Before you bring your cichlids home, you need to properly set-up your tank and have it up and running for a few days in order to establish a healthy environment for the fish. Everything from the gravel to the pH level of the water needs to be ready in order to make the acclimation process for the fishless stressful.
When choosing what substrate to use in your cichlid tank, either gravel or sand will work. Regardless of what you choose make sure to rinse it thoroughly outside in a bucket before adding it to the tank, otherwise, it will cause cloudiness. To save money and to have a more natural look to your tank you can get playground sand or pea gravel from a hardware store for a fraction of the price at a pet store, but again it must be washed thoroughly to move small particulates. Whichever substrate you choose, there should be around two inches of substrate across the bottom of the tank. Cichlids like to rearrange the tank so allow enough depth for them to dig holes without exposing the glass bottom.
Cichlids are from tropical climates and thus require warm water temperature. The exact temperature varies on species, but generally somewhere between 76 degrees and 82 degrees. Purchase a submersible heater designed for the size of your tank and set the thermostat for the specific temperature desired for the cichlids. Also, make sure to have a good thermometer mounted in the tank so that you can easily monitor the temperature within the tank at any time.
There are several styles of aquarium filters to choose from, with the most common styles being internal filters, hanging filters, and canister filters. All of these work fine in cichlid tanks, so it comes down to personal preference and what you will be able to clean and maintain. Internal filters (such as the Penn Plax Cascade 600 Internal Filter for Aquariums) are kept fully within the aquarium and circulate the clean water within the tank. Hanging filters (such as the Marineland Penguin Power Filter, 50 to 70-Gallon, 350 GPH) have a suction tube that goes into the tank and filters the water while hanging over the back of the tank. Canister filters (such as the Penn Plax Cascade 700 GPH Canister Filter) pipe the water to a location underneath or next to the tank and filters the water then routes it back into the tank. Similar to the heater, purchase a filter built for the size of your tank to ensure appropriate filtration.
Purchase a lighting set-up that will provide your cichlids with the UV rays needed for proper health and growth. As for the length of time to keep the tank lit, 10 to 12 hours is the best amount of balance light for the fish. The lighting is generally contained within the aquarium hood and is made for the specific size of the tank that you have.
Decor serves more of a purpose than just making your tank look nice. Being that cichlids are naturally aggressive and territorial fish, they will challenge one another for control of parts of the tank so it is important for all cichlids to have plenty of hiding places to choose from to claim as their own. If you are looking to recreate the natural environment of cichlids then you may choose to build large cave structures out of rocks to give them hiding places. If you choose to do this make sure that the rocks are stable and won’t fall over and possibly crush the fish. If you are looking for other decor items, you can choose from a large selection at your local pet store or even use clay pots or PVC pipes to create many different hiding places for the cichlids. Artificial (and even some live) plants are a great aesthetic addition to your tank as well, but above all else, you must create several hiding places per fish in order to provide them protection from one another and to also reduce stress.
Now that you have everything that you will need, go ahead and fill your tank with the washed substrate, add decor, fill with water (and add dechlorinator), and plug-in and set your filter and heater. Let your set-up run for a few days to make sure that everything is functioning properly and then you will be ready to add your cichlids!