Building a herp enclosure, installing heat tape under a tiled floor

Click on each image to see the full sized picture.

Melamine covered moisture resistant chip board is an excellent enclosure building material for Australian reptiles.

This page describes how I built 3 matching enclosures designed with the health and happiness of their intended inhabitants and their owners in mind.

The key design elements provide:

  • unintrusive heating and lighting
  • good ventilation
  • ease of access, cleaning and maintenance
  • a smart looking enclosure
The key to making good looking cabinets is panels that are square and cut cleanly. To achieve this I took my cutting list to a kitchen cabinet supplier (I used Allboards in Melbourne) and let them do the cutting. This is not a lot more expensive than sourcing the material and cutting it yourself and they cut all the boards perfectly. They are also a good place to source piano hinge and other hardware items. (Click here to download the cutting list (Excel spread sheet) for anybody who wants to use this exact design or email if for some reason this does not work.)
Iron on melamine edging is easy to apply and helps add to a clean finish.

The basic construction method was (yellow) glue and screw. The floor and ceiling were rebated into the side boards ensuring a strong bond and a ventiltion gap between the enclosures when they were stacked on top of each other.

The rebate can be cut with a router or dado blade in a table saw.

Again the melamine edging helps create a clean looking finish and hides the join.

I wanted to heat the enclosure with heat tape (from the Herp Shop .. of course). The thermostat controlled heat tape is used to control the night time low temperature for the enclosures. Lighting, including basking lights is configured to set the day time high. (See below.)

Here you can see the clips that make the electrical connection to the heat tape. I stuck the end of the wire and fold it back over the insulation before inserting it into the clip.

Then it is into the vice to clamp the clip to the wire and the heat tape at the same time securely making both electrical connections at the same time.... and giving the clip a thin profile so it sits neatly under the tiles.
I prefer to seal the clips with electrical tape. It is cheaper and again provides a flatter profile than the plastic covers..

A router was used to create depressions to carry the electrical cord and probe for the thermostat.

Next the heat tape is positioned over a thin layer of tile glue. This glue also holds the power cables and themostat probe in place.

I used a flexible tile glue to cater for any small movement in the timber boards.

Ceramic tiles are relatively cheap, very hard wearing and servicable, easy to clean and look good.

Where needed these tiles were cut with a cheap score and snap tool.

I got the heat tape power cords wired directly into the terminals of the thermostat power socket to keep it looking neat. A second enclosure could be run as a slave from the same thermostat provided it was set up the same heat sources etc.

There is also sufficient room inside the thermostat control housing for surplus probe wire which needs to be insulated to avoid problems with accidental contact with live components.

I used builders adhesive (liquid nails) to hold the thermostat in place. It is hard to make thermostats look overly neat but using this approach they look reasonable.
The slots for the glass in the doors were cut using the table saw. A pass in both directions ensures that the slot is centered. The glass is bedded on a bead of clear silicon in the bottom of the slots as the frame is glued and clamped together around it.

To create good ventilation and form a good light cage at the same time I built a light cage into the enclosure.

Gaps around the door and cupboard vents along the front allow air to flow in from the front, through the wire mesh of the light cage...and out around the gaps around the board on which the light fittings are mounted. When it comes time to change the lights undoing the 4 screws allows the board with all the lighting on it to be removed so that the globes and tubes can be replaced.

There is sufficient room on the board for a 2 foot flourescent fitting, and an electronic downlight transformer. The transformer is rated at 60 watts but a 20 watt halogen lamp provides a reasonable basking temperature for pythons. Note that there is no fitting for the halogen light, it just sits on the wire of the light cage.

With this set up there is no light shining in the eyes of somebody looking into the enclosure.

A draw back of the rear access for the light fittings is that if the enclosure is situated against a wall it needs to be moved to change the light fittings.

The lighting does a good job of illuminating the enclosure.

I sealed all joints with white silicone calking. It improves the look as you do not see the dark lines of the corner and helps ensure that the ends of the boards are protected from excessive moisture.

I used a UV Black light in the top enclosure and normal tri phosphor tubes in the lower ones. The doors fold down to provide easy access to the interior. The halogen basking lights were added after these pictures were taken.

I wanted the enclosures to stack. They are held in position with a small dowel on either side which keeps the enclosure aligned with the one above/below. I used the same dimensions as my incubator which can be seen below.

Fully furnished and ready for the reptiles.

Slide bolts, naturally closed with the aid of gravity, make sure the doors stay closed when occupied.

Note the air gap around the doors which assists in providing adequate ventilation.

A diamond python inspecting her new home....and finding a suitable roost on top of the cage furnishings.

Building heated hatchling setup using the same tile over heat tape technique

Tiling over heat tape also works well for heated panels that can be used for hatchling setups and other small enclosures.

Here I have used the narrower heat tape (140 mm wide) to provide a warm strip down the middle of a chip board panel 600mm wide. I have two panels set up the same and the second runs as a slave off the first which is the only one with a thermostat. This way panels can be retrieved from storage as required.

The power cable goes in through the end of the panel to the groove made with the router. As you can see it took me a couple of attempts before I got the routed grooves exactly where I wanted them.

Because I did not want to connect the power to the end of the heat tape, notches were cut into the heat tape edging so the heat tape clips could "bite" into the power rails.

The ends of the heat tape were insulated with electrical tape. I decided to add a switch to the power lead to make it easy to switch off this panel if required.

Next it is a matter of holding the heat tape in position with tile glue.

Next on go the tiles. For a 600mm x 1200mm panel I found a tile size that did not need cutting.

Melamine edging around the outside and a white grout again make the job look neat.

With use this board has warped up a little along the center line with the heat tape but remains very servicable.

The smaller panel was made a couple of years ago and this one recently. As you can see the hatchlings do quite well on this setup.