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How To Keep A Turtle Tank Clean

Keeping a turtle tank clean is a key issue for many people and is separate from the issue of just regular cleaning. Keeping an aquatic tank of fish, aquatic frogs, watersnakes, and of course turtles is just a challenge and requires some work and tools.

Having a clean space ensures that your pet turtle will remain healthy and on top of that will keep the smell to a minimum.

As opposed to fish, turtles produce a lot of more waste. As such, a large tank is a must and so is a powerful filter. Additionally, since turtles won’t die of shock when the water in the aquarium is changed, you need to change the water regularly.

Ways To Keep A Turtle Tank Clean

How To Keep A Turtle Tank Clean
Dirty aquarium with lid and basking area removed

Here I will outline and explain ways by which to keep a turtle tank clean.

Materials & Tools You May Need

Install A Powerful Filter

Turtles are messier than fish and they also produce more waste. As such, it is essential to install a powerful filter. The job of the filter is to circulate the water within the tank and filter out waste as it does so.

There are three types of filters available. These include the canister filter, submersible filter, and hang-on-back filter.

With the submersible filter, the entire filter is submerged into the tank.

With canister filters, the filter itself is placed outside the tank. The water is pumped from the tank to the canister which filters it and then pumps it back into the tank.  

The canisters/filters are huge and can filter through large volumes of water. Because of the filtering capabilities of canister filters, they are the best types to use. 

When getting a filter get one that is marked for an aquarium twice or even triple that of the current turtle tank. This is essential if you have two or more turtles living in the same tank.

Different filters provide different types of filtration. The best filters provide both mechanical and biological filtration. Some even provide chemical filtration. Mechanical filtration involves a screen that filters out dirt, debris, and any tiny unwanted particles.

Chemical filters usually use activated charcoal (carbon) to remove odors and discolorations. Biological filtration involves the use of bio-rings, bio-sponges, and even bio-wheels. 

The filter media which includes flosses, sponges, rings, activated carbon, and several others depending on the filter brand being used needs to be changed regularly as instructed by the manual that comes with the filter.

While submersible filters can do a great job of keeping the water clean and free of bad smells, canister filters are generally better.

For more information on choosing a filter for your turtle tank, see our guide on choosing the Best Filter For your Turtle Tank.

Remove All Leftover Food

Leftover food increases the ammonia levels in the tank which increases the nitrite and the nitrate levels in the turtle tank. These high levels of nitrite and nitrates are harmful to the turtle.

Remove all leftover foods after feeding the turtle. You can use a small fishnet to do this. Also, once a week, you should vacuum the turtle tank especially if the turtle tank seems to get smelly and dirty quickly. This is especially true if you have gravel at the bottom of the tank.

You can use a special vacuum designed for aquariums. An example of this is Python No Spill Clean and Fill Aquarium Maintenance System.

It is a good idea for the nozzle to be a long one so it can reach all parts of the enclosure. An ammonia-free aquarium also smells good and the waters are clearer.

Remove Harmful Naturally Occurring Chemicals and Dechlorinate The Water

Chemicals such as nitrate, nitrite, and ammonia build up over time. These chemicals can be harmful to the turtle in the short and the long run. While filters can help minimize the amount of harmful buildup, your best choice is to manually remove these chemical buildups.

You can do this by changing the water in the aquarium regularly. Turtles don’t suffer shock when the water in their aquarium is changed so they should be okay.

Changing the water in the tank can be a hustle when you take the difficult route. The best and easiest way to remove water from the tank is to use a tool such as the Python No Spill Clean and Fill Aquarium Maintenance System.

This allows you to remove water from the tank without having to physically move the tank. With this tool, changing the water is a breeze and you can do it as often as you like with no issue at all.

How often should you change the water in the tank?

I recommend changing about a third or half of the water in the tank once a week and changing everything once a month. Along with the monthly change, you can also clean the tank with a 5% chlorine bleach solution. We detail this process in the article  – How to clean a turtle tank.

**Important: Never add bleach to the water or clean the tank with the turtle in it. You will kill it.**

It is best to use only dechlorinated water. You can dechlorinate tap water by using a water conditioner such as the API TAP Water Conditioner.

Use UV Light To Sterilize The Water

Using UV lights to sterilize the water helps to keep the enclosure clean and removes bad smells.

UV light is known to provide the chelonian with vitamin D3. UV ensures the turtle synthesizes vitamin D3 which in turn ensures that the turtle can utilize the calcium it absorbs.  However, UV light can also be used to sterilize the water in the turtle tank.

So you may ask, “How is this possible” Do you simply use a normal UV light bulb? Well, you have to use a UV water sterilizer.

The UV water sterilizer contains a special light bulb that disinfects the water. This is the most effective way to get rid of bacteria that cause foul smells. The lights keep bacteria numbers in check and also kill algae as well as other harmful pathogens.

If the turtle tank is still foul-smelling even after trying a wide range of solutions then a UVC germicidal light bulb may just be your best option.

A lot of good aquarium shops (pet shops that deal with aquarium supplies and accessories) have these water sterilizers. Finding one at your local fish supplies pet shop is a good route.

However, if you can’t find one locally, you can always check online. Here are two excellent UV water sterilizers you can get. The first one we will look at is the CooSpider UV Filter. This UV water sterilizer is ideal for tanks between 40 and 80 gallons.

The other UV water sterilizer we will look at is the Coralife Turbo-Twist UV Sterilizer. This is great for large tanks and can accommodate sizes of up to 250 gallons. It’s a bad idea to get an underpowered UV sterilizer if you have a large tank.

The Tank Size Matters

yellow bellied turtle swimming in clean tank
Yellow-bellied turtle swimming in a clean tank

You may not think it but the size of the tank does contribute to how clean the can be. Smaller tanks get dirtier more quickly. However, if the tank is overly large, you will spend a lot more resources keeping it clean. The right size is essential.

A simple way to determine the size of the tank for your turtle is to measure the turtle’s overall length in inches. Simply multiply this by 10-15 gallons. For example, a 5-inch turtle should be comfortable in a 50 to 75-gallon turtle tank.

There is a chance that you acquire your pet Chelonian before it has reached its adult size. Such a turtle will continue to grow. With this, you can buy the tank based on the average adult size. Others choose to acquire a 20-gallon tank for the baby turtle and then change it for a larger tank once the turtle reaches its maximum length.

What about if you have more than one turtle?

In this case, the tank should be half times bigger for each extra occupant. For example, if for one turtle, the tank capacity is 50 gallons, for two turtles the capacity should be 75 gallons.

The main reason for a dirty and smelly tank is its tiny size.


How Do You Deal with a Smelly Turtle Tank?

Sometimes turtle tanks can get awfully odorous. This can be a huge problem as the tank may end up stinking the entire room and even the entire house. As you can see, this can be a huge problem.

So how do you deal with an awful-smelling tank?

Turtles are messy reptiles as established earlier. And even when you think you have done everything right, the water can still be stinky. Here are some steps to take.

  • The quickest solution is to change the water in the aquarium. Of course, you can’t keep changing the water in the aquarium all the time so this is a very temporary fix. If you can change the water in the tank every week or even twice a week.
  • Also, remove gravel from your tank if you want some in there. Gravels trap food particles and other organic matter which adds up to the bad smell.
  • Next up, increase the aquarium size if you can and fill it with more water. More water dilutes the waste produced by the turtles. (refer to the section on tank sizes for more information). Your best bet is to get a Rubbermaid container. These are very affordable. After that, you can work up to buying a much bigger aquarium if you want to. 
  • Also, get a powerful filter. The filter should be marked for a tank that is twice or thrice the size of your tank. Also, consider changing the carbon filter media regularly. Activated carbon helps remove bad smells. You can even install two filters if you can’t find a singular filter powerful enough to handle the amount of water in the tank. Also if you wish to clean out the filter, do so with dechlorinated water only. 

If you have done all this and the tank still stinks, then invest in a UV water sterilizer. Make sure you get one that matches the aquarium size.

The steps outlined should get rid of any bad smells in the aquarium.

How Do You Deal with a Murky Water in the Turtle Tank?

If the water in your aquarium is murky then you need to ensure that your setup is first and foremost correct.

So how do you ensure this?

Follow the steps provided. They are very similar to the steps you need to follow to fix a smelly tank.

  • The quickest solution is to change the water in the aquarium. If you must, you should change the water in the tank twice a week.
  • Right after that, get a bigger aquatic tank, if the tank isn’t large enough. More water dilutes the waste produced by the turtles. (refer to the section of tank sizes for more information). Large aquariums can be expensive, if you cannot get one right away, get a Rubbermaid. A large Rubbermaid. The capacity of the Rubbermaid container depends on the turtles and their sizes.  
  • Also, remove gravel from your tank if you want some in there. Gravels trap food particles and other organic matter which adds up to the bad smell.
  • A powerful filter is a must. For an aquarium with murky waters, you need a filter with bio-filter media such as bio-rings or bio-sponges. These contain bacteria that break down waste. As such, you should never use chlorinated water as these kill the helpful bacteria. Always dechlorinate the water before using it in the tank or even on the filter.
  • Finally, use a fish net to collect bits of food and other large organic matter from the tank. You should do this after feeding the turtles. This should be done diligently.

How Do You Clear Algae from the Tank?

If your problem is algae, then a UV water sterilizer such as the CooSpider UV System is a good choice. Before this, make sure you have followed all the guidelines provided in the previous section.

How Do You Get Rid of Cloudiness?

Sometimes the water in the tank isn’t murky but just cloudy. If the water is cloudy but clean (smells okay), then it could be that the filter is too powerful for the tank. The strong flow can push small dust particles past the filter media.

Also, if the water is cloudy right after you change it, then this should settle down after a while.

You need to experiment with filter settings, and other characteristics of the tank to find the right balance.

How Do You Deal with An Oily Film on the Water?

This is generally down to what the turtle is being fed. If your tank is clean and has no funny smell, then you might consider changing the feeding schedule and even the diet of the turtle.

For juveniles, you can try cutting down protein-rich foods just every other day. For adult turtles, you can cut down on protein-rich foods once a week.

Protein-rich foods include fish, insects, and commercial turtle foods rich in proteins. Feed the turtle more plants such as lettuce, dandelion, turnip greens, collard greens, parsley, and many more.

You can also simply disturb the surface of the water with a device such as an air stone. That is to say, something that disturbs the surface of the water.


If the water in your turtle tank is dirty and smelly, then the solutions outlined in this article should help you to fix the issue. As you may imagine the easiest fix is to change the water in the turtle tank and clean the tank. Of course, this is a short-term fix. You also need to check the tank size and the flow rate of the filter being used.

A large tank and powerful filter will go a long way to keep the aquatic environment clean. Additionally, installing a UV sterilizer will help get rid of bad smells, algae, and any other bacteria that can negatively affect the health of your turtle.

Here are some things to do to maintain a clean tank. First of all, change the water in the aquarium regularly (a third to half the content every week if the tank easily gets dirty or every other month otherwise). Secondly, vacuum the tanks once every two weeks or once a week depending on how quickly your tank gets filthy. Last of all, clean the filter media of the filter every two months.

Leave a comment, if you have extra information or questions.

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