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How To Assemble and Maintain Your Turtle Tank

Whether you spent eight bucks in China Town or twenty in a pet store, the chances are that you don’t have everything you need to take care of a pet aquatic turtle. If you are thinking about buying a pet turtle because they’re cheap, read carefully, as your mind may change. Even after you do make all the purchases needed to provide a proper home for your turtle, the biggest challenge still remains: keeping the tank clean. So what do you need to make your turtle happy, and more importantly, how do you keep the tank clean?

What you’ll need:

1. Tank

“Ten gallons of water should be present for every inch of shell length,” says Ben Lewis, aquatic expert at Petware House in Fort Wayne, Indiana.

For example, a two inch-long turtle should have a twenty-gallon tank. This sounds daunting because you might be wondering: do I have to buy a new tank every time my turtle grows an inch? The answer is no. You can always buy a larger tank and then get a divider. This way you can progressively make more and more space available to the turtle and more importantly, save money!

As far as pricing for the tanks is concerned, they (along with the stands) are easily the most expensive item you’ll purchase. I’d personally recommend starting with a 20 gallon tank. While many professionals will tell you that you need 10 gallons for every inch of turtle length, the 20 gallon tank will last you until the turtle is around 4 inches, at which point it would be wise to upgrade to a 55 gallon tank which can be used for several more years.

If you’re on a budget, don’t get anything fancy. You can get a 20 gallon tank for under 75 bucks. If you’re really inclined on getting a fancy tank, wait until you need to upgrade to the bigger sizes to break the bank.

2. Lights

Two types of lights are required to keep your turtle healthy and happy. The first one is a UVB light which will keep your turtle’s shell nice and healthy. These lights can get a bit pricey (in the $30 range) so my recommendation is trying to find one cheaper on Amazon, where there are many options. You shouldn’t have much trouble finding one there to fit your setup.

The second is what is called a basking, or “heat” lamp. Turtles need these to dry off their shell when they want to get out of the water. It’s not good if they’re always in the water. Therefore you’ll also need a platform or dry area inside the tank upon which the turtle can rest to get his heat. These are relatively cheap, and are a necessity when putting an aquatic environment together. You can also save some money by making one yourself.

3. Water Heater

The next item you will need to purchase is a fully submersible water heater. The heaters usually have suction cups so that you can place them inside the tank on the wall. As they are almost always fully submersible (CHECK THE BOX!) don’t worry about the cord being in the water. Set the dial to about 70-75 degrees Fahrenheit and you’re good to go. Again, these can get in the $30 range so there are cheaper options online at Amazon, but if you get it at a pet store, there is usually a lifetime guarantee that might not apply from out-of-store sources.

If you have any questions, your local pet store workers are an excellent source of additional information. As many of them are reptile owners themselves, they will give you honest feedback and advice which will help you to take care of your turtle.

How to keep the tank clean:

There is nothing more frustrating for an aquarium owner than when your water is cloudy. You know it’s bad for your pet and it’d certainly not pleasing to the eye. There are a few steps that you can take to avoid the dreaded cloudy water.

1. Filter

The most important thing you’ll need in order to keep your tank clean is a good reliable filter. They make filters for all different sizes of tanks, but according to Lewis, bigger is always better.

“When someone comes in asking what filter they should get for their 20 gallon tank [for example] I’ll tell them to get a 50 gallon filter. It just gets the job done that much better.”

Filters can get pretty pricey, so be sure to do some research before just going out and buying one. You’ll also need cartridges for the filter which should be replaced every 30 days to keep the tank as clean as possible. This is an area of expertise for pet store employees, so pick their brains for answers on the best filter for you!

2. Pump and change water

When the water gets cloudy, do not panic and drain the whole tank. Draining all the water can be harmful. By cleaning the entire tank, you are wiping out the beneficial bacteria which breaks down the excrement. This is what decreases the cloudiness of the water. Beneficial bacteria can come from the food you give to your turtle or other sources such as the air. Or if you want to speed up the bacterial buildup, you can do it with a purchase.

“We sell biological supplements that have colonies of beneficial bacteria which will keep the tank clean,” says Lewis.

It is better to do a partial water change in which you remove approximately half of the water in the tank with a pump. Pumps vary in size, and some even hook up to the sink so you don’t have to worry about emptying the water in a bucket. Partial water changes should be done at least once a week to prevent high ammonia and nitrate levels. Also, don’t forget to remove your turtle when doing these changes.

When applying new water to the tank, it helps if you use a water conditioner. Adding a little conditioner to a bucket of water can go a long way to providing a cleaner environment.

3. Additional cleaning

If it gets to the point where there are lime deposits (or white crusty stuff) on the inside of the tank, it might be a good time to empty the tank. Earlier I said not to do this for bacterial purposes, but what’s the point of having an expensive tank if it looks bad? To remove the deposits, take a razor and gently scrape the deposits off as much as possible without scratching the glass. Then apply some vinegar and scrub like crazy! That should take care of the deposits and make your tank look good as new.

Good luck and remember to wash your hands after handling your turtle or the contents within the turtle tank! Click here for a map of companies who can provide you with assistance and products.

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The Hub Bub is a collection of articles, videos, audio, photo slideshows, interactive maps and other media produced by students enrolled in journalism courses at Loyola University Chicago's School of Communication. For more about the School of Communication, our award winning faculty, and our state of the art facilities located in the heart of Chicago, visit our website.