Lighting & UVB
Because ball pythons are crepuscular, additional light beyond what illuminates the reptile room is not widely considered “necessary.” However, it is best practice to keep a light on to mimic nature’s day/night cycle. Because of their equatorial origin, ReptiFiles recommends a day/night cycle of 12 hours on, 12 hours off. If you want to get more specific with your light cycle, you can leave the lights on for 12.5 hours during summer and 11.75 hours during winter.
The best way to provide low-level illumination for your ball python is with a low-strength UVB fluorescent as your light source. It is commonly believed that nocturnal snakes do not “need” UVB, therefore it would be a waste of money to provide it. While this reasoning may seem sound, it oversimplifies the issue. UVB does more for a reptile than help them synthesize vitamin D3; for example, did you know that ball pythons can see ultraviolet light?
Recent studies indicate that UVB can be beneficial for snakes’ long-term physical and mental health. To provide UVB for ball pythons in a 4x2x2 enclosure, use a 22″ long, low-intensity T5 HO fluorescent tube (not coil). I recommend sticking with the Zoo Med or Arcadia brand, as others are not reliable enough to be used without a Solarmeter 6.5 in hand.
To achieve a UVI of 2.0-3.0 in the basking area (closest location to the UVB lamp), you will need a specific distance between the UVB bulb and the snake’s back when basking:
Lamp mounted above mesh (recommended for safety):
- Arcadia ShadeDweller MAX — 4-6″ / 10-15cm
- Zoo Med T5 HO ReptiSun 5.0 / Arcadia 6% — 10-14″ / 25-35cm
Without mesh obstruction:
- Arcadia ShadeDweller MAX — 6-8″ / 15-20cm
- Zoo Med T5 HO ReptiSun 5.0 / Arcadia 6% — 14-18″ / 35-45cm
The above distance recommendations assume a ~35% mesh block. It is strongly recommended to use a Solarmeter 6.5 to determine the best placement. For more details on adjusting basking distance based on mesh obstruction, see the Facebook group Reptile Lighting > Guides > Guide 1: Using T5-HO lamps above a Mesh Screen.
If you need more distance between your snake and the UVB in the basking area than your enclosure’s setup will allow, I recommend using a UVB Riser to strategically increase the distance for your snake’s safety. (Here’s a product review I did for one by Custom Reptile Habitats in 2022!)
You will need to mount your UVB bulb in a Vivarium Electronics T5 HO or Arcadia ProT5 fixture. Optimal use distance is likely to be more variable if you use something different. In addition, plan on changing your UVB bulb every 12 months. Even if it’s still producing visible light, UVB output decreases over time, so the bulb becomes less beneficial to your snake with age.
- Note: If you use UVB, make sure that the fixture doesn’t have a piece of glass or plastic to “protect” the bulb. UVB rays are blocked by glass and plastic, rendering that bulb you just spent so much money on completely useless. Naked UVB bulbs are effective UVB bulbs!
Temperatures & Heating
Because ball pythons are reptiles, they are cold-blooded, and that means they rely on their environment for the heat needed to regulate their metabolism. If the temperatures or humidity is off, the snake may stop eating.
Python regius is native to Africa’s tropical savanna climate zone, and according to climate data from TimeandDate.com, the average temperatures in this area between 68-86°F (20-30°C) over the course of the year, with occasional spikes up to 96°F (35°C) or higher. However, keep in mind that ball pythons spend a significant portion of their lives in burrows, where temperatures are cooler and more stable than the open air above.
- Basking surface temperature: 95-104°F (35-40°C)
- Warm hide temperature: 86-90°F (30-32°C)
- Cool hide temperature: 72-80°F (22-27°C)
- Nighttime temperature: 70-78°F (21-26°C)
General air temperatures in a ball python’s enclosure should never exceed 95°F (35°C)!
Note the difference between surface temperature and air temperature. Surface temperature is measured on the basking surface (substrate, a wood branch, a flat rock, etc.), and can only be measured with an infrared temperature gun like the Etekcity 774. Air temperature can only be measured with a digital probe thermometer like the Zoo Med Digital Thermometer. Just because a surface is hot doesn’t mean that the air is hot — have you ever touched a piece of metal on a sunny day? Even if the air temperature is mild, the surface temperature of the metal can get quite hot.
If your home gets cooler than 70°F / 21°C at night, you will need a lightless heat source to warm up the air. Options for nighttime heat include ceramic heat emitters, radiant heat panels, and deep heat projector. While these devices can be handy for also assisting comfortable ambient temperatures in your ball python’s enclosure, they should not be used for daytime “basking” heat, as they produce weaker spectrums of infrared radiation (heat). More on that later.
How to Heat Your Ball Python
Heat lamps are a controversial heat source for ball pythons, but in nature, heat comes from above (the sun), not below (ground). In fact, reptiles retreat underground to escape the heat, not to get warmer. So while heating mats and heat tape are the most commonly used heat sources for ball pythons, they are unnatural and promote unnatural behaviors. Heat lamps solve this problem by warming the air as well as the ground below.
Halogen heating provides the largest quantity of the highest-quality form of heating for reptiles: Infrared A radiation! These wavelengths penetrate deeply into animal tissues, heating them up faster and helping them stay warm longer, which means less time “wasted” on basking, a stronger immune system, and more energy for digesting, exploring, etc. For a more detailed explanation of the significance of the different types of infrared (heat) in reptile care, read Roman Muryn’s publication: Next Level Heating: Why Infared Wavelengths Matter.
Be sure to buy white or clear bulbs rather than red, blue, black, or whatever other color you’ve found, as these unnaturally tint your snake’s environment — and ball pythons CAN see color!
BEST: Infrared Lamp Unit
- Pros: superior Infrared-A output, long-lasting, very wide beam, very even heating, wide range of wattage options
- Cons: expensive, deep red tint
Not to be confused with a red-tinted bulb that is being advertised as an “infrared” lamp when it is, in fact, just a red heat lamp, the Reptile Systems Infrared Heat Unit has the best Infrared-A output available on the current market. If you can afford it, it’s well worth the investment!
If you’re wondering which wattage to get, helpful charts estimating temperatures by distance are available here.
GOOD: Halogen flood heat bulbs
- Pros: affordable, dimmable, even heat output, wide beam
- Cons: may not get hot enough, reptile-branded bulbs are more expensive
If you need to buy reptile-branded halogen bulbs because you’re in a pinch (ex: you live in California), make sure that the bulb is white, not red or blue. Handle it with gloves on to help preserve the bulb’s lifespan by keeping your skin oils off of it.
If your ball python’s enclosure is more than 36″ long (which it should be), you will need a cluster of at least two halogen bulbs placed close together to create a basking area large enough to evenly heat most of your snake’s body when in a coiled position.
When using a screen-top enclosure: If you are using a glass terrarium or other enclosure with a mesh top (ex: Maximum Reptile, Zen Habitats, Reptile Habitats), the easiest way to do this is to use a dome-style heat lamp fixture with a ceramic socket, like the Zoo Med Combo Deep Dome dual lamp fixture. That way the mesh will create a barrier between the bulb and the snake, preventing burns. Plus, using two bulbs rather than one creates a larger basking area that will be better able to evenly heat your ball python’s body.
If you have to install heating inside your enclosure: It’s not ideal to install heat lamps inside a snake enclosure, as it reduces the amount of available vertical space available to your pet, and snakes are more likely than other reptiles to come into contact with the heating equipment. If the heat bulbs must be installed inside the enclosure, you will need bulb cages like the Arcadia Heat Lamp Cage to keep your pet from getting burned!
What heat lamp wattage should you use?
This is a common question with no solid answer, sorry! What wattage bulb you will need depends on room temperature, enclosure height, and other factors. What works for one person won’t always work for another, which is why I like dimmable heat lamps so much. When in doubt, try the higher-wattage bulb first and dim as needed.
If your room temperature tends to fluctuate by season, consider purchasing a proportional thermostat like the Herpstat 1, which is the top performing proportional stat in the US at its price point. Unlike non-proportional thermostats, which switch a heat source on and off in order to maintain the target temperature (this can be very annoying when you’re using a light-based heat source), proportional thermostats simply dim the heat source instead.
- PRO TIP: Beware “environmentally-friendly” light bulbs. These bulbs advertise a high wattage, but actually use fewer watts while maintaining the same light output as the advertised wattage. This is great for household lighting, but in a reptile enclosure you need the warmth that extra energy expenditure provides. If you can’t find a good bulb, a reptile day bulb from a pet store works, too, although it will likely have a shorter lifespan.
For best results, place a large, flat slab of rock (flagstone or similar) directly under the heat lamp, along with the warm hide. This is the perfect way to create an ideal basking surface. It also helps transfer heat to the warm hide, which should be placed directly under the basking rock (I find that black plastic hide boxes work GREAT for this). If your warm hide still isn’t getting warm enough, you will need help from a thermostat-controlled heat mat.
GOOD: Heat mat
Many snake keepers use a heat mat as their primary heat source of choice, covering about 1/3 of the terrarium’s floor space. However, this popular practice only worked when the snakes were kept in plastic tubs and otherwise undersized enclosures, as heat mats lack the power to create warm enough ambient temperatures in appropriate-sized enclosures with a deep substrate layer — in fact, trying to use a heat mat exclusively in an otherwise “cold” enclosure is a good way to give your snake a serious burn! Furthermore, they only produce Infrared-C radiant heat rather than the stronger, deeper-penetrating IR-A and IR-B of halogen bulbs, which compounds their inefficiency as a primary heat source.
So why are heat mats listed as a “good” heat source for ball pythons? Because they’re actually rather good for helping maintain your snake’s warm hide! More or less any well-rated heat mat will work, but mats designed for seed germination have also been used successfully (and are particularly good because they’re waterproof and not sticky).
However, a heat mat is only as good as it’s been set up properly, so here are some rules for using a heat mat in your setup to keep your ball python safe and healthy:
1. Use a heat mat only as a secondary heat source, never a primary. This means that you should be relying on heat lamps first, then adding a heat mat only if you’re having trouble hitting the right temperatures in your warm hide.
2. Don’t let the snake come into direct contact with the mat. Instead, either bury the mat 1″ below the substrate under the warm hide, or (this is my preferred method) place the mat on top of a black box hide and then place a piece of flagstone on top of that. The flagstone then acts as the basking surface as well!
3. Connect your heat mat to a good thermostat! Heat pads have a nasty reputation for overheating, so make sure to buy a thermostat along with it so you don’t accidentally burn your snake. Most people prefer the relatively low cost of non-proportional thermostats for use with heat pads, such as Inkbird. For something higher quality and much less likely to fail (read: safer), consider the Herpstat 1.
I made the mistake of using a heat pad sans thermostat once, and it not only warped the plastic tub, but also changed the color of the wood beneath. The snake was, fortunately, safe, but I had unwittingly kept a major fire hazard in my reptile room during those months.
4. Place your thermostat probe on the snake’s level. Some will tell you to put the thermostat probe on the heat mat itself — this does not enable the thermostat to control the temps that the animal feels, only how hot the heat mat itself gets. In other words, it renders the thermostat almost entirely ineffective. Instead, place the thermostat’s probe inside your ball python’s warm hide, resting on top of the substrate. By placing the probe on your snake’s level, you will know and be able to control exactly what temperature s/he is experiencing. Make sure to check the probe’s position daily and replace it if needed.
For best results, program your thermostat or digital outlet timer to maintain the warm hide’s temperature via heat mat all day and about 2 hours after “sunset” before turning off. This helps replicate the way the sun would warm a burrow in nature.
OKAY: Radiant heat panel
Like a heat lamp, but weaker. These are generally preferred by large snake keepers or keepers with particularly large enclosures because radiant heat panels excel at creating large areas of warmth. Because they’re installed on top of the enclosure, burn/fire risk is lessened compared to heat mats or heat tape. Heat panels must be regulated by a proportional (dimming) thermostat to be used safely.
Heat panels can be purchased at Bean Farm.
DO NOT USE HEAT ROCKS!
For some unfathomable reason, heat rocks are still on the market, recommended by pet stores as a “safe” source of heat for your snake. Though safety improvements have been made in recent years, they are still dangerous. Furthermore, they’re not a good choice for heating your enclosure, as it only warms the rock, not the surrounding air.
Ball pythons need some humidity to maintain proper respiratory health and to shed their skin correctly. According to TimeandDate.com climate records from known ball python habitat in Africa, humidity levels are generally between 60-80% during the day, rising to 80-100% at night. It’s best to replicate these conditions in your pet’s enclosure, although occasional short dips and spikes outside of the given ranges are not likely to be harmful.
Keep tabs on both temperature and humidity with a digital thermometer/hygrometer — the humidity probe should be placed in the middle of the enclosure to monitor average humidity, although it is helpful to have another humidity probe in the humid hide to make sure it stays moist.
Of course, even when you use the right substrate, maintaining high levels of humidity can be tricky, especially if you live in a dry climate or if the enclosure is well ventilated. Here are some tips:
- Use a thick layer of moisture-retentive substrate — at least 4″. The more substrate you have, the more moisture it can hold.
- Daily misting (every evening and then morning if needed) with a traditional spray bottle can give you hand cramps, so use a pressure sprayer like the Exo Terra Pressure Sprayer to make life a lot easier. Alternatively, consider installing an automatic misting system!
- Install a humid hideout somewhere in the middle to cool end of the enclosure. This makes sure your snake always has somewhere humid to go when needed. Simply line a reptile hide or cave with moistened sphagnum moss to encourage high humidity, and replace the moss frequently to prevent mold from developing.
- Convert your ball python’s enclosure into a bioactive vivarium. Bioactive setups offer a powerful combination of thick substrate, leaf litter, and live plants, so in a tropical context, this approach can go a long way toward stabilizing your humidity levels while also eliminating substrate waste. Bioactive kits like this one by the Bio Dude make the conversion process a lot easier (and increase your likelihood of success!).