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 suggest 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 3.0-4.0 in the basking area (closest location to the UVB lamp), you will need a specific distance between the UVB bulb and basking surface. The following recommendations are based on data collected by Chris Phillips with the Vivarium Electronics T5 HO / Arcadia ProT5 fixture:
Lamp mounted above mesh (recommended for safety):
- Zoo Med T5 HO ReptiSun 5.0 / Arcadia 6% — 11-13″/29-33cm
- Zoo Med T5 HO ReptiSun 10.0 / Arcadia 12% — 17-19″/43-48cm
Without mesh obstruction:
- Zoo Med T5 HO ReptiSun 5.0 / Arcadia 6% — 14-16″/36-41cm
- Zoo Med T5 HO ReptiSun 10.0 / Arcadia 12% — 20-22″/51-56cm
*Distance recommendations assume a snake “height” of ~2″.
**These recommendations are not likely to be accurate if you use a different T5 HO fixture, such as Zoo Med ReptiSun, Tropic Blaze, or a non-reflective fixture from the hardware store. ReptiFiles does not recommend using these fixtures without a Solarmeter 6.5.
The abovementioned bulbs will need to be changed every 12 months to remain effective, even if it still seems to be working.
PRO TIP: 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!
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, where average temperatures average 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 prefer to live 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: 72-78°F (22-26°C)
Note the difference between surface temperature and air temperature. Surface temperature is measured on the basking surface (substrate, 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 conventional digital 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. Air temperatures in a ball python’s enclosure should never exceed 95°F (35°C)!
Temperatures can typically drop to room temperature at night without negative effects, and may actually be more beneficial for the snake’s long-term health. So go ahead and save a little bit on your electric bill by turning off heat sources at night if your home isn’t too cold.
If your home does get too cold at night, you will need a lightless radiant heat source to warm up the air, like a ceramic heat emitter, radiant heat panel, or deep heat projector.
There are a few ways to keep your ball python at the right temperature…
BEST FOR DAYTIME: Halogen flood heat lamp
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.
If you are using a glass terrarium or other enclosure with a mesh top (ex: Maximum Reptile, Zen Habitats), I recommend using a dome-style heat lamp fixture with a ceramic socket and a built-in lamp dimmer, 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.
Be sure to buy white or clear bulbs rather than red, blue, black, or whatever other color you’ve found. My favorite halogen flood heat bulb for screen-top 4x2x2 enclosures is a 90w PAR38 halogen flood heat bulb, without the hexagonal lens. If you can’t get halogen flood heat bulbs in your area, the Arcadia Halogen, Zoo Med Repti Halogen, and Exo Terra Halogen bulbs are fair alternatives.
Reptile-branded heat bulbs are small enough to be installed inside a reptile enclosure if needed, although I do not recommend this if it can be avoided. If the bulb must be installed inside the enclosure, you will need a bulb cage like this to prevent burns.
What 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 EZ1, 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 pad
Many snake keepers use a heat pad as their primary heat source of choice, covering about 1/3 of the terrarium’s floor space. However, I prefer and recommend using heat pads as a secondary heat source to help make sure the warm hide is staying at an optimal temperature.
Whichever you choose, keep in mind that heat pads have a nasty tendency to overheat, so make sure to buy a thermostat along with it so you don’t accidentally burn your snake. Most people prefer the low cost of non-proportional thermostats for use with heat pads, such as Jump Start and Vivosun. For something higher quality and much less likely to fail (read: safer), consider the Herpstat EZ1.
Once you have your heat pad placed 1″ under the substrate under your snake’s warm hide, and connected to the thermostat, place the thermostat’s probe inside your ball python’s warm hide, resting on 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.
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.
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 Reptile Basics.
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. In the wild, average humidity ranges roughly between 45-75%, with dips down to 30% and spikes up to 90%. In your enclosure, humidity should generally stay between 45-75%, although occasional short dips and spikes 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 substrate — at least 4″. The more substrate you have, the more moisture it can hold.
- Set aside time each week to manually mix or pour water into the substrate until it’s damp, but not wet. While misting only touches the surface, having moisture in the substrate stabilizes humidity for longer periods of time.
- Daily misting (preferably in the morning and/or at night) 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.
- 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.