Cheap Turtle Tank Setup

It’s well-known that turtles are expensive pets. Allowing them to thrive in captivity means ensuring they have all the right equipment and conditions, as well as a balanced diet. 

However, this doesn’t mean that you can’t keep turtles on a budget. The most expensive part of any pet is getting them set-up.

With turtles, it’s more expensive than a dog or cat because you need a tank, UV light, and accessories such as a filter and basking platform to ensure your pets are as healthy and comfortable as possible. 

Don’t despair though, it is possible to create a cheap turtle tank set-up, and in this article, we plan on showing you exactly how you can do this. 

Before we get started, let’s consider what you need to get your turtle set-up in its new environment:

  • Tank 
  • UVA and UVB light 
  • Fixture for light 
  • Filter 
  • Water heater 
  • Basking platform 
  • Food

The Tank

Let’s start with the tank, as this will be your turtle’s home. 

There’s no way around it - tanks are expensive, and they’ll eat into the biggest part of your budget. 

Semi-aquatic species such as the painted or slider turtle need plenty of space to swim, and generally speaking, you should allow 10 gallons of water per inch of carapace shell.

So a full-sized red-eared female slider would need an 80-100 gallon tank, whereas a slightly smaller tank will suffice for males and painted turtles. 

Sadly, due to the high cost of large turtle tanks, there aren’t many available on Amazon. This 86 gallon tank is made from high-quality tempered ultra-white transparent glass ("crystal glass"), so it will be pretty durable and reliable.

However, it comes in at over $1,000, and we know not everyone can afford this. 

However, there is an alternative option: a stock tank. 

Stock tanks are more industrial looking and you won’t be able to see your turtle through the glass as you can with a tank, as these are made out of opaque materials such as structural foam.

The good thing about stock tanks is while they may not prioritize aesthetics, they’re super durable and are also big, wide and deep, so they provide ample space for your aquatic friend. 

Best of all, they’re a lot more affordable than your average tempered glass tank. They also come in multiple sizes, from 50 to 300 gallons, and even come with drains on the bottom to make cleaning and emptying your tank far easier. 

This one from Rubbermaid is 53 x 31 x 25 inches and has a 100-gallon capacity, it has stepped sidewalls and reinforced ribbing for optimal durability and stability. The all-plastic, anti-siphon float valve provides a constant water level and the oversized 1-½ inch drain plug allows for easy draining.

For smaller turtles, this 20-gallon Tetra aquarium is ideal, plus it comes with a filter and heating lamps, so while it’s roughly the same price as the 100-gallon stock tank mentioned above,  you’re also getting the filter and lamps thrown in, so it’s a pretty good deal.

However, don’t try to fit a bigger turtle in a small tank like this one. Turtles need plenty of room to swim around, so it’s unfair to restrict their freedom just because you want to save some money. Investing in your turtle’s environment will mean you get so much more out of your pet. 

UVA and UVB Light 

This item is also really important for creating the right set-up for your turtle. 

It’s not possible to cut corners when it comes to providing your turtle with UVA and UVB light, as unless your turtle is in an outdoor enclosure, it won’t be able to get its daily dose of these.

UVA light is known to help turtles with breeding and activity levels, as well as mood stabilization. Wild turtles would be exposed to UVA rays daily, so we want to try and replicate their natural environment as closely as possible.

UVB light is even more important, as this is how turtles acquire vitamin D3. Vitamin D3 helps them process and utilize calcium: turtles absorb the UVB rays, create Vitamin D and then convert it into Vitamin D3. 

It’s only when Vitamin D3 is present in their system that a turtle begins to utilize the calcium they’ve taken in through food. Calcium is very important for turtles; it helps them keep their shell in optimal condition, their bones strong and healthy, ensures important bodily functions. 

So, these light sources are crucial. Without them, turtles may succumb to deadly diseases and illness, and will generally have a poorer quality of life. 

The good news is that the UVA and UVB lamp you need for your turtle set-up isn’t expensive. 

This 2 pack of 75W reptile heat bulbs from BOEESPAT provide both UVA and UVB light, and the powerful wattage means you don’t need to position it too close to your turtle’s basking spot, either.

The downside to cheap bulbs is that they can become dimmer in just a few months, and can break pretty easily.

These lights are generally used 2-4 hours per day, but due to the high temperature, they may have a short lifespan as they can burn out quickly with frequent use.

However, the good thing is these lamps are cheap and replaceable, or you can invest in a higher quality one at a later date. 

Light Fixture

The UV bulb needs to be fixed to something in order for us to use it and it’s generally recommended to go for a UVA/B lampstand and dome fixture. However, for a lower budget, a simple clamp fixture will do the job.

A clamp fixture allows you to secure your lamp and direct it onto your turtle’s basking area. The only drawback is the clamp means you have to position the lamp in a specific spot, which means where you position your turtle’s basking area will be restricted to this. 

A budget clamp will do the job, for example, the NOMOYPET Clamp Lamp Fixture which costs a little over ten dollars. This universal lamp head can be rotated 360 degrees for versatile positioning and has a hanging hole and clamp design, so you can clip it onto your tank or hang it up.

It has a wire and control switch to ensure safe use and is UL Listed and CE certified. It’s also suitable for use with bulbs up to 110 volts.

Filter

A filter is essential for keeping your turtle’s water clean and to mechanically, biologically, and chemically filter your tank water.  Unfortunately, turtles are pretty messy creatures.  They tend to knock things over, tear food apart and leave bits floating around the tank, and they constantly defecate. 

Without a strong filter, you’ll not only find that the water will become murky and unclear, but the ammonia level in your tank may build up to potentially fatal levels, and you’ll also be required to clean your tank far more often than with a strong filter. So ultimately, a weak filter means poorer conditions for your turtle and more work for you. 

It’s tempting to want to save money in this area, which is why many turtle owners spend more money on the tank and even the heating, but less on a filter. However, buying a cheap, weak filter can cost you in the long run. 

A simple waterfall, underwater, or even power filter isn't going to cut it. 

For any turtle set-up, you need a powerful filter, but especially with tanks that are 55 gallons and over. The best type of filter is a canister filter, which sits on the outside of the tank and has tubing placed inside of the tank that funnels the water down into the filter chamber and passes it through multiple filtration stages. When the water is returned to the tank it’s fully filtered and cleaned, resulting in clearer water and a nicer looking aquarium. 

When it comes to looking for a filter, there are a few things to bear in mind. You need something powerful enough to thoroughly clean the water, that’s easy to set-up, and durable enough not to break down after a few months of use. It’s also important to look for something that isn’t too noisy, as nobody wants a noisy filter chugging away in the background. 

The hard part is finding a product that ticks all of these boxes, but which doesn’t cost the earth. The SunSun Hw302 265GPH Pro Canister Filter Kit is an affordable option that is also highly rated.

The SunSun can handle up to 264 gallons per hour and comes with filter pads, hoses, and all the parts you need to get your filter set-up.

The three flexible media trays allow you to add other filtration media such as SunSun's activated carbons ceramic rings or bio-balls to achieve excellent mechanical, chemical and biological filtration, and it also comes with a convenient self-priming pump that eliminates the need for manual siphoning. 

Water Heater

This is another essential feature for your turtle set-up and is not one to be skipped. Turtles are cold-blooded animals, so their metabolism adapts to their environment. When the temperature drops, their metabolism and movement significantly decreases. 

If your water is too cold, you may notice your turtle seemingly moving in slow-motion, and not eating too much. In the worst-case scenario, if a slider or any other breed of turtle is left swimming around in cold water for too long, it could end up contracting a bacterial infection, or even a deadly respiratory disease. 

Red-eared sliders need a water temperature between 76 and 84 degrees, whereas painteds prefer temperatures between 75 and 80 degrees. 

When it comes to looking for an affordable water heater, your concerns are mainly going to be around how much water the heater can heat up. The heater needs to be capable of heating 50 gallons of water from 75 to 84 degrees, and of course, it needs to be safe for your turtles and easy for you to install. 

This Aqueon Pro 150 Watt Underwater Heater is an ideal option and is pretty affordable, which is a big plus. This underwater heater has an adjustable heat setting between 68 to 88°F and an electronic thermostat accurate to +/- 1°. It’s designed to be as safe as possible. It’s fully submersible, and will automatically shut-off when it overheats and reset when it’s cooled down.

It has an LED light to indicate when it’s heating (red) and not heating (green). It’s also built to be durable, it’s shatterproof and very tough, so you needn’t worry about it breaking during the shipping process or installation. It also comes with a limited lifetime warranty. 

Basking Platform 

Ideally, you also need a basking platform for your turtle. This will allow it to bask in the UVA and UVB light, which as we explained above, is essential for your turtle’s health and wellbeing.

The good news is that you’ve got a range of options when it comes to basking platforms, and you won’t need to break the bank. 

The main thing to consider when shopping for a basking platform is to ensure your turtle can easily access it. You’ll want to pay attention to the shape of the platform and whether it’s easy for them to climb, as well as whether the material is slippery or easy for them to grip onto. 

Which basking platform you go for will largely depend on your tank size, as sometimes they’re designed for specific tank sizes. The Penn-Plax Reptology Life Science Floating Turtle-Pier is a great size for the price and will suit tanks that are 20 gallons or larger.

The pylon supports are adjustable in height and can be altered from as low as 3” for setups without water, to 16” for those with water.

You can also find smaller options, such as this BigTron Turtle Platform, which is fixed to the tank via four strong suction cups.

The main thing to consider with basking platforms is how strong they are. Floating platforms may sound appealing, but they can rarely cope with medium-large sized turtles and will simply sink.

If you have several turtles, you’ll also want to ensure you have a large basking area so that it doesn’t get overcrowded. 

If you want to save money on a basking area, your best option is to make one yourself. There are lots of ideas online, but the best ones include using a piece of driftwood (it won’t sink and has a good, smooth shape for turtles to climb), or some large rocks (although these will work best in outdoor setups). 

You also need to consider how the basking platform will be secured. For driftwood, you can use fishing wire, whereas many shop-bought options will feature suction cups. 

Food

Finally, the last element on our list, but still one of the most important - food! 

A staple of your turtle’s diet will be protein pellets. These are great as they’re inexpensive, easy for your turtle to eat, and will make up a good chunk of your turtle’s diet. The best pellets will be high in protein, but low in carbs, fats, and phosphorus. 

Tetra ReptoMin Floating Food Sticks are ideal. These come in a variety of sizes (you can also buy them in bulk) and are enriched with calcium and vitamins.

However, don’t be fooled into thinking your turtle needs protein pellets alone. 

A diet of just protein pellets, or too much protein, can lead to shell overgrowth and can be very harmful to turtles. As your turtle gets older, particularly if they’re a slider or painted, they’ll grow more herbivorous, so will enjoy leafy greens as well as protein. 

Like humans, turtles need a well-balanced, healthy diet that encompasses a range of food groups. 

A good turtle diet will include:

  • Protein pellets
  • Leafy green vegetables, such as lettuce (but not iceberg) and kale
  • Insects, crayfish, shrimp, and feeder fish

Full-sized turtles can be fed protein pellets every 2 to 3 days, as well as crayfish, insects, shrimp, and feeder fish once a week or a few times a month. You can feed your turtle leafy greens daily, and this combination of food groups will more accurately reflect their natural diet and will keep them in optimal health. 

Final Verdict

We hope this article has proven that setting up your turtle doesn’t have to be super expensive.

While there are a lot of things to buy, there are ways to save money without cutting corners. 

As we said above, all of the items in this article are essential for ensuring your turtle can thrive and live a happy, healthy life. 

Dorothy Razo
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