Basic Turtle Tank Setup

Turtle Tank SetupFortunately, an aquatic turtle tank setup can be very simple, so long as some basic elements are met.

Whether you are keeping your turtles in aquaria, or in a large tub or pool, the considerations are generally the same. Nevertheless, basic turtle tank setup is where most people go terribly wrong.

Here we guide you through the process of setting up your own, and give you some turtle tank ideas along the way.

Key Elements of a Turtle Tank Setup

Key elements of a basic turtle tank setup.Before we get into the various aspects of creating a turtle habitat, let’s take a look at the key elements of any turtle tank or turtle aquarium. As depicted in the figure to the right, virtually all commonly available aquatic turtle species will need:

  • an aquarium or plastic tub or tank;
  • a large water area for swimming and feeding;
  • a land/basking area;
  • a heat lamp and/or UVB lamp;
  • an internal or external filter;
  • a cover of some type.

Now let’s look at each of these elements in more detail.

How to Setup a Turtle Tank

How to setup a turtle tank.

1) Turtle Tank Size

The turtle tub is designed specifically for aquatic turtles.

The Turtle Tub Kit comes with everything you need.

The first thing that must be considered in any turtle tank setup is the size of the tank or tub. A good conservative rule of thumb is to give your turtle 10 gallons of water for each inch of carapace length; so for a 4-inch turtle this would require a tank that can hold at least 40 gallons of water. This may seem like a lot but is really quite modest for these active animals. While smaller tanks can be used for temporary quarters, a 40 gallon tank is generally the smallest I would generally advise to keep any turtle in, even for hatchling turtles. If you are housing more than one turtle, take the largest, apply the 1 inch = 10 gallons rule, and then on top of that add 10-20 gallons for each additional turtle, depending on size. Now I realize that many people will simply not provide this much room no matter what I say. But please do try to come as close as possible. It will make maintenance easier and result in a much happier, healthier pet.

It’s also best to try and buy a tank that will be large enough for the turtle to grow into, rather than having to continually step-up your tanks. Turtles grow very fast and you’ll be surprised how quickly you will need larger quarters. Most common aquatic turtles, such as painted turtles and red-eared sliders, can get to around 10 inches in length. Ideally, this would require a tank of at least 100 gallons in size for one adult turtle.

All of these guidelines necessarily assume the tank, tub or pool has a relatively large floor area. Tall or narrow tanks, like hexagon aquariums, have too little floor space even though they may hold enough water. So a 40 gallon standard or long tank is far better than a 40 gallon tall or hex tank, just as a larger, shallower pond liner provides more room than a smaller but deeper one.  Most aquatic turtles don’t need very deep water, but the water should be at least as deep as the length of the turtle’s carapace. A greater depth than this is of course fine, and the greater the volume of water in the tank, the more dilute the turtle’s waste products will be – which is a very good thing.

2) Turtle Tank Types – Aquarium or Plastic Tub/Pool?

Given their cost-effectiveness, many opt for plastic tanks to use with their turtle tank setup.

This 50-gallon stock tank makes a great turtle tank.

Turtle tanks can be made out of any sufficiently large glass or acrylic aquarium. These are nice because they allow for side viewing in the water environment. However, they are typically expensive and, in the case of glass, heavy and fragile. As such, many aquatic turtle enthusiasts use large plastic turtle tanks, like stock tanks or sturdy kids’ pools. While these don’t give you great side-views, they are typically much less expensive for their capacity, and have a larger floor area and hence more usable space for your turtles. For large turtles or pairs of adults, this often the only feasible option.

3) Creating a Land /Basking Area

A basking platform is a key item in any turtle tank setup.

This OASIS Turtle Ramp is excellent for glass tanks.

All aquatic turtle tank setups should have at least one land area, which should comprise at least 25% of the total floor area. These “islands” allow the turtle to exit the water and are especially important for basking. Most common aquatic turtles, such as red-eared sliders, painted turtles, river cooters, map turtles, etc., are sun worshipers. The sun helps them to thermoregulate and elevate their body temperatures, which is critical for food digestion and other metabolic processes; and it also gives them precious ultraviolet “B” (“UV-B”) light, which facilitates the synthesis of vitamin D3 and uptake of calcium needed for strong bones and shell. Basking is vital to these species and they will spend most of their day in the wild on rocks, logs and in sunny exposures around the shoreline trying to get as much sun as possible. Other species that are much more aquatic and do not sun bathe typically, such as mud/musk turtles and snapping turtles, still need a land area with UVB lighting even if it is rarely used.

Land areas can be created with rocks, bricks and or aquarium-safe drift wood. Turtles are not great climbers, so make sure to use certain rocks or other items strategically to create a natural ramp up to the land areas created. Alternatively, you can buy a ready-made turtle basking platform. These are often easier to use in smaller aquaria where a large volume of rocks or bricks would add too much weight and/or displace too much water. They also have the advantage of not collecting uneaten food and feces, which can easily get lost amidst rocks or other DIY basking area sites.

4) Installing a Heat Lamp & UV Lamp

A combo heat/UV-B fixture helps make turtle tank setup easy.

A combination UVB & Heat Lamp is a great idea.

As discussed, common sun-bathing turtle species bask to obtain heat and also UVB light. If you are keeping your turtles outdoors in full sun, you can skip this section, but if you are keeping turtles indoors, you will need to purchase a clip-on heat lamp or ceramic heater and provide a UVB light source. Alternatively, you can buy a combination UVB/heat lamp that delivers both. Make sure that the lamp(s) are focused on one side of the land area, so that a temperature gradient is created. Also, take care to not to shine the light through glass, since glass will filter the UVB. This is the reason why direct light coming from your window cannot provide UVB to your turtle. The temperature directly under the light (the hottest spot in the tank) should be around 90-100F, with temperatures dropping to 85F or lower away from the heat source. Turtles will seek higher or lower daytime temperatures for a variety of reasons, so giving them this gradient allows them to position their bodies accordingly. Ensure that your lamp is securely fastened to the tank to avoid dangerous accidents.

5) Turtle Tank Filters

This is where so many people go wrong. Turtles are not like tropical fish; turtles produce much more waste and are far messier eaters. In fact, aquatic turtles generate so much tank “gunk” that I can assure you that the first thing likely to offend you about your turtle tank is the smell. If not properly filtered and maintained, the smell can make your face pucker. Moreover, poor water quality is often the leading cause of eye and other bacterial infections that can be hard to cure. Unless you keep your turtles in very large pools and/or perform daily water changes, you will need some sort of water filtration system to maintain water quality. Believe me, it can spell the difference between a happy, healthy turtle – and a rank, disgusting enclosure that neither you or the turtle will enjoy. For more detailed information on this subject, check out our article: All About Turtle Tank Filters.

Canister filters are superior for handling the high volume of waste in turtle tanks.

We love the EHEIM Classic.

Typical hang-on-back filters and sponge or internal submersible filters are useful for only very small hatchling turtles. Any turtle over a few inches in length will need a more powerful filter. The most important quality of a good turtle tank filter is that it provides very good bio-filtration, since this is the only kind that can neutralize waste materials. The part of a filter that provides bio-filtration is the section that uses a foam and/or ceramic media – this is to provides lots of surface area for certain ammonia-eating bacteria to colonize. The more media surface area (and water flow over it) present, the more bacteria can be maintained in it, and the more biological filtration that occurs. That’s why for tanks over 30 gallons in size, I highly urge you to get a good canister filter.

Canister filters are designed to hold lots of bio-filter media and are therefore the best for neutralizing high amounts of waste; in my opinion, they are absolutely crucial for keeping clean, odor-free turtle tanks. In fact, if there is one key piece of equipment for your turtle tank that you should not skimp on, this is it! There are canister filters specifically marketed as “turtle filters,” such as the Hagen ExoTerra External Turtle Filter. These are good for smaller tanks up to about 30 gallons. However, if you are filtering a larger tank, I strongly encourage you to go for a larger capacity, typical aquarium canister filter, like the EHEIM Classic External Canister Filter. Believe me, you will not regret that you did!

6) Use a Turtle Tank Cover

A turtle tank cover helps keep your turtle in and threats out.

The R-Zilla Screen provides security & quick access.

Unless you have a very high-walled enclosure and are keeping your turtles safely indoors, you will want a cover or screen material for your tank. I have seen turtles that shouldn’t have been able to get out of tanks do so, more than once. Also keep in mind that other animals may prey on or attack your a turtle given half a chance, especially if kept outside.  A good cover can therefore keep your turtle inside and potential predators out. Just make sure that your covering does not filter out UV-B light, as glass will.

7) Consider Skipping The Gravel or Substrate

Most people assume that a turtle tank should be lined with aquarium gravel or other decorative rocks on the tank floor. This is not true. As said earlier, aquatic turtles are waste-generators and will often tear their food to bits while feeding. Putting gravel, ornaments and other things in the tank will just provide more nooks and crannies for this waste and organic matter to hide in and decay. A bare-bottomed tank is much easier to clean when siphoning, and helps you find where pockets of debris collect.

8) Do You Need a Water Heater?

If kept indoors within ordinary room temperatures, most common aquatic turtle species will not need heated water, so long as they can temperature regulate by using a heated basking area. If you are keeping your turtle in an air-conditioned room or cold basement, however, a submersible aquarium heater may be needed to keep water temperatures at or above 70F.


9) Turtle Tank Water & Water Changes

Water changes are absolutely vital for the health of your turtle. How often you do them is up to you, but you should aim to change 50-70% of your turtle’s water each week. Ordinary tap water is fine for all aquatic turtles, just be sure to use a good tap water dechlorinator.

When doing weekly water changes, you will generally need a siphon to vacuum up debris on the tank floor. When refilling, try to match the new water’s temperature to the old. It doesn’t have to be exact but large temperature differentials can give your turtle an uncomfortable shock.

10) Where to Put Your Turtle Tank Setup?

For indoor aquarium tanks, you should always try to place the tank in a relatively quiet room away from direct sunlight. The reason why we suggest a quiet location is that turtles are often easily startled while basking, and lots of foot traffic around the tank is likely to send them continually fleeing to the water area, thus deeply cuting into critical basking time. As for sunlight, while direct sunshine is fine for the turtle, this will almost certainly trigger a bloom of suspended algae and create a very unsightly green water situation. Good filtration can help, but the intense sunlight and high levels of waste produced by turtles can make eliminating green water extremely difficult.

11) Choose Your Your Turtle Supplies Wisely

Beyond getting a good prepared turtle food, choosing a high-quality turtle filter, and setting up proper heat/UV-B lighting, there are few things you really need. If you want a rundown of what we consider to be useful, reasonably-priced accessories for your turtle, check out our article on Turtle Supplies.

Turtle photo credits (in order of appearance):

Clara S under CC BY 2.0

Scott Penner under CC BY-SA 2.0

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