The Aquatic Gazette

Aquarium Lighting Options

In Lighting on June 3, 2011 at 00:01

For a newcomer into the hobby, there are a myriad of lighting options. In this article, we will be breaking down lighting options to simple facts, enabling you to choose the best option for yourself.

Nano aquascapes are all the rage these days with brands like Dennerle, Dymax, Eheim and Ecoxotic offering nano aquariums complete with lighting and filters. An older model, such as the Dennerle Nano Cube will spot a compact fluorescent lighting unit, while a newer modeil such as Ecoxotic’s EcoPico will spot a sleek LED lighting unit. If your aquarium is not a nano one, the options for lighting only increases, with T8, T5, T5 High Ouput (T5HO) or Metal halides to consider.

ADA Grand Solar I | two 36W twin fluorescent lamps with metal halide 150W

Compact Fluorescent

Nano compact fluorescent lighting units are often found in three common wattages, 9W, 11W or 13W of light. The compact fluorescent work by using the gases embedded inside their tubes during operation. However after over a period of use, these gases will start to deplete and the intensity of light emitted will gradually decrease. Therefore, it is always recommended that compact fluorescents are changed on an annual basis to ensure peak light output. Because of the use of these gases, compact fluorescents also produce unwanted heat during operation. However, Well designed lighting units will ensure that this heat is not passed on to the aquarium but vented upwards.

Compact fluorescent lighting units can be found in many different types of designs, at different prices. They currently dominate the nano lighting market because of their reliability and availability.

Dennerle's lighting unit for its nano cube

Nano LED (Light Emitting Diode)

Nano LED lighting units are very new to the hobby, only being readily available in the last 2 years or so. They are touted as the future replacement of the compact fluorescent, and there are several appealing reasons to this claim.

LEDs use solid semiconductors to generate light, rather than the compact fluorescent’s method of using gases and filaments. This means that instead of the usual annual change of bulbs because of a decrease in lighting intensity, LED lights will only need a change after 50,000 hours. To put it in better perspective, that is 17 years of operations if your photo period is 8 hours a day! Because of the lack of gases in operations, LEDs run much cooler than compact fluorescents. LEDs are also very energy efficient, with a single LED using a maximum of 3W of electricity. Being energy efficient is always a good thing these days.

Besides all these advantages, the biggest appeal of using a LED lighting unit, is the beautiful glitter lines that will be seen in your aquascape. Before the introduction of the LED, only the Metal halide could produce these natural looking glitter lines, and a metal halide light is not an option for a nano aquariums because of the heat and lighting intensity they produce. These glitter lines enhance the appearance of an aquascape and produces the same effects we see in lakes and ponds when sunlight shines through.

With all these advantages, one might ask why has not the LED completely replaced the compact fluorescent? The reason is simple and one that is dear to our hearts, their relatively high initial cost. Although LEDs will pay for themselves over their 50,000 hours lifespan, their initial overlay is high and often many times the cost of a compact fluorescent. This will deter many a starting aquarist whose budget for a lighting unit may not allow for an LED lighting unit. Also, several companies have started selling nano LED lighting units that are questionable, with their lighting intensity dropping after a mere 6 months of use! However, with more established and reputable companies such as Eheim and Ecoxotic embracing nano LEDs, there will be an increase in their use, as consumer confidence rides on those brands.

Ecoxotic's EcoPico LED arm


Fluorescent lighting units are the bigger versions of the compact fluorescent. They come in three different kinds, the T8, T5 and T5HO. Fluorescent tubes are prefixed T, and categorised based on how many eighths of an inch they are across. For example, a T8 will be eight-eighths of an inch, or an inch, and a T5 will be five-eighths of an inch. Although a T5 is smaller in diameter as compared to a T8, advances in technology has allowed the current T5 to be stronger in light output and intensity. Similar to the smaller compact fluorescent, T5 and T8 fluorescents do emit quite a bit of heat during operations. They are quite affordable to run and the initial costs for these lighting units are very reasonable.

T5HO fluorescents are similar to their normal T5 counterparts in size, but as their name suggest, they produce a higher output of light. T5HO runs on electronic ballasts as compared to the other fluorescents which run on magnetic ballasts, this enables the T5HO a greater lighting intensity. This greater intensity however, translates to higher running costs and a considerable amount of heat being produced during operation. Some T5HO lighting units which feature more than 4 tubes, are equipped with inbuilt fans to disperse this heat. The initial cost of a T5HO lighting set is higher as well.

The most effective way to get the most out of your fluorescent lighting units is to ensure that they are outfitted with a quality reflector. A poor quality reflector or the lack of one will result in much light being ‘lost’, or not being directed towards the aquarium. As with their smaller compact fluorescent counterparts, all fluorescent lighting units will need their fluorescent tubes changed annually, to ensure optimal levels of intensity.

ADA Grand Solar II | four 36W twin fluorescent lamps

Metal Halide

Metal halide lighting units are a staple in aquascapes that require strong lighting. Ranging from 70W to 1000W, these lighting units are good options if you need that kind of lighting intensity. Metal halide operates through the use of gases and thus they also produce a considerable amount of heat. In metal halide lighting units of strong wattages, this amount of heat will need to be dealt with, with the use of multiple fans or an aquarium chiller. Metal halide are also costly to run, and they would require an annual change to ensure optimal intensity.

There is a quality to the metal halide, similar to LEDs, that makes it much more appealing than fluorescents. Metal halides produce the same glitter lines we see when natural sunlight hits an aquatic environment, and this is because Metal halides and LEDs are pinpoint lights, while fluorescents are diffused light. Because a single metal halide is capable of a massive amount of light compared to the small LEDs, the pinpoint effect is a single big point of light while LEDs are many smaller points of lights. Bearing this in mind, only light demanding flora should be placed directly under the metal halide, while the lesser light needy flora can be placed further. One major advantage the metal halide has over fluorescents is the ability to punch deep into an aquarium. For an aquarium that is deeper than 60cm, metal halides are the usual recommendations.

ADA Grand Solar 250 | metal halide 250W

LEDs for mainstream tanks

LED lighting units for mainstream tanks share all the same attributes as the LEDs for nano tanks with the exception of the difference in quantity. The bigger the tank, the more LEDs are needed. As such, the initial cost LED lighting units for substantially sized tanks are expensive when compared to a metal halide lighting unit that does the same job.

If the initial cost is not an issue, the LED lighting unit will be cheaper to run over the years and it will be drastically cooler in operation. LED lighting units for mainstream tanks are not common yet, and most of those found are DIY efforts. As LEDs manufacturing costs gradually reduce, these lights will see more mainstream action in the near future.

As always in this hobby, there is no fix and fast rule to our approach with aquarium equipment. What’s most important is that the equipment desired fits our budget and does the job required of it. So do your research, take your time and enjoy the journey! We hope we have been of some help.


credit: Aqua Design Amano | Dennerle | Ecoxotic


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