**Note: Before beginning remodeling a room or construction of an exterior building, be sure to consult your local building code for any applicable permits or inspections that may be required. This varies from state to state and sometimes locally and will not be discussed further.
For most people who are serious about keeping reptiles, or at least seriously addicted, there will come a time when they need a dedicated herp room. This may mean converting a spare room or garage, or the construction of an outside building. Either way there are several factors to consider, and if you're looking at converting your first room, the details of many of these won't come to mind and will later fall into the "I wish I had thought of that" catagory.
Careful planning, and alot of thought can help keep things overlooked to a minimum, but no matter what, there will be some things that you will wish you had done differently.
I have been through this process myself, and will be doing it again, so I have a bit of hindsight on these projects Hopefully I'll be able to offer my experiences and suggestions and help you to design a room you will be more satisfied with.
To Build or not to Build
For some people this will be the biggest decision to make, and for others it will be a foregone conclusion.
If your property does not allow space to construct a building, then this is not an option, but if you do have the space to build, it should be considered. Some of the benefits of building are:
- Due to it's design, the building will be considered a "shop building" as far as appraisals go, and will result in a significant increase in property value should you decide to sell your home in the future.
- Building from the ground up will allow you complete control over the size and layout of the building, rather than having to work around certain aspects of an existing room in the house.
- You can still maintain a normal home, which is appreciated by many families who are not all herpers. This is even more important if your home does not really have the extra space.
- Odors are kept away from the living area. A herp room in the house must be cleaned diligently, especially if rodents are kept as well. Of course the cages must be kept clean regardless, but in the house, you can't let the trash can sit that extra day if you threw away a couple of uneaten mice.
- The initial cost of constructing a building will be significantly higher than converting an existing room.
- Depending on your habits and level of dicipline, having a herp room seperated from the house can foster a situation resulting in a decline in the level of care the herps receive. When it's pouring the rain, or snow, you still have to go out there to take care of everything.
**Disclaimer: If you are not experienced with residential wiring, or you do not understand the terms used in this section, I highly suggest you consult a professional electrician to do your wiring.
One of the most important aspects of a herp room is the electrical system. In a normal room of the house, there isn't nearly enough outlets to support a collection of reptiles. This means some wiring will need to be done. The rule of thumb here is more is better. It's much preferred to have more outlets than you need than to have too few and when wiring the room, additional outlets are only a nominal increase in cost.
This section will be the largest by far, because there is much to be considered. Most of the time the outlets in a room are all connected to a single 15 or 20 amp breaker in your home's main electrical panel. Often two or more rooms will share a breaker. For this reason merely adding outlets to the herp room is usually not an acceptable solution as you will run the risk of overloading the breaker.
There are two solutions here, one is to install additional breakers in the main panel and run multiple circuits to the herp room. The other is to install a sub panel in the herp room. I prefer the second option myself, but it's up to you.
If the main panel of the house is located near or in the herp room, then adding a few breakers will work fine. If however the main panel is a good distance away, then a subpanel will be much easier in the end. A subpanel also results in a more robust system, and you can easily isolate the entire herp room with a single breaker if necessary.
When wiring a herp room it's best to oversize the electrical system. In other words you want more power available than you can use. The difference in cost between a 30 amp subpanel and a 60 amp is very small, so larger is always better.
To power the sub panel you will install a single large breaker in the main panel, and run a wire of the appropriate size to the sub panel. This panel will then have several 15 or 20 amp breakers and the circuits for the room will be fed from here.
The wire feeding the subpanel will be large. The exact guage will depend on the size of the panel, and whether copper or aluminum wire is used. Again consult a professional electrician if you are unsure of any of this.
Installing the Outlets
You have a couple of options on how to install the outlets. You can install "pop in" boxes, which will result in outlets like what you have in the rest of the house. This involves cutting a hole in the wall to insert the box, and running the wiring inside the walls. This method is neater, but requires alot of effort unless you plan on removing the wall board.
Another option is to use wire mold and install the outlets externally. This is an excellent option for a herp room. Installation in a finished room is much easier, and wire mold allows for the addition of extra outlets with relative ease. It does not however look as nice as recessed outlets, and the material costs are higher. In this method the wire is run through a metal tube which is fastened to the wall. The outlets are also mounted on the wall surface rather than being recessed flush with the wall. Conduit is of course an third option, but it is similiar in function to wire mold but with added experience required, and the end result does not look as good in my opinion.
You must also consider the number of outlets and their placement, and how they will be tied into the main panel.
I would suggest using double gang outlets. These outlets have 4 plugins instead of two as is found in normal household outlets. When stacking cages it is very easy to wind up with several more cages within reach of an outlet, and using a double gang is preferred over the use of splitters.
Place an outlet a minimum of every 6 feet around the room. Even as close as every four feet may be preferred depending on your cage placement. Remember more is better, and your collection may be very different 5 years from now, so try to allow for this and avoid having to rewire anything later.
I also like to place the outlets much higher than is standard. Placing the outlets 5-6 feet off the floor will allow you to access them from a step stool, without having to get in behind the cages. This will let you place stacks of cages closer together by eliminating the need to get between them.
Wiring the circuits is the last consideration. This is another area where overkill is suggested. I like to put a maximum of four double gang outlets on a single 20 amp breaker, and place the room lighting on a seperate breaker. Any room heaters requiring a large power draw should have their own dedicated circuit as well. Herein lies another benefit of higher amp subpanels, the higher the amp rating of the panel, the more circuits it will support. In other words, more open slots for breakers in the panel.
When wiring your circuits, it is handy to label each outlet with which circuit it is on and label the corresponding breaker in the panel with the same number. This allows you to easily cut power to any outlet.
Plumbing is another great advantage to a herp room. Easy access to water inside the room saves alot of work, and with outside buildings, it becomes even more important.
Installing an industrial sink in the room is the best option. This will provide you with a place to clean tools and fixtures complete with a drain, and also with a water source. In many areas such a fixture is not required to be tied to the septic system and can be safely and legally drained outside. Consult your local regulations.
With outside buildings you have a second option of utilizing a resevior. This can be a large tank which is filled from a water hose and is gravity fed into the building. This eliminates digging a ditch below the frost line all the way to the building, but the possibility of the tank freezing in the winter must be taken into consideration.
The type of flooring is important in the herp room for ease of cleaning. Linoleum is one of the best choices. It is easily cleaned and resists staining. It is also not subject to the possible damage that can occur to ceramic flooring. Carpet is not suggested. Keeping carpet clean in a reptile room is a constant battle. If the room you are converting is carpeted, I would strongly suggest you remove that flooring and put down smooth linoleum.
The best lighting for a reptile room is flourescent. I like to use 4 foot double bulb fixtures that are suspended from the ceiling. These are very easy to install and the 4 foot bulbs are much more economical and easy to use than the 8 foot bulbs.
Put two or three of these fixtures in the room to provide good lighting.
There are two types of these fixtures, those that are hard wired, and those which plug in. Either type can be used, but if you decide on the plug in style, it is recommended that you install outlets in the ceiling for them.
This is a very important aspect of the herp room and can significantly reduce the electrical bills. Ensure the room is well insulated, this includes all exterior walls and the ceiling. Garages are often not insulated well at all, so if you are converting a garage it's very important to investigate this, especially if you live in a cold climate.
The layout of the room will require the most planning. You'll want to get the most out of your room, so maximum use of available space is important.
Think of your current collection, but also think of what you are likely to add in the future, especially if this includes things which are quite different from what you now have, and try to accomodate them.
I like to have my cages off the floor. You might want to build a table 18" or so above the floor, around the perimeter of the room. This will get your cages to a more managable height and also provide some storage space under them.
The table can be raised higher in places to provide space for troughs underneath such as could be used for tortoises or small monitors.
You might want to include a set of shelves, or a cabinet for storage. My herp room for instance has a 10 foot ceiling, and I have put a shelf around the top eight feet off the floor for storage of items not often used.
A small work table is also very handy.
The possibilities in this area are limitless, but these things should be added to the room before you start bringing in the cages.
Another thing to consider with the layout is outside access. It is beneficial to have a door in the room that leads outside. This is of course not applicable in all circumstances, but if adding a door is feasable, then you will find it handy when moving in new cages, and disposing of bedding etc, by not having to take these things through the house.
One of the biggest advantages of having a herp room is the ability to heat it to a warmer temperature and make it easier to heat the cages.
There's several options for heating including, oil, gas, and electric. Whichever method you choose, install the necessary equipment and plumb it in if necessary before you begin using the room.
The choice of heaters will depend on your situation and your own preferences.
Considerations Specific to an Outside Building
In colder climates, I suggest framing the building with 2x6 wall studs instead of 2x4. This is more expensive, but it will allow for an extra two inches of insulation. When heating the building to 70°F or warmer in the middle of winter, this will mean alot and the energy savings will pay for the extra cost in the construction.
If your collection is varied, and the structure is large enough, divide the building with interior walls. This way you can partition off seperate rooms for different climate types. Each room can be heated or cooled independantly.
If you have your colubrids in a seperate room from the boids, you can simply cool their room for brumation, without having to move them away from the boids which will require warmer temperatures. When building your interior walls, it's also a good idea to partition off a smaller room to use as an incubation room. This can be the size of a coat closet, up to as large as you need. Insulate all the walls in this room well, and you can eliminate the need for freestanding incubators and be able to keep eggs warm year round.
Partitioning off a seperate room for rodents is also helpful, if you raise your own.
If running your wiring to the building underground, run it through PVC piping. Run the electric wire and a phone wire through the pipe along with some lengths of twine. Tie the twine off at either end. The pipe will protect the wires should you do any digging around them a few years later. The twine, along with the pipe will make it easy to pull new wires to the building should they be needed in the future.
If you decided you would like an intercom in the building so your wife can call you in the house at 2am, then just tie the wire to a length of twine and pull it through from the other end.
These are just the main points that should be given some thought. The possibilities are only limited by your own ideas and budget.
Each situation will be unique, and therefore it's not possible to get into alot of detail without simply rambling on from idea to idea, alot of which will not apply to everyone. So plan carefully, design it out on paper first. Spend a month or so thinking on it, and deciding what you need and want out of your herp room. Once you are as satisfied as you think you'll get with the design, then start building it.
Converting a room or building a building dedicated to your herps is alot of work, but the end result is worth much more than the effort that was required.