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Finding the right commercial incubator

Posted by: Editor on 5/11/2011

Given the time of year (ball python eggs are hitting the ground around the country at a rapid clip right now), we thought we'd throw up a quick blog post about suitable commercial reptile egg incubators.  We've used a wide variety of commercially available incubators over the years with varying levels of success.  This post is not intended to get into the details of reptile egg incubation - we'll write more on that later - but rather to simply provide a quick list of potential options for those that are researching incubators for the first time, or others who are thinking of increasing their incubator capacity.

To start with, when it comes to incubating reptile eggs there are basically an endless variety of options available at an equally wide range of price points. We're going to stick to just a few commercially available options in this post.  It is very possible (and practical in many cases) to build your own incubator, but that we'll leave for a more detailed post another time.  Suffice it to say a quick Google search will lead you to a number of excellent do-it-yourself incubator tutorials.  And then, of course, you can also allow your female python to incubate her own eggs – known as maternal incubation – but that, as well, will be the subject of another post.  For now we’ll just to point you in the direction of a few commercially available options:

       1) Avey Incubators
       2) Nature's Spirits Incubators
       3) Habitat Systems Incubators
       4) Alternative extruded hollow-core PVC plank manufactures
       5) Thermo Fisher / Forma lab quality incubators

Before jumping in to the subject at hand, however, a quick overview of why we need incubators in the first place can't hurt.  An incubator is basically a physical chamber in which we can control the physical factors (temperature, light, humidity, ventilation, CO2, etc.) that impact embryo development in a variety of biological organisms.  Incubators have found a wide variety of uses over the years, from growing microorganisms in laboratory conditions for medical research to caring for premature human infants, from genetic engineering to hatching poultry eggs, and of course for successfully hatching python eggs. 

The overall requirements of a viable incubator for python eggs are really pretty simple.  First, the incubator must be able to hold/contain heat and humidity.  Second, the incubator must have a reliable heat source to help maintain a constant temperature throughout the incubation period.  Finally, the incubator must also have a suitable thermostat to control the temperature at the desired level.  In addition, if the incubator is large, there should be a fan that can gently circulate the air to ensure a relatively uniform temperature throughout the incubator.  Heat tends to rise; without the fan circulating air there can be meaningful differences between the temperature at the bottom of the incubator and that at the top.

Avey Incubator (www.aveyincubator.com)

image Avey Incubator makes a number of excellent incubators designed for reptile eggs.  They have a range of models, from converted coolers to specially constructed cabinet incubators.  Years ago we used their RCAB200 Reptile Cabinet Incubator and had great success with it, though because of its limited capacity we’ve moved on to larger incubators. The Avey incubators have precise digital temperature controls with temperature alarms and digital readouts and in our experience work extremely well.  Prices range from around $450 to $899 depending on the model, but well worth the expense for a solid incubator.

Nature’s Spirits Incubators (www.nsreptiels.com/incubator.html)

image Nature’s Spirits makes another excellent python egg incubator, and very affordable as well.  We purchased a Nature’s Spirits incubator quite a few years ago and got excellent use from it.  They are made of PVC plastic sheets that are thermally welded, weigh about 40 pounds, and can be used with most good commercial thermostats.  We used ours with a Helix proportional thermostat, but right now they are selling the incubator with the Herpstat proportional thermostat by Spyder Robotics.  Combined, the total cost is around $550.  Again, because of its limited capacity we have moved on to larger incubators, but you can easily hatch 6 ball python clutches in this incubator.  We like to use larger egg containers, which is why we limited ourselves to only six clutches.  With smaller egg containers (which we usually view as less ideal), you could squeeze several additional clutches in. 

Habitat Systems Incubators (www.habitatsystemsltd.com)

image Habitat Systems makes custom cabinet incubators in a variety of shapes and sized, and all are of excellent quality and design.  They use hollow-core PVC as the primary construction material.  As explained in greater detail on their site, hollow-core PVC has a number of properties that make it ideal for using in making reptile cages and incubators.  Go to their website to see a number of models.  They build to design – for the most part everything is custom – and as a result prices are expensive.  That said, if you intend to produce a lot of clutches, spending several thousand dollars on a top of the line large capacity custom incubator will be a very important investment.  You can’t go wrong with Habitat Systems.

Habitat Systems “Imitators”

Every now and again you can find individuals claiming to make Habitat System-style custom hollow-core PVC cabinet incubators, and they usually offer their product at half the price.  This can be a tempting option, and indeed we’ve taken it in the past.  The experience was not great.  We did finally get our incubator, and it works well, but it ended up costing us quite a bit more than originally intended.  We’re going to post a longer story on this specific experience because it highlights a number of the pitfalls you can run into when you try to take short cuts and buy the “low cost” option.  For now suffice it to say that you should get several solid references from anyone claiming they can build you a Habitat Systems-style incubator at half the cost.  And even if said individual checks out, significant capital investments should only be made with someone you are sure has the capability to deliver the end product.  Established businesses with long-term track records are your best bet.  Our next blog post will explain why.

Thermo Scientific Forma Steri-Cycle CO2 Incubators (www.thermoscientific.com)

image The Forma Steri-Cycle CO2 incubator definitely falls into the category of being nice to have but certainly not necessary.  This is a lab quality incubator that can range in price from as low as $10,000 to over $20,000 depending on size and features.  No, you DO NOT need this incubator to hatch ball python eggs, but if there is a Ferrari of incubators this would certainly be it.  The in-chamber air filtration system removes unwanted particles and contaminants from the air, the digital humidity control and monitoring system allows you to precisely control the humidity level in the chamber, the CO2 control system allows you to control the levels of CO2 in the chamber, and an onboard computer logs temperature, humidity and CO2 level information throughout the incubation period.  This is a lab quality incubator, and if you want to run some cool incubation experiments, having a few of these on hand certainly can’t hurt.  We realize this class of incubators probably doesn’t fit into the budgets of most casual ball python breeders, but we thought we’d include them as something to think about for those with a little extra disposable income.  Also, they are REALLY heavy, so definitely get the optional roller dolly so you can move them around. 

That’s the end of this quick summary on our limited experience with suitable commercial ball python egg incubators.  We’ve had great success with everything mentioned above.  As you can see, costs can range from around $500 to over $20,000, depending on size and sophistication.  For this reason many people choose to build their own incubators, either from scratch or converting old refrigerators or coolers.  These homemade DIY incubators can be very economical, and they can also work extremely well.  We’ll do another post on do-it-yourself incubators in the near future.  And of course you can always just set up an incubation room.  We’ll cover that in a later post as well.

HVH

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