5 gallons of water. I’ve read that African cichlids need salt and don’t need salt. I cannot verify one way or another which is best, only that mine appear healthy and happy.

At the suggestion of my brother who has bred fish for years, I used Ick Away at the recommended dosage when I introduced my cichlids to their new tank. The reason for this is because the fish may have come from an ick prone environment, and the stress of introduction to a new tank may cause a flare up in the sugar-grain like spots. By introducing the medicine at the outset, one minimizes the chances of ick establishing itself in a tank.


When I first acquired my cichlids, I fed them once a day in small portions. They were too skittish to be hungry. Over time, I increased their feedings to twice a day, then three times, so long as the ammonia levels were low. As mentioned earlier, I would sometimes go a day or days without feeding them because of ammonia levels.

I fed them flakes and broken algae tablets at first, with the occasional treat of bloodworm or brine shrimp. They were fond of all these things. Then I added cichlid pellets when their mouths were big enough.


For a detailed review of how to clean an aquarium, go here"

At first, I changed 10%-20% of the water when the ammonia level got too high or when the tank looked dirty. This averaged out to once every week or two weeks. As ammonia became less of a concern, I simply cleaned the tank and changed the water once every two to three weeks, as it began to get dirty and smelly. I typically stick to this routine now.

I do two type of cleanings, a quick cleaning and a thorough cleaning. For a quick cleaning, I make sure to unplug everything, as some equipment needs a minimum water level. I scrub the glass with an algae brush and siphon vacuum the easily accessible gravel till I get about 5-10 gallons water. I take out the filter, remove the cartridges and filter sponges, then rinse it with hot water and scrub it with an algae brush. Sometimes I’ll wipe down the aquarium hood if there’s food stuck on it. Then I’ll wipe down the exterior after I’m done, making sure to clean salt water off of steel stand.

For a thorough cleaning, I make sure to unplug everything, as some equipment needs a minimum water level. I remove the light and hood, wiping both free of algae. I scrub the interior glass down to the gravel a bit. I take out all the decorations, making sure no fish are hiding in them. I wash these with hot water.

I put in an AquaClear 50 powerhead with filter and cartridges before I vacuum, in order to pick up all the debris that gets churned up.

With a free reign of the gravel, I siphon vacuum it thoroughly. I remove about 15 gallons in this fashion. I clean the filter as mentioned in the quick cleaning method, except I replace the carbon filters. I then replace everything, making sure not to crush any fish. My fish typically don’t like me for some time after. They have to go through the effort of re-excavating their territory.


After establishing cichlids, it’s a simple matter of observation. If I observed strange behavior, I’d google it. Typically, I’d learn of a variety of potential problems, though further observation would indicate normal behavior. Over time, I began to recognize the personality of each fish. They voraciously ate the different foods I gave them, and darted about energetically. Since I’ve had them, I’ve had no problems, except for a beaten up timid female that I later learned was mouthbrooding. I will cover this and other observations in my next essay.

Other Articles In Series

  1. 55 Gallon African Cichlid Aquarium: Supplies
  2. How many African cichlids in a 55 gallon aquarium?
  3. How to Clean Aquarium
  4. What to Feed African Cichlids
  5. 55 Gallon African Cichlid Tank: General Observations
  6. Fluval 305 External Canister Filter Review
  7. AquaClear 50 powerhead review


  1. . "Setting up an African Lake Aquarium."Badman's Tropical Fish.. ''.
  2. . "So, You Want to Set Up a Fish Tank?."The First Tank Guide.. ''.

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