How to Choose Aquarium Lighting

How to Choose Aquarium Lighting

The proper lighting not only shows off what is inside the tank but is also essential for the growth and health of the majority of reef aquarium corals. Lighting is constantly evolving, resulting in a plethora of different options. Most manufacturers design their aquarium lights for a particular size or type of aquarium, so knowing what works best for your specific tank is critical.

What is the Purpose of Aquarium Lighting?

There are two primary purposes of aquarium lighting in the saltwater hobby.

  1. Create an aesthetically beautiful environment by illuminating the tank, the live rock and sand, and the livestock.
  2. Provide sufficient PAR (light output), the proper light spectrum, and a light schedule that mimics nature for the corals and other photosynthetic organisms.

What are your Aquarium Lighting Requirements?

When deciding what type of lighting makes the most sense for your system, consider the following factors:

  1. Type of Livestock: The amount of light required varies dramatically based on the kind of corals. For example, an SPS dominant aquarium will need significantly more PAR than a soft coral system.
  2. Light Spread or Coverage: The longer and wider the tank, the greater the light spread or coverage you’ll need.
  3. Depth Penetration: Taller tanks require more powerful lights to penetrate to the bottom of the tank.
  4. Budget: Match your expectations and goals to your budget. Keeping SPS corals and other corals with higher light requirements will be more challenging if your lighting budget is limited.

Metal Halide Lighting

Metal Halide over Reef Tank
Metal Halide over Reef Tank

One of the most time-tested methods of reef aquarium lighting, metal halides very closely replicate the sun. However, due to the amount of energy they use, the heat they generate, and other drawbacks, it is no longer a popular method of lighting a reef tank.

Benefits of Metal Halide

  • Light Output: Metal halides can produce a lot of light.
  • Uniform Light Spectrum: Metal Halides create a consistent spectrum over the tank.
  • Shimmer: As a high-output, point light source, metal halides produce more shimmer than LED or fluorescent lights.
  • Simple: Since metal halides are not controllable, it simplifies the set-up process and prevents constant fiddling.

Drawbacks of Metal Halide

  • Power Consumption: One of the most significant drawbacks of metal halide is its high power usage. If your power bill is a concern, we suggest staying away from halides.
  • Heat: Metal halides produce significantly more heat than LED and fluorescent lighting options.
  • Control: Metal halides lack control except for the ability to turn them on and off with a timer.
  • Regular Bulb Replacement: Replace metal halide bulbs every eight to twelve months.

T5 Lighting

T5 over Freshwater Aquarium
T5 over Freshwater Aquarium

These fixtures are systems that can hold between two and twelve fluorescent bulbs. The bulbs come in various colors and spectrums, allowing users to adjust the color based on their specific needs. T5 lighting is the proven middle ground between metal halide and LED in many ways.

Benefits of T5

  • Light Spread: T5’s are the best of all current lighting methods of providing an even blanket of light with far fewer shadows and little-to-no hot spots.
  • Customizable Light Spectrum: Personalize the light spectrum by changing some bulbs.
  • Control: While T5 does not offer the same amount of control as LED, it does offer significantly more control than metal halides. Some T5 fixtures are dimmable, allowing users to create a customized schedule.

Drawbacks of T5

  • Heat: T5’s will not produce as much heat as metal halides; however, most fixtures will generate more heat than LEDs.
  • Regular Bulb Replacement: Like metal halides, replace T5 bulbs every eight to twelve months.
  • Size & Weight: T5 fixtures tend to be bulky, heavy, and difficult to hang.

LED Lighting

Image courtesy of @micromussa_whisperer on Instagram

LED is the most commonly used lighting method today and the most recently introduced. LEDs are renowned for their control, output, low heat, and energy efficiency.

Benefits of LED

  • Energy Efficient: LEDs are the most efficient lighting method.
  • Control: LED fixtures offer more control than metal halide and t5 fixtures. Most LED fixtures allow you to create a fully customized light schedule with sunrise and sunset and other lighting effects.
  • Low Heat: LEDs produce less heat than metal halides and T5’s.

Drawbacks of LED

  • Cost: In general, the up-front cost for a quality LED fixture is more expensive than T5’s or metal halides.
  • Control: With LED’s control options, some users may constantly mess around with the settings, negatively impacting coral health and growth.
  • Uneven Light Spread: LEDs’ light spread or balance is generally not as good as T5’s lights.
  • Uneven Spectrum Balance: LEDs are a pinpoint light source leading to uneven distribution of the different LED colors.

With the proper light fixture selected, you will see a dramatic improvement in the environment you are able to create within your display tank. Dialing in the appropriate lighting within your aquarium will allow you to shift your focus towards some of the other details that must be kept in check.

If you still have any questions on how to choose aquarium lighting for your system, or you are seeking a recommendation, please contact our support team.

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