The purpose of this article is to provide basic answers to the most common questions asked about choosing lighting in both fresh and Saltwater Aquariums, with emphasis on beginners, along with suggestions and resources for much more advanced aquarium keepers.
We include a suggestion chart at the end of this article which includes recommended wattage per type of light used.
This chart includes low light planted freshwater aquariums to advanced reef marine aquariums.
Much of this information is courtesy of:
“Aquarium Lighting; Facts & Information”
Please see the above article for much more accurate and in depth information.
FREQUENTLY ASKED AQUARIUM LIGHTING QUESTIONS & ANSWERS:
- Why is aquarium lighting important?
- What type of lighting is right for me and my tank?
- What type of lighting is there?
- T8 Even though the watts are higher on the T-12, the T-8 is more efficient with less wattage. The T-8 is the more common bulb/lamp size in many basic aquarium lights.
- T12 The main caution to the use of these fixtures for aquariums, is the use of shop lights as an inexpensive alternative to many aquarium lights. A 4100 K cool white shop light is not going to come close to a 6400 K daylight lamp that is of peak PAR efficiency, even if you match lumens.
- T5 The T5 has become very popular among both plant keeping freshwater aquarists, and reef keepers for good reason. They are compact, come in many varieties and high lumen per watt outputs. As a broad generalization, only requiring 2 to 4 watts per gallon for more shallow planted/reef applications depending upon tank depth and other factors. While the T2 is the latest in straight tube fluorescent lights, the T5 still is better suited for aquariums over 20 inches in depth.
- T2 These fixtures are the latest fluorescent technology yet. They measure only 7 mm and allow for several bulbs in a small space. A 13 watt 20 inch T-2 Bulb (6400 K) produces 950 lumens which is 73 lumens per watt with low wasted green/yellow light energy that is often found in other Power Compact Lights. As little as 1 to 1.50 watts per gallon for a planted aquarium is all that is needed from these T2 Lights! These fixtures have useful linkable, and rotating lens features too.
- VHO This stands for “Very High Output”. These come in T-5, T6, thru T-12 standard fluorescent tubes. The new Helios & other VHO Power Compact Fixtures come in a variety of sizes with outputs up to 180 watts out of lamps under 40 inches in length, which rival many Metal Halide (although not in depth penetration).
- CFL This stands for “Power Compact” or “Compact Fluorescent Lamp (light)”. These bulbs come in straight pin arrangements, square pin arrangements, and the self ballasted standard incandescent fixture “screw in” type. These bulbs are similar to T-5s and have about the same lumen per watt output (generally around 60 lumens per watt).
- SHO A newest high output variation of the Power Compact that is much more powerful as per useful light energy produced.
- Metal Halide Metal Halide was considered the “King” of reef aquarium lighting due to depth penetration, output, spectrum, and over all beauty and amount of coral life they help support, making most corals “pop” with life.
- LED The high quality LED lights do not have the heat problems of other lights, often last 50,000 hours, produce less useless yellow/green spectrum light (in aquarium adjusted configurations), and are very compact. In fact, this lack of production of yellow/green light in many, all ‘high end’ emitters used by various LED Kelvin lights (whether 6500K or 14000K) often make the LED look less bright to the human eye, when in fact the opposite is true as per useful light energy (aka PUR).
- Lunar There is a common belief that moonlight should be “blue” when in truth all the moon does is reflect diffused sunlight back to the earth. Dust or moisture can affect the color spectrum seen by the human eye as well, which often make the light appear blue. This means that a dimmed/diffused daylight is a more accurate production of moonlight.
- What is the maintenance of aquarium lighting?
- When to replace an aquarium light (hours, time)?
- Does lighting have to be difficult?
No, lighting does not have to be difficult. It honestly depends on what type of setup you have, and what type of lighting you have chosen. Some lights are more difficult than others and this is where research comes in. Make sure you know what type of lighting would work best for your application and also what kind of maintenance, upkeep, and difficulty it entails prior to purchasing.
- Watt Per Gallon?
While this is an outdated rule, we can still use this as a rough guide as per specific lighting types:
LIGHT TYPE Low Light Planted Freshwater High Light Planted Freshwater FOWLR Saltwater Basic Reef Advanced Reef T8/T12 1.5- 2 watts per gallon 3-4 watts per gallon 1.5- 2 watts per gallon 3-4 watts per gallon 4-5 watts per gallon CFL 1.5- 2 watts per gallon 3- 3.5 watts per gallon 1.5 – 2 watts per gallon 3- 3.5 watts per gallon 3.5 -4.5 watts per gallon SHO 1.25 -1.75 watts per gallon 2.25- 2.75 watts per gallon 1- 1.5 watts per gallon 2.25- 2.75 watts per gallon 2.5- 3 watts per gallon T5 1- 1.25 watts per gallon 2- 3 watts per gallon 1- 1.25 watts per gallon 2- 3 watts per gallon 2.5- 4 watts per gallon T2 1 watts per gallon 1.25- 1.5 watts per gallon 1 watts per gallon 1.25- 1.5 watts per gallon 1.50- 2 watts per gallon Low End LED
(Marineland, Satellite, Fluval, Finnex, etc.)
1 watt per gallon 2- 2.5 watts per gallon 1 watt per gallon 1.75 -2.5 watts per gallon 2.5- 3 watts per gallon High End LED
(AquaRay, with the lower watt per gal and EcoTech & AI Sol the higher wattage shown)
.4- .8 watt per gallon .6- 1.25 watts per gallon .5- 1 watt per gallon .6- 1.25 watts per gallon .8- 1.5 watts per gallon
Lighting is an important consideration for both freshwater and reef aquariums. It can make a difference on how natural your aquarium appears, as well as brown diatom algae is often a problem in established FW tanks with poor lighting. There is also some evidence (not conclusive) that good lighting aids in correct Redox which is a water parameter that has a definite effect on fish health. Besides that, plants, reef, coral, etc, need proper lighting to survive.
This depends on many things, such as;
Once you finish determining the above aspects you are ready to look at different types of lighting. There are several different types such as SHO (Super High Output) LED, T-2, etc. Please see below.
For the average aquarium keeper, the T8 is still a good choice.
The Hagen AquaGlo is a good example of a basic, but useful T8 aquarium light for freshwater fish aquariums.
The T5 is a good choice for more advanced planted freshwater and reef saltwater aquarium keepers, but are also considerably more expensive than traditional T8 lamps/lights.
The Aqualine 6700K is a good example of planted aquarium T5 while the Coralife and Helios are just a couple of distributors of Reef Capable T5 lamps/lights.
The T2 is an excellent choice for a beginner freshwater aquarium keeper looking for a better light than the traditional T8, that also is less expensive than most T5s (with more light output per watt consumed).
One especially nice feature of the newest generation T2 (302 model) is the built in directional swivel reflector. This makes retrofitting out old T8 fixtures easy as everything old can be removed then replaced with this compact, yet complete and efficient T2 light fixture.
The T2 can also be an excellent planted freshwater light when the correct number is used per the aquarium size (best results are found in aquariums under 20″ in depth). Even saltwater aquariums up to basic reef tanks can utilize the T2 light.
The picture to the above demonstrates an 8 Watt T2 over a 14 gallon nano planted aquarium.
The American Aquarium T2 is an excellent choice for these new generation aquarium lights
See this web page for American Aquarium T2 Lights:
T2 Aquarium Lights, Lighting
The “Screw-in” CFL is a good choice for beginners looking for a better light that can be used in a fixture that normally utilizes incandescent light bulbs.
A good example of CFL lights can be found HERE:
Aquarium CFL lighting
As well, the SHO can be used for reef aquariums as an addition to LED or Metal Halide.
The SHO Light is currently sold in a self ballasted PC bulb/light. The 105 Watt SHO Daylight bulb puts out 6300 lumens and is comparable to a 525 watt Standard bulb.
The SHO is generally the best light other than some high end LEDs for planted freshwater aquariums over 40 gallons. The SHO is an excellent choice for larger planted freshwater aquarium.
Probably the only negative to the SHO light is it is not an “out of the box” light and generally requires some DIY skills to install. HOWEVER if you have reasonable DIY abilities, this newer, much more powerful version of the CFL is well worth it in both cost to own and phenomenal results!
One source for SHO Lights can be found:
Aquarium, Hydroponics SHO lighting
Aesthetically speaking, the Metal Halide is hard to beat. However, the newest high output LEDs are now taking over the MH and are beginning to surpass MH for Reef aquariums. LEDs have been proven to surpass MH with plant growth in nursery/hydroponics environments.
One study/test shows a 12 Watt Full spectrum LED producing better growth than a 175 Watt MH of the same type!
That said, for tanks over 30 inches in specimen placement, the Metal Halide is still generally the best available light, especially when used in light combinations that include 20,000K, with other popular Metal Halide Kelvin color temperatures being 10,000K, and 14,000K.
Further Reference: Aquarium Lighting; Metal Halide
LED Lights can used from anywhere from basic fish aquariums to advanced planted freshwater and advanced reef aquariums, however there is a wide variance in light output of emitters, with some LED fixtures requiring 3 times as many emitters to produced the same PUR light energy required by the best patented LED fixtures.
Suggested Reading for more advanced aquarium keepers:
LED Aquarium Lighting, Lighting
PUR vs PAR in Aquarium Lighting
Examples of good to excellent LED Fixtures include the EcoTech, Aqua Illumination, and the TMC AquaRay LED Aquarium Lights
Suggested Resource for the BEST Aquarium LED Lights (by best, the highest PUR per watt with the least wasted energy often due to the need for cooling fans):
TMC Premium Patented LED Aquarium Lights, Lighting
The 55 gallon planted tank below is lighted with GroBeam 600 LED fixtures:
For those looking a for “GOOD” LED light for their freshwater aquarium that is well beyond the lower end “Current Satellite”, “Fluval LED”, and especially “Finnex LED”; all of which utilizes high numbers of poorly driven cheap emitters in place of higher quality emitter driven with correct voltage regulating technology, this is the LED I would recommend:
AquaBar LED Complete Light Strips
LED lighting has really exploded upon the aquarium industry as of 2013-2014, with many extremely poor quality LED fixtures made in China being dressed up with nice bells and whistles, but in reality have no more essential “Photosynthetic Useful Radiation” (PUR) than a flashlight you can purchase at Walmart for $3.
It is important to note that if one simply daisy chains LED emitters such as the Satellite, Fluval and other poor PUR LED lights, it is impossible to properly regulate voltage.
As well most of these low cost copycat LEDs flooding the market via PetCo, Amazon and other low end retailers utilize very low cost, low efficiency warm white emitters and then add green, red and blue emitters in a misguided attempt to balance these lights, but in reality these just add to light energy that is useless for photosynthetic life.
In the end, if you purchase one of these low end LEDs all you are doing is buying a light without anymore capabilities than a common aquarium T8 or T12 fluorescent light, with the exception the Fluorescent light would have cost less, likely have a better light spectrum (especially if a T2), and last longer. If you budget is tight, consider a T2 over one of these low cost Chinese knock offs flooding the market!!!
These are very popular for marine reef aquariums for both a low level “night light” and for simulating moonlight for corals and coral propagation. Where some of the misinformation comes into play is that many will state that fish and coral need these lights, of which there is absolutely no scientific proof.
Further Reference: Aquarium Lighting; Lunar
Maintenance is dependent upon what type of lighting you have. However, any type of lighting will need proper ventilation, placement, and cleaning. Proper ventilation is one of the most important aspects, as humidity will ruin any electric device. Even LED’s that are pretty water resistant can have their delicate circuitry damaged by humidity. Having an open top, or open back, is not good enough, you must have proper ventilation.
Lighting must be placed properly to avoid any possible problems with water/ humidity, and also for the proper light spread.
Regular cleaning of your lights is also a necessary maintenance procedure. All lights must be wiped down on a regular basis to be sure there is no moisture, calcium, or gunk, build up on the unit/ bulb. (I use rubbing alcohol to clean my T2’s, and it works great!)
Please Reference: Proper LED Ventilation
Simply put, fluorescent aquarium lights last about 8000 hours. HOWEVER the phosphors that provide the important spectrum many plants need and to a lesser extent newer science shows fish benefit too, are 50% spent in half these hours (4000).
For this reason, for best results an aquarium fluorescent light should be replaced every 4 hours, which generally works out to 1 year under normal use.
This would include the T8, T5, T2, SHO, VHO, CFL (although the T2 can last 10,000 hours)
Premium LED Lights, such as the TMC AquaRay can last up to 50,000 hours and do not suffer from the loss of phosphors since LED lights are not lights in the sense of most persons think of such as fluorescent and incandescent lights. A LED light uses semiconductor technology as its light source.