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Turtle Tank Article

Last Updated: 3/1/08

Setting up a Large Aquatic Turtle Tank on a Budget

By Jon Andrews, 1/19/05

Edited by Robyn Rhudy, 1/27/05
Areas on which I later commented are marked as "[See Comment 1]," etc.
Note that the various companies, brands, and web sites are those chosen by Jon and are not necessarily preferentially endorsed by Robyn over other companies, etc.



By Jon Andrews

About five years ago I purchased a Natury Turtle Tank by Perfecto. They come in three sizes: 10- gallon, 20-gallon, and 30-gallon. I chose the 20-gallon which seemed roomy enough for a few small turtles, yet small enough to periodically carry outside alone to hose down with the garden hose. The tank is like any other 20-gallon long except that one end of the tank is half the height of the rest of the tank. This allows for a hanging filter to sit at water level with the tank only half full. The tank is then shallow enough for bottom-placed haul out rocks, yet has high glass walls to prevent turtles from climbing out. The tank comes complete with an acrylic panel that fits into place around the hanging filter on the shallow end. The tank functions beautifully, and I have no complaints. All-Glass now offers a similar product [See Comment #7].

Several months ago I saw a much larger turtle tank in a pet store. Having recently developed an interest in setting up a larger turtle tank, I inquired. The employees knew little about the tank. I was told it was a "commercial" tank and would be extremely expensive to set up. It was 48 inches long, an enormous, 24 inches wide, and only 18 inches high. [See Comment #1] The tank's bottom was drilled, and it had a canister filter hidden inside the stand. The water was only about 10 inches deep and there were plenty of places for turtles to haul out. Being 24 inches broad, it seemed ideal for turtles, unlike fish tanks that tend to be narrow and tall.

Although there are numerous products available for pet turtles, large turtle tanks seem absent from the market, and one must improvise. I searched extensively on the internet for a tank of the same dimensions. There were some available in the UK but few seemed to be available in the United States. The only one I could find was at glasscages.com. Glasscages.com has a 95-gallon tank which is 48 inches long, 24 inches wide, and 17 inches high. Significantly wider and shorter than most fish tanks of the same length. The company also makes both acrylic and glass tanks to your specifications. They seemed like the perfect place to start. But how should the tank be designed?

Design should be based on how the tank will be filtered. There are three basic ways to filter a turtle tank. [See Comment #2]

First, the bottom of the tank can be drilled for a canister filter. The plumbing for such a tank typically drains through the bottom of the tank to the canister filter hidden underneath the tank, inside the stand. [See Comment #3] Dirty water is syphoned out the bottom of the tank and the cleaned, return water is poured back into the tank via a tube hanging over the side. This is very efficient, especially considering solid waste tends to sink to the bottom of the tank. The setup is probably the most expensive of the three options but the filter system is less unsightly than the others. It is probably the most work to maintain, as replacing the filter's media involved disconnecting the plumbing and taking apart the filter which is usually hidden within the stand. Such a tank would not need a half-height end.

The second option is a "drop in" filter. Their popularity seems to have increased in recent years as they are very versatile. These filters are generally small, being designed for small tanks, are completely submersible, and, in my experience, are ineffective. They also occupy space inside the tank, unlike their counterparts. They are probably only appropriate with small tanks made on very limited budgets. Such a tank would not require the modifications of a drilled bottom or a half-height end. [See Comment #4]

The third option is to use a hanging filter. Hanging filters are relatively inexpensive, effective, come in a wide variety of sizes, and are easy to maintain, both in terms of replacing media and replacing moving parts. The drawback is having to place the filter at water level. If the filter is significantly higher than the water level, the filter will be overworked in drawing up the water. The filter's life expectancy thus will be greatly reduced. This is where a half-height end is used.

The tank I had in mind, like the Natury, would be designed to accommodate a hanging filter and would have a half-height end. Placing the filter on the short end may leave a place on each side of the filter where turtles could crawl out. In the Natury, a piece of acrylic is supplied to block off these openings. However, you can bypass the acrylic piece by having the tank built in such a way that the filter fits snugly into a notch cut out of the shorter end. A little room on each side of the filter is fine so long as the openings are not large enough for a turtle to escape.

There is a wide selection of hanging filters. Petwarehouse.com and Thatpetplace.com have excellent selections and are generally half the price of local pet stores. I have had good luck with AquaClear hanging filters. I have found them easy to maintain and extremely dependable. Keep in mind that turtles may produce more waste than fish so it is better to have a filter on the large size. I am using an Aqua Clear 500 (now called Aqua Clear 110) on my tank, and it seems to be more than adequate. However, be careful that the filter is not so powerful that a turtle can be trapped at the intake and drown. Baby turtles are particularly susceptible.

Next you need a stand. Perfecto makes a 120-gallon tank stand which is 48 inches long and 24 inches wide. The stand is made of solid pine and can be ordered in pine finish or painted black. It retails for about $270. Aquacorals.com out of Maine has them at $185 in pine finish and $195 painted black. They do not deliver stands. However, with the ad in hand, a local pet store matched the price for me. Iron stands of these dimensions are available and retail for about $100. Iron stands are far less appealing and do nothing in the way of hiding canister filters.

Proper lighting is essential for turtle health. Forty-eight inch light fixtures are readily available. I recommend using supports to ensure that the light never falls into the tank. I used 3/8 inch thick glass plates cut to 24 inches long and 3 inches wide to support the light fixture. [See Comment #5] A tank this size should have a double light fixture accommodating two 48-inch bulbs. All-Glass and Perfecto make them and they retail for about $80. Experts suggest that the Reptisun 5.0 is the light for aiding turtles in processing pre-vitamin D3. In my five years experience using them, I have never had a young turtle develop shell problems. The bulbs retail for about $18-$23 each.

Proper lighting does little without haul out spots. Check out the terrific article at http://www.austinsturtlepage.com/Habitat/baskingspot.htm for some ideas. Initially, I elected the natural look and went to a local lake to find a dry piece of driftwood about 5 inches in diameter. After seeing that my turtles had difficulty climbing onto a round log (log rolling is not a sport for the cold blooded), I decided that a log must me siliconed into place, or be shaped in such a way that it is stable. I returned to the lake and found a 6-inch diameter log that was split in half, creating a semicircular log. I simply cut it to about 30 inches long. This turned out to be stable enough for my largest turtles. However, it becoming waterlogged and lost its buoyancy. I later resorted to a acrylic ramp with a platform.

Decorating a turtle tank is somewhat challenging. Flimsy live plants will be destroyed or even eaten by the turtles. Plants need to be small (shallow tank) and sturdy to withstand the activity of the turtles. Artificial plants with weighted bases seem to perform best. [See Comment #6] Rocks should be smooth if intended to be haul out rocks. Also, be careful not to create underwater traps for your pets. Avoid stacking rocks or placing them in such a way that the turtles can get trapped between rocks or between a rock and the side of the tank (a hard place). Paper backgrounds depicting plants, rocks or and ocean blue can be used. Also, I have found that a mirror, siliconed to the back of the tank, works well. Anything is better than a wall as a background. For my tank, I initially used flat river rocks standing up tightly against the back of the tank to create a three-dimensional background. I later had problems with uneaten food and waste being trapped behind them. I removed and used a laminated picture background. Eventually, I will get an artificial three-dimensional background. Three dimensional backgrounds are very hard to find. Check out http://www.canberraexotics.com.au/shopshow.toy?animalnid=35151&categorynid=6913.

The total cost of the tank ran about $600. I am very happy with the outcome and expect decades of use from the tank. The tank is large enough to be used as a breeder, easily maintained, stable, durable, and very presentable. The 24 inch width takes up a bit of room in a small apartment but the tank's stability more than makes up for it.

Comments by Robyn

These comments match those mentioned in the above article.

1. The tank would have been 89.8 gallons (a 90 gallon tank) when completely full if the dimensions were internal dimensions (less if that includes glass thickness).

2. Another way to filter the tank would be to set it up like a pond with a pond pump, filter, and tubing. A submerged pump would pump the water out of the tank, into the cabinet and an aquarium or pond filter, and then back out into the tank. It could be spit into the tank as a stream, waterfall down rocks, or any number of combinations. To prevent tanks from emptying if a leak occurs in the canister filter or other sort of system, drill a tiny (2 mm or so) hole about an inch down the intake tubing that is in the water. If the system starts pumping out onto the floor, it will cavitate with air when it gets to the little hole, preventing not only your floor from being flooded but animals from being stranded out of water. It may kill the pump though.

3. Canister filters need not have intakes drilled through the bottom of the tank. Typical fish tank intakes can be used in some cases for turtle tanks if the water depth is enough that the canister pump has enough power to pull the water down. Only setting the system up and trying would tell you for sure.

4. Larger and more efficient in-tank turtle/fish filters are being created all the time so you may still want to look into this. There are in-tank canister filters now. Yes, they take up a good amount of room but if the tank is large enough, it may be worth it.

5. Glass may block some beneficial UV radiation so you may sit your fluorescent light fixtures over a metal/hardware cloth/rabbit wire lid instead. I have one that fits my 120 gallon tank. The only concern is splashing. If my sailfin lizard splashes water onto the incandescent fixtures, they shatter.

6. Keep an eye on turtles and artificial plants. Even though they are fake, plant-eating reptiles may try to eat them. I had fake plants with my sailfin lizard until she decided to try to eat them all!

7. Here is a link to the All- Glass Natuary Tank.

Photos from Jon

In the photos, you can see from a distance the two turtles in there, a small and a larger Eastern painted turtle. There is also a chain pickerel in the tank; that is a big fish! He feeds it "left over shiners." I am sure the shiners want to be left over and alive! I would not mind some shiners for my native fish pond.

The entire tank
The entire tank
Turtle ramp
Right side view
Filter view at water level
Semi-top view of right end
Top view of filter (left) end

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