How to Choose Aquarium Lighting Comparison Chart

How to Choose Aquarium Lighting: Comparison Chart

The number of aquarium lighting options has grown exponentially over the past handful of years, making picking a light fixture an overwhelming proposition, especially for those just getting into the hobby. This chart breaks down the key difference between LED, T5, and metal halide lighting and should help you zero in on the best lighting option for your tank.

Aquarium Lighting Comparison Chart

Factors Metal Halide T5 LED
Light Output
High Output
Medium Output
Medium to High Output
High-wattage metal halides put out the most amount of light. Both T5 and LED fixtures are not far behind.
Light Distribution & Spread
Uneven Light Distribution;
High output directly below the bulb; Lower output away from the bulb
Even Light Distribution across tank
Even Light Distribution in Most Areas
T5 fixtures produce an even blanket of light with slight shadowing. LEDs have come a long way but are still not at the same level as T5’s.
LED is known for its advanced controllability. Many T5 fixtures have some controllability options, whereas halides generally do not.
Color Spectrum
Varies based on the bulb selected
Varies based on the bulbs selected
Adjustable based on LED assortment & control settings
For LEDs, change the color spectrum at the touch of a button. Change the spectrum in a T5 or metal halide by changing the bulbs.
Since the light emanates from a single point source, metal halides generally produce the best shimmer.
Both metal halide and T5 produce significantly more heat than most LED fixtures.
Energy Consumption
Low to Medium
The energy consumption for an LED can vary significantly from one fixture to the next; however, in general, it is lower than both a comparably sized T5 or metal halide fixture.
Energy Efficiency
LEDs tend to be the most efficient, metal halide is often the least efficient, and T5 tends to fall right in the middle.
Varies Significantly – Generally Larger Footprint; Heavy
Large Footprint; Heavy
Smaller Footprint;
Halide and T5 fixtures are heavy and bulky, making mounting them challenging.
Bulb Replacement

Every 12 Months

Every 8-12 Months

Halide and T5 bulbs will need to be replaced every year or less.
Startup Cost
Pricing is all over the map. LEDs are generally more expensive upfront with lower operating costs. Each of these price ranges is based upon the cost of the fixture(s) and bulbs, if required, to light a standard 48-inch aquarium.
Mounting Options
Canopy Mount
Canopy Mount
Canopy Mount,
Tank Mount
LED fixtures often have multiple ways to be fixed above the aquarium, whether a mounting arm or hanging kit. Halide and T5 tend not to have quite as many mounting options.

Get to Know the Factors (Glossary)

Control: Ability to adjust light output, spectrum, and timing. Advanced controls allow users to create a customized schedule with varying intensity and spectrums.

Energy Consumption: The amount of energy used, usually measured in Watts.

Energy Efficiency: The energy obtained (ie light output) divided by energy input or energy consumed. A light that is more energy efficient will use less energy to produce the same amount of output.

Heat: The amount of energy transferred from a warm object to a cooler object.

Light Distribution: How light is dispersed from a fixture. For reef tanks, even light distribution across the entire tank is preferred.

Metal Halide Light Distribution
Representation of Metal Halide light distribution over a 48″ x “24” aquarium.
T5 Light Distribution
Representation of T5 light distribution over a 48″ x 24″ aquarium.
LED Light Distribution
Representation of LED light distribution over a 48″ x 24″ aquarium.

Light Output: The amount of light produced is usually measured in PAR (Photosynthetic Active Radiation).

Light Spread: How big of an area a light fixture will cover. Most single metal halide and LED fixtures are designed to cover an area up to 24” Long x 24” Wide. The light spread of a T5 fixture will vary depending on the length of the fixture.

Spectrum: How specific colors of light are mixed to create a particular appearance. The light spectrum for an LED fixture is changed by modifying the programming. For a T5 fixture change the spectrum changing bulb combinations.

Shimmer: A sparkle or sheen in the water caused by the distortion of light as it hits the water. Occurs in both the natural environment and in reef aquariums. It is often a desirable effect in home reef tanks.

Many LED fixtures utilize various points of light to combine into a particular spectrum. When these lights radiate over your tank and come into contact with the water below, a ‘disco ball’ effect of colored lights and shadows becomes visible. Below is a graphic representation of the LED disco-ball shimmer effect compared to T5 lighting, which produces virtually no shimmer.

LED Lighting Discoball Effect
T5 Lighting Smooth
** These images are courtesy of ATI North America and are intended to
represent the indicated lighting. They are not actual tank setups.


A Note on LED

The hobby has adopted LED as the go-to lighting for most reef aquariums. Still, they are offered in so many different iterations that generalizing them within any category has become a challenge. Some LED fixtures are highly controllable, and others provide no control whatsoever. Also, some LED fixtures require as little as 5 watts, and others utilize well over 200 watts. It is best to consider each LED fixture individually as their offerings have become diverse in most of these discussed factors.

If you have any questions about LED or any of the other aquarium lighting fixtures on the market, please contact our support team, and we’ll be happy to help.

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