How to Clean a Turtle Tank (Tips That Save Time Drastically)

how to clean a turtle tank

Turtles are very messy animal in general. If you are keeping turtles, then you know that their tanks get dirty in a very quick time. In this article, I am going to talk about how to clean a turtle tank. I’ll share some of the tips that I follow which saves more than half of the cleaning time. Surely nobody enjoys spending half of the day cleaning turtle tanks, right?

A full complete thorough cleaning of a turtle tank should be performed once or twice a month. Keeping the water safe and clean is the key to a healthy turtle tank.

What to Use to Clean a Turtle Tank?

Here are the things you’ll need to clean a turtle tank:

  • A temporary container for keeping your turtle when you are cleaning the tank.
  • A couple of buckets or similar containers for keeping the items of your turtle tank.
  • A garden hose or bathtub faucet
  • Vinegar, chlorine or bleach for making a cleaning solution
  • A sponge or rough rag to scrub the tank
  • A water test kit to check if the water parameters are okay. API master test kit is great for this purpose.
  • Some type of water conditioner to make the tap water safe for your turtle. I recommend using Reptisafe for turtle tanks.
  • Non-iodized salt for killing harmful bacteria

How to Clean a Turtle Tank Fast:

Here are the steps I follow to clean my turtle tank:

1. Putting the turtle in a container:

The first step is to take your turtle and place it in a secondary container. The container can be a bowl, bucket or a turtle carrying case. Make sure the container at least has a decent size for your turtle to swim around. Put a large rock or something in the container so that your turtle has something to climb on.

  • I prefer transparent containers in such cases as I can see what my turtle is up to.
  • Never use the container for anything else other than a temporary holder for your turtle. it is a must sanitary practice as turtles can carry salmonella.

2. Removing the electrical equipment:

Now it’s time to turn off all the electrical equipment inside the tank such as filters, heaters etc. unplug them and remove them from the tank one by one. Keep the equipment in a bucket or sink for cleaning them later.

  • Remember the positions of the equipment before you remove them. It is advised to keep the exact same setup as before otherwise your turtle may get uncomfortable.

3. Removing rest of the stuff:

Now it is time to take out the rest of the stuff. Remove all of the stuff i.e. basking place, decorations and keep them in a separate bucket for cleaning later. Use the bucket only for this purpose otherwise it may cause sanitary problems. After completing this step, your tank should only be left with the water and substrate (if you have any).

4. Take the tank to a cleaning area:

Now it’s time to carry the tank to a cleaning area. Depending on where you are, the cleaning area can be your bathroom or on the lawn. Always take someone with you when carrying the tank otherwise you may accidentally fell it over.

  • Always be extra careful when carrying the tank. As the tank will have both water and substrate in it, it will be very heavy. Always take someone with you when carrying.
  • Slide the tank slowly over the edge and place your hands below the tank. Then carefully lift it off. Your partner should do the same as you one the opposite end.

5. Drain off all the water:

Once you have taken the tank into a cleaning area, now it’s time to drain off all the water. Simply place your hands on one end and tilt off the tank so the water pours out completely. If the tank is too heavy for you, then you should call out your partner again for help.

  • If you have any type of substrate in your tank, leave it on for now. If the substrate is organic such as nut shells or peat, then you’ll have to discard it and replace with new ones.

6. Cleaning the substrate:

This step is only for those who have substrates in their turtle tank. Once you have gotten rid of all the water, it’s time to clean the substrate thoroughly. Substrate gets dirtiest in a turtle tank. It traps all types of turtle foods, debris and turtle wastes. Unless you clean the substrate thoroughly, your turtle tank will get dirty again within a day or two.

To clean the substrate, you’ll have to use a garden hose or faucet of the bathtub. It is not a must, but it’ll make your job a whole lot easier. Using the faucet or hose, fill the tank 1/4th with water. Now, rinse the substrate completely. Stir off it thoroughly so all the trapped organic debris gets free. Now, empty all the water like we have done in the previous step.

  • Continue to repeat this process until the water gets cleaner. Generally repeating 5 or 6 times will do the job.
  • If the tank is too heavy for you to lift, then ask someone to help you with it. Never overestimate your strength when working with glass aquariums.

7. Making a cleaning solution:

Preparing a cleaning solution is very straightforward and takes only a couple of minutes if you have the ingredients. You can make the solution with either bleach or white vinegar, whatever you prefer. Take 1 gallon of water and add half cup (approximately 100 mL) bleach to it or 50 mL white vinegar. Your solution is ready.

  • Don’t use vinegar or bleach solution if you are cleaning the tank in a lawn or near vegetation. Bleach or vinegar may kill plants. Instead of these, use a reputable biodegradable tank cleaner.
  • Don’t use detergents or soaps to clean the turtle tank. They contain strong hard chemicals which can be very harmful for your turtles. Moreover, these chemical residues are hard to remove.
  • If the smell of chlorine or vinegar irritates you or you don’t want to go through the trouble of making a cleaning solution, then you can purchase a good turtle safe cleaner. They are very cheap yet effective. I personally like API turtle sludge destroyer.

8. It’s time to scrub the tank:

Not it’s time to use the cleaning solution that we have prepared in the last step. Get a good quality sponge or bristly rag and dip it inside the solution. now, scrub the tank thoroughly with the sponge. Pay special attention to all the corners, the bottom of the tank and where the two panels meet.

  • If the substrates are in your way, tilt the tank on one side so the gravels fall to that side. Now when you are done with one side, go on to the opposite one and repeat.
  • After scrubbing the glass, you should scrub thoroughly all the gravels and rocks too.

9. Cleaning all the equipment:

Remember the equipment that we have stored in a bucket for cleaning later? Well, now is the time. Take the filter, open it carefully according to the instructions on the manual and scrub each piece thoroughly using the cleaning solution. After scrubbing, put the filter pieces under running water and rinse them properly.

Do the same for other items such as heaters, decorations, rocks, basking platforms etc. after you have rinsed them all, leave them in a place for drying up.

  • You should consider replacing the filter bag once a month.
  • If you have any cuts or scrapings on your hand, it is better not to clean the filter yourself as the cut can turn into an infection. Instead, ask someone else to clean the filter.

10. Washing the tank:

Take the hose or bathtub faucet and wash the tank thoroughly. Make sure all the cleaning residues are washed away with the water. Also look for small particles and debris. Continue to rinse out all the sides of the tank until you can’t smell any hint of vinegar or bleach. After rinsing the tank properly, take a dry piece of cloth and mop the tank. You can also leave the tank outside for it to dry.

11. Placing the tank:

Now that we’ve cleaned the tank, it’s time to put it back in its place. slowly carry the tank to its original place. Ask someone to help you with it. Now put all the items back into the tank. Try to make the arrangements look like before as disorientation often causes anxiety among turtles. Be careful when you are installing the electrical equipment inside the tank.

  • Make sure the tank is dry when you are carrying it back to the original place. if the tank is wet, it may slip off from your hand and cause a major accident.

12. Making the water turtle safe:

In most locations of the USA, the tap water contains an excessive amount of chlor taine which can be deadly for turtles. That’s why you should always ensure the water is perfectly safe before you put your turtle inside it. The best and safest way to make tap water safe for your turtle is using a water dechlorinator. I like to use Zoo Med’s Reptisafe to make my tap water safe for the turtles. It is amazingly cheap and I completely trust Zoo Med.

13. Is the temperature okay?

After refilling the tank, don’t rush off to put your turtle inside the tank. First, you need to make sure the temperature is right. The temperature of the water should range between 70 to 75 degree Fahrenheit. If the water is too hot, wait for some time so the temperature cools down a bit. On the contrary, use a heater if the water is too cold.

14. Check the water parameter:

api freshwater master test kit If you don’t have yet, you should invest in a water test kit for your turtle tank. They are very cheap yet very effective for keeping turtles and fishes. Before you put your turtle in the tank, check the water parameters with the test kit. look if the pH, nitrate, ammonia, and nitrite levels are in the safe range.

  • The test procedure will vary depending on what type of test kits you are using. In most cases, you need to take some tank water in a test tube and mix it with a solution. The solution will produce a color with which you can match the reading.
  • Each species of turtle has an ideal pH range. So, ask an expert to know the ideal pH range for your turtle species. For most aquatic turtles, the pH should range between 7 to 8.
  • If you see any of the parameters is not in the safe range, then you can buy additional additives to control them.
  • I like API master test kit for checking the water parameter. It is very cheap yet highly effective in producing accurate results.

15. Some salt may help:

According to many turtle owners, non-iodized salts help to kill bad bacteria in the water column. It also helps to prevent skin and shell diseases among turtles. If you want, you can use 1 teaspoon of non-iodized salt for every gallon of water. API aquarium salt will be a good choice for this.

16. The final step:

Everything is ready now for your turtle. take your little friend from the container and place her gently in the tank. You can reward her with a treat (worm, lettuce or regular food) for being nice. Do not forget to clean your hands thoroughly with an anti-bacterial soap after everything is completed.

Tips on How to Keep a Turtle Tank Water Clean:

Using a sufficient sized tank:

If the tank is smaller for your turtle, then it would be much harder to keep it clean. Turtles produce waste a lot more than fishes. So, if the tank is smaller, it will get dirty very quickly. Moreover, turtles are known to produce a significant amount of ammonia. A biological filter removes that ammonia from the water. However, if the tank is too small, the concentration of ammonia would be too high, which can cause major health issues to the turtle.

There is a good rule of thumb to determine the perfect size of tank for your turtle. The rule goes like this, for every inch of shell size, you’ll need at least 10 gallons of swimming space. suppose, your turtle has a shell length of 2 inches. So, you must have a tank that provides at least 20 gallons swimming space for your turtle.

Another way of looking at the rule is, for 2.5 centimeters of shell length, you’ll need approximately 38 litters of swimming space.

For additional turtles, you need to only add the half of required space. Suppose, you have two turtles each having a shell length of 2 inches. So, you’ll need a total of 30 gallons of swimming space for them. 20 gallons for the first turtle and 20*.5=10 gallons for the second turtle. I hope it is clear!

Getting a decent filter:

If you don’t have a decent powered filter for your turtle tank, then you’ll face a pretty hard time to keep it clean. As you know turtles produce a lot more waste than fishes, you’ll need a much more powerful filter for them. A turtle tank requires three types of filtration: mechanical filtration, biological filtration, and chemical filtration. I have written a detailed article on turtle tank filtration. Don’t forget to check it out.

Cleaning the excess food:

Is there any leftover food after your turtles have eaten up? if there is, you need to quickly collect these using a net and throw them out. Leftover foods cause many problems in a turtle tank. They decompose and fouls the water quality. In most cases, the foods get trapped inside the substrate and start to decay. This creates ammonia and nitrate which is harmful for a turtle tank.

If your turtle is a messy eater or if you are feeding a messy food, then it is better to feed your turtle in a separate tank. It will keep the water in the main tank safe and healthy.

Using a good turtle tank vacuum cleaner:

python no spill and fill It is a great practice to vacuum clean your turtle tank regularly, especially if the tank has substrate. Vacuum cleaning is very important because it cleans the dirtiest part of the turtle tank, the substrate. Substrate traps all the wastes and uneaten foods within it. If not vacuumed regularly, this debris can create pockets of gas inside the substrate. These are very harmful for turtles as these gas pockets increase ammonia and nitrate inside the tank. Also, with vacuum cleaning, you are partially changing the water of the turtle tank, which is highly beneficial.

To me, Python’s no spill clean and fill vacuum cleaner is the best one right now in the market. it is very easy to use and makes the whole process very quick. The water faucet adapters are great for either adding or removing water from the tank. You don’t have to carry buckets of water around the house anymore!

Never use your mouth when siphoning out the water from the turtle tank. Always use the siphoning bulb given with the vacuum cleaner. Turtle tank water can contain salmonella, a type of virus which does nothing to turtles but deadly for humans.

Observe the water parameters:

well, turtles are not prone to water parameters as much as fishes. However, you do need to look out for some of the parameters such as pH, nitrate, and ammonia. Below are the safe ranges of these parameters for most aquatic turtles:

  • The pH of an established turtle tank should range between 7 to 8
  • Amount of ammonia 0
  • Amount of chlorine 0
  • Preferably 0 nitrite level or maximum 0.5 ppm
  • Maximum 40 ppm of nitrate

These are the safe ranges for most aquatic turtle species. If any of the water parameters is not in the ideal range, then you can control it by adding additives. Suppose, a natural driftwood in the turtle tank or peat moss in the filter will lower the amount of pH. On the other hand, if you need to increase the level of pH, there are many additives which you can buy from the pet store. Crushed corals, baking soda etc. are also effective in increasing the pH level.

Regular water change:

Regular water change is a great way to keep a turtle tank healthy and clean. Water changes help to neutralize the water parameters in the turtle tank, get rid of excess waste and debris. By performing regular partial water changes, you can keep a turtle tank clean for a really long time.

If you are vacuum cleaning your turtle tank, then you may not need to spend extra time for water changing as you are already performing partial water change with the vacuum cleaning. Otherwise, do a partial 25% water change on a weekly basis. Water changing these days takes next to no time. You can easily do the job with a siphon hose within 10 to 20 minutes.

Always remember to turn off all the electrical equipment when you are performing a water change.

Turtles need aeration:

Most people are not aware that turtles have lungs and they breathe like we do. That’s why it is extremely important to aerate your tank. Aerating the tank increases the oxygen quantity in the tank water. Aerating also discourages the growth of anaerobic bacteria which keeps the tank safe and healthy. If you don’t know, anaerobic bacteria are basically the bad bacteria that don’t like oxygen and lowers the quality of the tank water.

Aerating the tank is foolishly easy and costs only a few dollars. All you need to have is an air pump and an air stone. The air stone constantly produces air bubbles which disrupt the surface of the water and increases the oxygen quantity in the water.

Water circulation:

hydor aquarium water circulation pumpWater circulation is a good thing to keep the water quality high. In fact, most aquatic turtle species prefer a slight circulation around the tank. Creating a water circulation inside the turtle tank is very easy. If you have a good external canister filter, you can just take the outlet tube and place it deep in the tank. To guide the water flow in a particular direction, you can use a spray bar or elbow adapter.

There are also aquarium circulation pumps which can create a nice circulation around the turtle tank water. Here are some other reasons why circulation is beneficial for a turtle tank:

  • A good circulation helps the filter to work more effectively.
  • A recent observation found out that circulation helps to keep a constant temperature throughout the turtle tank.
  • Circulation helps to increase the amount of oxygen in the water. As a result, it also helps to destroy unwanted anaerobic bacteria.
  • Circulation discourages algae growth in the tank.

Plants help:

Plants are a great addition for keeping your tank natural and healthy. They absorb nitrates, ammonia and other harmful elements from the tank water. Plants also absorb carbon dioxide and produce oxygen in the water, which is highly beneficial for the turtle. it also discourages algae growth in the tank.

However, whenever you are choosing plants for a turtle tank, you need to be careful because most of the plants will become a delicious salad for your turtle. even some plants can be toxic to them. So, you need to choose one carefully.

UV sterilizers:

UV sterilizers are a great tool to kill harmful bacteria, algae, fungi and water-borne parasites. The UV light destroys the organisms and kills their capability to reproduce. You can either buy an extra UV sterilizer. However, I like to use canister filters that have a UV sterilizer built inside them. SunSun pro canister filter is a great example.

How Often to Clean Turtle Tank:

The frequency of cleaning a turtle tank actually depends on the degree of cleaning. There are some basic things you need to do daily. On the other hand, there is some stuff need to be done on a weekly or biweekly basis. It all depends on what type of cleaning you are doing.

The daily tasks should be monitoring the tank to see if everything is okay, straining out the uneaten foods from the water, removing droppings from the water etc.

You need to perform a partial water change at least once a week. It is extremely important to regular water changes for keeping the tank water quality high. I also love to vacuum clean the tank when performing a partial water change.

At least once a month, you need to do a full cleanup of your turtle tank using the steps mentioned above.


I hope this detailed guide on how to clean a turtle tank will come in handy to you. Let me know if you have any questions in the comment box below!


Muntaseer Rahman

I have been keeping turtles as a pet for many years now. I’ve fallen in love with these cute pets from the moment I saw them. That’s why I am writing articles to share my turtle keeping knowledge with you.

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