Malawi Cichlid Tank Setup

From the Beginning

I would always recommend looking around for a second hand setup because most of the time they come complete with all the equipment. Some also come with substrate and decor and for a much lower price than a new tank alone.

Another advantage of buying second hand is that you can change the appearance to suit your room. For example if the stand and hood are wood then you can paint or stain it however you like or even alter it knowing that you did not pay out loads of money. You can afford to be fussy when it comes to picking what sort of tank you want as there are so many good second hand ones out there to choose from.

One of my Haplochromis tanks was bought second hand but I had to have the stand and hood custom built because no matter how much I looked I could not find a solid six foot stand to replace the damaged one that came with the tank.

Not all second hand tanks come clean so the first thing that I do is wash the tank with nothing more than clean warm water and a new sponge. You can partially fill the tank now and check to see if there are any small leaks which is always a good thing to do especially with bigger tanks. If you find a leak then leave the tank to dry out thoroughly before sealing the leak with some silicon sealer and always leave the sealer to properly dry.

Once happy with the tank I turn my attention to the hood and stand. This is when I would clean, repair or even change the appearance of it depending on what I want it to look like. If the tank did not come with any polystyrene sheets then make sure you purchase some to place on the top of the stand. These are there not only to keep some heat in the tank but to protect the bottom of the tank from any abnormalities on the stand. Juwel Aquariums do NOT need polystyrene. Another tip is that if your hood is wood and has no light reflectors in it then you can line it with tin foil using wood glue. This is a cheap way of reflecting the light into the tank without the expense of buying reflectors.

If your tank came with equipment then you now need to check this to make sure it all works. There is nothing more annoying than finishing your tank and finding out that something does not work so you have to run around trying to find a replacement. You can check all the electrical equipment by placing it in a bucket of water and turning it on. Never test any equipment out of water. Some of this equipment will require cleaning so carefully clean it with a sponge or toothbrush and nothing more than warm water.

Setting Up

Once the tank, stand, hood and equipment are clean and ready you can now start setting up. Place the polystyrene on the stand and then place the tank on top. Make sure you do not put your tank and stand to close to the wall because you may find that you do not have enough space at the back to fit the hood on or drop down wires and plugs. I learnt this the hard way many years ago with a six foot full of water and rocks.

I use a sand substrate for my Malawi tanks and do NOT recommend using undergravel filters. In my previous Haplochromis tank I used 5x 25kg of river sand. Another sand that you can use is construction sand or CaribSea Eco-Complete but whichever sand subsrate you use you will have to thoroughly clean with just warm water until the water runs clean, with the exception of the CaribSea Eco-Complete. It is always best to do small amounts at a time then you get it cleaner. It is important that you read our water changes page to see how to clean your sand.

Once the sand is placed in the tank I start with the equipment. It is always best to have as little wires and equipment showing in your tank as possible so with this mind try and hide the equipment and wiring. I use a digital thermometer to check the temperature, this attaches to the hood then drops a small wire with a probe into the water. I use 2 external filters on tanks above 4 feet. If you are using internal filters then place them in the tank roughly where you want to go them along with the heater(s). If your are using external filters then now is the time to install all the pipe work and sit the Filters in place making sure that the pipes are long enough. The bigger the tank the higher the heater you will need.

Next is the decor. If you are keeping Mbuna then build up large high piles of rocks making sure that there are different sized caves, remember that Mbuna tanks do not need plants but if you like them then thats ok. Mbuna will pull up, move or even destroy real plants and sometimes plastic plants if they dont like them near their cave. Remember when placing large rocks in the sand to push them right down then bank up the sand around them so that they are firmly in position for building on.

If you are keeping Haplochromis then you require as much space as you can get. Just place a few large bolder/rocks on the bottom of the tank with a few giant vallis plant which can be either real or plastic.

Now all the equipment and decor is in place I fill the tank. It is not essential to treat the tap water with conditioners here as there will be no fish in the tank for a while so all the chlorine and heavy metals will have dissolved by then but remember to always treat the water when doing water changes. I fill the tank by using half cold water then half warm water via a hosepipe. I do this because it is cheaper than trying to heat up a large tank of cold water with heaters.

Once the tank is full switch on all the equipment and check that everything is working ok. The last job would be sorting out the hood and lights. With all these electrical plugs I find it easier especially with big tanks to screw a four way extention cable to each end of the stand for the equipment then run one of these four way extention cables into the other one. In doing so you only have one plug powering all the tank removing the need for loads of plug sockets. You can then screw the extention cables into cupboards if you have them to hide all the plugs.

Finally keep an eye on the temperature over the next few days and adjust it accordingly, remember that you may have to turn your heaters up and down in winter and summer months. Monitor the PH levels and try to get them to a level that Malawi cichlids like.

You can also drop in very SMALL amounts of food every few days which will help start of the good bacteria but DO NOT over do this, or you can clean out a sponge filter from a friends established tank into yours, squeezing all the muck into your tank will also help the bacteria but you must do this within one hour of removing the sponge or the good bacteria will die. Leave your tank to settle down now.

After two weeks and the tank is still ok then you can introduce two or three pairs of young Malawi cichlids but this depends on the size of your tank, a 4 foot (48") tank is probably minimum for a Malawi tank. Leave these another week or two then again if all is ok then introduce a couple more and so on. Remember to watch your fish so that you will learn their behaviour enabling you to notice any problems and do not forget to do your regular water changes.