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Cichlid Condo Tower

By Aiptasia
"I had difficulty trying to find the right kind of cave structure for my 175 gallon African cichlid tank. I wanted some caves for them to hide in without adding any appreciable weight to the tank, and I had a length/width limitation due to the tank being box framed at the top (it only has three 17"Lx13"w openings at the top). This meant whatever I got would have to fit through those lid holes and still be large enough to accommodate a home for Africans. I didn't relish the idea of building a structure out of rocks or slate inside the tank because of the weight and space issues, so I decided to go with fired clay strawberry pots!
Fired unglazed clay pots are chemically inert and wont affect the water quality of any tank. Strawberry pots have multiple openings for fish to swim inside and out of. They're lightweight and come in various sizes. I managed to track down two different sized ones in just under ten minutes at a nursery near me.
The first thing I did was soak each strawberry pot in a bleach water solution (15 parts water, 1 part bleach) in 10 gallon plastic buckets overnight. Each strawberry pot had been exposed to the elements and had some dirt and gunge on them, and I didn't want any of that to hurt anything in the tank. I used a toilet brush to scrub each pot down inside and out after an hour of soaking, then let them sit overnight in the bleach water. Each came pretty clean. Then I rinsed them off with fresh tap water and allowed each one to thoroughly dry out for two days. This is important, as clay is semi-porous and you want all of the bleach neutralized. Best way to do that is to rinse it in clean water and dry them out.
Next, I went around the house and found any object I had lying around doing nothing that would fit over the 3" holes in the sides of the strawberry pot, and be small enough to fit inside the large mouth at the top. I found some old leftover PVC pipe, PVC elbows, an old chipped coffee mug and an old plastic margarine container. Each one of these items was deep enough to create a "cave" in each hole from 4" to 12" deep inside the pot. I capped off the PVC with threaded screw caps glued into place with cyanoacrylate (crazy glue) and let them dry.
Then, I got a couple of tubes of reef tank safe underwater epoxy. It's a two part putty which you knead like clay, and it cures and hardens in under an hour. Each cave item was fairly lightweight (except the coffeecup) and the epoxy starts to harden in under five minutes, so I had all of the caves securely created inside the pot in under 20 minutes. I let the epoxy harden completely overnight just to be sure.
Now, I left some of the holes alongside the front of the pot open so that there would still be a central chamber the fish could swim through along the front. At visual level inside of the tank, you can clearly see the "caves" inside the pot (ex: White PVC) from the empty holes along the front, and I decided I didn't like that look. So, I took a few small artificial plants and jammed them into the empty holes along the front, but just in the holes where the plastic and ceramic "caves" were showing through.
I think the final result looks great, and my cichlids have a great new condo tower to call home.
Pictures © John Harris

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