turtle in the ocean

Indoor Turtle Tank: A Guide to Building One

Many people are thinking about owning a turtle because aside from being adorable creatures, they’re also easy to care for. Although they are known to be low-maintenance pets, they still require extra care and some room to grow. This is why how you set up your turtle tank is extremely important.

If you’re thinking about owning an aquatic turtle that you can keep indoors, like the red-eared slider, then the instructions below can guide you into building the ideal turtle tank that your little reptile friend can thrive in.

Aquatic turtles originally live in swampy areas such as ponds or lakes. They will require a habitat with clean water that they can dive and swim in. However, they will also need dry land where they can sunbathe and rest.

As a pet owner, it’s your responsibility to provide your pet with the best care possible, and it starts with their home.

Here are the things you’ll need in setting up your turtle tank as well as a guide on how to build one at home.

How to Set Up a Turtle Tank

Here are some things that you need for a sturdy and safe tank set up:

  1. Aquarium. I suggest that you get one at least 1 foot deep, but bigger is better. Make sure that the tank has a tight-fitting lid, to keep any turtles in (or other animals out) of the water. If necessary, cover up holes with duct tape before you put your turtle in it so it doesn’t try to climb out.
  2. Filter. You will need a filter in your tank that is good for twice the size of your aquarium. If you have a 20-gallon tank, then get a filter that is rated to work in a 40-gallon tank. Your filter should be able to turn over 3x the amount of water in your aquarium per hour.
  3. A pre-filter for your pump. It will keep the turtle tank clean and your pump running longer without any tune-ups. The pre-filter can be made out of netting, like a mosquito net or a Nylon laundry bag (with the opening tied up).
  4. A submersible pump for water filter and water movement. This is not necessary, but it will prevent you from having to clean the turtle tank as frequently.
  5. Gravel, rocks, or aquatic plants for aquascaping. Browse the web for inspiration. Write down what you want and what you don’t want. Design your tank in a way that any hole or cave is big enough for your turtle and that any nook is visible to you. This way your turtle doesn’t get stuck, and you know where it is at all times.
  6. A power strip. Get a power strip that has at least two sockets. This way, you can plug in the pump, lights, and heater all at the same time.
  7. Heater (if you live somewhere cold). You will need a submersible heater that is rated to work in the size of your tank. The wattage of the heater depends upon how big your aquarium is. You want a basic heater wattage of at least 2.5 watts and 5 watts at best per gallon of water volume.You can calculate the volume using this formula: Length of aquarium x Width of aquarium x Height of aquarium = Total volume of the aquarium.
  1. Thermometer. You need a thermometer to measure air and water temperature. A floating thermometer is recommended. If you do not have one, then buy one before setting up your turtle tank.
  1. Substrate. There are many types of substrate that you can use in a turtle tank. The two most commonly used are sand and fake plants because they make the water look nicer, but turtles love to dig in sand so it can get messy. Sand is better to use in the water, but you can also use fake plants that look like real plants for your turtle tank.
  2. Light. You will need to have lighting for basking and fluorescent lighting for underwater viewing. If you are not trying to grow plants, then a simple regular light bulb will work. The basking heating light needs to provide UVB and UVA and be on for 10-12 hours per day. You can get special light bulbs called “Reptile Basking Lamps” at your local pet store or online that have UVB and UVA lighting built-in.The light for the tank should be on 8-12 hours per day if you are trying to grow plants. An ordinary fluorescent bulb will work fine as long as it has UVB and UVA emitters on it. There is special “Reptile Daylight Bulbs” that provide this type of lighting, but the regular fluorescent light will work fine. You can find these at your local pet store or online.
  1. Water. You will need treated tap water or reverse osmosis (RO) water to fill your aquarium because regular water has minerals and chemicals in it that are bad for turtles. Distilled or R/O water does not contain any of these chemicals and minerals, but they are more expensive to buy.For the water, you will need a de-chlorinator to remove the chlorine and chloramines from the water before putting it in your aquarium. You can find this at your local pet store or online.
    Saltwater is not necessary, but it can reduce stress on your red-eared slider and help treat some health issues. It also makes the water more corrosive and harder to maintain.

Decide what kind of turtle to get, and how big it will be when fully grown. Make sure you have enough room in your home for an adult-sized turtle. The bigger the tank the better since turtles like to swim around and explore.

Guide to setting up your turtle tank

Photo by Shaun Low on Unsplash

STEP 1: Set up your basking area. 

The basking area should be placed on the side of the turtle tank that is opposite the water filter pump. The basking light should be set up so that it shines directly onto the basking rock or land area, with enough space for your turtle to completely dry itself if it needs to. Basking can help turtles avoid getting skin fungus by drying out any moisture on its body, so make sure that the basking rock is big enough for your turtle.

STEP 2: Set up your aquatic plants.

If you want to use live aquatic plants with roots and leaves, then make sure that your turtle tank has enough room for the roots and leaves to grow. If you do not want live aquatic plants, then fake ones can be used –they are easier to maintain and do not require any sunlight.

With live plants, you should wrap the roots in the container to minimize stress on your turtle. You use old stockings, put soil in it then contain the root in them, wrapping it tightly with a rubber band so that the soil wouldn’t float away.

STEP 3: Set up the water filter pump.

Make sure that it is placed in an area where there is a suitable water current. Try to avoid placing the water filter pump in an area where sunlight shines directly on it or else algae may grow around it. If you are having trouble deciding where to place the water filter, then follow this step-by-step guide:

  • If you plan on using a pre-filter for your water filtration pump, then hook it up to the water filter pump and hang it off of one side of the turtle tank.
  • If you do not plan on using a pre-filter for your water filtration pump, then place it near or under rocks so that the current will cause the water to flow slowly. The slower current will stress out your turtle less and lessen the risk of it getting skin fungus.

STEP 4: Set up the water filter.

If you plan on using a pre-filter for your water filter, then set it up now. This is where the water comes out and flows into the rest of the turtle tank, so place it somewhere that has enough room for your turtle to swim and play.

STEP 5: Set up the heater.

If you plan on using a submersible heater, then place it next to rocks or under them so that it is hidden. 

If you do not want to use a submersible heater, then an above-tank heater can also be used. Make sure that the water temperature is around 76 degrees Fahrenheit because anything below this may cause health problems or stress out the turtle.

STEP 6: Set up the lights and the land area.

If you plan on using a full-spectrum light, then set it up in a way that the basking rock is placed under the light. You can also use a basking light if you feel that your turtle needs more warmth than the full-spectrum bulb provides. Make sure that the area where your turtle will be is not in direct sunlight. This may cause overheating and you don’t want to cook your pet. 

STEP 7: Prepare the substrate by adding it into your land area and separating it into two piles.

Photo by Charlotte Rush on Unsplash

You can position one under the full-spectrum light and one for next to or directly under the basking lamp.

STEP 9: Prepare the filter cartridge.

Prepare the filter cartridge by removing the pre-filter from it and setting up your aquatic plants bag or live aquatic plants in a suitable place with enough room for your turtle to swim through if necessary.

STEP 10: Rinse out any chemical treatment.

Rinse out any chemical treatment, such as de-chlorinator, that you have added to your water before adding it into the water container.

STEP 11: Fill up the turtle tank with clean, dechlorinated water.

You can add in any decorations that you would like to place in the turtle habitat that you forgot to add earlier on. 

Remember to check for leaks by submerging the bottom of the turtle tank halfway into the water. If there are no leaks, then check for cracks by gently pushing on the glass; if your turtle tank has any cracks or chips, then they will need to be fixed before you continue.

STEP 12: Place your turtle in.

Gently place your turtle in the tank and let it adjust to its new home. It may take time, but it will slowly start to swim around and explore the new habitat.

Feed it a few hours after it has adjusted. If it’s eating well, it means that it’s fully adjusted and happy in its new home.

General Upkeep

While turtles are generally low maintenance compared to cats and dogs, they need special care. Many pet turtles die because of neglect even though they naturally have a long lifespan (15 to 50 years) so make sure to help them live longer with proper care.

Aside from proper heating and good food, you should clean the tank at least once a week. Make sure to replace the water with clean ones. Then, clean out the whole tank and refresh the filter every two to three weeks.

All things considered, make sure that you’re ready to become a responsible pet owner and take care of a turtle before bringing one home. Find out if you can make time to look after it, feed it, and clean its living space. If the answer is yes, then you’re absolutely ready to welcome a new member of the family, otherwise, it might be best to wait until you are.

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