How to Keep Turtle Tank Clean

by Carl Crane | Updated: December 29, 2021

Having clean and clear water in your turtle tank is a thing of pride to all turtle owners, but attaining that feat is not easy.

This is because turtles are messy and tend to pollute the water frequently. They defecate, urinate, and swim in the water.

They also drink and leave food debris in the water.

If left uncared for, the turtle tank will become foul-smelling and dirty, which is dangerous for both you and your pet.

So how then do you ensure your turtle tank remains clean?

How to Keep Turtle Tank Clean Without Filter

Make Use of a Big Tank

The rationale behind the use of a big tank is that smaller tanks will get dirty faster.

Turtles poop a lot, and they excrete ammonia.

In a small tank, these wastes will pile up in high concentrations which are dangerous to the health of your pet.

So it’s advisable to always make use of a big tank.

A rule that will guide you in your choice of the appropriate tank size is to go for a tank that can hold a minimum of 10 gallons of water for every inch of carapace length.

Clean-Up Food Leftovers

Food leftovers will always be seen floating on the water and you should make it a daily routine to clean the debris up.

If left unattended, it will decay.

Vacuum the Tank Frequently

This is an important task to perform especially if you have a substrate in your tank.

Vacuuming helps to change a portion of the water so as to maintain healthy chemical levels, and regulate the buildup of dirt.

Monitor Chemical Levels

Turtles are more tolerant to changes in the chemical levels of water when compared with fish, but this doesn’t mean you shouldn’t monitor and try to keep it within the healthy range.

Important tests you should carry out are pH, ammonia, and nitrate/nitrite levels. Healthy chemical levels are;

Change the Water Frequently

Water change helps to keep the tank clean and regulate the chemical levels of your tank.

The frequency of water change depends on the number of turtles you have, the size of your tank, the strength of your filter, amongst others.

When you vacuum your tank, you partially change the water and it also counts as a water change.

If you, however, allow the tank water to get cloudy, and smelly then you have waited too long and your tank water is long overdue for a change.

Aerate the Water

You might think this step is unnecessary because your pet has lungs and can breathe in air.

Aerating the water is beyond making your turtle comfortable in the water.

Bad bacteria that you would want to keep away are mostly anaerobic, and by aerating your turtle tank you discourage their growth.

Keep the Water Moving

Moving the water around the tank is a good way to improve its quality. You can use a powerful filter or a circulation pump to keep the water moving.

Moving the water around allows various parts of the tank to be at even temperature and it improves the efficiency of filtration.

It also slows down the growth of algae and distributes bacteria and oxygen throughout the tank.

Introduce Plants

The careful introduction of plants into the tank will reduce nitrite levels and compete with algae for the available carbon dioxide.

Introduce Fish

Some fish help with maintaining good tank conditions by eating algae and eating up leftovers.

Just as with plants, careful consideration should be made before adding any fish to be sure that both pets can live together.

Use UV Sterilizers

UV sterilizers would keep your tank clean with the use of UV light to kill bacteria, viruses, fungi, and algae including other forms of parasites that may be in the water.

Use a Good Filter

If you can afford a filter, then it would be a good addition to the tank as it helps in keeping the dirt away, regulating chemical levels, and keeping the water clear.

Tank filters constantly work to maintain the purity of the water.

A good filter does biological filtration, mechanical filtration, and chemical filtration.

Biological filtration is by friendly bacteria that live on the filter media.

These bacteria clean the tank by breaking down turtle poop, ammonia, and also nitrate build up.

Mechanical filtration takes care of the solid waste that floats on the water. This includes food debris and dirt.

Chemical filtration is mostly for the aesthetics of the tank as it makes the water clearer.

It also uses activated charcoal and ammonia filtering media to help with odor control.

How to Stop Algae in Turtle Tank

The presence of algae is very common in turtle tanks because of the waste that turtle produce.

These wastes are nutritious to algae and promote their growth.

Using a large enough tank is a great first step to stopping the growth of algae.

A large tank doesn’t get polluted as fast as a small tank and so you can maintain the tank and control the waste more efficiently.

The right tank size is that which can hold 10 gallons of water per inch of your turtle’s carapace.

The use of a filter is another step to take in restricting algae growth.

The filter performs mechanical filtration, and in addition, has good bacteria in its media that helps to break down turtle waste.

Proper lighting is good for your pet’s health, but leaving the light on for too long encourages algae growth.

12 hours of light is good enough after which it should be put off.

Some animals like snails and plecos eat up algae, and introducing them to the tank can help with algae control.

However, your turtle could eat them so you’ll have to constantly replace them.

As usual, nothing beats maintaining clean water.

Back up all your efforts with ensuring that the water in your turtle tank is of good quality at all times.

How to Cycle a Turtle Tank

Cycling a turtle tank involves introducing friendly bacteria that eats and breaks down ammonia and the resulting nitrite into the less harmful nitrate.

This way your tank stays clean and safe for your turtle. Good bacteria needs your turtle’s waste to survive, while your turtle needs the bacteria to break down its waste for it to be able to survive.

This means both can stay together but as the cycling would take days to be complete, it’s better to have the bacteria active by other means before introducing your turtle.

The slowest way which is also the simplest way to begin the nitrification cycle is to set up the tank completely and add a little amount of fish food or turtle food.

You can also use household ammonia but with this, start with two drops for every two gallons of water you have.

After introducing the ammonia, check-in a few days for an indication of the presence of ammonia.

Once you see a spike in ammonia, it’s an indication that the cycling process has begun.

If you don’t see any sign of ammonia, add more food or ammonia and wait a few days more.

Once the presence of ammonia has been established, check the chemical levels daily and add as much food as is needed to maintain the ammonia level at 3 to 5 ppm (parts per million).

After a while, you will see a spike in the nitrate level of the water.

This means that the Nitrosomonas bacteria have broken down the ammonia and is a sign that the cycle is proceeding well.

Keep adding food or ammonia and continue checking the chemical levels daily to ensure the ammonia level remains within 3 to 5 ppm.

At a point, the nitrite levels will go down and the nitrate levels go up.

This means the Nitrobacter bacteria are converting nitrite into the less toxic nitrate.

At this point, your tank cycling is almost complete and it’ll take a while for the cycling to be well established and for the chemical levels to be safe.

It’s normal for the tank water to go cloudy at the initial cycling period so don’t worry about it.

You can speed up the cycling process in your turtle tank by introducing some bacteria from a healthy tank of similar conditions to yours, or by using a commercial bacteria supplement.

Why Is My Turtle Tank So Cloudy?

There are two scenarios in which your turtle tank can get cloudy:

With a new tank, the water gets cloudy because there are not enough beneficial bacteria to consume the waste your turtle is producing.

This will clear up after some time once the bacteria flourishes and is enough to consume all the waste.

If the tank isn’t new but gets cloudy after a while, it could be a pointer to any of the following problems;

  1. Your filter may not be powerful enough, not clean, or not working properly.
  2. If it’s not from your filter, then the problem could be that you are changing the tank water too often. Doing this wipes away the beneficial bacteria that are supposed to break down ammonia and nitrites that build-up due to your pet’s waste. So the water gets cloudy as the wastes accumulate but if you allow the bacteria to fluorish, it will clear up.

How to Make A Turtle Tank Smell Better

Turtle tanks can start to smell if they are not properly taken care of.

The smell of your tank is in proportion to the number of pets you have and the size of your tank, so regular cleaning is key to an odor-free tank.

Steps that you can take to ensure an odorless turtle tank include:

1.   Remove uneaten food regularly

With a skimmer net, remove any leftover food on the tank surface at the end of each day.

Leftover foods can clog the filter, and can also decay causing the tank to smell.

2.   Remove shell skin and other floating matter

Turtles shed skin regularly like other reptiles, but they do not shed in an entire piece.

If this skin is left to float, it could end up clogging the filter.

Floating feces too are a bad sight and will contribute to making your tank smell.

So always watch for floating matter and remove them immediately.

3.   Maintain optimum temperature

Ensure that the temperature of your turtle tank is right as this will not only keep your pet healthy but will also help in controlling odor.

High temperatures contribute to shell rot and also encourages the growth of algae which can cause your tank to smell.

4.   Have a tank cleaning schedule

Do a partial water change weekly, and do a complete cleaning two to three times a month.

This will take out dirt and turtle waste, and prevent bad smell.


Keeping your turtle tank clean isn’t a walk in the park and if not done right, could cause discomfort.

With the information in this article, you can now provide better care for your pet as you ensure its tank is truly comfortable for its dwelling.

The challenges you are likely to face and the reasons for them have been treated here so now you are better equipped to deal with whatever lays ahead to ensure your pet stays happy.

Carl, the reptile-obsessed creator of this website, got his first turtle years ago and he made a ton of mistakes along the way. His goal now with TheCritterCove is simple: help others to not make the same mistakes that he did!