Best Tips on How to Successfully Setup a Turtle Tank

Setting up a turtle tank right takes time and patience. Our guide makes it easy with clear steps and helpful tips.

May 15, 2024By Monika Dimitrovska
best tips how to successfully setup turtle tank

Although a turtle isn’t a common pet, owning one can be just as rewarding as having a dog or a cat. However, setting up a tank for your pet turtle can be difficult if you have no experience with turtles. Our guide on how to set up a turtle tank can help!

Aquatic and semi-aquatic turtles need both water and land areas in their home, as well as proper lighting and filtering, which we’ll discuss in this article, so let’s get right into it!

Can Turtles Live in a Tank Full of Water?

turtle swimming tank
Image credit: Sandy Karreman from Pixabay

Some turtles can live in a tank full of water, but most also need a basking area. That’s why we suggest setting up the tank based on the species of your turtle.

Additionally, certain turtles and tortoises can’t swim well, so they prefer shallower water. This means a longer tank is necessary. On the other hand, some turtles spend much time basking, so they need a larger basking area. Others remain in the water for most of the time, so they don’t mind a smaller basking area.

Your turtle breeder or specialist can help you determine the best tank setup for your pet turtle. In case they can’t provide advice for whatever reason, you can follow our general guide below and adjust your tank setup as needed.

Note: Turtles and tortoises aren’t the same. That being said, some of the smallest tortoise species can’t live in a tank full of water.

What is Needed to Set Up a Turtle Tank?

homemade turtle tank ideas
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Setting up a turtle tank can be easy if someone guides you through the whole process. Here’s a list of the supplies you need to set up a turtle tank, starting with the tank itself. Our checklist is followed by tips on how to choose and install the equipment.

Note: If you still haven’t bought your pet, learn about the pros and cons of having a pet turtle. They’re a long-term commitment because of their long lifespan, so think long and hard before deciding.

Large, sturdy glass tank:

  • Water capacity: 10-15 gallons (38-57 L) of water per inch (2.5 cm) of turtle
  • Minimum thickness of glass: 0.4 inches (10 mm)
  • Length: 3 to 4 times the length of the turtle
  • Width: Twice the length of the turtle
  • Depth: It should be greater than width
  • Height: 1.5 to 2 times the length of the turtle, with at least 1 foot (30.5 cm) of clearance above the highest point the turtle can reach
pet turtle sitting rock
Image credit: Robin Teng from Unsplash

Other supplies:

  • High-quality UV light with UVA and UVB bulbs
  • Fully submersible water heater (if needed)
  • Large canister filter (recommended)
  • Internal filter (if preferred)
  • Heat-proof metal screen cover and clamps for securing the cover
  • Thermometers for water and basking area
  • Hygrometer for humidity levels
  • Substrate (optional)
  • Special turtle dock, rock, or log
  • Freshwater from sink or jugs of distilled water

Note: If you have more than one turtle, start with a tank size for one turtle and add half that size for each extra turtle. Don’t use a reptile tank made for land animals because the glass of these tanks is usually too thin and might break.

Do Turtles Need a Heat Lamp?

turtle eating tank
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Yes! Turtles need good UV light, so look for one with UVA and UVB bulbs. UVB helps turtles make vitamin D3 and keeps their environment natural, while UVA encourages activity and appetite. However, UVB bulbs should be the main source of light.

You can hook the lamp onto the tank or get one that stands separately and directs light down onto the tank. Make sure the light shines on the area you set up for basking.

Additionally, consider using a timer for the light to mimic natural day and night cycles. Most turtles need about 12 to 14 hours of light followed by 10 to 12 hours of darkness.

Finally, keep the tank away from direct sunlight; place it near indirect sunlight or in the shade because direct sunlight can be too intense and harm the turtle.

Does Your Turtle Need a Water Heater?

turtle sunbathing
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Species preferring room-temperature water may not need a heater, while those favoring warmer temperatures might. So, before installing a water heater, consider whether your turtle species requires one.

If they do need one, attach a fully submersible water heater with suction cups to keep the temperature steady all year. You should also hide it behind a wall. Otherwise, your turtle might damage it while swimming around.

Do Turtles Need a Filter?

pet turtle swimming turtle tank
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Absolutely! You should invest in a quality filter because turtles produce more waste than fish, necessitating effective filtration.

We recommend getting a large canister filter because it can prevent clogs and keep the tank clean. While it might cost more upfront, it saves money in the long run.

Alternatively, you can install two internal filters for enhanced filtration (opt for the largest size available).

Note: Even with a filter(s) in place, you should change the water at least once every two weeks for optimal water quality.

Choosing the Right Tank Cover

pet turtle swimming turtle aquarium
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Get a heat-proof metal screen cover for your tank. While not necessary, it protects your turtle from dangers like broken lamp bulbs.

Lamp bulbs used in turtle habitats get very hot and can explode if splashed with water, so it’s important to prevent this. Consider clamping the cover onto the tank to stop larger turtles from climbing out.

Avoid using glass or plexiglass covers as they block the UVB rays turtles need. They’re also more likely to shatter or melt.

Note: Check the water and basking area temperatures using thermometers. The water should be around 78°F (25°C), while land should be 80-85°F (27-29°C).

And don’t forget about humidity levels. Monitor them with a hygrometer and adjust by adding or removing substrate as needed.

What Do You Put on the Bottom of a Turtle Tank?

turtle tank setup bottom
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Generally, you don’t need substrate unless you’re adding live plants. Substrate can make cleaning the tank harder. If you choose to use substrate, options include fine sand, gravel, and fluorite.

Sand can be hard to clean, but some turtles enjoy digging in it. Gravel, on the other hand, looks nice, but choose pieces larger than 1/2 inch (1.5 cm) to prevent turtles from eating it. Finally, fluorite is nutrient-rich and safe for turtles, but opt for larger pieces for safety.

Note: Some turtles and tortoises can bite you by mistake or out of fear, so be careful when cleaning their tank.

Creating a Basking Area for Your Turtle

turtle tank setup ideas
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Semi-aquatic turtles need a land area that fills half the tank, while aquatic turtles need only a quarter. Turtles use this area for basking and drying off, so ensure the land area is at least one and a half times longer than your turtle.

Options include buying a turtle dock or using a rock or log. We recommend floating docks as they adjust to water levels and save space.

Avoid using natural rocks or logs, as they can harm your turtle. If you do use them, boil them first to remove any harmful substances. For items needing anchoring, use silicone aquarium sealant to secure them.

Additionally, if the land area doesn’t slope into the water, you’ll need to add a ramp. The ramp can be simple, like a curved or sloping log attached to the land area, with one end gently dipping into the water. A piece of thick plastic can also work similarly.

How Much Water Does a Turtle Tank Need?

small turtle swimming tank
Image credit: Simon Bardet from Pixabay

Make sure there’s enough water for your turtle to swim comfortably, usually about 4-6 inches deep. The water should be at least three-quarters the length of your turtle so it can flip itself upright if needed. Use clean freshwater from your sink or distilled water for your pet turtle.

Finally, provide a well-balanced diet for your pet turtle. They’re omnivorous, so they eat both meat and plants.

Fun fact: These creatures don’t have teeth, which is one of the fun facts about turtles.

Hopefully, our suggestions can make your turtle’s tank feel like home!

Monika Dimitrovska
By Monika Dimitrovska

Monika is a pet enthusiast and seasoned copywriter with a tech degree. She loves writing, but her heart belongs to her two mixed dogs, Buba and Bono, a mother-son duo. Bono’s siblings found loving homes, sparking Monika’s advocacy for neutering and deepening her curiosity about animal care.

But Monika’s pet family doesn’t end there. She also has two cockatiels and two rescue cats, proving her home is a haven for creatures big and small.