Setting up snakes in a garage


Dear VPI,

A while ago I had talked to Tracy about how to set up my ball python room.  Now my dad is letting me put my snakes out in the garage inside a cabinet that's built into the front of the garage.  I plan on taking the doors off of the cabinet so that the snakes can actually have oxygen.  The cabinet itself is about 5 1/2ft tall x 23in deep x 19in wide.  Now, I live in Phoenix Arizona , which as you know gets fairly hot.  My dad is putting in a swamp cooler in our garage within the next month which should take care of the cooling portion of the garage. 

    However, I am worried about the whole winter thing.  I am going to get an electric radiator and stand it up about 4ft away from the cabinet with a big fan behind it blowing the heat towards the snakes.  But I only want the heat to come on if the temps drop below 70degrees.  Tracy had told me a brand of thermostat that kicks on if the temp drops below a certain degree.  However, I forgot what it was.  Could you guys remind me?  Also, since I would be heating such a small space, I was wondering if I should hang plastic from the ceiling around the cabinet and the heater so that the heat stays in.  Is this necessary?  I know for a fact that you guys probably have no idea as to what I am saying, so I am attaching a couple pics of my garage and the cabinet I will be storing my snakes in.  If you could help me out with this, I would greatly appreciate it.  Thank you so much guys, you dont know how much this means to me.  Hope to hear from you soon. 


Dear Greg,

I see several important considerations that you need to address. 

There is an increased risk presented to your snakes in small enclosed spaces like that cabinet or a closet. The smaller the space, the harder to control temperatures and prevent temperature extremes from occasionally happening.

I don't think an electric radiator heater is the best choice for you. First off, they are hard to control. By which I mean that they pull a lot of amps, so there aren't many thermostats that you can run them with directly that I've found. They will burn out most thermostats. They do have a built in thermostat, but you can't really use it to run the heater because it has a wide variance of temperatures that's not adjustable. If you set it on 70 degrees, it will heat to about 78, then turn off and not turn back on until the temp drops to 62-that averages to 70.

We control our heaters with a Johnson Controls house thermostat that can be adjusted to keep temperatures accurate to within .5 degrees. But we can't hook the heater directly up to the thermostat. Instead the thermostat runs a 20 amp relay switch and that runs the heater. We then can use the thermostat that's built into the heater as a safety-if the temps soar too high because our Johnson thermostat has failed, the heater should shut itself down, hopefully before lethal temperatures are reached.

The problem with electric radiators is that occasionally they fail while "on," meaning they fail to turn off and they then cook all snakes in the area, if the area is too small. Your snakes in that cabinet are a little too vulnerable to the amount of heat that a radiator can put off. The areas we heat with those heaters are rooms, much bigger than the area you're talking about.

Speaking of lethal temperatures-a garage in Phoenix in summer is about a thousand degrees, isn't it? I think you can smelt iron in most garages in Phoenix. Is the garage door never going to be opened during the day when your snakes are in there? Isn't about 110 degrees in the shade in July, August and September? That's going to be a problem too, I would think. Won't the garage door be open?

So what happens if the swamp cooler goes offline or runs out of water during the day when it is very hot and while no one is around to notice. You have to arrange things so that the temps won't quickly soar to lethal extremes.

So here's the game plan I propose, as I see it from this great distance. The biggest danger to your snakes is heat, not cold. So you've got to set up a fail-proof system that will keep your snakes alive if something happens and the garage starts to heat up. You need backup, a dual system. Put in two small swamp coolers instead of one big one. Or use one swamp cooler and put in a small cheap 110 volt window air conditioner that isn't used, doesn't come on unless it starts to get too hot in the room. At least put an alarm in the garage that goes off if the temp gets too high. There are a wide variety of temp alarms available, including peripherals for a burglar alarm system, if you've got one in the house. In a situation like we're talking about, we would keep our snakes at 65-78 at night and 72-85 in the day. If they are 82-88 day and night In the heat of the summer, they'll be fine, but the rest of the year keep them cooler.

Now for heat, I'd recommend that you put heater strips on the cabinet shelves under your cages. Something like a 3" wide piece of FlexWatt or some other thermofilm will do great. Here's how I'd do it. I'd connect a thermostat to the power source and I'd set it to be on up to 86-88 (monitoring the air temperature in the cabinet) and them turn off if temps get higher. I'd plug a rheostat into the thermostat and then I'd plug all the heat strips into the rheostat. Using the rheostat I'd set the temp strips so that they are heating areas on the floors of the cages that are about 6-8 degrees higher than the ambient temperatures-they're always that much warmer than ambient and they turn off when the temps in the cabinet rise to 86 or wherever you have the thermostat set. If ambient gets higher than your setting, the thermostat turns your heat strips off. It doesn't take many amps to run heat strips and you can buy the thermofilm and a small thermostat like this from Big Apple or Bean Farm.

Also, I'd take off the solid doors on the cabinet and I'd replace them with tight fitting screen doors, so that I you have escapes (and it happens) your snakes can't get out into the garage and maybe the neighborhood.

Ball pythons are hardy snakes and they thrive at cooler temps than most people keep them at. The way I'm proposing to set them up, they might be too cool to feed in the winter, but you don't want to feed them in the winter anyway and as long as they have a place to sit that's about 80 degrees, they can be quite cool with no ill effects. Maybe it's cooler there in the winter than I realize, maybe you'd have to take special precautions if a rare "blue norther" blows in, but a nice warm spot to sit on is all a ball python needs. I'd want to ambient temp to vary from night-time lows to day-time highs anyway, and I'd want it cooler in the winter than in the summer--a garage ought to be perfect for that.

If it does get cold in the garage in the winter, then there's the application for your electric radiator. Just have it add some heat to the whole garage when it gets down below 55-60 degrees in the garage. Unplug it in the summer.

There's no doubt that even if I set up all this for you in person, once it was up and going, it would be necessary to tweak the system, make changes, make adjustments. So use your head and make your best judgments. Just don't lose sight of the dangers that temperature extremes pose. Every year Tracy and I receive at least one phone call from someone who is sobbing over all their snakes that have just died from too much heat. It's a tragedy that can be avoided.

Good luck,