African cichlids are a popular species to keep, providing an active and colorful aquarium to their owners. Beginners are presented with challenges with these fish, as their environmental requirements are more specific than those of other freshwater fish.
Let’s take a look at how the perfect substrate for African cichlids will improve your pet’s living space, followed by a closer look at these potential products:
- Nature’s Ocean No.0 Bio-Activ Live Aragonite Live Sand
- CaribSea Aquatics Eco-Complete African Cichlid Sand
- Stoney River White Aquatic Sand
- Nature’s Ocean Aragonite Gravel
- Carib Sea Aragonite Reef Sand
Substrate Needs For African Cichlids
African cichlids present hobbyists with both opportunities as well as with challenges. Your tank’s substrate can be critical in providing a healthy and natural environment for your fish live in. Substrate decisions will, therefore, be more important than it would be with other non-saltwater species.
It All Starts With Water Chemistry
Water conditions are far more important when keeping African cichlids than they are with other freshwater species. This is due to the higher Ph and water hardness levels found in the Rift lakes that these species are from in Central Africa.
What is water hardness? This is a term used to describe the levels of mineral salts that can be found in the water. GH is used to describe the total level of salts dissolved in the water, while KH is used to describe the levels of carbonate slats found in the water.
African cichlids require GH levels of 12 – 20 (very high) and KH levels of 10 – 18 (fairly high). These numbers help to measure the parts per million (ppm) and are described in more detail on Duke university’s website.
What is PH? This is a scale that runs from 1 – 14 and provides the level of acidity or alkalinity in your tank’s water column. Numbers below 7.0 are considered acidic and numbers above 7.0 are considered alkaline. A measurement of 7.0 indicates that the water is neutral.
A table listing water parameters for a variety of fresh and saltwater fish (including African cichlids) is found on veterinarian affiliated PetCoach. They recommend PH levels ranging from 7.8 to 8.5. More exacting numbers can be offered depending upon the lake that a particular species hails from:
- Lake Malawi — 7.4-8.4
- Lake Tanganyika — 7.8-9.0
- Lake Victoria — 7.2-8.6
Using Proper Substrate for Buffering
Most water supplies in North America will not provide the proper water chemistry needed for your African cichlids, requiring you to add buffers or cichlid salts to maintain a proper level of hardness and PH. Maintaining these levels can be difficult for beginners and may become costly as well. Constant testing is required in order to prevent potentially fatal adjustments.
This is where a substrate suitable for African cichlid aquariums can help. There are substrates available that will naturally buffer the water column, helping a novice keep the water conditions favorable for their fish. These will come in the form of sands or ground-up aragonite and crushed corals.
Astute readers will note that many substrates that are suitable for marine aquariums will also provide adequate floor covering for an African cichlid tank.
Other Substrate Considerations
Substrate size is an important consideration. Your African cichlids will love to dig into the tank’s floor. Medium or small-grained gravels and sands offer these fish an opportunity to stay active and stimulated. It also mimics their natural habitat more closely than larger products can.
Remember that finer sands will compact over time. The advantage is that fish wastes will remain on the substrate’s surface. The disadvantage comes when these materials work their way into the substrate and decompose. This could create “dead spots” of anaerobic gas that must be released by disturbing the substrate.
Substrate texture should be smooth in order to prevent damage to your African cichlid’s gills, lips, and scales. Digging and filtering will keep your fish in constant contact with the substrate materials so it is critical to avoid materials that are coarse or have edges.
African cichlids can be highly aggressive, depending upon the species. They will require caves or spaces to hide in. A proper substrate depth around these objects is needed to keep them secure.
You may also need to smooth out areas where they have dug to the bottom of the tank. A trick that experienced fish keepers use is to slope the substrate from a higher elevation along the back to a lower elevation towards the front. This allows gravity and water currents to push wastes towards the front of the tank.
Cleaning cichlid substrate can be more challenging, especially when finer gravels or sands are used. Care must be used when vacuuming the bottom of the aquarium, as demonstrated in this video. This is also a perfect time to rake the substrate with your fingers, helping to eliminate dead spots along the tank bottom.
Substrate for African Cichlids
Carib Sea Aragonite Reef Sand
Aragonite sand with a variety that adds a natural look.
The larger average grain size of this sand makes it function and look more like a gravel. This keeps dead spots to a minimum and provides the water flow needed for under gravel filters.
This material promotes elevated PH levels, offering quick and stable water buffering that African cichlids will require. The muted colors are natural in appearance, features that allow cichlid colors to stand-out without being washed away.
This product with prove valuable to those recreating a natural looking reef and will be easier to clean than finer sands usually are.
- This sand is 100-percent aragonite
- A good selection for African cichlid tanks using under gravel filtration
- A variety of shapes and hues provide a natural look
- The reef sand grains may have sharper edges than other products
- Larger grain sizes limit activity for smaller cichlids that dig
Nature’s Ocean No.0 Bio-Activ Live Aragonite Live Sand
A fine sand substrate that provides higher PH buffering levels.
The grains in this sand measure 0.1 – 0.5 mm, providing African cichlids with a tank bottom that they can easily interact with while digging, caving, or filtering through. These granules are relatively smooth, a feature that should prevent damage to the fish’s gills and lips.
While it is brighter than some products, the off-white sand offers a more natural look than materials that are dyed. This sand should settle nicely and help to maintain positions of decorations that require a sturdy anchor.
It is sold in 10-pound bags but can be purchased in multi-packs numbered up to four.
- This substrate creates great buffering levels
- It aids in breaking down ammonia, nitrate, and nitrite
- Sand grain size promotes digging and filtering
- The white sand color can wash out the bright cichlid colors
- It is only available in a 10-pound bag.
CaribSea Aquatics Eco-Complete African Cichlid Sand
A larger grained sand that is packaged with good bacterias inside.
This sand product contains larger grains that can range between 4.0 and 10.0 mm in size, providing water access across the entire surface of the substrate materials. This feature provides ample surface for good bacterias to colonize.
The buffering components should prevent PH drops often seen after partial water changes.
Its “zach” (black) color will help enhance the natural colors of African cichlid species. The 20-pound bag size suits larger tanks required for housing cichlids.
- Each grain has a porous surface that provides additional surface for bacteria
- It is highly durable and should not break down
- Packed with good bacterias inside of the bag
- The grain size is rather large for a sand
- It is packaged in a liquid that can be messy when opening
Stoney River White Aquatic Sand
A silica substrate that provides a smooth texture on contact.
This aquatic sand has been coated, a feature that keeps it from buffering but does prevent it from affecting the water column in other ways. While there are no grain sizes provided by the company, this product line represents the finest size they offer. It should provide a good material for African cichlids to dig into without damaging their body with sharp edges.
A more uniform grain size will promote compacting, which can prevent debris and wastes from lodging under the substrate surface.
Minimal rinsing should be needed, making this product easier to use during tank set-up.
- The grain surface is smooth without sharp edges
- Its grain size is more consistent than other materials
- This product should not cloud the fish tank
- It is PH neutral and will not provide water buffering
- A sealant clogs pores and eliminates extra surface access for bacteria
Nature’s Ocean Aragonite Gravel
An aragonite gravel that increases carbonate hardness in the aquarium.
This gravel provides an alternative to finer sand products while still offering water buffering to maintain PH and increased hardness levels.
Many of the individual grains in each bag of gravel will measure over 10 mm in size. This may limit active digging with some African cichlid species but will offer space throughout the substrate for greater water flow.
The material is not uniform in shape, a feature that provides a more natural look to the aquarium bottom. It should still offer adequate anchoring of decorations and housing in the tank.
- A gravel alternative that provides buffering and increased water hardness
- The space between grains should limit dead spots along the tank bottom
- Collected from a natural marine setting
- Larger gravel grains may limit cichlid interaction with the substrate
- Its white color is bright and can wash out fish color during viewing
Our Top Selection
While all of the substrates we reviewed offer benefits for African cichlid care, the Carib Sea Aragonite Reef Sand stands-out.
- 100% aragonite sand supports stable ph
- For use in marine aquariums and hard water freshwater aquariums
- grain size reduces built up detritus
- re-create natural reef environment
- made in the USA
Simply put, this is a user-friendly substrate that may prove ideal for a beginner’s first African cichlid tank. The 100-percent natural composition prevents users from placing unknown elements into their tank water.
It is the buffering feature that stands-out for this substrate. Aragonite helps to maintain the PH and hardness levels that are required by these fish. This can greatly reduce or even eliminate the need for fish keepers to add chemical buffers or cichlid salts.
The variety of grain sizes tend to lean towards the larger side, but this should not be an issue except for smaller fish that are active diggers. Rough edges can be found on some grains, the majority are smooth enough to be considered safe. The larger size makes tank maintenance easier for those new to the hobby as well.
Finally, the variety of color and shapes help to provide a natural looking tank floor that colorful African cichlids will stand-out from!