Are Sponge Filters Good For Cichlids?


Sponge filters are the simplest, most inexpensive type of filtration in an aquarium. It has been trusted by multitudes of fish keepers since time immemorial. But is it a good Cichlid filtration setup?

Unfortunately, a sponge filter (or even several of them) is not enough to fulfill the filtration requirements of a Cichlid tank. Even if you use the biggest sponge with the most powerful powerhead, the water turnover is not enough to filter a 55-gallon tank which is the smallest recommended aquarium size for Cichlids.

Understanding how the sponge filter works will help us know why.

How Do Sponge Filters Work?

Sponge filters do a couple of important things inside an aquarium.

The roles of sponge filters are:

  • First, sponges provide mechanical filtration by removing dirt and debris in the tank from the water that passes through them. They are connected to an air pump to increase the intake of water, increasing their filtration effectivity.
  • Second, it acts as bio media. When the sponge starts building up a colony of good bacteria, they also provide biological filtration.

Sponge filters are connected to an air pump or powerhead, the capacity of which increases the intake of water into the sponge. The largest sponge filter available with a high capacity powerhead can filter a 35-gallon tank at the most. It is mostly used for 10 to 29-gallon tanks housing smaller fish like Bettas, Livebearers, Barbs, Danios, and the like.

If you need some more filter basics, we discuss a bit about mechanical, biological, and chemical filtration in our post “Do Platy Fish Need A Filter?”.

Why Are Sponge Filters Not Enough For Cichlids?

We’ve mentioned in our guide “Are Cichlids Easy To Keep? The Ultimate Beginner’s Guide” that a good Cichlid filtration setup is necessary for their survival since these fish produce a lot of waste. They’re aggressive eaters after all.

Cichlids are sensitive to toxins in the water. They won’t survive with dirty water laden with nitrates, nitrites, or worse, ammonia. The volume of water normally found in Cichlid tanks is too much for a sponge filter to handle.

Noise from the powerhead aside, it would take several huge sponges to effectively filter out a Cichlid tank. That would eat up real estate (tank space) that your Cichlid needs to swim in. In short, they’re not practical despite their being inexpensive and not the best filter for Cichlid tanks.

Are Sponge Filters Good For Cichlids-1
Are Sponge Filters Good For Cichlids?

However, sponge filters can be a good Cichlid filtration setup for fry. The sponge is safe enough for the tiny babies not to get hurt. This will suffice until they become juveniles and are able to join the main tank. We have given some important information about Cichlid fry tanks in our post “Explained: Do Cichlid Fry Need Light?” if you’re curious.

We also suggest keeping a sponge filter inside your tank to build up bacteria as a backup. This can be taken out anytime and put in a hospital/treatment, fry breeder, or isolation tank. It’s a good habit to keep for any person keeping fish as the bio media eliminates the need to start from scratch.

If you are interested in learning more about your fish behavior, check out the links below:

What Cichlid Filtration Setups Are Good?

So if not the sponge filter, the best filter for Cichlid tanks is the one that can keep up with your tank size.

A good filtration system has a turnover rate of 8 to 10 times the water volume of your tank. This is measured in gallons per hour (gph).

Your options in achieving this may include:

  • a couple of hang-on back filters
  • a canister filter (or two)
  • a wet/dry sump filtration system 
  • a combination of these filtration systems

For example, a 150-gallon African Cichlid tank can have a 1500gph canister filter. You can play around with the media and choose the ones you want. And like any other filtration system, media need to be cleaned once in a while to maintain their effectiveness.

You can have a couple of hang-on back 110 filters working your 75-gallon aquarium. This will keep the water crystal clear.

You may also want to consider a wet/dry filter similar to what reef aquarium keepers have. These can be canister-type or sump-type, the latter being more popular.

Some even add a refugium which is the same as how one would do it with a saltwater tank (but without the salt component). This is not a popular Cichlid filtration setup as it is an extra expense, but those who have it say they don’t have to do water changes as often.

Live plants are also a plus for better biological filtration. Adding a good-sized Anubias or Vallisneria can help absorb those nitrates that you would want to keep below 20ppm.

Remember that your choice of filtration system is affected by certain factors:

  • The size of your tank – which, of course, directly affects the volume of your water.

In turn, the volume of water in your tank is affected by how much decor, substrate, and rocks you have in your Cichlid tank. The more stuff you have in there, the less water you actually keep.

  • The number of Cichlids you have in the tank (stocking) – more fish means more waste, and thus, the higher the need for filtration. You will need stronger filtration for 15 Cichlids in a 55-gallon tank than you would if you only had 8 or 10.

Note that the shape of your tank also affects the number of Cichlids you can keep. Cichlids love a long tank as it can accommodate the horizontal current they prefer. But if you have a tall aquarium, that limits the amount of space a Cichlid can swim. You have a smaller middle water column which means less space for Cichlids to stay in.

  • How aggressive your fish are – these Cichlids need more tank mates to spread the aggression around. Too little stock will lead to some Cichlids becoming clearly targeted by the stronger ones. And a higher stock of fish will also need more filtration.
Are Sponge Filters Good For Cichlids?
Are Sponge Filters Good For Cichlids?

In some way, feeding will also affect how much filtration you need because new hobbyists tend to overfeed their fish. This will lead to more waste and a need for a stronger filtration system. But if you’ve normalized your fish’s feeding habits, the ratio above would always be the right one for your tank.

Can You Over-filter A Cichlid Tank?

While some say that having too much filtration is overkill, we don’t think so.

There’s no such thing as over-filtration as it is ideal to keep a higher filtration rate than your bioload. This puts a cushion in case of unforeseen circumstances where you may not be able to change your water or clean your tank.

One additional benefit of a good-sized Cichlid filtration setup is a more even temperature in the tank. The higher flow ensures that the heated water is spread out for your Cichlids to enjoy.

Final Word

With so many variables, the choice of the best filter for Cichlid tanks is ultimately up to you and your circumstance. Don’t get intimidated by the number of options out there. The important thing is that you filter the volume of water you have, and then some.

Besides, you chose Cichlids because you think they’re the best fish for you. So it won’t hurt if you give them the best filtration you can get. In return, they’ll give you the best colors they can show.

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