How to Setup African Cichlid Filter System?

Let’s begin this article by issuing a much-needed clarification. African cichlids are not the same with other species of cichlids. Although they belong to the same taxonomical group, there are noticeable differences between African cichlids and the rest.

To set things straight, African cichlids belong to 3 major categories, based on the lakes where the cichlids live:

  • Malawi cichlids
  • Tanganyika cichlids
  • Victoria cichlids

These cichlid groups encompass multiple subspecies and display anan astounding diversity of colors and patterns. Overall, African cichlids show mild differences from other cichlid species, especially the Malawi ones, which rank as rock dwellers. But if there’s one thing that African cichlids are most popular for, that must be their predilection towards cleaner waters.

African cichlids are generally hardy and adaptable but hate dirty waters and unstable water parameters. Even the smallest ammonia levels may cause them health problems and even lead to sudden death at times.

So, what can you do to provide your African cichlids with impeccable water parameters and a healthy, happy, and stable lifestyle long-term? It all comes down to the filtering system.

Do African Cichlids Need a Filter?

Yes, they do. You can technically keep African cichlids alive and well without one, but I wouldn’t recommend it. African cichlids can be quite messy when eating and will produce a lot of poop. They are also rock and bottom dwellers, Malawi cichlids especially, which means they will often disturb the substrate, flooding the water with particles.

There is no way you can preserve your cichlids’ environment in peak conditions without doing some regular heavy lifting. This includes water changes every other day, regular tank cleaning, vacuuming the substrate, removing algae deposits, etc. The filtering system makes your job a lot easier.

The filter will:

  • Clean the water – A good filtering system will remove water particles and organic matter floating in the tank, along with any food residues and fish waste sinking from the water’s surface. This will result in a clearer and cleaner tank water, boosting environmental colors and crafting an overall healthier setting for your cichlids.
  • Control ammonia – The filtering system is the powerhouse of the denitrifying bacteria and other microorganisms responsible for consuming ammonia and nitrites and turning them into nitrates. This makes filters vital to any aquatic setting, especially one housing African cichlids. The filter is that much more important if you have multiple African cichlids that could use the extra support system to keep their habitat clean and healthy.
  • Oxygenate the water – The surplus of oxygen is welcome for cichlids, plants, and other tank inhabitants that can’t breathe atmospheric air. Just remember to keep the water current low since African cichlids aren’t fond of fast-moving waters.

The filter’s size and type depend on the aquarium setup, how large the tank is, and the type of fish you have. Make sure to get a fitting filter, one that can do the job intended without disturbing your cichlids’ environment.

Filter System Setup for African Cichlids

I would recommend getting a canister filter for your cichlid tank for several reasons, including:

  • Extra space – Canister filters are mounted outside of the tank, which means they take up no water space. This is ideal when accommodating African cichlids, which already require a rock-based environment with caves and rocky structures, sometimes filling more than half of the tank’s volume.
  • A larger filtration area – Since the canister filter is placed outside the tank, the system will filtrate more water than submerged filters. The filtration area is wider, allowing for increased efficiency in the long run.
  • Easier maintenance – The filter requires regular maintenance, which typically causes discomfort among fish. This isn’t the case with canister filters since they are easier to clean without disturbing the fish or the aquatic environment. Plus, canister filters don’t require as frequent cleaning as submerged filters due to not getting contact with the tank water.

The Fluval High-Performance Aquarium Filter is the perfect option in this sense. This piece provides a coverage of 700 gallons per hour and a microchip technology designed to monitor and adjust the pump’s performance. The Fluval filter ensures biological, mechanical, and chemical filtration for optimal results, contributing to a healthier and more stable aquatic environment.

The Fluval system is easy to maintain and clean, it’s a lot quieter than other filters, and it comes with multi-directional nozzles to customize the water flow. The system is ideal for comprehensive filtering services and easy, headache-free water changes, which are essential for your cichlids.

Filtration Media

As you may or may not know, there are 3 types of filtration media: mechanical, biological, and chemical. Let’s see what each of them does and how they work:

1. Mechanical Filtration

This mechanism is pretty much self-explanatory or, at the least, intuitive. The filter contains a cartridge-based system designed to trap water particles muddying the water. These include sand particles, organic matter, food residues, fish waste, and so on. The filter’s effectiveness largely depends on how the cartridge system is built and how fine the filter’s surface.

Some filters rely on microfiltration to trap even microscopic particles and organisms like protozoa, bacteria, various viruses, algae, and yeast. It all depends on your expectations and need. Filter pads and sponges are quite popular filtering elements, trapping fine particles that would make the water dirty and unsafe.

The ‘problem,’ let’s say, with mechanical filtration is that it’s not enough on its own. The mechanical filter cannot protect the environment against chemicals and chemical compounds like ammonia, nitrites, or heavy metals, among others. In that situation, other filtering systems are more effective.

2. Biological Filtration

This aspect refers to the tank’s natural microbiome supported by the filtration system. Every aquatic environment possesses a biofilm consisting of billions of bacteria that will inhabit the tank’s rocks, plants, and substrate. They will also crowd inside the filter since it provides them with a warm, wet, and shady setting for the bacteria to flourish.

Something like Biohome Ultimate Filter Media would be perfect in this sense. This filtration media consists of a porous material housing billions of nitrifying and denitrifying bacteria (aerobic and anaerobic). It comes in multiple forms and shapes, depending on your needs, and it absorbs water fast, supporting the colonization of beneficial bacteria.

These microorganisms are the first line of defense against ammonia and nitrites and will contribute to keeping your tank water healthier and cleaner long-term. I believe that biological filtration is the most important out of the 3 options available.

3. Chemical Filtration

While mechanical and biological filtration are essential to use in everyday situations, chemical filtration is more circumstantial. It’s best fitting for addressing various chemicals in the water due to medication use, excess of heavy metals, and the presence of tannins from various sources, discoloring the water.

There are 2 primary chemical filtration systems mainly:

  • Activated Coal (Carbon) – This filter media consists of granule or block-based carbon that’s very porous in nature and designed to trap ultra-fine particles and contaminants. The activated coal is effective against pesticides, insecticides, chlorine and chlorine by-products, pharmaceuticals, microplastics, and even ammonia, nitrites, and nitrates. That being said, filters based on activated coal won’t remove beneficial minerals like calcium, potassium, or magnesium and will only partially remove inorganic compounds like asbestos and arsenic. Activated coal-based filters are also only partially effective against viruses and small bacteria.
  • Synthetic resin – Probably the most effective solution for filtrating chemical substances like ammonia and nitrites. Filtering products based on synthetic resin showcase improved efficiency at cleaning the water of chemicals and provide cichlids with a cleaner and more balanced environment.

How Often to Clean the Filter?

If you’re using a canister filter, I have good news for you. You will only need to clean the system every 3-4 months. To understand why this is a plus, let’s consider the time necessary to clean other types of filters:

  • Sponge Filter – Every 2 weeks.
  • Hang-On-Back Filter – Every several weeks to a month.
  • In-tank Filter – Several weeks to a month.

As you can see, the canister filter blows all other options out of the park. When cleaning the filter’s media, however, you should remember not to use any chemicals in the process. You should also refrain from using tap water or cleaning the filter too thoroughly, as this will kill off the cultures of beneficial bacteria inhabiting the system.

How Long Can African Cichlids Survive Without a Filter?

Not long. The real problem here is that African cichlids, and cichlids in general, produce a lot of waste, which can poison their habitat fast. Without a filtering system to dilute the chemicals and balance the water chemistry, your fish will feel the fallout soon. Soon as in several hours to a day.

Then there’s the problem of preserving the bacterial cultures inhabiting the filter. These will also only survive for several hours without the proper environment. They don’t only need water but require water flow as well, which won’t happen with the filter out of service. Which can happen in case of power outages or filter malfunctions.

So, what should you do when that happens? Here are some useful suggestions:

  • Stop the feeding – Your African cichlids will be fine without food for several hours and even several days in extreme cases. Whatever the case may be, 24 hours without food won’t hurt your cichlids. It’s better to abstain from food than produce chemical fish waste, affecting the habitat and sabotaging their own environment.
  • Use 2 filters – This measure is great for when 1 filter malfunctions, allowing you to replace the faulty one and keep the system going. It’s also a good option to consider for larger tanks that could benefit from the additional power and filtering coverage. You know, just in case you can’t afford or won’t invest in a larger filtering system.
  • Keep the filter wet – If there’s a power outage and the filter stops, place it in some tank water. That’s a good way of protecting the beneficial bacteria inhabiting the filter media for several hours until the power is restored.


As hardy as African cichlids are, they still require a filter to keep their environment stable and secure. These cichlids are notorious for being rather messy, which makes the filtering system essential in the process. Make sure the filter ensures mechanical, biological, and chemical filtration to cleanse the water, remove ammonia, and keep water parameters stable.

Other than that, your African cichlids don’t ask for much, aside from a well-crafted, rock-based environment and a stable and healthy diet.

avatar Noah
I’m Noah, chief editor at VIVO Pets and the proud owner of a playful, energetic husky (Max). I’ve been a volunteer at Rex Animal Rescue for over 2 years. I love learning and writing about different animals that can be kept as pets. read more...

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