Reptile enclosure lighting – how to set up a reptile enclosure

Posted by Reptile Direct Australia on

The correct reptile lighting is one of those topics that always leads to confusion and opinion as there is often no ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ per se, just different ways of doing things. But a quick explanation of the range of products available may help to understand which one is the best choice for you and your set up.

Some considerations when setting up the enclosure include:

  • Is the animal active during the day (diurnal) or at night (nocturnal) or both?;
  • Does the animal prefer radiant heat or belly heat?;
  • Does the animal require UV?;
  • Is the lighting for heating or just for viewing or a combination of the two?;
  • Where is the enclosure located?

Working out the above metrics will help determine which lighting combinations will work best for your pet in your situation.

Clear Basking Lamps

These bulbs are traditionally used for a combination of lighting and heating. They tend to be relatively cheap to buy but not very long lasting so need to be replaced regularly. They work with standard light fittings which can make them a convenient choice but as they can get quite hot and are often run for long periods of the day they are best used with ceramic light fittings not plastic ones. Basking and sun loving species such as dragons and skinks will respond well to clear basking lights. They are not useful for night time heating as they would disrupt the day / night cycle required by pets.

Red Bulbs AKA Infrared bulbs

These bulbs are also lighting / heating bulbs that can be used in standard ceramic light fittings. They are often called ‘infrared’ bulbs but that is a bit of a misnomer as infrared is a non-visible part of the light spectrum that manifests as heat so technically any bulb that gives off heat gives off ‘infrared’. There is ongoing argument as to whether snakes and other animals can see red or not but that is probably an irrelevant argument as the concept behind red bulbs is not to be invisible but instead to be less bright than standard bulbs. This non-bright bulb enables you to see your pets when they are active at night without disturbing their nocturnal activities. Red bulbs are a great way to heat and light enclosures at night time but as with all light bulbs they can be unreliable. The difference between cheap or expensive red bulbs tends to be painted or coloured glass respectively.

Black Bulbs AKA Moonlight bulbs

Essentially the same as red bulbs but just less bright so good for use with species that do not respond well to red lighting, or in cases where the light given off by a red lit enclosure would create problems in a household eg if an enclosure was kept in a bedroom.

Fluorescent UV Lighting

These are essential for sun loving and basking species that require good access to UV light but it is debatable whether nocturnal species get much value out of these bulbs. The more traditional and often older keepers tend to prefer UV tube lighting most likely because that is what they are used to given that originally that was the only choice available. More recently compact fluro UV bulbs have become available that help to save space and can be used in standard light fittings. Both essentially do the same job and animals kept with both will likely remain healthy but when making a choice it is worth considering:

The tubes require specialist light fittings so are more expensive to set up and can be more difficult to replace as often online sellers will not sell them due to the chance of damage in transit.

The lighting given off by tubes is widespread through the enclosure and given that they are generally ceiling mounted they may be out of the 30cm range for animals that live on the floor of an enclosure – so branches etc would need to be provided so that your pets can get within the effective range of these bulbs.

It is established that reptiles get best effect from UV bulbs when they are at their optimum body temperature so the fact that compact UV bulbs can be more easily tied to heat lighting means that they can be used more effectively. Placing a compact UV bulb alongside a heat bulb will result in your pets basking under the heat bulb for heat and then getting the best effects from the adjacent UV at the same time.

The choice of effective % relates to the type of animal you are keeping – 2% can be good for rainforest or cryptic species, 5% good for forest species, 10-12% good for desert and sun-loving species.

Mercury Vapor Bulbs

These are a three in one heat, light, and UV source so can be a great alternative for the correct animals and correct set up. They fit into standard ceramic bulbs fittings but check to ensure that your fittings are rated high enough to accommodate these bulbs which generally have relatively high wattages. These give off intense heat and UV and cannot be used with thermostats or dimmers so are generally best suited to large enclosures so that your pet can escape the heat. Price wise they are not cheap but they will last a long time if used correctly and their UV efficiency is generally 12 to 18 months as opposed to 6 to 12 months for normal fluro UV bulbs.

Metal Halides

A very good product but not widely used in Australia as they are expensive and require a ballast which needs to meet Australian standards certification.

Halogen bulbs

These can range from cheap GU10 downlight halogens to halogen bulbs for standard light fittings. Halogens are equivalent to Clear Basking Bulbs as far as usage goes but they generally last much longer so can be a more reliable and economical alternative. Halogen are also more effective at heating so you could feasibly get away with a lower wattage bulb which would help you save on electricity costs. Halogen GU10 downlights are great for small enclosures or where you want to have a small, concentrated basking area, or natural lighting effects with ‘sun and shade’.

LED lighting

Because LED lighting only gives off minimal heat they can be great for use as lighting in addition to a heat source or with species like some geckoes and frogs that do not require extra heating. From bulbs to strip lights LED give flexibility of use and their low wattage means that they are cheap to run.

Setting up the lighting

You generally have the choice between buying pre-wired fittings or getting an electrician in to wire up the electricals for you. The former works well with glass tanks with mesh lids, whilst the latter is the most common way to wire up wooden boxes with glass fronts. To imitate a natural environment you want to establish temperature and lighting gradients in whatever enclosure you choose so that your pet can move through the enclosure to vary access to light and heat. The best way to do this is to have two light fittings down one end of the enclosure – one for heat and one for light. The other end of the enclosure remains unlit and unheated.

Plugging heat sources in thermostats to maintain temperatures and plugging light sources into timers can help automate your set up. Generally speaking lights should imitate the day / night cycle so all basking lights should be turned off overnight – if you want to light an enclosure at night then red / black bulbs can be used, or if you want to heat at night you could use ceramics, heat mats or heat cords.

Bulb care tips

In order to prolong the life of whatever bulb you choose there are some tips:

  • Do not handle glass bulbs with your bare hands. The oils in your hands can create hot spots on the glass surface which when heated can cause a vulnerability in the bulb.
  • Do not shake or drop bulbs as you can damage the internal filament.
  • Keep away from moisture especially when hot as water on a hot bulb can cause a bulb to explode.
  • Protect your pets from bulb burns through the use of mesh light protectors.
  • Do not over or under tighten screws into light fittings and replace light fittings that have become damaged.
  • Do not use bulbs with switching thermostats as the constant on / off action can damage the filaments in these bulbs and shorten their effective use.
  • Do not use fluro or mercury vapor bulbs with dimming devices.

Choosing the correct lighting for your pets can make a huge difference to the success of pets and can help you save on electricity.