**Please Note: I do not sell these heat panels, nor can I answer questions about their use in various setups beyond what I have used them in myself. Please direct all purchase inquiries and technical questions to Reptile Basics
Over the past couple of years I've been considering trying out one of the heat panels on the market. I like the idea of the radiant heat, and the differences between it and more common heating methods like flexwatt.
I had never been particularly impressed with the heat panels I'd seen though, and was not willing to put up the money to try one unless I was very convinced of their quality. My main problem was the panels I had found were basically just adapted to use in cages, but were initially designed for another purpose. By this I mean they were not designed with the conditions of a reptile cage in mind.
That changed this year. Reptile Basics has taken the heat panel and designed one for the purpose of use in reptile cages. I had talked to Rich at RBI about these panels while they were in the pre production stage and was very impressed with what he intended to produce.
After a few months of anticipation, I was fortunate to be one of the first to test this product. I will outline my tests here and provide my opinions on the usefulness of the product to the herping community.
There are currently three sizes of panels available, 40, 80, and 120 watt units. This review is based on tests of the 40 watt model which is adequate for the vast majority of caging commonly used. I will also try some of the 80 watt panels in a very large cage design I am currently building.
ConstructionThe heating element of the panel is made from a fiberglass cloth. This element is sandwiched between a fiberglass lens and 1" of dense fiberglass insulation. The black body of the unit is ABS plastic.
This creates a very tough unit which is very safe for use in the confines of a cage.
Due to the materials used, the heater will not catch on fire. Fiberglass can withstand many times the level of heat that these heaters are capable of producing. Being a fiberglass element surrounded by fiberglass, there's nothing to support a flame even if one could be created. This provides a very high level of safety in using these panels to heat a cage.
FeaturesYou can tell a lot of thought went into the design, and that it was designed by someone experienced with both snake keeping and issues particular to reptile caging.
The first thing that I noticed was the unit is shipped without the male plug attached. If the cord was complete, then you'd either have to cut it and splice it back together, or drill a 1" or larger hole in the cage to get the plug through. Without the plug though, you need only a 1/4" hole for the cord, then you attach the plug after the heater is installed.
I was impressed with this detail because it was something I had not thought of myself.
There is also a pilot light on the side of the unit to tell you when it's heating. Another smart addition that is very useful.
The method of mounting the panels is superior to the other panels I have seen. It easily mounts flush to the ceiling of the cage with two screws through molded holes in the sides of the heater.
The heaters also carry a 10 year warranty. Knowing there is at least a 10 year life for the heater, makes them well worth the cost of the initial investment.
The data of the test resultsI performed a series of tests over the course of a couple of weeks in an empty cage. Being a new product, and a method of heating with which I was unfamiliar, I wanted to put it through it's paces before exposing one of my animals to it.
Below are the results of my experiments. For the sake of accuracy, the following conditions apply to all the results:
- The heater was mounted on one end of a 4x2x18" wooden cage containing cypress mulch substrate.
- The ambient room temperature during the tests was 71-72 degrees, as the room was being cycled during the breeding season.
- All temperature readings were taken with a Raytec non contact temp gun.
- Ambient cage temperatures on the cool end at ground level were 78-82 depending on the time of day. A digital thermometer without a probe was placed on the cool end to monitor the ambient temperature in the cage.
Test #1The heater was installed and operated without a thermostat for 20 hours to determine the maximum substrate temperature it would reach.
The surface of the heater was 15" from the substrate, and after 20 hours the substrate temperature was 90-91 degrees.
I liked this result. It demonstrated that the panel was designed to create a basking site of the proper temperature for most reptiles and in the event of the thermostat failure, a dangerously super hot basking area wasn't possible.
Test #2For this test, and test #3 I used a rock as a basking site. The rock was larger in area than the heat panel and was of a uniform 1" thickness. I elevated the rock so that it was 10" from the surface of the heater. This was to determine the effect distance from the source would have on basking temperature.
After 18 hours, the surface temperature of the rock was 95 degrees at 10" from the source.
Test #3Next I elevated the rock further so that it was 6 1/2" from the surface of the heater.
After another 18 hours, the temperature of the rock surface was 98-100 degrees. At this close distance I expected the temperature to be far higher, and was pleased that it had no more extreme effect on the result.
Test #4After using the rock as a subject it occurred to me that due to it's mass, it might be acting as a heat sink and resulting in an artificially lower surface temperature than might be seen with another material. I decided to perform the test once more using a branch instead.
I placed a branch approximately 1.5" in diameter at an angle directly under the heater. After 8 hours the area of the branch that was 5" from the heater registered 103 degrees.
I was very impressed with the results of the temperature tests. The heater easily achieved an ideal basking temperature for most reptiles without nearing unacceptable levels even when not controlled by a thermostat.
Other notes on the panelsI would note that the surface of the panel itself reaches a very high temperature. I checked this regularly during my tests and the panel maintains a steady surface temperature of around 188-190 degrees.
This is initially concerning until you consider how the panel is actually used. Being mounted overhead, the reptile housed in the cage will not be able to remain in contact with the heater itself. At most it might bump the heater when exploring the cage.
As a precaution, I decided to check the danger of a burn from the surface of the panel. I held my hand against it for 10 seconds without being burned. Despite the surface temperature of the heater, I see no way in which a snake would receive a burn.
I was also initially concerned about the possibility of out gassing due to the body of the unit being plastic. On the first day of operation, with my head in the cage I could smell a slight odor. By the third day the odor was no longer detectable.
Upon further thought I also considered the proliferation of plastic products in all manner of reptile caging applications including cages themselves, racks, and even hide boxes. Out gassing has never been an issue in these applications. Iin the early days it was a concern with those as well, but it proved to be a non issue.
I would merely recommend operating the heater for 48 hours before introducing the animal into the cage.
ConclusionI have been very impressed with the quality of these heat panels and would recommend them over all others currently on the market.
The benefits however, go beyond the design and function of the panels as a heat source. I believe the radiant heat produced by these panels is a superior form of heat as compared to the heat provided by heat pads or basking lights. Radiant heat is a penetrating heat, the same type of heat produced by the sun, warming the reptile deeper into the tissue than the surface heat generated by traditional heat pads.
I expect to see snakes actually spending less time basking due to being able to reach their preferred temperature more effeciently with radiant heat.
When I first got a panel for testing, I had in mind using it for carpet pythons which are semi arboreal. I had reservations about their suitability for terrestrial snakes considering the thermostat probe would be on the substrate and the snake would be laying on the probe while basking. I expected this to render them unusable for these species since they would overheat with the snake insulating the thermostat probe.
After testing it though, I realized that the natural temperature created was perfect for basking even without a thermostat, so this wasn't nearly the issue I expected it to be. I consider these heaters to be very suitable for terrestrial species as well when they can be placed at least 10-12" from the floor of the cage. Once you exceed 18" of cage height, an elevated perch for basking would be required, but cages of that height and greater are generally only used for arboreal or at least semi arboreal species anyway. I intend to switch to these heaters for nearly all of my conventional cages, including the carpet pythons and the large boa constrictors.
One of the other problems I had with trying a heat panel was not knowing what size to purchase. It's not like buying a 75 watt light bulb and finding out you needed a 100. $60 plus for a heater was a big commitment and I wanted to be sure I got what I needed. For those people who have the same concerns, here is what I recommend based on my experience so far. Any cage 4 feet wide or less can be heated fine with a 40 watt panel. The larger panels need comparably larger cages.
The issue is the amount of area heated. The actual heating capacity per square inch doesn't increase with the higher wattage panels, the wattage density is equal. This means a 80 watt heater isn't going to create a basking spot any warmer than a 40 watt panel, but it is going to heat almost twice the area, so the larger panels should be used in larger cages.
For the vast majority of cages, a 40 watt panel will be fine. For larger animals being housed in 5 foot wide or wider cages, the larger panels should be used.
I do not recommend a product lightly. It is my opinion though that these heat panels are one of the better innovations in the caging industry in recent years. Being a new product, and I myself being largely unfamiliar with the use of such heaters, I figured others would have similar questions and concerns once they heard about them. I decided making a review page detailing the results of my tests might be helpful to other people who are thinking of trying this method of heating.
Image courtesy of Reptile Basics