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Vivarium Construction basics : 


courtesy :Article by That Fish Place - That Pet Place

-Selecting a Tank :


When choosing an aquarium to be converted to a vivarium, a lot depends on the type of vivarium you wish to construct. A few simple guidelines will help you select a tank that is right for your needs.




If you use a tank that is very low and wide, such as "long" tanks or breeder tanks, you may not have much room for plant growth once your bottom layers and substrate are added. Shallow tanks may limit the types of plants you can use. On the other hand, if you choose a tank that is tall or deep, you may have difficulty accessing the bottom of the enclosure for planting or maintenance. If you have the space, it is best to use a tank with a moderate footprint and enough height to allow plant growth.




It may be easier to begin with a standard cube or rectangular tank, but you can create a vivarium in a tank of any shape, and some odd shapes can actually be more conducive to the habits of the animals you want to contain within. With the variety of shapes in the market today, there are lots of possibilities. An aquarium’s shape can often lead to inspiration for landscaping, and a variety of configurations may be possible using driftwood, rock, and vines.


Covering Your Tank :


The preferred method for covering the opening of a vivarium is by using a glass canopy. Canopies are tight-fitting, will not warp, allow light to pass through, and hold humidity. Additionally, plastic back-strips (flexible plastic strips that slide onto the glass of the canopy) can be cut to allow space for cords powering pumps and other equipment . Small holes can also be punched through the plastic, or a small section can be cut out and covered with mesh screening to allow some air exchange while keeping animals contained. 


BE SURE TO SECURE YOUR BACKSTRIP! Run a length of tape across the entire back of your canopy, securing it to the trim of your tank. This will prevent frogs and other creatures from pushing their way out of the tank.


Basic Vivarium Techniques :


Before getting into the specifics of landscaping your tank, it is important to familiarize yourself with a few techniques and some terminology. This will help as you construct your vivarium and simplify proceeding descriptions.


Drainage :


First you will need to choose a method of drainage. Sufficient drainage is imperative for the health of plants and animals. The two most common methods of accomplishing this are by constructing a “false bottom” or by installing a non-biodegradable layer. 


1- False Bottom :

This method is done using several pieces of PVC tube, plastic light grating (often called egg crate), fiberglass screening, and gravel or a similar material. The PVC pieces are placed down first to create an open space and support the egg crate. The egg crate should be trimmed to the dimensions of the bottom of the tank, or to the area of the tank that you intend to be terrestrial. Next, place a piece of fiberglass screening over the egg crate, cut about 1-2 inches longer on all sides to create an edge that will lay against the glass. The screen allows excess water to pass through while holding gravel, soil and other inert material above. Place a 1-2in layer of gravel, pea pebbles, fired clay pellets or another coarse material on top of the screen. This will provide extra drainage while further preventing finer soil from reaching the reservoir. Place another layer of screen above the layer of coarse material, and finally place your planting substrate (coconut fiber, moss, etc.) on top. This method is especially helpful when a large reservoir is needed for a moving water feature or deep pond.

2-Non-biodegradable layer:


This method simply requires some sort of non-biodegradable media and a piece of fiberglass screen cut to size. The media can be just about anything as long as it won't decay or rot, such as gravel, bio-balls, or fired clay pellets. Each has its advantages and disadvantages. Gravel is cheap and readily available, but can make even the set-up very heavy. Bio-balls and clay pellets have a distinct advantage over gravel, as they weigh very little and aren’t very dense, but bio-balls can become quite expensive if building a large tank, and clay pellets can be hard to find in some areas.

NOTE: If there is no water feature in your tank, it is important to allow yourself some way to siphon out excess water. Once the water level nears the bottom of the substrate, it can become saturated. Saturation can kill plants and cause the substrate to turn sour.

Vivarium Design and build ..


Back to the Main Vivarium Page ..

Substrate :


The quality and type of substrate you choose will impact the growth of your plants. Some substrates may also suit the animals you want to keep better than others. There are many substrates available for use in high humidity environments, and all have advantages and disadvantages.


Shredded coconut fiber: 


This substrate can work well in a vivarium, and when mixed with a bulkier substrate, such as fir bark, it makes an excellent substrate for plant life. If a water feature is to be constructed, this substrate will undoubtedly tint the water brown, which can be unsightly to some. It may also cause health complications for some frogs as it may stick to their skin.


Sphagnum moss:


This substrate works well in just about any vivarium for both frogs and plants. Sphagnum is long-lasting, mold-resistant, and holds water very well. Plants usually root quickly in it and it will not stick to frogs. It also has an added benefit over coconut fiber in that it does not discolor the water in your reservoir.


Combining substrates:


It may be best to mix several substrates together until you find a combination that works for your needs. For example, mixing coconut fiber with fir bark and a bag of sand can add to the drainage capacity and aeration of the substrate while creating a more natural-looking forest floor.


Leaf litter:


This often unknown or overlooked addition can be a helpful boost when keeping smaller amphibians such as dart frogs. Dried magnolia leaves, sea grape leaves, or oak leaves (among others) can be used to create a final natural touch. A carpet of confetti-sized leaf bits, with a few larger leaves tossed in for good measure, will add a convincing note of realism to any vivarium. Large leaves provide hiding places for frogs, giving them more cover while hunting. The smaller leaf bits protect the frogs from soil or other debris that would stick to their skin. This leaf material is also a valuable food source for tiny organisms like springtails, which aid in the breakdown of waste and serve as supplemental prey for small amphibians. It is possible to "seed" your tank with these creatures before adding your frogs. Be sure to give them enough time to establish a population in the tank, prior to introducing frogs, or they will likely be eaten before they can gain a foothold.


Background Construction:


This is probably the single most time consuming aspect of vivarium construction, but it allows a great amount of room for imagination and realism. If done properly, a background will look natural and can contain elements such as wood, rocks, and water features. Plants can be mounted to it, or allowed to grow over it. Making a background can, in some cases, greatly expand the usable area of your vivarium.



Packing method:


For short tanks with decent width, you can pack substrate up against the back pane of glass by starting with a broad sloping base and then inclining your wall until it is vertical. This is a very simple method used to keep natural soft angles in the tank and allow more vertical landscaping. Be sure to keep the substrate damp or it may dry and crumble, caving in your background. 


Cork bark method:


One of the most popular and attractive ways to construct a background, cork bark may be mounted as large, flat slabs or in smaller pieces fit together like a puzzle. I would recommend using aquarium sealant or Silicone in whatever color you wish (clear, brown, and black are preferable). Place the tank on its back, cover the back pane of the tank with a layer of silicone (use a glove to spread it around), and press your cork pieces into place. You should have them precut to fit your tank so that you can easily put them into place. Fill in any gaps with dried moss or dry substrate by applying it directly to the exposed sealant. Let the tank cure for at least 24 hours. Silicone may retain an odor for some time after curing, but it is tacky very soon after application and should be entirely dry in one day. If your layer of silicone is on the thicker side, it is advisable to wait longer. Be sure to use flat pieces of cork, or seal gaps to prevent your animals from becoming trapped behind the background.


Expanding foam method:


Another popular, but time consuming method, involves using cans of expanding foam. This allows for extremely precise landscaping and shaping of terrain. Elements can also be mounted within the background, like wood or other accents. Fantastic results can be achieved with this method, but it requires a bit of patience and care.


With large tanks, a piece of egg crate or another frame/bracket should be attached to the back wall of the tank with sealant so that the foam doesn’t eventually slide down. The grid-like quality of the egg crate will give the foam something to grab on to. Think of how you want your background to look. With your tank on its back shake the can well (USE GLOVES! Expanding foam is nearly impossible to remove from skin!) and start filling in the back of tank in thin lines until you reach the bottom of your background area. Be sure to leave space at the sides of the tank (DON’T fill the back of the tank completely with foam) as it is possible to overfill. When this occurs, expansion of the curing foam can actually crack the tank. You will notice it starts expanding shortly after application. Let your tank sit for 24 hours. The foam will have hardened and increased in volume dramatically. You can add more layers over this first coating, as well as cut sections out or sand them down once it is dry. This process can be repeated to build ledges, pools for water features, or to support wood, rocks or other accents. When you are finished and pleased with the shape of the background, you can then cover it with a layer of brown or black silicone. Make sure you get every crack and crevice, as bare spots will be noticeable, at least until plants grow in. Pat dry peat or coconut fiber over top of the silicone, taking care not to miss any spots. Let this cure for 24 hours. When finished, stand the tank upright and vacuum off the excess bedding. Carefully touch up any bare spots by repeating these steps in very small areas.


When you are finished and pleased with the shape of the background, you can then cover it with a layer of brown or black silicone. Make sure you get every crack and crevice, as bare spots will be noticeable, at least until plants grow in. Pat dry peat or coconut fiber over top of the silicone, taking care not to miss any spots. Let this cure for 24 hours. When finished, stand the tank upright and vacuum up the excess bedding. Carefully touch up any bare spots by repeating these steps in very small areas.




A major consideration while constructing your vivarium should concern its landscape. It is a good idea to decide what kind of animals you want to keep prior to building it. This will play a large part in determining what plants you should choose , and if you will need to incorporate arboreal furniture, such as driftwood or ghost wood, into your design. If constructing a vivarium for arboreal geckos, tree frogs, or some arboreal species of poison dart frogs, plants with large, sturdy leaves as well as branching driftwood or ghost wood should be used. If making a vivarium for more terrestrial lizards or frogs, just about any design will work as long as sufficient floor space is provided. Once you decide which of these general designs you will use, the rest is up to your preferences and creativity. Once the basic design essentials are met, all other specifics are secondary.


There are many options, including running waterfalls and streams that are too detailed in construction to go into in this article. If you need help with something of this detail, please talk to our reptile room staff and they can either help you or direct you to someone with vivarium experience.


Vivarium Plants


Just about any tropical houseplant is a contender for vivarium use. Keep in mind, however, that plants are just as different from each other as animals. They thrive at certain temperatures and humidity levels. Light, water, and soil drainage also play a role in what plants are suitable and will do well in your set-up. Be sure to rinse all plants with water before use. Your plants will need a light source and water to grow, but the amounts of each will vary. Ask a reptile room employee what type of lighting your vivarium design requires and plant accordingly.

There are various species of plant commonly used in vivaria. Following is a brief list and short description of some that we use in displays that may also work for you.


-Philodendron:Most philos are vining plants with long green leaves. They can be trained to grow in certain directions in the vivarium and are excellent cover for tree frogs, dart frogs, and small lizards. They are generally hardy and many can tolerate low light levels. Humidity should be high and the soil moist, but not soggy.



-Creeping fig:There are several varieties of this plant available. Nearly all are relatively fast growing and spread to form a dense mat of cover. One of our tanks contains at least three varieties of this plant: standard, snowflake, and oak leaf. The Oak-leaf variety spreads much more slowly and has tiny ornamental greenery shaped like miniature oak leaves. Humidity should be high and soil consistently damp. This plant will dry out quickly, especially cuttings. Light can be low to nearly direct. Certain varieties are more sensitive to certain factors than others.

Selaginella: “Spikemoss” is an excellent ground cover and can become quite thick and luxurious in the right conditions. There are many varieties, including “green moss”, “golden tips”, “blue”, and “rainbow”. Each is different in color and often different in appearance. These fern relatives require damp soil, high humidity, and protection from direct light. Some will grow up and out while others stay very low and will spread endlessly. Most are excellent choices for the vivarium.

Pilea: There are some vining varieties that are nearly unstoppable in a vivarium and must be trimmed back with more frequency than even the most rapidly growing creeping fig. They do well in a variety of light levels and love high humidity and moist soil.

Bromeliads:There are a variety of these plants available, and they work quite well for dart frogs and tree frogs. They come from different climates, and should be kept in certain ways with that in mind. Some (most that we sell) are from the tropics where they grow epiphytically (on bark and branches) on trees. They generally like humidity, but many will rot if kept too damp. Fresh air is important, as is the correct amount of light. The stiffer-leaved plants usually like high light and may color nicely when given this type of exposure. Those with longer,more slender leaves are generally found in at least partial shade. Earth Stars are a genus of bromeliad that stay fairly small and grow terrestrially. They make excellent highlights for tanks, and some are especially colorful. 


False Bottom vivarium construction  - PROJECT 2 : 


If you plan on having any type of water feature then you will probably want to create some sort of false bottom.  There are several ways to do this (using foam, hydroton clay balls, egg crate) but the idea is the same to provide a water collection area under the tanks substrate.  For my build I will be going the route of egg crate because its cheap and easy to dismantle if I ever need to break the tank down.


Egg crate is also known as light diffuser and is normally found in the lighting section of hardware stores.  It looks like this:



To make the false bottom I start off by cutting out the main platform.  I have found that a pair of hedge clippers work best for cutting the egg crate.  Once I have a piece cut out I use sandpaper to cleanup the edges.  Now a false bottom wouldn’t be much of a false bottom if you just put the egg crate on the bottom of the tank, it needs to be supported by something a few inches off the bottom.  Some people use more egg crate and create in essence a box out of the egg crate using zip ties to hold it together.  I think it is easier to get some pvc pipe and cut supports.  This is the path I have taken.  If you do decide to go with pvc supports make sure to drill holes or notch the bottom so that water doesn’t get stagnant inside of them. This could lead to mold and bacteria growth.  Below if a photo of my cut and drilled supports:

If you are planning a water feature you will also need to cut a hole in the false bottom to allow for the tubes running to and from the pump.  The photo below is the false bottom in the tank with the access pipe in place. You can also see the basic skeleton of the waterfall I will be detailing in another post.

The last component to a false bottom is the barrier between the substrate and the egg crate.  I am using nylon window screen as that barrier.  To ensure that nothing slips through I am using two layers of the screen help in place with zip ties.  To put the zip ties in I cut two small slits in the screen and feed the zip tie through the holes.  Then I cut small squares of screen to cover the holes and siliconed them in place.  I will add a photo of the screen soon. 

Wood :


Interesting pieces of wood are an important part of any vivarium.  If you are lucky enough to live somewhere that has a lot of good hard woods then getting wood might be as easy as taking a walk through the woods.  Otherwise I have found a couple great places to purchase wood online:



Sometimes you can find a good piece at a Petco or Petsmart but you will likely pay an arm and a leg.  If you have any independent pet stores near you they are a great place to start your hunt.  For my viv I am using three different types of hardwood.  These are dense woods that do well in a moist environment and are resistant to molding and rotting.  I am using


  • Malaysian Driftwood

  • Mopani

  • Cork Bark

I purchased a few bigger pieces and also some tiny chunks just to add as accents to parts of the background.  The photo below shows all the wood I will be using in this tank (if I can fit it all).  The two big pieces on the left are the Malaysian driftwood, the pieces on top is mopani and the two pieces to the right are the cork bark.  The small pieces are a mix of mopani and Malaysian driftwood.

Once you have found your wood whether it be from the woods or a store you should sterilize the wood to ensure you don’t introduce any foreign contaminants into your tank.  Even if you don’t see any bugs on the wood they may be deep within or have laid eggs that will hatch and destroy your tank so don’t skip this step.  The first step is to soak the wood in buckets of water for several days.  This not only ensures that the wood won’t catch fire during the next step of sterilization but also helps remove the tannin that will turn any water in your tank brown.  I suggest changing the water the wood is soaking in twice a day for a week or so until the water you pour out is almost clear.  Once you are satisfied with the color of the water it is time to bake the wood.  There are all kinds of numbers floating around the web for temperature and duration so its hard to know what is enough.  For my wood I baked it at 270 f for 2 hours 15 minutes.  Make sure you keep a close eye on the wood so you don’t burn down your place.  The wood should be completely dry by the time you are done baking and hopefully nice and sterile.


Some people recommend soaking the wood in bleach but I don’t think this is a good idea.  Firstly the bleach would never get to the center of the wood and secondly getting the bleach out of the wood would be a very long if not impossible process.  I may be wrong but I think a nice long bake should be enough make your wood safe.

Fake Vines :


After seeing some really cool looking fake vines on the interwebs I decided to take a crack at it. I purchased some basic woven rope from the local home depot and then pulled it apart into its individual strands.  Then I grouped several together to form the central vine and surrounded this group by several smaller strands.  I used hot glue to tack the smaller strands in place.  I covered the rope in black silicon about 5 inches at a time.  The best method I found to doing this was just to put some silicon in my hand (glove covered) and work it onto all sides of the rope.  Once the rope was covered I dipped it into a box full of eco-earth and sphagnum moss and pushed the mixture into the silicon.  Then I moved on to the next 6 inches. I think it turned out pretty well, a few places I will have to go back and touch up.  My biggest worry is the durability of the vines hopefully they will hold up in a humid environment.

Starting the Background :


Following the instructions on the NEHerp 




I started my background by applying a thin layer of black silicon to the areas of the tank I would be building the background on.  I used a putty knife to spread it but still found that spreading silicon is quite tricky and in the end I have several areas that I will have to touch up because I applied it to thin.  For my tank (18x18x24) it took two 10 oz tubes of silicon.  The silicon gives the tank a consistent look from the back and also provides more grip for the great stuff that will be added later.  If you are doing a false bottom like I am make sure to leave some space down low that doesn’t have silicon.  I used some painters tape to mark off where I wanted to stop the silicon layer.  Make sure to do this in a well ventilated area because the wet silicon smells horrible and puts of some bad fumes. Also wear gloves and cover your working surface because it makes a mess.

Silicon Silicon Silicon :


One of the most complicated issues I have come across yet is what silicon is safe for vivariums.  There is a huge debate over this question and lots of different opinions out there which makes it very difficult for a newbie to know what to do.  The main concern is over the addition of anti-mold / fungal chemicals that exist in the majority of silicons sold today.  If you only need a small amount then I would recommend going to a pet store that sells aquarium safe silicon and purchasing that.  If however, you are like me and plan on using it for your background you are going to need a lot more than the small tubes usually found at pet stores.  Of the bazillion threads I read about silicon it seems that almost everyone agrees that GE 1 for windows and doors is safe.  It is important to note the 1 because GE also sells a silicon 2 which most people believe contains the anti-mold chemicals.  As far as I was able to find out it is still not completely known how the chemicals found in GE 2 affect the frogs but there is some evidence that it inhibits the frogs from breeding properly.  To be safe I suggest going with GE 1.


Unfortunately no home depot or lowes or still sold GE 1 in black only in clear and I needed black.  I purchased two tubes online but quickly ran out and didn’t want to order more.  After asking around it appears that DAP 100% silicon for windows and doors is also safe and that I found readily available at home depot.


The short story: After much reading I think that the safest bet when it comes to silicon is either GE 1 for windows and doors or DAP 100% silicon for windows and doors.


My Plan:


I have purchased an exo terra 18x18x24 inch tank for my first vivarium as seen below:





I plan on creating a background using GreatStuff foam, black silicon, and eco earth.  I also plan on having a waterfall coming down the right side of the tank.  For the waterfall I will carve the greatstuff and seal it using a product called drylok.  My idea for the waterfall is to have several small pools that the water falls from.  This tank will be housing dart frogs so it is important that there isn’t any deep pools that the frogs could drown in (they are not the best swimmers).

 several layers to absorb the water .


Below : mesh designed speciall for this type of vivariums 

Egg crate manufactured from plastic it is cheap and used in this type of vivarium .

Foam used in the vivariums , aquariums and paludariums should be safe for this type of work .. Great stuff is designed speciall for that ..


Also you can used other products which Not come in direct touch with water , animals or food .. 

Hobbyist put the foam , woods and foam board with places ( pots) for plants 

Pots for Air plants ( Epipytes ) take care to put enough drain openings for pots 

Plants take it's places in the vivarium , Soil covered by aproper leaves , moss .. etc ..

False Bottom vivarium construction  - PROJECT 1 : 

A basic project for new hobbyist of the false bottom type should have all the below supplies : 

 Products used in false bottom tank :

- Air pump

- submersable Pump

-Air stone 

-pipes support

-Egg crate

A general plan shows the components and the arrangement of the false bottom  vivarium  with the deep water partition which will be used for artificial rain water come from the pump .. Also the air pump to aerate the water .. 
Submersible heater will be submerged in the this water partition or reservoir in the bottom to keep the water warm .. 

The tank           Pipe fittings supports 

Electrical submerged heater 

( Be aware do not touch the heater with bottom glass )

Air diffuser 

Wires and Air pump .

 The Egg crate placed above the components with slope  for fine water  dranage .

 The plants is take it's place and the bottom of tank covered by hydro ball or leca ..

The completed vivarium ..

Other photos for the false bottom vivariums :

False bottom vivariums sometimes called the high humidity vivarium which reach to 90 % .. Then it is suitable for high humidity animals like dart frogs .. 

 Egg crate is made from cheap plastic , simple to cut and fabric ..  then it is good to be used in the vivariums . 

 Another sample use plastic crate with wooden vivarium .. 

 Hydr ball or drain ball : made from pottery then it is good to absorb the drained water .. 

how to make a false bottom

False-Bottom Vivarium Tutorial 

Samples of Vivariums : 

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DIY Guide





Select from more than 15 DIY projects.. 

Videos : 

 We recommend to visit this Website for more information :


 We recommend to visit this Website for more information :


Video ; How to Make a Waterfall in a Vivarium

Video : How to Make a Living Vivarium

Video : How to Build a Terrarium - Beginning to End

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