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Keeping Reptiles Newsletter
Vol 2, Issue 6    
April, 2006
Setup for aquatic turtles in small tanks
In this Issue

by Mary Hopson

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Over the decades, I have used a great variety of cleaning methods and filtration systems. Aquatic turtles were often very hardy and good pets, but keeping their water clean was always a terrible chore. Turtles produce more waste than fish. Filters were always a disappointment, and I'd resort to changing the water-- siphoning and carrying bucket loads-- once a week. The internet changed all that.

When I first got online, I joined the only turtle discussion list that existed at the time and found a wonderful community with a wealth of knowledge. Several of the people there used a system that was highly regarded for its water quality and ease of maintenance. As soon as I started using it, my attitude toward aquatics changed instantly. They are very easy and a joy to keep.

The overall system that I use now involves a canister filter-- the Magnum 350 Deluxe model-- used along with an undergravel filter plate. After decades of vacuuming and constant water changes, this new idea seemed worth a try. But, of course, I didn't want to risk leaving my turtles in bad water, (even if it looked clean). So when I got my first Magnum/undergravel filter going, I tested the water frequently. The results were exactly as those helpful people had told me-- fabulous! I also noticed very soon that I never had problems with algae with this system. Ease of maintenance is unparalleled.

The basic concept:
Using a good canister attached to an undergravel filter plate with a thick layer (3" or more) of gravel on top creates a complete, natural system to clean water. The gravel layer filters the water biologically. You can stir it up once in awhile if you want to, but it really doesn't need much tending, because the turtles naturally turn it over in their travels about the tank. The waste is pulled down through this natural filter, breaking it down into small particles, which are sucked up into the canister. The sponge prefilter removes that stuff, providing mechanical filtration. Then the water travels through a charcoal center, which chemically cleans it. The end product of this 3-step process is terrific.

The setup:
You can set it up anyway you want, by connecting the canister to one of the up-tubes of the undergravel filter. (You cover the other openings with the caps provided.) Then the output hose of the canister can be placed anywhere you want. I like to put it on the opposite end of the tank, for maximum circulation. I also like to add a little basket of charcoal to the output hose. I'm not sure if it comes with the canister, or if I've found these from other filters that are lying around, no longer being used. You can place the output hose so it produces a little waterfall, or put it in the water for silence. I don't really have any two aquariums set up exactly the same. I just jury-rig things together and turn it on. There is great flexibility in how you can configure it, so just experiment. (Ignore the instruction manual, which shows only one setup, with the hoses right next to each other.)

To maintain the system, you rinse out the canister's prefilter every week or two. You can see it gathering "stuff" and clean it as it gets dirty, because the canister is transparent. The charcoal can be replaced every month or so. If you use real charcoal, you can clean it and heat it up, which will "recharge" it and make it useful longer. Frankly, it's just easier to replace, and not terribly expensive. Or you can use some of the mixed materials that are available in aquarium stores. In addition to tending the canister, you need to add water to replace that which evaporates. Exchanging water is not necessary. I know there are people who don't believe this, some of whom are quite experienced with other types of filtration systems. I didn't believe it either, which is why I tested the whole concept carefully before giving up on water exchanges. It works great. Major cleanings, where you vacuum the gravel, remove the water and scrub everything, are necessary only once or twice a year, depending on how well you tended the filter, how many turtles, etc.

Additional benefits:
I use lots of aquatic plants because these provide some of the best nutrition possible for aquatic turtles. Other filters clog up with bits of plants. Since this system pulls the plant bits downward, to be naturally broken up in the gravel, there is never a problem with clogging. Also, because the suction pulls everything down through a large surface area, there is no "hot spot" of suction to entrap small turtles, so it's an ideal setup for weak or tiny turtles. Of course, you have to be careful that your uptake hose is firmly connected to the UG filter plate. If it gets loose, it would act like other canister filters, and create an area of powerful suction.

I have heard that the Magnum canister doesn't work well with sand substrate, so the whole thing might not be best for people with softshell turtles who use that substrate. I've also heard that the vacuum that comes with the Pro model is too powerful, and gravel is sucked up into the canister, where it can damage the impeller. Don't bother to buy it, and don't use it; you don't need it anyway. There are inexpensive, self-starting siphons that do a good job, when you want to vacuum the gravel. I can only vouch for the Magnum 350 Deluxe (using the media cartridge, not the water polisher) with this system, because I have no experience with Fluvals or Filstars or other brands. They might work fine, but I can't say that. If your tap water is "hard" or contains lots of added chemicals, you might want to use bottled water. Otherwise, as water evaporates and you add more, any minerals or chemicals in the water would concentrate. I can't recommend the Magnum H.O.T. models with the UG filter, because it works best with full tanks. With turtles rather than fish, we usually don't keep the tanks full enough. I have one, and used it for a few years, but it was a bit of a pain to restart with half-full tanks. I can only recommend the system for tanks under 75 gals. Above that, you would probably want to add an additional filter, perhaps two Magnum/UGF setups in one tank. If you use too little gravel, there may be times when a portion of the UGF plate is exposed. The biological component of the system will not function then. However, the normal high and low points of gravel that naturally develop and change as the turtle moves about the tank seem to have no effect-- the system continues to work fine. It's also important to know that the canister must be lower than the water level to work correctly. With a raised tank on any kind of stand, you can place the canister on the floor. If your tank is on the floor, the canister might not work correctly.

The gravel issue:
Some turtle keepers have concerns about using gravel. They have heard the myth that it kills turtles. In fact, we know from research with wild turtles, that they eat gravel in the wild and it doesn't harm them. It may serve some purpose in digestion, but that is not established. What we do know is that small pieces of gravel pass harmlessly through the digestive tract. Since there is no way for small gravel bits to bind together, forming a large mass, it cannot cause an obstruction. Larger rocks can cause problems, especially if there is no gravel available. In their quest for gravel, some turtles will desperately try to eat larger rocks, and those do pose a risk. Another concern that is often expressed about gravel is that it gathers "gunk" and leads to poor water quality. That would be true in a system that does not use an undergravel filter plate. If you use gravel, you *must* use a UGF plate too, and vice versa.

I have been keeping turtles for over 40 years, and have never found an easier system to maintain, or one that produced water of this high quality in relatively small tanks. It's such a joy to never have to deal with excess algae, or shell rot, or any of the other common effects of poor water quality. I've been delighted to say goodbye to hauling water back and forth. This is the way to go if you want excellent water quality, but don't want to have to work hard. The people who first discussed this on that old internet list no longer seem to be active in the online turtle community, but I wish there was some way to thank them. My life improved tremendously when I started using this system.

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Mummy, I want a Burmese instead of my horse

This emailed story amused me, as I hope it does you.

Hey Mark,

Zeus is doing great up to about 12 feet and close to 75 pounds. He is getting to be handful, that's for sure, but I honestly have not seen a more docile animal in my life.

My son, Jesse, was back from the navy for 30 days and we built him a custom cage that measures 8ft long by 4ft wide and 4ft tall. I still have the royal pythons too.

While Jesse was back we took Zues to a show called Snake's Alive and he was the Grand Finale.

The kid's really loved him and it was fun to answer all the questions about him. I could see doing something like that for a part time job and to get paid yet too! He said next time he is in the area he will call about Zeu's availibility for the next show. I said no problem, I would be glad to, just to educate the people about these wonderful animals.

One lady said I was crazy, but when I found out she owned horses and told her far more people are hurt by horses than snakes, she said thats because more people own horses.

I said, "Well get a snake and then you will not have to worry about getting hurt now will you!"

She did not respond to that.

Take care

Question and Answer

Can you give em an estimate on how much it would cost to build the cages

It's really hard to say because it depends on so many factors. These include things like:

  • MDF versus plywood versus melamine versus tileboard (this is quite cheap but you need to build internal frames)
  • Can you cut your own glass or plexiglass?
  • Will you need a UV light (lizards)?
  • Are you going to use a regular globe or a ceramic basking light?
  • Are you going to make your own heat mat or buy a pre-made one?
  • Are you going to use a dimmer (rheostat) or a thermostat (preferable)?
  • Can you cut large mdf/plywood/melamine or will you pay someone to do it for you?
  • Will you use plexiglass or glass?
  • Are you going to have sliding glass doors or hinged doors?
  • Do you have to but any tools?
  • Are you going to paint it -do you alread have the paint?

There are lots of ways of saving money but I find that the fitting to the cage will probably cost more than the building materials. You can save money by using glass instead of plexiglass, cutting your on materials (but you have to be able to get a large sheet home), using whichever is cheapest (probably MDFbut it's hard to say for certain), making your own heat mat using Flexwatt but the Thermostat is variable in price ($25-$125).

My estimate of the cost of buildling a regular cage is about $75-$100, depending on the materials you use. The fittings will cost a similar amount. The large arboreal cage will probably cost twice that, but again it depends on what materials you use and how much you can do it yourself.

My advice is to spend a morning going to some hardware/wood suppliers and talking to them about what they have and whether they can cut materials etc and also looking at the materials and determining what you would like you cage to look like?

I'm sorry I cannot be exact, but look around and see what is available and wher you can make savings

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In the News
Tell Us What You Think!

If you have a story about one of your critters, funny or serious, found a great web site, found a great article or would like to contribute in any way, please contact me. I'm friendly, don't bite and would welcome your contributions.

And of course, if you have any suggestions for upcoming issues that you'd like to share with us, please send those too!

These could include:
- Great herp web-sites
- A fantastic herp article you know of that should be shared
- Why you pet reptile is fantastic
- A great idea you had
- Funny things that happened
- Dumb**s things that happened
- Images you'd like to share
- Care sheets for your herp

Remember - there are lots of people who would love to hear your stories. Just e-mail me at: Reptile-Cage-Plans

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Tell Us What You Think!!

Thanks to those who have given me feedback. I always want to know of your achievements, good and bad.

I've just added a section on making cages waterproof. There are a number of ways to do this and I have covered some of those options.

I have also added "How to Make a Reptile Cage Stand in Five Easy Steps" to the bonuses. Those of you have purchased the plans are welcome to download it. It is about 25 pages and has detailed steps. It is aimed people who have not made something like that before. There is a picture on the website of what a finished stand would look like.

I am currently finalising a book on making glass vivariums and should have that available within a month or so.

I have also some plans for a 3'x3'x18'' display type cabinet with side doors. This should also be available within a month or two.

Thank you to those people who continue to give me feedback and help others in their endeavours. You know who you are so well done!!

I have a few ideas for some other additions to the book and perhaps some other publications but I would love your input.

These could include:

  • Great herp web-sites
  • Why you pet reptile is fantastic
  • Funny things that happened
  • Dumb**s things that happenedS
  • Images you'd like to share.

Remember - there are lots of people who would love to hear your stories. Just e-mail me at: Reptile-Cage-Plans

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