Building a terrarium from the bottom up – Drainage

Today’s post is the start of the building a tank from the bottom up series.  It will feature everything you need to know to get your terrarium or vivarium started!  For ease of these posts, I will assume that the tank will be background less.  I could have a whole series on backgrounds alone, so I will leave that to another day.


First up: Drainage Layer!

The drainage layer is important because it will provide a void for the extra water in the tank to go.  It will also retain some moisture to help keep the humidity up in the tank.  You will want to aim for 1.5-3″ tall to give you some room and allow the water to take some time to build-up.  Keep an eye on the water level, as it rises make sure to siphon out the water before it floods the substrate above.

There are lots of different types/ materials that people use for their drainage layer, but here are a few:



Rocks are a very heavy way but easy way to create a false bottom.  The rocks will create voids for the water to fill up and will save your substrate from getting waterlogged.

Hydroton/ LECA


This is popular in the aquaponics industry.  LECA stands for Light Expanded Clay Aggregate.  It is manufactured out of clay so it is a natural product.  The clay pebbles are then fired in a kiln to kill off any living creatures and the kiln causes the clay pebbles to become porous and expand inside.  They are pH neutral and are very lightweight which takes off some of the weight in the finished tank.

The LECA will not compact over time and do not decompose.  This will last for many years before having to be replaced.  The pebbles allow the soil to drain freely and provide good oxygen and crevices for plant roots to grow.


Here is plastic eggcrate, typically found at home improvement stores near the lighting as it is used for commercial 2×4 strip fixtures. While at the home improvement store, also pick up some pvc pipe to use as a stand to hold up the middle of your eggcrate & some zip-ties to zip-tie the pieces of eggcrate together.

Eggcrate can be easily cut and arranged or stacked to create a false bottom without all of the weight and headaches of other methods.  As always, be careful to make sure that you take care to make sure there is no place for frogs to get underneath and get stuck.


My Method

I personally started out using rocks, which was a huge pain while moving the tank.  I then used hydroton/ LECA and it did help to cut down the weight of the tanks.  Now I use a combination of hydroton/ rocks and Eggcrate.  I use eggcrate as shown in the photo above and then cover with window screen or weed block as my substrate barrier.  When I create the eggcrate I leave a gap around all sides of around 1″.  This leaves me room to fill the front with rocks and hydroton/ LECA to prevent from seeing the unsightly eggcrate!



There is also another drainage layer substitute of:


These are 100% recycled material and environmental friendly.  They are lightweight and will retain moisture in the voids.  I have not yet tried this out yet, but I have heard very great things about it!  Check it out from Tundra Exotics here!



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