Ideal Painted Turtle Tank Setup main picture

Painted turtles are incredibly popular pets but unfortunately, a lot of people don’t know to take care of them properly. In this article, I will show you the ideal painted turtle tank setup. 

Painted turtles are my favorite species of turtle, not just in the United States, but the entire world. Their vibrant colors, as well as subspecies diversity, make them amazingly beautiful creatures.

However, if I have learned anything after getting into pet turtle care, it’s that there are a ton of people out there who simply aren’t aware of the proper way to take of these cute little turtles.

And that’s why I decided to write this article.

You don’t need thousands of dollars, or a gigantic 1,000-gallon tank in order to create an amazing pet turtle habitat. All you need are a few simple things.

Cheap 55 gallon turtle tank

Aqueon Standard Glass Aquarium Tank 75 Gallon ~$210

The Aqueon 75 Gallon turtle tank is a very affordable tank that is perfect for a painted turtle. It will give your turtle more than enough room to swim and bask.

Painted Turtle Habitat

In order to have the perfect set up for your painted turtle, it is important to understand a painted turtle’s natural habitat. A painted turtle habitat typically includes warm water and access to a lot of light. Painted turtles also love to get on top of rocks and logs in order to warm themselves up and dry their shell.

If you want a healthy painted turtle, you must have a good basking platform. Below are 3 of my favorite products for a pet turtle basking platform:

Penn-Plax Basking Platform

    Price: ~$20

Check Price On Amazon
UVA UVB Turtle Basking Light

    Price: ~$20

Check Price On Amazon
UVA UVB Replacement Light Bulb

    Price: ~$22

Check Price On Amazon

The Ideal Painted Turtle Tank Setup

So, what does the ideal painted turtle tank setup need?

The ideal painted turtle tank setup would include a big enough tank that is full of water, a basking dock or area for the turtle to completely dry off and soak up some healthy UV-rays, as well as a good filter and an underwater. 

That’s literally all you need to do in order to do your part in creating a healthy environment for your pet.

Next, I will go into a little bit more detail about the specifics of each component here.

Painted Turtle Aquarium Size

Painted turtles are an aquatic species. This means that they will spend the majority of their lives swimming, eating and sleeping in the water.

Pragmatically, this means that your biggest concern when owning one of these turtles is how much water space you can provide in or outside of your home. 

Now, how much water space will you need?

This is always a bit of a judgment call, and moreover, will really depend on a bunch of factors, such as:

  • Any size or space limitations in your house.
  • How much you can afford.
  • The subspecies of painted turtle you have.
  • How many turtles you are planning to have in the tank.

All of these come into play here.

I’ll simplify this as best I can.

The general rule for determining your tank size is to look up the maximum size of your turtle’s species in inches (particularly the shell length if you can) and take that number and multiply it by 10. In other words, 1 inch should equal about 10 gallons of water. 

That is how much water you will need for an ideal tank.

What Is The Best Tank For A Painted Turtle?

Let’s look at the sizes of the different painted turtle sub-species, from smallest to largest, measured by their largest potential size.

  • Southern Painted Turtle – 6 inches
  • Eastern Painted Turtle – 7 inches
  • Midland Painted Turtle – 10 inches
  • Western Painted Turtle – 10 inches

If you don’t know how to determine what species of painted turtle you have, read this quick article I wrote on how to identify a painted turtle.

Basically, what this means is that at minimum, you should be aiming for a larger tank, something around 90 to 100 gallons.

Now, I know I know, that is a biiiiiiiig tank! And big tanks can be pretty expensive, as well as a hassle to figure out where to put or mount and all of that.

Instead, I would like to offer an alternative.

Try to get a 75-gallon tank. 

I have been taking care of aquatic turtles for some time and while yes, bigger is better, I can tell you that a 75-gallon tank will work just fine for all of the painted turtle species, Western and Midlands included.

The cheapest 75-gallon tank is available from Petco.

If you can’t find a 75 gallon tank, I recommend this 55 Gallon Tetra Tank.

If you plan on having two painted turtles, I would suggest you check out a 100 gallon turtle tank.

Once you have done that, your next step is easy! Fill it with distilled or conditioned water! You can get this turtle tank conditioner for $3.

Painted Turtle Basking Area

After you have filled your tank nearly full of water, the next thing you will need to figure out is where and how to set-up a basking dock.

Although painted turtles are an aquatic species that needs to be in the water, they also need a spot somewhere to completely get away from the water, dry off and soak up some UV-rays.

Your basking dock is just that.

You basically have 2 options here, you can either go with a pre-made dock or create your own.

Turtle Dock

I advise most beginners to use a pre-made basking dock because they are so much easier to install and set-up.

If you can, I would strongly recommend:

One of the reasons why I recommend this product so much is that it’s perfect for smaller tanks, as it sits above the aquarium and thus frees up a ton of space.

There is a pretty big downside, however. It will only fit on tanks up to 13 inches wide.

So, if you have a 75-gallon tank that is 15 inches wide, this thing just won’t fit unless you do a bit of custom rig-work.

Homemade Turtle Dock

Your other option is to make a basking dock yourself.

It’s actually fairly straight-forward to do.

There are many different types of turtle basking platforms, but basically, the idea is to get a piece of driftwood that will both be able to fit into your tank AND be large enough so that your turtle can bask on.

Then, basically use fishing wire to hold it up in the water.

Whatever method you do choose, I would strongly recommend steering clear of floating docks and any other type of manufactured dock, as many of them will sink under the weight of an adult painted turtle.

Believe me, I have wasted more than a few dollars trying them out!

Best Filter For Painted Turtles

You will also need a water filter, but not just any, a STRONG one.

Unfortunately, these can be a little pricey.

However, they are worth it and will save you a lot of time, but more crucially, it will be important for maintaining your turtle’s health.

You will need a strong filter for 2 reasons:

  • You’ll need a bigger-sized aquarium to accommodate a painted turtle and it takes a lot of power to clean a large tank.
  • Turtles produce an insane amount of waste, much more than fish, which will put extra strain on your filter. If you plan on putting fish in your tank, you should check out my article on can turtles live with fish?

So, unfortunately, that means that all of those little internal filters and even many power filters just won’t be up to snuff.

Trust me on this. If you expect a little internal filter that was designed to clean a 20-gallon aquarium with a few fish to work on a 75-gallon tank with a painted turtle, you will be sorely disappointed!

For this, I recommend canister filters.

Turtle Canister Filters

Now, they are large, they sit outside of your tank, and hooking them up and cleaning them can be annoying. However, they are necessary to keep your tank water clean, as well as providing healthy water for your turtle.

But, they are all strong enough to clean the water adequately as well as capable of cleaning up all of your turtle’s waste. Unlike just about every internal filter and most power filters, the vast majority of them also provide:

  • Mechanical filtration.
  • Chemical filtration.
  • Biological filtration.

For a list of great canister filters for turtle tanks, I would strongly suggest reading this article I wrote best filter for turtles..

I know that these can be pricey, so if that is a concern, I would suggest saving a little bit until you can afford something like the Sun-Sun 302. I have owned 2 different Sun Sun models in the past and they are good quality products that work well and are reliable.

Painted Turtle UVB Light

The last few things you will need are a UV-light and a water heater for your painted turtle tank setup.

You’ll need each of these for a different reason. While the UV-light is more important than the water heater, you WILL still need one.

Wild turtles bask on stones, rocks, logs, and other things in order to dry off their shell (which prevents shell rot and other diseases), heat themselves up and stay healthy.

UV light can be broken down into 2 types that are applicable here, UV-A and UV-B.

  • Turtles need UV-A light for their metabolism, mood regulation and to help with breeding.
  • They also need UV-B light to produce vitamin D3. They need this vitamin in order to metabolize and process calcium in their bodies.

Both of these are vital.

So, you’ll need a UV-light that produces BOTH UV-A and UV-B light. Both are essential, so I can’t tell you enough to avoid any light that only has 1. 

Turtle UVB Light Wattage

UV-lights come in different wattages, but that actually isn’t important.

For example, let’s say you have 2 bulbs:

  • A 50-watt bulb that produces UV-A and UV-B light.
  • A 150 watt light that produces both types of light.

The only real difference that will make for you is that you will be able to place the 150-watt bulb further away from your basking dock to achieve the same temperature.

This is why the temperature of your basking dock is important rather than how many watts your bulb is.

This is also why I suggest getting or setting up your basking dock first before your UV-light. Then you’ll be able to figure out where and how you can set-up your light. From that, then figure out how many watts you will need. 

For UV-lights, I would recommend checking out this article on the best turtle light bulb.

Additionally, if you are interested in adding plants to your painted turtle tank, you should check out my article on turtle safe plants.

Turtle Water Heater

That brings us next to water heaters.

Some people will say that turtles in the wild don’t need them, so, therefore, they aren’t necessary.

That’s not exactly true, however.

Yes, turtles in the wild don’t have them, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t necessary.

That is because every year a good chunk of the turtle population contracts respiratory infections and other illnesses caused by being out in the cold for too long. Not every turtle makes it through the winter.

And as a pet owner, you want to MAXIMIZE the chances of your turtle living a long, healthy life. And that means providing a water heater to reduce the chances of your turtle getting one of those nasty respiratory illnesses.

This is especially true the further north you are. Basically, the colder your winters get, the more you will need a water heater.

My favorite water heater for my turtle tank is this Submersible Aquarium Heater. You can click on the picture below for more details.

For more water heater recommendations, I would suggest checking out this article I wrote on the best underwater heater for turtles.

Tank Setup For A Baby Painted Turtle

Some people may suggest to set up a smaller aquarium if you have a baby painted turtle, and then as it grows, move up to a bigger tank.

A separate baby painted turtle tank setup is completely unnecessary (and needlessly expensive!) in my opinion.

Regardless of its size, you should provide the biggest aquarium you can to any turtle you have. 

A baby painted turtle will need everything that an adult needs. The only difference really is in their diet; an adult painted turtle should eat a plant and vegetable-based diet whereas a baby’s should be more protein-centric.

Other than that, they need the exact same things.

The second reason why it’s unnecessary is simply because it would be too expensive.

Imagine buying a 40-gallon tank and a canister filter that can handle a 50-gallon tank for your painted turtle. In less than two or three years your turtle will have already outgrown its tank, and you’ll need to upgrade to a bigger tank, and to a more capable filter.

Instead, set-up your tank the first correctly, so that you won’t need to make any substantial changes.


That’s basically all you absolutely need for the ideal painted turtle tank setup. Other things, such as hideaways, aquatic plants, decorations, even substrate are all extra icing on the top and not essential.

If you are able to provide:

  • A large enough aquarium (I would recommend 75 gallons as the minimum size).
  • A basking dock.
  • A UV-light that produces both UV-A and UV-B light.
  • A strong enough water filter.
  • An underwater heater.

You will have drastically increased the chances of your turtle living a long, healthy and prosperous life!

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