Aquarium Lighting Basics: the Case for LED Fixtures

Can LED lights handle today's aquarium needs?

An aquarium lit dynamically by LED lights

MandM_Photo / iStock

There are many benefits that a fish keeper gets by using LED lights for the aquarium. One of the first things that people love and notice about using LED lights is that they are cost-effective. The LED light fixtures don’t usually cost more than the traditional fluorescent lighting fixture, but the savings are significantly more because the electric consumption is minimal by comparison. Another benefit is that the “bulbs” last much longer than other systems used for aquarium lighting. Typically you can expect to get 30,000 to 50,000 hours out of the LED fixtures, which is another cost savings users see.    

  • 01 of 10

    Benefits of Using LED Aquarium Lighting

    A cichlid in an aquarium

    Chris Mecca / EyeEm / Getty

    The compact design of LED aquarium lights is great for owners that don’t want a lot of bulky lighting on their aquarium. By being so compact, you have more options on placement that still allow easy access to the tank itself for maintenance and adding water. There are some LED aquarium lights that are waterproof and can be actually hidden under water around the edge of the aquarium.

    LED lighting systems are also adjusted very easily. Some models of LED aquarium lights are expandable and interchangeable so you can add lights, add different colors and they sometimes come with a simple remote control. Newer models can be controlled with an app on your smartphone.

    Another great feature is that they are able to be dimmed. You can choose to have a bright day full of sunshine or even make it appear that the sun is going down and the moon is out still later on some higher-end systems.

    LED Aquarium Lighting fixtures, in addition to being adjustable, can also provide effects for your aquarium. Most fish keepers admire the shimmering effect of LED lights that mimics the sunlight bouncing off plants and fish. By using different effects and colors you can create a spectacular atmosphere that really showcases the fish and creates a beautiful addition to any room.

    Last but not least, LED aquarium lights are much safer than the traditional fluorescent, incandescent or metal halide lighting. You have no worries about noxious gases or filaments that can come from a broken traditional light tube, and they do not emit heat.

  • 02 of 10

    Incandescent Bulbs

    Incandescent aquarium lights are suitable only for small aquariums and are very inefficient lights. They give off a lot of heat and are costly to run when ​high-intensity lighting is required. They are undesirable in today's energy-conscious world because they are heavy consumers of electricity.

  • 03 of 10

    Standard Fluorescent

    Two yellow danios swimming in a brightly decorated aquarium lit by a fluorescent bulb

    Melissa Ross / Getty

    Standard fluorescent lights can be used in either fresh or saltwater aquariums to provide light for fish and low-light reliant corals and plants. Although standard fluorescent lights are more expensive than incandescent lights, they supply more light intensity while producing little heat.

  • 04 of 10

    Compact Fluorescent

    LED aquarium lighting that's both dynamic and dramatic

    Chris Mecca / EyeEm / Getty

    Compact fluorescent lights offer the benefits of VHO fluorescent lights in a smaller size. Usually built into an aquarium hood, compact fluorescent lights are powerful while remaining energy efficient and long-lasting. Compact fluorescent lights can also provide light for aquariums deeper than two feet.

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  • 05 of 10

    Metal Halide

    A metal halide bulb

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    Metal halide lights are the best choice for aquarium enthusiasts who would like to replicate the intensity and color spectrum of the tropical sun. In general, metal halide lights can provide light for deep aquariums that feature plants, corals, and invertebrates that photosynthesize. Some aquarium enthusiasts, however, like to use a combination of fluorescent and metal halide lights to provide specimens within an aquarium with light that has a range of color temperatures.

    Because metal halide light setups have a high output of light, aquarium owners using these lights should set up their aquariums in a well-ventilated area. To control heat, owners might need to purchase a chiller to keep the water temperature in the aquarium tank at an optimal level. Metal halide light setups are manufactured in many forms, including standalone lamps, aquarium hood attachments, and retro kits.

  • 06 of 10

    Light Emitting Diode (LED) Aquarium Lights

    Are LED aquarium lights what we have in store for the future of aquarium lighting systems? Prices are still very high for advanced lighting systems. These high quality specialized LED lighting systems are expensive and they will need to drop significantly in price before more hobbyists will transition to them.

    There are many inexpensive LED systems available in stores and online, however, make sure you look into the details. Over the last two years, very good general lighting systems have come out for aquariums, and basic aquatic plant tanks, that are quite affordable, but check that they are high output and made specifically for live aquatic systems.

    Higher priced LED systems offer many advantages over previously mentioned lighting systems. Some of the advantages of LED lights over conventional fluorescents and metal halides include:

    •LED aquarium lights run much cooler than standard fluorescents and metal halides

    •LED aquarium lights consume less energy than the other lights

    •They have a much longer lifespan

    •There is no filament to break, so they could be considered more durable

    •They can be configured in many ways due to their small size.

    •Many of the high-end LED fixtures come with modes that let you totally customize lighting colors and intensity on repeatable schedules.

    Many of the light fixtures being sold now include "moonlights" which are a special blue LED lights for use at night. These LED moonlights allow the hobbyist to see nighttime activities of the aquarium, while the fish see no light at all.

  • 07 of 10

    What About a Sunny Window?

    Sunlight? Well, yes, that's free and available but not practical in our homes, except where skylights conduct sunlight into rooms. Is this the way to go when you want to illuminate fish rooms when power costs are high? No, definitely not, algae grow well under sunlight; actually it grows way too well! With sunlight, you do not need to control when the lights turn on or off, that occurs naturally. Of course, most people are at work or school or play during daylight hours so viewing the fish at night will require lighting anyway.

  • 08 of 10

    Some Easy LED Aquarium Light “Do's”

    Color changing LED lights let you see your fish in new ways

    DigiPub / Getty

    Here are some fun things that fish keepers can and should do with LED aquarium lights. They are really enjoyable to have and can make having a fish tank even more relaxing and nice.

    Choose Wisely – Choose LED aquarium lighting from reputable manufacturers that are known for their longevity and quality. Be sure to know exactly what you are getting by researching the description of the LED aquarium lights that you are considering.

    Have Fun With Different Color Combinations – Since LED systems have the ability to change and adjust the LED lights, why not try out different color combinations? There are even guides available that can help with choosing color combinations that enhance freshwater fish colors. It is amazing what certain colors do to the colors of different fish in the tank.

    Working With the Dimmer Switch – The dimmer switch on the LED aquarium lights can tone down the brightness and is also great for blending several colors. Because it can work independently with each color, dimming one and brightening the others can create whatever effect appeals to the look of a room. The other benefit to dimming the LEDs a bit is to save even more on energy usage.

    Make Sure the LEDs Are Ventilated Well – Even though LED aquarium lights don’t cause the water in the tank to heat up, it will be noticed that they can generate heat upwards. If there is a lot of heat, this can shorten the life of the LED chip significantly. The way to minimize this is to keep them cool by providing plenty of air circulation around the LED strip. This allows heat to go away around the heat sink and vertically as well. If LEDs are placed under an old-fashioned canopy or hood, add a cooling fan to make sure that there is plenty of airflow. Modern LED lighting fixtures are usually designed to hover in the open air.

    Things Will Grow Very Well – Live plants under LED lights will grow much better than with traditional lighting systems. If a live plant tank is wanted, having live elements in the tank that are growing and healthy is the point, and LED aquarium lights will aid in their mission.

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  • 09 of 10

    Basic LED Don’ts

    Even the most well-lit bowl is usually the wrong choice for most fish

    WIN-Initiative

    Don’t Get Them Wet – Don’t misunderstand the term “water resistant”. This does not mean that you can submerge them or use them underwater. If non-waterproof LEDs get exposed to water for too long it will damage the circuit board and cause the hardware to corrode. It is best to not allow them to touch water at all if possible. For direct contact with water or to submerge LED light fixtures under water, make sure to buy special waterproof fixtures.

    Don’t Allow Mineral Deposits on the LED Strips – Any kind of salt, lime and mineral deposits from evaporating water can cause corrosion and damage to the heat sink and LED aquarium lights. Make sure you regularly check the light strips for salt and mineral deposits and wipe them off. Make sure the fixture is turned off while cleaning and do not use chemicals to clean any part of the fixture that may come in contact with the aquarium water. It is best to clean mineral deposits in LED fixtures or on anything in and around an aquarium with vinegar. This is the only easily available and safe cleaning fluid that will not poison aquarium fish.

  • 10 of 10

    Conclusion

    Gold gourami in an aquarium

    Florian Hoggenmüller / EyeEm / Getty

    Lighting is a major part of having a beautiful community aquarium. The right lighting is very beneficial to aquatic plant life and therefore, to the fish and aquatic creatures in the aquarium as well.

    There are many other lighting options, but for a basic community aquarium, we recommend LED aquarium lights. The LED lights and fixtures have come a long way from where they were years ago.

    Advances in LED technologies have brought the prices down and made the LED fixtures available for almost any application. A simple entry-level LED lighting fixture made for aquariums is a cost-effective way to light a community aquarium efficiently.

    There are a lot of different kinds of LED aquarium lighting systems out there, but creating different effects becomes easy when sorting through the different models available today! For only a little extra, systems come with a full range of remote control colors, so the days of stark hospital white lighting from LED fixtures of old are over. Any shade, any shimmer, or any color wanted are at your fingertips.