Before we get into the fine details of cichlid salts and other additives, it’s important to establish a basic understanding of a few terms.
Water Chemistry Lingo
What is the PH of aquarium water?
The pH of water is a measurement of how acidic or basic the water is;
A pH of 7.0 is neutral
Below 7.0 is acidic
Above 7.0 is basic (alkali).
The scale is a logarithmic one, which means that a loss of 1 unit of pH is a 10-fold increase in H+ ions. So a pH of 5.0 is ten times more acidic than 6.0, while 9.0 is ten times more alkaline than 8.0.
Freshwater fish almost always live between a pH of 5 and 9, and their preferred pH is determined by their environment. Some fish are quite tolerant of non-ideal conditions; other like Discus are quite sensitive and will be more prone to infections and diseases if kept far from their optimal pH.
What is water hardness?
Water hardness refers to the amount of mineral salts dissolved in the water – they’re what leave behind scale in your shower.
These salts come in a variety of forms the most common of which are calcium carbonate (CaCO3, magnesium hydroxide (Mg(OH)2), and calcium sulfate (CaSO4), along with a number of others which are normally found in trace amounts.
There are two main ways to measure water hardness: the general hardness (GH) is an indication of the total amount of dissolved salts in your water sample, which the carbonate hardness (KH) refers specifically to the amount of carbonate salts present. By definition KH is less than or equal to the GH.
In general, a GH of 0-4 is considered soft, 4-7 is moderate, 7-10 is hard water, and >10 is very hard water.
It’s critically important to recognize that the harder your water, the more resistant it is to a change in pH. Small additions of acid will affect a tank with soft water far more than they would a tank with hard water, which is naturally buffered by the carbonate salts present.
These carbonate salts can also lead to what’s referred to as a “pH bounce” where you see an initial drop in pH followed by a gradual rise. This is EXTREMELY stressful to fish.
In any fish store there are rows of different pH up and down solutions. Frankly, I don’t recommend them unless you are a very experienced aquarist (and chemist) and know exactly what you’re doing. With a few notable exceptions, most fish will thrive more in a pH which is suboptimal than one that has frequent changes.
Acid/base should never be added directly to the tank. If you must add it, add it first in an external container like a bucket before you do a water change, and be sure to give it time to equilibrate. Then add that water slowly to your tank to refill it, stopping immediately if there are any signs of distress.
One way to drop your pH naturally, particularly if you already have soft water, is through the addition of multiple pieces of wood – whether driftwood or the specialized heavier than water kind. Over time, these will release tannins into the water which will often make the water slightly tea-colored, and these are acidic in nature.
It is far easier to make water harder and increase the KH/GH than it is to make water softer. To make water softer, you need to have specialized equipment like reverse osmosis apparatus to remove the salts from the water supply.
There are multiple ways to make the water harder. Using limestone in the tank or utilizing a crushed coral substrate will both increase water hardness.
But also there are cichlid salts…
Do I need to use cichlid salts
This is a common question, and the answer is… yes if you would like to alter the water hardness to match the ideal parameters but it’s often not necessary.
Cichlid salts are designed to dissolve readily in water – not all mineral salts do. If your municipal water is soft to moderate, you should consider these a wise purchase for an African cichlid tank.
They are considerably less vital if you already have hard, alkaline water, though they may encourage some Africans to breed more readily or show slightly better coloration.
There are several varieties of cichlid salts on the market. Cichlid salts contain mixtures of calcium, potassium, magnesium, and sodium salts intended to mimic the mix of salts in the Rift Lakes. They also contain trace elements including iron, aluminum, and iodide.
Each brand is likely to be subtly different, but all of them are equally effective.
How to add cichlid salts
So you’ve decided to start adding Cichlid Salts to your tank to mimic the ideal conditions for African cichlids. Cool. Now what?
First off, don’t add the salts directly to the tank; this will create a gradient in the water as they dissolve.
That is, water closest to the dissolving salt will have much higher concentrations than further away. While this shouldn’t be harmful to your cichlids, why take a chance? Instead, pre-dissolve the salts to be added in a bucket and add it slowly to the tank.
Following the directions on the bottle, add enough to get the desired water hardness in your tank (you’ll also need a test kit for this).
When doing water changes, add enough salts to maintain a constant concentration and water hardness. Because the salts won’t go anywhere as water evaporates, make sure not to add salts to water replacing evaporation.
As water hardness increases, the pH of the water will also naturally increase (from the carbonate salts present). If you’re adding a significant amount of Cichlid Salts to your tank, you probably don’t need to add extra base on top of that to achieve similar alkalinity to the rift lakes.
Is Cichlid Salt Necessary?
While most people greatly prefer yes or no answers to questions like this, the reality is a murkier “it depends”. If your tap water is already hard and alkaline, you likely don’t need it.
But if your water parameters fall significantly short of the preferred hardness and alkalinity for keeping African (and some Central American) Cichlids, then adding Cichlid Salts is an easy and inexpensive way to optimize your water for these beauties.