DIY Aquatic Turtle Filter System – Yes, You Can Build It! 8

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By Marc Ouellette

One of the biggest complaints I hear from people wishing to surrender their turtle to my rescue is the upkeep. They complain that the water gets dirty within days and they’re tired of cleaning it constantly. Then, when the exchange happens, I see the tiny little fish tank filter in the corner of the tank. Every time!

Commercially bought filtration systems are notoriously under powered for aquatic turtle species since they are rated for fish tanks. Turtles are often two to three times as dirty as fish. Therefore it’s recommended that you get a filter rated for at least twice the size of the tank you have. This can get expensive, especially if you have a 75 gallon or larger aquarium for your adult turtles.

When people hear that I run my rescue primarily out of my own apartment they cringe at the thought of the smell before they walk in and see upwards of a hundred turtles in crystal clear tanks and, would you believe, no smell!

I’ve decided to open the big book of turtle rescue secrets and show off my easy to build, wonderfully powerful, home made filter system I’ve been using for some time now.

First off here’s the shopping list:

(All of these prices are Canadian and are based on Ontario taxes)

Home Depot:

17L bucket $3.97

20L pail lid $2.97

Vinyl tubing, 1inch exterior diameter 3/4inch interior diameter  10 feet  $17.29

Vinyl tubing,1 1/4inch exterior diameter 1inch interior diameter $3.09/ft. You only need 1 foot.

Stainless steel hose clamp $0.81

Total before taxes $28.13

Total with taxes $31.78


Big Al’s Aquarium Supply:

Big Als filter floss 20sqft $14.99

1 inch bulkhead kit $15.99

12inch x 8inch filter media bag $3.99×2

Marineland carbon/ammonia blend $7.99×2

Marineleand maxi jet 1800 pump $79.99

(Do not skimp out here and go for a smaller model, trust me!)

Total before taxes $134.98

Total after taxes $152.47



Kitchen scorers $1.00×2

Colanders $1.25×2

Total before taxes $4.50

Total after taxes $5.08


Total for all $189.33


Now that you’ve brought everything home, you’ll need a few tools and about 5 minutes of your time to get this filter going.



1 1/4 inch bit

1 inch bit


Yep, that’s it.


First things first, you’ll want to wash out the bucket, colanders, and hoses so you don’t bring any unwanted chemicals into your tank.




Next up you need to make a 1 1/4 inch hole in the bottom of the bucket and a 1 inch in the lid.


Now install the bulkhead into the bottom of the bucket. I’ve installed mine like in the picture, but I’ve found it doesn’t matter which way it goes. You can use some silicone to seal it if you’d like but you’ll have to wait a couple days to let it cure before you use it.





Fill both media bags with the carbon/ammonia mix and rinse thoroughly. Place them at the bottom of the bucket. Install the 1 foot section of thicker tubing into the bulkhead and work it about half way down so you have 6 inches on either side of the bulkhead.


Next is your first colander. You’ll have to fight with it a bit at first since the handles will resist being warped but it’ll work in. I didn’t remove the handles because they help hold the colander in place. Fill this colander with a couple of 1 foot by 1 foot squares of filter floss. You’ll have a lot left over but that’s okay. You’ll need to replace it every once and a while.




Place the second colander into the bucket and add your kitchen scorers. These act as a cheap alternative to bio balls and actually work better in my opinion.




Time to place the bucket over the tank. I’ve used 2×2 pieces of wood to hold the bucket over the tank in this example.




Next up prep your pump with the grate attachment and the 3/4 inch hose adapter. Attach one end of the smaller 10foot tubing to the pump and place it in the tank. I’ve placed the pump at the far end opposite the filter to promote better circulation.



Roll the tubing out and cut it to fit so there’s at least 6 inches of tubing that goes into the top of the filter. Here’s where the hose clamp comes in play. You really don’t want this hose coming out and draining your tank on you.




Next is the big moment: plug it in. It’ll take a week or so for the beneficial bacteria to build up in the filter to really keep it clean so don’t get worried if your aquarium gets cloudy in the mean time.

I’ll admit that the only downside of this filter is that it isn’t the quietest system but the ease of maintenance far outweighs that downfall in my opinion.  The example I’ve used here is a 90 gallon tank with 15 adult male sliders in it. I have to clean the filter once a month. The beauty of this system is that it can be scale-able. I’ve made this system out of kitty litter pails for smaller tanks and it worked just as well.

So there you have it. A fairly cheap but amazingly powerful alternative to commercially purchased filters that is designed to handle the waste that turtles produce.

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