How to select the right heating system for your reptile
All reptiles are cold-blooded, or ectothermic, meaning they are unable to control their internal body temperature without the help of external sources. Therefore, the majority of reptiles will require a heating system within their enclosure to create a temperature gradient that runs from one end of the enclosure to the other - providing them with warm and cool areas to split their time between accordingly.
Having the correct reptile heating equipment and thermogradient for your reptile is one of the most important parts of reptile keeping. Without proper temperature control, your reptile is unlikely to be able to properly digest its food, which can lead to a whole host of related health issues.
Optimum basking temperatures
The optimum basking temperature for any reptile will depend on the average temperatures in their native environment, for example, Australian desert-dwelling Bearded dragons prefer a basking temperature of around 40-42°C (104-107°F), in contrast with the New Caledonian rainforest-dwelling Crested gecko, which prefers a basking temperature closer to 28°C (82°F).
The resulting temperature from most reptile heating systems will depend on the wattage of the heating element itself, for example, 150W heat bulbs will naturally produce a warmer temperature than 50W bulbs. Therefore, you will need to tailor the power of the heating element to the temperature you require.
It is important to note, however, that there is no one size fits all rule here, as reptile heating equipment will only serve to increase the current ambient temperature in the area, so a 150W heating element in a cold area will produce a cooler resulting temperature than a 150W heat source in a warm area would.
It is for this reason, among others, that the use of a thermostat for accurate temperature control is essential, as although you may find your 100W bulb produces the perfect resulting temperature today, you may find that next time there's a heatwave, the temperature skyrockets way higher than your reptile would like. Using a thermostat will ensure the temperature never exceeds the optimum.
Types of reptile heating system
Reptile heating systems come in two main forms, overhead heating and under tank heating (often abbreviated to UTH). Overhead heating systems will either be installed into the ceiling of a wooden vivarium using a lamp holder and bracket or suspended over the mesh top of a glass terrarium using a dome type lamp holder. Under tank heating, however, will usually come in the form of heat mats or heat cables placed underneath or up the side or back of an enclosure.
Under tank, heating is less effective in most instances and is only recommended for small enclosures, such as those for invertebrates or smaller dart frog enclosures. This is because heat mats placed outside an enclosure do not work nearly as well to warm the ambient air temperature as overhead heating, and generally only warm the immediate area around them.
Overhead heating systems are the most effective for larger enclosures, such as snake setups or lizard setups, and work well to create a thermogradient when placed at one end of the animal's enclosure.
Types of reptile heating element
There are two main types of overhead heating elements - heat bulbs and ceramic heat emitters. Heat bulbs emit visible light along with heat, so should only be used during the daytime, as to not disturb your reptile's day/night cycle.
Heat bulbs can also come in another form, mercury vapour bulbs, which emit visible light, heat and UVB, although they cannot be controlled by a thermostat, which means they are only suited to open-topped enclosures such as tortoise tables, as they are likely to overheat in enclosed areas.
Ceramic heat emitters, however, do not emit light and can be used at any time of day, making them an ideal choice where nighttime heating is required. Heat mats and heat cables are also non-light emitting heat sources, so can work for nighttime heating where required, even in larger enclosures as they are only there to provide supplementary warmth and ensure the temperature does not drop dangerously low.
It is important to note, however, that most reptiles will not require heating overnight. Naturally, the temperature drops overnight when the sun goes down, so it is best to replicate this in a reptile's captive habitat also. However, if your home drops to extremely low temperatures overnight, then it may not be a bad idea to provide some low-level supplementary heating overnight, ensuring it remains cooler than during the day.
The type of thermostat required will depend on the heating element you are using, as not all thermostats are compatible with all heating systems. For more information regarding which thermostats work with which heating elements, take a look through our guide on how to select a reptile thermostat.