Setting up a 3 meter long Malawi Cichlid Tank

by Nikos Tsitouras

Nikos is very serious when it comes to his Malawi cichlids and this is reflected by a series of tanks ranging from 50 to 500 liters (two of the latter to be more precise). However, his ambition and dream was to build a really huge tank for his beloved cichlids which would house only Malawi haps (it should be noted that he only keeps haps in all his tanks). His dream came true last November with the delivery of a 300 x 65 x 70 cm tank which is the envy of the rest of us. The impressive volume of this tank (1.365 liter / 360 gals) but most of all its extremely long dimension ensures that his cichlids will be amongst the best kept in this part of the sea.

The first thing is the stand which is a metal stand using stainless steel bars with a cross section of 4x4 cm (or 4x8 cm for the base). The stand was painted black to protect it even more and enhance the overall look of the tank / stand combination since a furniture for this tank is still a future plan. Getting this 3 meter long stand in the house was not very easy but it was nothing compared to the experience of getting the 3 meter long tank in it.

Once the paint dried, these special pads were attached at the bottom of the base. You have to select the right size which will cover the whole width of the base bars but not exceed it. The task of the addition of those pads is twofold. First, it will compensate for any irregularities of the floor and offer some sort of better balance of the weight. The second reason is the it will allow some space between the base and the floor which - in the unlucky event of a water overflow - will allow the water to evaporate instead of trapping it between the base and the floor.

You can see the pads in place. It takes a lot of them for a stand this size.

Next comes the famous "roofmate" which is actually styrofoam plates. For this tank size you need many of them. In the photo above you can see the layer between the base and the tank itself. This material is hard enough not to collapse under the 2 tons of the tank but also somewhat flexible to allow some differences in the level. In combination with the pads under the base, it offers the best solution for floors showing small irregularities or minor level differences. The thickness of the plates is 2 cm and they come in 120 x 60 cm "plates".

Going by the book... Styrofoam is placed in all the spots on which large rocks will be placed. The next step is to add the rock which will also keep the Styrofoam from floating. After this, sand will be added so the rock base (and the Styrofoam of course) will be hidden completely. Mind you, the tank was not built in situ but was transferred assembled and ready to be used. Of course, getting it in the house demanded the help of many people (8 of them) since the tank alone weighted more than 350 Kg. Apart from that, a section of the metal fence outside Nikos' house had to be cut to allow the tank to enter his home.

In this photo you can see the first rocks in place. If you take the size of the tank into account, you can easily estimate the size and weight of those rocks. Some of them required the assistance of two more persons to be carried into the tank. Sand was added before the tank was filled with water. For this kind of tank it takes more than 110 Kg of sand to create a medium depth sand bed.

With the addition of the background poster and the water, the tank changes dramatically. In this photo you can see the half-finished aquascape and the first (really happy) inhabitants. The tank may look a bit understocked right now but things come to their true perspective when you take into account that all of the fish you see in this photo are less than half their final adult size. Thus, the empty space will be really useful to them when they grow larger. Haps in general are very good swimmers and it is evident that a 35 cm fish can't live in anything less than this tank. Water volume may be of less importance than the length of the tank - something underestimated by many hobbyists. It is true that they will survive in much smaller (or shorter)  tanks but the word Nikos has in mind is "thrive". With this kind of tanks, aquascape is quite different than with "normal" sized ones. First, the aquascape is never completed. There is always something that needs to be added, moved or even removed as the fish grow and aggression builds up. Second, you can't go for detail. In small tanks, especially some planted ones, aquascape is a real art. Every detail is taken into account, perspective is of paramount importance while details like "where to add a piece of bogwood" are very important. Third, comes "quantity". In this kind of tankbuster, everything is bigger. When you decide to go for sand, you are talking about hundreds of kilos. If you decide to add some bogwood, you will have to choose the largest pieces you can find and still they may look inadequately small or out of proportion. Thus, small, delicate constructions are not present. Even hiding places can't be created by small openings. The fish that may have to use it can be over 20 cm long so they need really large openings. Open spaces are also of primary concern. Five Fossorochromis rostratus need a lot of space. They need it to swim, shift the sand or even form their spawning pits (which are extremely large). In this case, a rock placed somewhere while the fish are still young may have to be removed when they grow up. In the photo above you can see some Ceratophyllum demersum (hornwort) which was added to remove any excess in nitrates during the initial period after cycling.

Some of the beauties in the tank. Placidochromis phenochilus males with their harem.

An Exochochromis anagenys in Nikos' tank. This is one of the species he had been looking for since he got the idea of this "tankbuster".

A simple, yet effective aquascape is all it takes to have happy fish. The large rocks and the open sand areas are a must for anybody keeping haps. The rocks may not be needed as part of their natural biotope (at least for some of them) but they serve the equally important task of providing weak fish, harassed females or subdominant males a place to hide.

Technical data:

Two external canister filters EHEIM 2260. Total turnover 3.000 l/h, total filtration media volume: 36 liter. One of them contains primarily biological filter media while the other takes care of the mechanical removal of debris and particles.

Heating: 4 x 300 W heaters by Rena

Lighting: 4 x 58 Watt white fluorescent tubes with self made reflectors. A couple of 36 Watt actinic blues will be added later.

Temperature: 26oC


Background poster with rocks

Sand: about 110 Kg (220 pounds).

Rocks: About 150 Kg while some pieces weight as much as 35 Kg (70 pounds).

Plants: some Vallisneria to provide an even more natural biotope to D. compressiceps, which will be added later (see below).

The inhabitants are as follows:

Copadichromis borleyi "Kadango"; 1 male / 5 females (from Laif Demason, USA)

Placidochromis phenochilus, 2 males / 4 females (from Laif Demason, USA)

Fossorochromis rostratus, 1 male / 4 females (from Laif Demason, USA)

Exochochromis anagenys, 1 male / 2 females

Lichnochromis acuticeps, 2 males / 3 females (from Vichy, AFC 2004)

Protomelas spilonotus, 1 male / 2 females

Cyrtocara moori, 1 male / 1 female (adults raised by Nikos; added recently)

With the exception of the Dimidiochomis compressiceps which is now a pair of adults (both taken from Francesco during my first visit in his home) all the rest are juveniles which will be raised together to avoid as much aggression as possible. The D. compressiceps will be added in this tank only after the rest of the fish have gained some size. There is still room for 1-2 additional species but Nikos prefers to use it when the time comes. Another point has to do with the fish already swimming in the tank. For the time being they coexist peacefully but Nikos is keeping an eye on them and he may "thin" the population if aggression escalates as they grow up. He has been keeping haps for years and he knows that 30 fish are too many - even for a huge tank like this.

Maintanance schedule :

A 40% water change is carried out every two weeks. This volume will be increased substantially during summer.

New photos : August 2005. This is how the tank looks like. The cichlids in it have shown a remarkable growth since the first photos were taken. You can click on the bottom photo to see the high resolution picture. Photos by G.J.Reclos /MCH

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