Best Substrate for African Cichlid Tanks 2021

Cichlids are diverse freshwater fish that have gained popularity as aquarium pets due to their energetic and amusing behaviors as well as their varied and attractive appearances. They are found in many parts of the world, from the Americas to Africa and even in some Asian regions. 

However, the African cichlids, in particular, are some of the most beautiful and diverse fish, having multiple colors and ranging in size from a few centimeters up to 90 centimeters, making for truly exquisite creatures and companions at home.

In this guide, I’ll teach your what makes a substrate ideal as well as my top pick for the best substrate for African cichlids.

TLDR – Top Pick For African Cichlid Substrate

The best substrate for African cichlids is CaribSea Ivory Coast Sand. The color looks very natural and is a great neutral background for your fish.

Carib Sea ACS00223 African Ivory Coast Sand for Aquarium, 20-Pound
Carib Sea ACS00223 African Ivory Coast Sand for Aquarium, 20-Pound

    Last update on 2021-04-17 / Commissions Earned / Images from Amazon Product Advertising API

    Understanding African Cichlid Natural Habitat

    While African cichlids can come from various great lakes or rivers/streams, most of the African cichlids available on the market come from Africa’s Rift Lakes. 

    A rift lake is formed when a valley fills with water without connecting to another water source as a river or an ocean. Lake Malawi and Lake Tanganyika -located in east Africa- are the two major rift lakes responsible for almost all of the African cichlids sold worldwide.

    The water conditions in these lakes are very particular, where it has a very high mineral content as well as a high pH level ranging from 7.7 to 9.3. That’s due to the continuous water evaporation and constant deposition of calcium and carbonate minerals over hundreds of years. All this leads to an increase in both the hardness and alkalinity of the water.

    Since then, the cichlids have adapted to these conditions and, at present, can only flourish at these specific water parameters. Although they can survive in neutral or slightly acidic water, they tend to lose their brilliant colors, become more susceptible to diseases, and unable to breed in these conditions.

    Sand vs Gravel For African Cichlids?

    When it comes to picking the substrate for your aquarium, many substrates are available for use, from sand to gravel to coral sand and crushed corals.

    For cichlids, a sand substrate is considered the best. That’s because cichlids love to dig and move the sand around, and they exhibit the same behavior in nature which serves many purposes, such as scavenging for food or making nests for laying eggs.

    The pinnacle of sands is aragonite sand. Aragonite is a crystal form of calcium carbonate found in nature. Thus, its composition leads to an inherent property of increasing the hardness and pH of water due to the calcium and carbonate ions that slowly leach out of the crystallized sand.

    How Much Substrate to Use For African Cichlids?

    As a common rule, use 1-2 pounds of substrate for every gallon of water. Therefore, if you have a 10-gallon water tank, you need from 10 to 20 pounds to cover your tank’s floor completely and achieve a sufficient depth of 1 to 2 inches. This depth allows your pet fish to dig, burrow and scavenge its heart’s content.

    Reviews Of The Best Substrates For African Cichlids

    1. Carib Sea African Ivory Coast Sand (Top Pick)

    The Carib Sea African Ivory Coast Sand is an excellent pick as a cichlid substrate. It has a very natural color that serves to hide any wastes or undesirable algae.

    It keeps the water crystal clear once allowed to settle. Just make sure to rinse it properly before laying it out in your tank, and once placed, wait for 24 hours for maximum clarity.

    It contains natural buffers for the tank’s water, making for conditions similar to those in Africa’s great rift lakes. Since it conditions water naturally, there’s absolutely no need to use special chemical buffers.

    Pros

    • Innate buffers and conditioners
    • Natural-looking sand
    • Keeps water crystal clear

    Cons

    • Contains some black grains that may dissatisfy some fish owners
    Carib Sea ACS00223 African Ivory Coast Sand for Aquarium, 20-Pound
    Carib Sea ACS00223 African Ivory Coast Sand for Aquarium, 20-Pound

      Last update on 2021-04-17 / Commissions Earned / Images from Amazon Product Advertising API

      2. CaribSea Aquatics Eco-Complete African Cichlid Black Sand 20-Pound

      If you have colorful fish that would look best against a black backdrop, then the CaribSea Aquatics Eco-Complete African Cichlids Black Sand is the right choice for you. Even though it’s more like fine gravel than outright sand, it still does all it needs to do and looks great. 

      It maintains the pH required by African cichlids and resists its drop through the continuous addition of minerals. It also has a high internal porosity that maximizes your tank’s biological capacity, i.e., increasing the surface area available for the growth of beneficial bacteria responsible for removing the nitrogenous wastes and toxins produced in the water.

      It also contains its own live, water purifying bacteria that makes cycling a new aquarium faster and safer as these bacteria detox the tank’s water.

      The instructions say that no rinsing is needed, but many users have found that washing the sand produces much better and quicker results with clearer and cleaner water. 

      Pros

      • Black color makes vibrant fish pop
      • Maintains cichlid-required parameters
      • Increases biological capacity
      • Water purifying bacteria

      Cons

      • Not quite sand
      • May contain some white specks
      CaribSea Aquatics Eco-Complete African Cichlid Zack Sand, 20-Pound, Black
      CaribSea Aquatics Eco-Complete African Cichlid Zack Sand, 20-Pound, Black

        Last update on 2021-04-17 / Commissions Earned / Images from Amazon Product Advertising API

        3. Nature’s Oceans African Cichlid Substrate 20 LB

        Nature’s Oceans African Cichlid Substrate is a mix of black and white grains that are 6-8 mm in size. It’s a completely natural product surrounded by a biofilm containing live bacteria that start the cycling process and remove nitrogenous wastes to give you a stable tank.

        In addition to its buffering capacity, it’s also capable of preventing biofouling, i.e., the undesirable growth of algae and unwanted microorganisms in the aquarium. 

        Also, it contains live heterotrophic and autotrophic bacteria to provide a proper organic/inorganic balance where the heterotrophs break down the organic waste material resulting in inorganic ammonia, which is further broken down by the autotrophs into the less toxic nitrite followed by nitrate.

        It also increases the surface area available for the colonization of extrinsic nitrifying bacteria, further helping with the water’s filtering process in your aquarium.

        Pros

        • Prevents bio-fouling
        • Removes nitrogenous wastes
        • Helps with water filtration

        Cons

        • Causes cloudiness if not rinsed
        Nature's Oceans African Cichlid, Bio-Activ Live Rift Lake Substrate Live Cichlid, Live Aquarium Substrate for African Cichlids 20 LB.
        Nature's Oceans African Cichlid, Bio-Activ Live Rift Lake Substrate Live Cichlid, Live Aquarium Substrate for African Cichlids 20 LB.

          Last update on 2021-04-17 / Commissions Earned / Images from Amazon Product Advertising API

          4. Carib Sea Aragonite Reef Sand for Aquarium 15-Pound

          The Carib Sea Aragonite Reef sand has a unique reddish color that looks like crushed corals. It’s coarser than normal sand but still smaller than gravel with a grain size of 10 to 20 mm. 

          The grain size is small enough to look like sand but big enough so that it stays put without floating around. It also allows it to be used with under-gravel tank filters, as the substrate particles aren’t small enough to clog the filter slits and impede the flow of water.

          When used with African cichlids, cloudiness persists until the tank cycles due to the high rates of calcium carbonate dissolution needed for achieving the alkaline pH.

          Pros

          • Unique color like that of corals
          • Compatible with under-gravel filters
          • Produces alkaline pH

          Cons

          • Very dusty and requires a thorough wash to avoid murky water
          • Inconsistent grain size between different bags
          Carib Sea ACS00020 Aragonite Reef Sand for Aquarium, 15-Pound
          Carib Sea ACS00020 Aragonite Reef Sand for Aquarium, 15-Pound

            Last update on 2021-04-17 / Commissions Earned / Images from Amazon Product Advertising API

            5. AquaNatural Coarse Aragonite 20lb

            For an extremely bright white sand, the AquaNatural Coarse Aragonite Sand is the obvious choice. It’s coarser sand made of pure aragonite collected from the Bahamian oceans, unlike other brands that use land-mined aragonite. It contains no harmful tar, organics, or impurities.

            This sand has an unsurpassed buffering capability and helps keep a stable pH balance of 8.2 without the continuous addition of chemicals as it’s 98% pure calcium carbonate with little to no impurities.

            The AquaNatrual Aragonite is phosphate-free. High phosphate levels in the tank lead to the flourishing of algae, which in turn consume more oxygen, leaving your fish with less. Normally, underwater plants are responsible for reducing phosphate levels by utilizing and storing phosphate. However, planted tanks don’t go hand in hand with cichlids as they dig them up and eat them.

            Nonetheless, phosphate levels in cichlid tanks can be controlled by using a phosphate-free substrate and vacuuming it regularly to remove the organic fish/food wastes that raise the water phosphate levels.

            Pros

            • No impurities
            • Phosphate-free
            • Superior buffering capability

            Cons

            • Shows wastes and algae growth clearly due to its white color
            AquaNatural Coarse Aragonite 20lb for Reef, Saltwater and Marine Aquariums, Sand
            AquaNatural Coarse Aragonite 20lb for Reef, Saltwater and Marine Aquariums, Sand

              Last update on 2021-04-17 / Commissions Earned / Images from Amazon Product Advertising API

              Choosing Your African Cichlid Substrate

              Many substrates are available for use with African cichlids. The secret is finding out which type you prefer and believe will make the most of your fish’s colors and looks. 

              Personally, I’d go with the CaribSea Ivory Coast Sand. The color looks very natural and is a great neutral background for your fish. The color will help hide fish waste that settles on the surface, unlike white sand that makes every speck of poop stand out.

              Remember to place at least a pound per gallon of water and monitor your water parameters very carefully to ensure your fish’s good health and long life.

              Carib Sea ACS00223 African Ivory Coast Sand for Aquarium, 20-Pound
              Carib Sea ACS00223 African Ivory Coast Sand for Aquarium, 20-Pound

                Last update on 2021-04-17 / Commissions Earned / Images from Amazon Product Advertising API

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                Christopher Adams
                Hey there, my name is Christopher and I'm the creator and editor of this site. I've owned successful aquariums for the past 23 years. My mission is to educate, inform, and entertain on everything that's fish.

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