Over the years, I've tried many different types on indoor enclosures. Large reptile tubs, like the Waterland and Vision tubs, are my first choice for small to medium size adult tortoises. They are not the prettiest of enclosures, but the most practical for sure when you have many indoor pens to clean.
Reptile tubs are waterproof, light weight for their size, easy to move, and are simple to clean and disinfect. They are made from nontoxic plastics and are odor free. Great for allergic and asthmatic tortoise keepers, too. No sensitizing paint or glue fumes.
To make a plastic tub more attractive looking, just build a wooden frame around it. Looks just as nice as a wooden one, but has a 100% waterproof bottom! Plus, the tub lifts out for easy cleaning.
Caution! Tortoises are creatures of habit and dislike change. They get stressed with unfamiliar or changing conditions. Avoid frequent or extensive changes to their pens. If possible, I only change one or two items at a time. This way the tortoises have something new to explore, but in familiar surroundings.
Adult star tortoise do well in large, open enclosures, but baby stars benefit from being raised in warm, humid vivariums when small.
In a warm reptile room, open top tubs may work for youngsters as well if they provide enough humidity and hiding places for the little ones. In open tubs baby star tortoises need warm, humid hides they can retire to. You can also use the whole tub as a humid box by covering the top. In that case, check the temps carefully to be sure they within an acceptable range.
As the baby tortoises grow, they will require larger and larger indoor pens. Small tanks or boxes of any kind are not suitable enclosures for older, larger tortoises. Adults should live outdoors if possible. Tortoises need room to wander. The more the better.
Tip for a DIY vivarium: You can turn a tub to a vivarium by putting it on a two-shelf wire shelving unit. Place the tub on the lower shelf, hang the lights from the shelf above, and cover the top with a waterproof covering. The wire shelving unit will act as framing for the cover. Super simple! Just be careful to keep the cover away from the hot lights to avoid any fires.
Simple tub setup for Greek babies. The substrate is damp and deep enough to dig into for safety and humidity.
A stack of Christmas tree storage tubs waiting to be used (top left). A Waterland "water model" tub with a deep enough egg laying area (top right). A large Vision reptile tub (bottom left). A Christmas tree tub with a second tub used as a stand and storage unit (bottom right).
Black Waterland "land model" tubs (top left) and clear Christmas tree storage tubs (right) stacked on 60x24 wire shelving units. I use Waterland "land tubs" with the optional rim lids (bottom left) to prevent tortoise escapes from climbing on top of each other.
In these photos the lights are placed on top of shelves, but I also hang lights from above (not shown). That gives me the flexibility to adjust the height as needed.
Reptile tubs and wooden tables can be stacked to save floor space. Adjustable wire shelving, Gorilla Racks, garage shelving units, rivet shelving, or similar shelving units are ideal for this. Optional wheels allow the stacked tubs to be moved easily as one unit. I am so glad I installed wheels on mine. :0)
Wire shelving units work especially well because they are very flexible when it comes to sizing. Wire shelving is available in many sizes, usually up to 36" deep and 72" wide. I use that size for my medium-size Vision reptile tubs which are 68" x 35".
Wire shelving can be bought as complete units, or the shelf posts and wire shelves can be bought separately to build customized shelving units to fit almost any available space. Most wire shelving units are rated for 200-800 pounds per shelf, so you can even place heavier, soil filled wooden tortoise boxes on them. However, if you add wheels to the unit, the weight rating can drop quite a bit.
A one- or two-shelf wire shelving unit makes a great base for any tortoise table or large tub. For example, use a low height 5 ft x 3 ft wire shelving unit alone for a 5 ft long tortoise table or double it for a 10 ft long table. You can use wire shelving S-hooks to attach the units together. This gives you a continuous run of shelving in any length.
Attaching basking and UVB lights is also simple. You can hang the lights from the bottom of the top shelves or place the light fixtures on separate shelves above the tubs. I've done it both ways and each method has its pluses and minuses. Most of all, hanging the lights from above gives you the flexibility to adjust the bulb heights based on temperature and UV readings. When lamps are put on a shelf above the tub, you can only adjust basking temperature and UVB strength by changing the bulbs.
1.) Vision reptile tubs
Vision reptile tubs are made of food grade high density polyethylene (HDPE) and are a good alternative to wooden tortoise tables. They are odorless, easy to clean, and suitable for allergic tortoise keepers. They are usually available in white or gray color.
As with most plastic tubs, the walls widen up and out a bit. This reduces the available floor space. I wish the walls were straighter.
The largest Vision tubs are extremely durable because they are made of super thick, heavy-duty material, but this makes them rather weighty. Shipping is expensive due to the large size and weight of these tubs. Best if you can pick them up in a local store or at a reptile show.
The medium tub is 68" x 35" (5.7 ft x 2.9 ft) in size and has 14" high sides. It fits in the back of a large station wagon, SUV, or another similar car, with the backseats turned down. The large tub is 76" x 40" (6.3 ft x 3.3 ft) with 22" high walls. It's the largest of the Vision tubs.
2.) Waterland land tubs
Waterland tubs are another indoor enclosure choice. They are constructed of black HDPE that is made from recycled materials. They are available in two styles, water or land, and in several sizes. They have become one of my favorites.
The side walls are almost vertical, so very little floor space is lost. Waterland tubs can also be stacked on wire shelving (pic above), or other similar units, to save floor space.
The land tub models have a 3/4 land area and a 1/4 water area. The water area is perfect for damp substrate or a humid hide. The low divider ramp helps keep the substrate in place. This section can also be filled with soil for digging or egg laying, or used as a safe feeding area with no substrate.
(Ps. The photo above shows two small Waterland land tubs, size 55" x 24" x 9", in a 60" x 24" wire shelving unit. That Seville shelving unit with wheels is usually available for a good price and with free shipping.)
The water tub models are deeper than the land models, so they are more suitable for egg laying females. They provide more depth to the soil area. The ramp is rather steep and slippery though. You may have to cover it with something that gives better grip for tortoises' feet.
You can buy an optional rim lid for the small land tub and the small water tub. Very handy to have if your tortoise is an avid climber. If I place these tubs on any shelving, I always use the optional rim lids to prevent any accidental falls. You could also space the wire shelves tightly against the tub tops, so that there won't be any space for the tortoise to climb over the walls. Adding a wire net cover is another way to prevent escapes.
The land tub model is available in two sizes, small and medium. The small land tub is 55" x 24" x 9" (4.6 ft x 2 ft) in size and the medium land tub is 70" x 32" x 14" (5.8 ft x 2.7 ft). They weigh 12 lb and 35 lb.
The water tub model is available in several sizes up to 100" x 50" x 32" (8.3 ft x 2.7 ft). The largest size weighs over 120 lb.
3.) Laguna pond tubs
The flat bottom Laguna pond tubs / preform basins (PT-788, PT-795, PT-796) are among my favorite plastic tubs. They are very durable and made of odorless heavy duty polyethylene (not PVC). These pond tubs are typically available during the summer gardening season. They are used by fish keepers, so the plastic should be safe for tortoises.
The smallest of these rectangular pond tubs is 42" x 28" x 12" high and weighs about 12 lb. As with most tubs, the sides slopes in a bit, so the actual floor space is about 37" x 24" (888 sq in). Perfect size for babies or a small tortoise as a short term (e.g. overnight only) indoor enclosure. This tub is still small and light enough to easily lift and move around. It doesn't have much more floor space than the Iris Christmas tree storage box (below), but the wider width makes it easier to arrange the cage furniture.
The medium size Laguna pond tub is 51" x 34" x 17" high and weighs over 20 lb. The largest Laguna tub is 69" x 46" x 25" high.
Note: These pond tubs are NOT the same item as black mortar pans, aka concrete mixing tubs, available from home improvement stores. Compared to these pond tubs, mortar tubs are much smaller in size, have lower sides, and have much more sloping sides which reduces the available floor space. Mortar tubs are not rated as animal or fish safe; they are made for construction use.
4.) Holiday tree storage tubs
I also have stacks of Iris holiday tree storage boxes. The box size is listed as 52" x 20", but the actual floor space is only 45" x 16" (720 sq in) because the sides slope slightly. The sides are 12" tall without the lid. They can be difficult to find in stores and they are usually only sold during the winter holidays.
I like the light color of these tubs. The sides are also semi see-through. When the basking light is on, I can actually see the tortoise through the tub walls. :0)
5.) Stock tanks
Farm stock tanks are made of either plastic (poly) or galvanized steel. Poly tanks often have more or less sloped sides which reduces the floor space in the tub.
Galvanized ones typically have straight sides. However, galvanized steel tanks are coated with zinc. Some animal and fish keepers are concerned about possible zinc poisoning and avoid using galvanized tanks.
Shallow, oblong shaped sheep and goat water tanks are especially suitable for small tortoises because they are not too deep. They are typically available in 4 ft x 2 ft and 6 ft x 2 ft sizes with 1 ft high walls.
Wooden tortoise table with viewing windows in the front. The top can be covered or uncovered depending on how much humidity is needed. This table was designed, built and photographed by Thomas Meyen. Photo courtesy of Thomas Meyen.
Here's an example of a Russian tortoise enclosure made with two Zoo Med tortoise houses attached together. The inner walls of the built-in hides are left out to increase the floor space. The top can be partially or fully covered to increase the humidity level inside. Photo courtesy of Trixie Skinner.
A typical tortoise table is a simple, self-built, rectangular wooden box. Tortoise tables are easy to construct in any shape and size to fit the tortoise's size and available space. These open top boxes can either be placed on top of large tables or they can have built-in legs. Most tortoise tables have solid walls all around, but the fancier ones are fitted with clear front walls. Top can be partially or fully covered (becomes a vivarium aka closed chambers) to retain more humidity.
Building your own tortoise table is the best way to go. You can build it as large as you want and make it fit the space you have perfectly. Any design you like.
If you are not using solid wood, do check the labels of the wood products you plan to use, especially if you have allergies and/or asthma. For example, medium density fiber board (MDF) is not a good choice because it doesn’t tolerate moisture well and can cause allergic reactions. MDF’s include particle board, fiber board, and laminated board.
MDF is a manufactured product made from wood fibers glued together with a resin made from urea formaldehyde (usually). Formaldehyde is a known toxic that can irritate eyes, skin and mucus membranes, especially in allergic and asthmatic individuals. In 2011, the US government added formaldehyde to the list of carcinogens (cancer causing agents). According to the EPA, MDF is the highest formaldehyde-emitting pressed wood product.
1.) Modified bookcases
Many keepers like wooden tortoise tables, especially for Mediterranean species. If you are not very handy with woodworking, you can make a tortoise table out of a bookcase. Buy a second hand cabinet or a cheap, unassembled bookcase. Remove the shelves and put the bookcase down on its back. If the back board is thin and flimsy, you'll need to reinforce it or replace it. Line the resulting box with some waterproof material, for example, a non-toxic pond liner. Voila, you have a tortoise enclosure!
Note: Shower curtains and common pond liners are often made of PVC, a known toxic. Instead, look for pond liners specifically made for fish ponds. They are marked with a "fish safe" label.
When it's time to replace the substrate, just gather the waterproof box liner with all the substrate, take it out, and dump. Of course, this works best with light weight substrates like coco coir. Having two liners allows you to use one while the other one is being washed and left out in the sun to disinfect.
Note: Unfortunately, many cheap bookcases are made of particle board which can emit toxic odors (especially when new) that can cause itching, irritation, and asthma attacks in sensitive individuals. Solid wood bookcases, with all surfaces finished with a non-toxic sealant, are a better choice for allergy sufferers.
2.) Zoo Med & other brand tables
Zoo Med manufactured the first indoor wooden tortoise enclosure in the US called the Tortoise House (36" x 24" x 12" h). Similar wooden tortoise enclosures are now available under many different brand names. They are available with solid or see-through front panels and in various colors.
To waterproof these wood enclosures for damp substrate, you'll have to paint or seal the bottom and inside walls. You can also use fish safe pond liners. As with all wooden tables, AIR IT OUT WELL before use, otherwise the raw wood or sealant odor can be a problem.
These houses are small but many are modular; you can remove the end panels and attach two houses together for a larger tortoise table (72" x 24", 6 x 2 ft, 1728 sq in). Double the space! Or better yet, attach several of them together for a full wall length enclosure.
You can increase the humidity inside these encloses by adding a plexi top with holes cut out for the lights. Remember to fireproof the edges of the light openings.
3.) Penn Plax tables
The Tortoise Palace enclosure by Penn Plax was the second tortoise table that became available in US (Jan 2012). It was made of black, moisture resistant medium density fiberboard (MDF). According to a Penn Plax representative, the MDF used for this enclosure used a PMDI binder that is not formaldehyde based and thus emits no formaldehyde (2012).
Dimensions of this table are 48" x 30" x 12" h giving it a floor space of 1440 sq in. I don't know if multiple units can be joined together.
Again, to waterproof the table, you'll need to seal all the inside seams with silicone, or better yet, line it with a light weight pond liner or something similar. You could also place shallow plastic tubs or restaurant trays inside to hold the damp substrate. The MDF will break apart over time if constantly exposed to moisture without any protection.
Related pages: Indoor housing, vivariums (aka closed chambers)