Seven Things Every Good Turtle Tank Needs
Red-eared sliders are simple creatures with simple needs. But that doesn't mean fulfilling those needs is easy. There is a surprising amount of equipment required to keep your turtle happy. And for people with no experience setting up the habitat can be pretty overwhelming. My wife and I had some trouble figuring out the supplies we needed, so we created this site to help walk you through all the things we had trouble with.
Here's a quick overview of the supplies you need for a good aquatic turtle tank setup. Keep in mind, this is the minimum. There are other things can make your life easier that you may want to get as also, but we'll get to that later.
The 7 Items Every Good Turtle Tank Has:
- Aquarium Tank
- Submersible Water Heater
- Aquarium Filter
- Basking Platform
- Basking Heat Source
- Ultraviolet Light
A turtle habitat can really be anything that can hold a sufficient amount of water and give enough space for the turtles to swim comfortably. That could mean anything from a small aquarium tank to a full size pond, depending on the size and quantity of turtles you have.
Most people (including myself) purchase a glass aquarium so they can keep their turtles indoors. Picking the right aquarium isn't hard, but you need to keep some guidelines in mind:
- Your turtle needs space to swim since this is its only real form of exercise
- Your turtle needs space to bask and dry off
- Your turtle is going to grow
I recommend that you buy an aquarium for a turtle larger than you have now since they will grow. The rule of thumb is that a single turtle will need between 5 and 10 times their carapace (shell) length in gallons. If you prefer metric units the number of liters should be about 7.5 to 15 times the length of the carapace in centimeters. Err on the larger side so you don't have to keep upgrading the aquarium.
For reference, adult male Red-eared Sliders grow to between 8-10 inches (20-25 cm) and females are larger at 10-13 inches (25-33 cm). That means for a fully grown one at about 12 inches you'll need a 120 gallon tank (454 liters). For young ones at 4 inches (20 cm) you can get by with a 30 gallon (113 liters). Remember, buy larger since baby turtles grow quickly!
You can buy an aquarium online if you like, but if you need to return the tank it's easier to take it to a local store than to bother with the hassle of shipping a large fragile item. Either way, here's a few amazon links to give you an idea of what you'll be looking for. A hint for those of you near a Petco, Petco will periodically have sales on aquariums where the price will be $1 per gallon. That's a fantastic price! Our local one has their sale in January. You could try asking an employee if they know if a sale is coming up.
Glass Aquarium Tank
A pretty standard glass tank that you'll find a lot of places. Similiar to the 29 gallon one we have.
Screens make it much easier and safer to mount lights above the aquarium. In most cases you can simply set the light right on top of the screen and not worry. You need to be very careful with heat lamps and heating coils though. They can get hot enough to melt plastic and potentially start fires.
Water & Water Conditioner
Fun fact: Turtles have no saliva and therefore must be in water to eat.
In most cases tap water is fine for a turtle. However, if you are wondering whether tap water is ideal for you check out our page about tap water vs distilled water. If you decide to use tap water (as most do), you will need to condition the water with a water conditioner:
This will neutralize the chlorine and other minor chemicals commonly found in tap water. It will also slightly decrease the PH while removing Ammonia, both of which are good things for your turtle. You will need 1 tablespoon per 5 gallons water. That means this small bottle will condition about 88 gallons. You could also go for the 64 ounce size which will do up to 640 gallons.
Submersible Water Heaters
Turtles are very sensitive to temperature so you must keep their water in a specific range to keep them healthy. The most efficient way to maintain your turtle's water temperature is to use a submersible aquarium heater. When you buy one make sure you match up the heater's recommended capacity with the size of your aquarium. Water temperature should be between 75F (23.9C) and 80F (26.7C). Temperature for baby turtles ought to be kept on the warmer end of the spectrum, and older turtles should be on the cooler end. For that reason an adjustable heater is really helpful as your turtles age.
Submersible Aquarium Heaters
This is a great submersible heater. It allows you to adjust the temperature setting easily so you can better regulate your turtle's water temperature. We own one and love it. Make sure you select the correct wattage for your tank.
Gallons and Wattage Required
- up to 15 gallons = 50 watt
- up to 30 gallons = 100 watt
- up to 45 gallons = 150 watt
- up to 65 gallons = 200 watt
- up to 80 gallons = 300 watt
Pretty much every floating thermometer is the same. The brand is not important, what matters most is knowing the temperature of the water and of the basking area. The only caveat is that glass thermometers can shatter and drop the iron pellets they use for ballast. A turtle might then try to eat the pellets. We had one shatter because we forgot to remove it from the cage when we were scrubbing it. Don't worry though, it takes some force to break the thermometer so I can't imagine a turtle being strong enough to break one on their own.
A water filter is absolutely necessary to keep your turtle healthy. The better filter you buy the happier you will be. Don't skimp if you plan on keeping turtles! A good filter will not only pull solid waste out of the water, but will clean from the water some of the ammonia and nitrates your turtle excretes. This will keep your turtle healthy and dramatically reduce the amount of cleaning you need to do.
Quick Guidelines for Turtle Filters
- Cannister Aquarium Filters are the best
- Get a filter rated for roughly 2 to 3 times the capacity of your tank (turtles produce a lot of waste!)
- Keep some extra filter media on hand if you don't want to have to track it down
We do not recommend undergravel filters for any aquatic turtle. For more information on why check out our in depth guide on picking the best aquarium filter.
Fluval External Canister Filter
Our vet recommended this brand of filter after we had already bought ours. From what I've read about them they seem really superb. Again, make sure you buy one rated for 2-3 times your aquarium size if possible.
Model Numbers for Filter Media
- 25 gal = 106
- 45 gal = 206
- 70 gal = 306
- 100 gal = 406
EHEIM Classic External Filter
We bought the 66 gallon version of this one for our 29 gallon tank. We really like our filter. It's simple, quiet, and works very well. The nice thing about this specific one on Amazon is that it comes bundled with easy shut off valves. Those make it much easier to disconnect the filter for cleaning and priming. This filter comes with all the substrate and filter media you need, but if you want to pre-buy additional media (we did) here are the model numbers that correspond with the media sizes:
Model Numbers for Filter Media
- 40 gal = 2211
- 66 gal = 2213
- 92 gal = 2215
- 159 gal = 2217
Turtles are cold blooded so you'll need to provide some sort of heat source to keep them warm. Without something to keep them warm they'll become sluggish and if it gets too cold can even die. Aquatic turtles need both a water heater (above) and some form of basking heat.
Indoor sunlight is not warm enough for a turtle to bask under. A turtle needs an area heated to roughly 10 degrees (farenheit) warmer than the water temperature to properly bask. That means an air temperature between 85F (29.4C) and 90F (32.2C). Also, a turtle needs to get completely dry when basking to prevent shell rot and from growing on their carapace.
The function of a dock is simply to allow a turtle to get out of the water and dry completely as they bask. Buying a dock isn't absolutely necessary, but its easier than building one yourself. A nice dock can add quite a bit to the look of a tank as well!
Zoo Med Turtle Dock
This is the dock we have. It is a standard floating dock with suction cups that attach to the side of the tank. Its simple and works well. The only downside is that our turtle likes to try to swim undernead the supports holding the dock to the aquarium walls and sometimes detaches the bottom suction cups. He's never been able to detach the dock completely though, despite his best efforts. The medium size is too large for tanks smaller than 29 gallon (110 liters). There is also a small size for 10 gallon tanks, and a large size for 40 gallon tanks.
Above-Tank Basking Platform and Dock
This is a good option if you are worried about a floating dock sinking or tipping over. That might happen if you have multiple turtles in the same tank and they all decide to bask at the same time. Just keep in mind that there are reports that larger turtle have been able to crawl out of this platform and may be too big for the ramp.
Basking Heat Sources
Turtles need to bask. In the wild a turtle will bask to warm themselves. Since they are cold blooded and can't warm themselves, this increases their metabolism and allows them to stay active. There are two types of products on the market that provide heat for basking. The first and most common are basking lamps and the other is heating coils. The type you choose is really up to you and how you want to setup the tank. They both get the job done. Just keep in mind if you choose a basking lamp you will still need a UV B lamp.
Dome Lamp Fixture
We own this light. This is a deep dome lamp fixture designed for heat lamps. It has a ceramic bulb housing to handle the intense heat the bulb will generate, and a deep dome will prevent the hot bulb from coming in contact with things if you set it down. You need to be EXTREMELY careful if you set a heat lamp on top of anything! Heat lamps get incredibly hot! Its safest to have the lamp clamped to something or hanging.
Halogen Basking Lamp
Splash proofing is more important than you might think! Our little guy is somehow capable of getting drops up and out of his tank when we get him excited. As for wattage, 50 watts is what we are currently using. We started off with a 75 watt, but it was just too powerful. The wattage you need will depend on how much space you need to heat and how far away the lamp will be from the basking area. If you need to hang it up higher or have less water in the cage you'll need a higher wattage (try the 75 watt). If your dock is closer to the lamp or you have a small aquarium, go with a 50 watt. Check the air temperature directly above the basking dock to verify! It should be between roughly 85F (29.4C) and 90F (32.2C).
In the wild a turtle will receive ultraviolet light from the sun as it basks. UV light for a turtle provides the same benefit to a turtle as it does for a human. Ultraviolet light (UV B) is converted by the skin to vitamin D3, which is essential for the absorption of Calcium.
Indoor turtles don't get enough UV B light from the sun for the production of vitamin D3. Glass blocks up to 90% of UV B so even if a turtle is directly in front of a window they still won't get enough UV B. Therefore, its vital that a turtle has an artificial source of UV B light not blocked by glass or plastic. To provide this most people purchase a flourescent UV B lamp designed to be mounted over a cage.
We have one of these hoods and it works great for us. Conveniently it fits normal aquarium/terrarium sizes and holds a standard T8 bulb. It also comes in 36 inch size. These don't come with bulbs, so pick one up either at a local store or amazon.
- 20 inch = 18 inch T8 bulb
- 36 inch = 36 inch T8 bulb
Zilla UVB Bulb
We recommend this one because it is a full spectrum, UVB heavy light. Its designed specifically for reptiles that need Ultra Violet light. If you go with another brand or type make sure you pick up a bulb that is designed to supply UVB. Not all aquarium T8 bulbs are designed to do this.
If you are new to owning a turtle, make sure you check out our page on helpful equipment to make your life easier. There are many additional items that will make caring for your turtle much easier.