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How To Set Up A Turtle Tank: 8 Essentials & FAQs

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By Lindsey Stanton

Several turtles swimming in the aquarium tank

Turtles are really awesome pets no doubt, but they do require some effort to take care of, and perhaps even more effort is needed before you buy the thing to begin with. This is going to be lengthy so let’s get right to it and talk about everything there is to know on how to set up a turtle tank the right way!

The 8 Essentials To Set Up A Turtle Tank

When it comes to setting up a turtle tank, truth be told that it takes quite a bit of time, effort, know-how, and cash as well. Setting up a turtle tank may not be the easiest thing in the world, but it sure is rewarding, and that is true in more ways than one. Below we have a little simplified list of the 8 basic things that need to be done or considered before you get a turtle.

Following each of the steps or tips below will ensure that you and your turtle can live in peace and good health.

1. Tank

The first thing that you need to get is obviously the tank. You need to be sure to get an aquatic tank, like for fish or any other aquarium. This is because the tanks designed for aquariums are much stronger and can handle more pressure. Terrestrial tanks, such as terrariums for snakes or lizards, will not be able to stand the immense weight of the water that the turtle needs. Be sure to get an aquatic tank or else you are going to have a very wet floor.

Next, the size of the tank is also a very important thing to consider. This can be hard to judge if the type of turtle is not known. Some turtles stay quite small while others can grow to some pretty decent proportions. A general rule of thumb is that a turtle should have at least 10 gallons of water for the length of its shell. Every additional turtle of the same size will require an extra 5 gallons of water. Mind you, this is the absolute minimum amount of space and water they need.

Ideally, you should double those above numbers to give your turtle a really nice home. One of the most important things to note is that the depth of the water needs to be at least, at very minimum, as deep as your turtle’s shell is wide. This is because they do sometimes flip themselves over, but if the water is not deep enough, it will not be able to get right side up, in which case it will probably drown in the water.

Moreover, you need a tank of the right shape. Turtles are not that long compared to their width, so you don’t want a tank that is much longer than it is wide. One with a slightly more square shape, or just one that is really wide and long, will be needed to keep your turtle happy. Not following these tips will most likely result in you having to buy a larger tank down the line. Also, it might not seem intuitive, but smaller tanks are harder to clean because they get much dirtier much faster than bigger tanks.

Tank Cover

Another important aspect of the turtle tank is the cover for it. Generally speaking, most turtle owners will use a cover made with metal netting, kind of like a heavy duty screen door. The screens themselves are not too pricey, but they certainly are very important. Turtles like to climb around and if they can, they will probably climb out of the tank, which is why a lid is definitely a good idea. Some lids also have clamps to prevent bigger turtles from escaping.

Moreover, turtles need a lot of heat and light, which means having heat lamps and lights for them. These things can get really hot and may break or smash under certain circumstances. Therefore, having a metal lid over their heads to stop hot shards of glass from crashing down on them is a good thing. Beware that you should not use glass or Plexiglas for your lid. Both of these will end up filtering out those awesome UV rays that the turtles need to stay alive. Moreover, under the heat of the lamps, glass may shatter and Plexiglass can melt.

Keep in mind that the metal will absorb some heat and light, so you need to have the lights adjusted for this. Just make sure that when you open the lid, that you don’t leave it off for too long, because the absence of the lid will cause the tank to overheat. If you do leave the lid off for more than a couple minutes, you will probably want to turn the heat lamps off.

Our Pick For A Good Starter Turtle Tank:

Here is a good turtle tank option that you can consider going with.

Exo Terra Faunarium

This is a decent glass tank option to go with. It is ideal for smaller and medium sized turtles. The tank itself is extremely strong and durable in order to hold the turtles and water. Mind you, this tank may be better suited for temporary living arrangements. However, it does have a convenient lid to let light and air in, plus a little door for feeding or for removing or adding smaller turtles. It is a good starter option to consider purchasing.

2. Lighting

Ok, so the next important thing that you are going to need for your turtle tank is lighting. Turtles are reptiles, which means that they are cold blooded creatures. In other words, they have no way of heating up their own blood like us mammals do. The result of not having light and heat present is sure death. Turtles need daylight, whether real or artificial, they need warmth, and they need UVA and UVB light as well.

All of these things are more or less necessary for the survival of your turtle. Before we talk about the lights themselves, always make sure that they are properly secured or they could fall into the tank (if you don’t have a lid) causing serious burns, injuries, and/or electrocution.

These various types of light, are needed for warmth, feeding, breeding, and all kinds of normal turtle behavior. The most important is probably UVB light, which helps prevent diseases, decreases stress, and maintaining the immune system. They need light to metabolize vitamins and minerals, to keep their organs functioning, and so much more.

Simply put, without UVB and UVA light, plus warmth, your turtle will die. You need to go to your pet store and buy a good turtle lamp, and yes, they are usually called turtle lamps. You can choose incandescent, halogen, or mercury vapor lamps, but those need screens under them as they are known to shatter. Fluorescent and LED lamps, while usually not quite as powerful, usually never smash.

Another thing that needs to be noted is that your turtle is going to need more than one type of lamp. One of the lamps is intended to produce those aforementioned UVA and UVB rays, but your new pet also needs a warmth and daylight lamp. Turtles like to bask in the sun, or more so, they need to bask in the sun in order to stay alive.

The basking light needs to be aimed at the middle of the basking area which should reach a maximum temperature of 90 degrees Fahrenheit. For baby turtles and sick turtles, you can increase that heat to 95 degrees Fahrenheit. To make sure that you get the temperature right, just use a terrarium thermometer. You can indeed purchase turtle lights that have both necessary bulbs, UVA/UVB bulbs and the warmth/light bulbs.

turtle in aquarium
Image Credit: norberto, Shutterstock

3. Basking Area

For many reasons, turtles need to bask, which means that they sit in a hot and sunny spot, soaking up all of those nice sun rays in order to stay healthy. As we mentioned before, this is very important for a plethora of reasons. Turtles are cold blooded so they need warmth to heat them up. They need daylight to keep their senses working right and their internal clocks functioning properly. And of course they need those UVA and UVB rays for a multitude of health reasons. Missing any of these things can indeed result in the death of your turtle.

Anyway, this basking process, which needs to be done for several hours per day, needs to be done on dry land. Yes, this means that you need a tank that has both water and dry land, with about ¼ of dry land being the ideal. You can buy a commercially made basking platform, you can use a log, or just a big flat rock too.

The most important thing is that the turtle needs to be able to fit on it comfortable without slipping or falling off, because it will spend countless hours there. You can also get something like a floating turtle dock which is ideal for turtles to climb onto right out of the water. On a side note, if you use rocks or logs from nature, like your backyard, be sure to boil them before using them. This will kill any bacteria and microorganisms that may make your turtle sick or invade the tank.

The Best Basking Platform For Turtles

Here is a really good basking platform option that you can choose to go with. It is one of the best ones out there.

Penn Plax Reptology Life Science Turtle-Topper Above-Tank Basking Platform

This is a great option for several smaller turtles or one bigger turtle. It is actually an above tank platform, which means that it rests above the tank. There is of course a little ramp in the water so the turtles can climb onto it whenever they need to.

It is a very durable plastic platform that is easy to clean, plus the top and sides are clear so you can interact with your turtles. There is also a grate on top that can be opened up if you want to take the turtle out, plus it is good for ventilation too. This platform also allows you to mount heat lamps onto it directly.

4. The Filter

The bottom line is that turtles are fairly dirty creatures and they will pollute the water very quick. If you have ever been to someone’s house with a turtle tank that has no filter, you will know just how bad it can smell. The point is that you absolutely need a really heavy duty filter for even just one single turtle.

They eat a lot of food and therefore produce a lot of smelly waste, plus they tend to leave food scraps laying around. Also, reptiles just produce a lot of waste and dirt anyway. A good filter is a must have for any turtle tank.

There is really no such thing as a turtle tank filter. Most people just use a good old aquarium fish filter. They work just fine, but you do need a heavy duty one. First and foremost, you need a 3 stage filtration system. You need mechanical filtering to get rid of solid waste. Biological filtering is required in order to kill nitrates, nitrites, and ammonia. Chemical filtering is needed to remove other unwanted compounds, smells, and discolorations.

Also, you are going to want a filter that can handle at least twice as much water per hour as is actually in the tank, preferably even 3 or 4 times as much. You will want to get an external filter of sorts, as an internal or submersible filter will take up way too much space in the tank, space that your turtle is going to want and need.

Red-eared slider turtles in aquarium tank with UV light and filter
Image Credit: TIPAKORN MAKORNSEN, Shutterstock

5. Heating

Yet another important thing that your turtle needs is heating. Now, we already covered the basking area, or in other words, heating the land portion of things. However, we still need to talk about the water itself. Many people say that turtles don’t really need the water to be heated, but many others would beg to differ. Turtles like the water to be between 75 and 80 degrees Fahrenheit, so you probably do need a heater.

Either way, you can’t let the water get too cold. You can buy any generic water heater for aquariums and it will do the trick just fine. One thing that does need to be mentioned is that the heater should never be fully submerged under water as it can cause cracks, damage, and electrocution in worst case scenarios.

6. Substrate

The turtle tank is going to require substrate, or in other words, the substance that covers the bottom of the tank. You definitely do not want your turtle to be on just the glass. There are various choices that you can go with. What are they and what are the best options to go with? On a side note, the type of substrate you get should depend on the type of turtle you have.

Fine Sand

Many people use fine sand for their substrate in the turtle tank. Some people do not like it because it is fairly hard to keep clean and maintain. If you are going to use sand, use clean and fine sand, also clean it before using it. Once the tank is ready to go, you will have to engage in regular cleaning to keep food particles and waste from building up. Most people only use fine sand as substrate if they have turtles that dig into their substrate, such as soft shelled turtles.


Aquarium gravel is an ok choice to go with, but not the best. You can use it if you like, but beware that plants will have a hard time growing in it. If you do use gravel, make sure that the pieces are large enough that the turtles can’t eat them, because they are known to do so, something which can cause some serious health issues.


Fluorite is probably one of the best options you can go with. It is a coarse kind of gravel made of clay and is made to be used in planted aquariums. The big benefit here is that plants can easily grow in it, something which turtles will appreciate. It’s nice and soft, it is full of nutrients, and turtles won’t eat it either. Beware that when you first put it in, it will make your water a little muddy, but it will settle down eventually. To make it settle faster, you should let the filter run for a few days before adding in the turtles.

turtle inside tank
Image Credit: jwiens, Pixabay

Crushed Coral

If you have a saltwater or brackish water turtle, you will probably want to use crushed coral. The coral contains calcium which leaches out into the water, thus balancing out its pH level. However, crushed coral is not great for plants to grow in, but turtles won’t eat it, it is comfortable, and it helps keep the water at stable parameters.

7. Toys & Decorations

Of course, your turtle will appreciate some plants and decorations no doubt. This really depends on the type of turtle, but they do like plant matter, both to munch on and swim around, plus they like rocks and logs too. Honestly, we aren’t sure if turtles get bored or not.

We haven’t had the opportunity to ask one personally. Maybe if they learned English that would be a possibility. Anyway, it is safe to assume that they like to play, just like most other animals. You can try getting some little rubber balls for the turtles to push around, just make sure the turtle can’t pop and eat them.

8. Feeding

Feeding a turtle is really quite simple. First off, turtles do not need to be fed every day. A mature turtle will do just fine with 4 feedings per week, any more than that, or 5 times at most, is not going to be healthy for it. The exception is with young turtles, which need to be fed every day or even twice per day. In terms of how much food your turtle needs, a general rule of thumb is let it eat as much as it can for 10 or 15 minutes at most, and then take the rest of the food away. When it comes to aquatic turtles, feed them in the water because that is where they normally eat.

So, what to feed your turtle? Well, turtles in the wild eat a variety of foods. They are omnivores and like all kinds of plants, fruits, veggies, and meat too. Yes, live meat, protein, is essential to the diet of a turtle. Most people will keep some small fish around for feeding time, or even keep the fish in the water with the turtles. That way the turtles can get a hold of some tasty fish whenever they feel hungry.

You can feed your turtle some high quality pellets, but that should not be all. If pellets are all you feed the turtle, make sure to give it some calcium and vitamin supplements. Live crickets and worms, or even dead worms, are other good foods that your turtle will appreciate. Also, kale, parsley, green beans, bell peppers, cabbage, spinach, broccoli, roses, carnations, hibiscus, apples, bananas, pears, grapes, kiwi, and melon are all good options for the fruit and veggie portion of things. Of the fruits and veggies, 10% should be fruit and 90% should be veggies. Plant matter, like fruits and veggies, should make up around 50% to 75% of their diet.

baby painted turtle
Image Credit: Jay Ondreicka, Shutterstock

fish divider


Here are some of the most frequently asked questions regarding turtles.

1. Do Turtles Require A Lot Of Time & Maintenance?

This is kind of a tricky question because it does depend on the type of turtle you have. However, generally speaking, the answer is no, they don’t require too much maintenance. Feeding does not take long, cleaning needs to be done once per week, and you need to keep track of air and water temperature. Besides those things, turtles are really not that labor intensive. The most intensive part is actually setting up the turtle tank in the first place.

2. Do Turtles Carry Diseases?

Turtles do carry one fatal disease known as salmonella. Salmonella is a bacterial infection that can cause fever, dehydration, diarrhea, dizziness, nausea, vomiting, and life threatening complications. So, that being said, always wash your hands when you are done handling your turtle.

3. Are Turtles Safe Pets For Children?

In all honesty, no they are not safe pets for kids. While they don’t really bite or pose a physical threat to your kids, the whole aforementioned salmonella thing can be fatal to young kids.

4. Will The Tank Be Smelly?

If you take proper care of the tank it won’t be smelly. You need to change the water, remove waste, vacuum the substrate (we have reviewed some good vacuums here), clean plants, and regularly clean the filter. In all reality, your turtle tank may smell a little bit, but with proper cleaning it won’t be too bad.

5. What Kind Of Plants Should I Put In The Tank?

Turtles do like plants, so add in some hyacinths, water lettuce, anachris, or Amazon swords. Even some water lilies are ok too.

Turtle breathing
Image Credit: Csar-Fotografie, Pixabay

6. What If My Turtle Has A Cracked Shell

Cracked shells can be lethal to turtles so go to the vet immediately. They may be able to repair it.

7. How Long Do Turtles Live?

You should know that when it comes to owning a turtle, you are in it for the long haul. Turtles will live for anywhere from 40 to 60 years.

8. Do Turtles Breathe Air?

Yes, turtles are not fish and do not have gills. They have lungs and breathe air just like us humans do.

9. Do Turtles Like Touching?

While turtles do not really enjoy cuddling, they do like their bellies scratched (gently).

10. Snapping Turtles?

Just stay away from snapping turtles. While they make cool pets, they can remove fingers with one hard bite. Just don’t do it.

11. Do I Need An Air Pump?

The short and simple answer to this question is no, a turtle does in no way require an air pump. Turtles are not fish and they breathe with normal lungs just like we do. They don’t require highly oxygenated water because they don’t breathe in the water. While they can hold their breath for long periods of time, they go to the surface to breathe. Therefore, an air pump is not required.

You might also like our detailed feeding guide for baby painted turtles which you can find here.

divider seashells


There it is. Everything you could possibly need to know about getting a turtle, setting up the tank, and taking care of it. As long as you follow the above tips, your turtles will live in good health and happiness for years to come.

See also:

Featured Image Credit: julialine, Shutterstock

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