Here’s the scenario. You’re new to cichlids but not to fishkeeping in general. You’ve just made up your mind that you’re going to set up a cichlid tank. So you run out to your favorite LFS (local fish store) to see what species they have.
Okay. Stop right there. You’ve already made a couple of mistakes.
Let’s start from the beginning. What is the proper order for setting up your first cichlid tank? Your first decision should be to determine how large a tank you have room for, can afford, or simply what size you’re comfortable with. Many folks will disagree and tell you the first decision you should make is what cichlids you want to keep. I disagree and I’m going to explain why. The tank decision will partially determine what cichlids you can and should keep. I emphasize “partially” because not all cichlids are equal, even if they’re equal in size. More on that in a minute.
Deciding on the tank you want doesn’t require that you spend days researching aquariums. Fish tanks do come in all different sizes and even different shapes. They also will vary in material – glass, acrylic, rimmed, etc. However, there aren’t that many options out there that should require a painstakingly long decision time.
Another consideration before deciding on a tank is any limitations of your dwelling. What do you have space for? Are there any weight limitations where the tank will sit? Fresh water weighs ~10 pounds per gallon. The tank also has weight as do the substrate, rocks, filters, tank stand, lights, and other various components. The lower your budget, the less importance these other things are because, as a rule, larger tanks are more expensive. This is all assuming you intend to buy new (with the exception of weight). Larger tanks weigh more too.
Now let’s talk about fish. If your very first decision is what cichlids to keep and you’ve never kept them, you have some homework to do. And you need to do it! Don’t just grab whatever fish look good at the LFS or whatever is the cheapest. Big fish require large tanks. That 3″ cichlid at the LFS looks very nice and cute. You buy it, put it in a 30g tank, and before long you find out that 3″ fish was a juvenile and will get to “12+ fully grown. Now what?
To compound that, not all species are compatible – meaning not all species should be kept together. As much as cichlids vary in size and color, they also vary in water requirements, dietary needs, etc. You should learn about all of this first.
How do you make the right decision? Research. I don’t mean scientific research. I mean start reading about different cichlids and their habitats, start communicating with people who have kept cichlids. Talk to the more knowledgable folks at your LFS. Be careful with what you read on the Internet. There are way too many people on social media giving out advice who shouldn’t be. Cichlid groups on Facebook can be very helpful, but they’re also full of people who don’t know any more than you but want you to think they do.
Your decision on what fish to keep will also largely determine how successful and enjoyable your first foray into cichlids will be. This decision will either make your experience a pleasant one or possibly turn you off to cichlids forever. The ONLY way to reduce the odds of having a bad experience is to know what you’re buying and what the needs/requirement of the fish are. Anything else is, frankly, reckless and irresponsible.