How to Set Up an Aquatic Turtle Tank?

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So you’ve decided to take the plunge and get a pet turtle.

The most important next step is to choose the best turtle tank for your aquatic turtle species, and deck it out with fun things for your little shelled friend.

In this article, we will cover how to set up aquatic turtle tanks, and everything you need to know to create the perfect habitat for your pet!

The first thing about aquatic turtle tanks, as the name implies, is that most of the tank will consist of water.

Terrestrial turtle tanks would have more sand, gravel, and substrate, which you don’t have to worry about for your pet aquatic turtle.

This also means your turtle likes to swim if it’s an aquatic species, so the bigger the tank the better!


Generally speaking, 20 gallons would be the smallest size you should consider when you set up an aquatic turtle tank.

Your turtle will grow and will need space to swim, so consider that when you commit to buying the turtle tank, which is not cheap!

If you really are on a budget and ended up adopting a turtle, this article shows how to set up a turtle tank for under $200 using a plastic stock tank.

Ideally, it’s best to buy and set up the turtle tank BEFORE getting the turtle, so it can transition smoothly into its new habitat.

What Do You Need to Set Up an Aquatic Turtle Tank?

how to setup turtle tank

As you may already know from research, an aquatic turtle tank can be a significant investment!

There is a wide range of options for aquatic turtle tanks, but either way, you will need the following to set up an aquatic turtle tank

1. The Turtle Tank Itself

Aquatic turtle tanks can be bought online or you can re-purpose a used fish aquarium

If it’s sturdy and can hold at least 20 gallons of water, you should be good to go!

2. A Way to Get Water Into the Turtle Tank

You can buy a water-changing kit online on sites such as Amazon or you can check your local pet store.

They may be expensive, but the quality of the water is very important for your pet turtle.

Alternatively, you could always use a more old-fashioned way with a bucket and a hose.

3. Lighting for the Turtle Tank

You must invest in good lights to keep your pet warm and happy. Not only do turtles need the light for warmth, but also for vitamin d and general health.

A good light set up can keep your turtle comfortable and also provide stunning views of your pet in its habitat.

4. Heating the Tank

how to set up a turtle tank filter

Water temperature is crucial to the turtles health and well being. Make sure to invest in one or more heaters to keep the water in the correct temperature range. 

Avoid glass heaters since they can break, and buy a stainless steel or cage-enclosed heating system.

5. Temperature Control

It’s important to control the water temperature, but also keep in mind the basking area.

Make sure to have a thermometer set up in each area to make sure the temperature is in the correct range.

6. Acidity Control

Aside from the temperature, you also need to control the acidity of the water. The easy way is to use general PH strips that you can buy at any pharmacy or pet store.

But if you can afford it, buy a water control kit as it will save you time and give you more peace of mind.

7. A Way to Clean the Water

If you a water filter is out of your budget, you can manually change it every few days using a bucket. However, there are many decently priced water filter kits that you can buy. 

Water filters are more efficient and a hassle-free way to keep your pet turtles water supply clean and bacteria free.

8. A Basking Area

Every turtle needs a bit of land (or rock!) even if it’s an aquatic species. In their natural environments, turtles enjoy basking in the sun for enjoyment and health.

Make sure to include the basking area into your plans, which can be made from rocks or bought as a turtle tank kit accessory.

9. Substrate and Decorations for the Tank

For aquatic turtle tanks, you won’t be needing much substrate since it’s mostly water in the tank.

You can use sand, rocks, corals and water plants to decorate the tank. 

Keep in mind the more you add to the turtle tank, the less water can fit in the tank!

10. An Aquarium Air Pump to Aerate the Water

Also to help keep the tank water clean, an air pump is a good accessory to add.

The turtles also like the air bubbles, that helps simulate their natural environment. Not a necessity, but a good add-on if you can afford it.

Step by Step Instructions on How to Set Up an Aquatic Turtle Tank

1. Choose a Turtle Tank

how to set up baby turtle tank

You need to consider the turtle tank size and capacity. For an aquatic turtle tank set up, you will need a tank that is designed for this purpose.

You should aim for a turtle tank that can hold at least 20 gallons, ideally 30 or 40 gallons if you are serious about turtle-sitting.

An aquatic turtle tank strong will be built out of glass or acrylic, and strong enough to be filled with water.

You can get a bargain on an old aquarium online or buy a brand new turtle tank kit that works out-of-the-box depending on your budget. Just make sure it’s sturdy, has no cracks, and can hold at least 20 gallons of water.

You can read about the best 5 turtle tank kits on the market here, and they range from under $100 to over $500 if you buy a top quality turtle tank kit.

This is just the initial investment since there is also maintenance, pet food, and part-replacement to consider as well. Not to mention the price of the turtle itself!

Pro Tip:

You can read about the best 5 turtle tank kits on the market here.

2. Set Up the Habitat

Your aquatic turtle tank will be filled mostly with water but you also need to add substrate and other terrestrial objects.

Sand is a good choice for turtles as it resembles the ocean, and you can add corals or aquatic plants depending on your species. You can also use smooth rocks to build a “hideout cave”, basking area or anything you can think of.

Just be mindful to not clutter the environment, so that your turtle has space to swim.

3. Include a Basking Area

The basking area is a crucial part of every turtle tank. This is your pet turtles “happy place” where they can enjoy a break from the water and some warmth. It’s also important for the turtle's general health and well-being.

You can buy a basking area kit that will just “plug and play” into your turtle tank, but what’s the fun in that! Be creative, use rocks and natural materials to build a customized basking platform, including a ramp with “steps” to the top.

4. Get Lighting and Heating for Your Turtle Tank

Warm turtles are happy turtles! 

Not only does a good lighting system keep your pet warm, but also provides it with Vitamin D and a substitute for the natural sun. UVB lighting is ideal for Vitamin D3 production which is important for the turtles bone health.

Without it, turtles struggle to absorb calcium which can cause health issues as the turtle grows.

Heating is also important, so invest in a submersible water heater to keep your pet warm. Additionally, you can also purchase a heating pad that goes at the bottom of the turtle tank for more warmth.

Make sure the basking area is properly lit and heated, so your pet turtle can stay healthy.

5. Taking Care of the Water

box turtle tank setup

Whether you choose to use a bucket to refresh the water every few days or an automatic water filter is entirely up to you. Using a bucket and a hose to cycle the water can be time-consuming, but will work just fine.

If you're serious about raising a pet turtle, you should invest in a good water filtration system. It’s important to keep the water clean and bacteria-free.

Also, invest in thermometers and some PH strips so you can control the temperature and acidity of the water at all times.

You can also purchase an automatic water control system, which is more expensive but will save you time in the long run.

It also gives you peace of mind that you're doing everything possible to ensure your pet turtle is happy and healthy.

6. Decorations

This is the fun part, where you get to personalize your aquatic turtle tank. You can use a combination of rocks, logs, and plants to decorate the turtle tank.

Both artificial and real plants can be used, just make sure they are sterilized before you put them in the tank.

Viewing lights can also be added, and you can find decorative lights that don’t affect your pet’s day/night cycle.

Sit back and enjoy watching your turtle explore the world you created for it!


Now that you know how to build an aquatic turtle tank, you can get to the fun part. You will be responsible for creating the world your pet turtle will inhabit.

Most turtle enthusiasts take great pride of their customized turtle tanks and you can find in-depth discussions on forums for hobbyists.

Once you have finished setting up your turtle tank, it’s time to sit back and enjoy watching your turtle.

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