Lighting kits for reef tanks have improved significantly in recent years. Long gone are the halogen lights of old, which provided great light but were cumbersome and a major fire hazard. New LED technology has significantly improved safety while providing more benefits to hard corals, soft corals, and even breeding tanks. These lighting kits now come with a wide variety of features that can greatly improve your system.
Whenever setting up a new reef tank, be sure to plan your list of occupants thoroughly. Some corals will need lots of space—limiting the number of non-coral occupants—while some fish will not play nice with various coral species. Once you decide the best collection of animals for your reef tank, you can plan out the rest of your various elements, including the best LED lighting kit for your setup and budget.
The best LED lighting kit should have lots of customizable options while still being simple to configure. It needs to enable coral growth and include low light settings on a cyclical schedule. Our favorite LED lighting kit is the Current USA Orbit Marine, which has Bluetooth controls, a configurable 24-hour cycle, and comes in a variety of sizes.
Current USA Orbit Marine LED Light
Easy to configure
Lots of customizations
Options can be overwhelming
Not optimal for all corals or coral growth
The Current USA Orbit Marine LED Aquarium Light comes with a bevy of features (it can get a little overwhelming, honestly), including sunrise and sunset settings, with a programmable 24-hour cycle. There are moonlight options too. You can even activate storm lighting for a little thundering ambiance. Plus, it uses a slow ramp up between light settings, so it won’t stress out your fish.
The four lighting spectrum offered by the Orbit Marine provides dual daylight and actinic spectrums, which is fantastic for photosynthesizing plants and invertebrates (coral does not photosynthesize, but has symbiotic relationships with algae that does).The LEDs are specifically tailored to saltwater aquarium tanks by providing extra blue spectrum light.
It has Bluetooth control and a standard wireless remote control. There is even an option to add pump or wave control to your settings for optimal control of your reef environment. All of these features come in a sleek aluminum housing available in four different sizes, with docking mounts that should fit most aquarium tanks between 18 and 60 inches long. Plus, it’s highly water resistant (rated to IP65), and can survive splashes (though not submersion). The Current USA LED Light is a favorite among tank enthusiasts thanks to its high level of durability.
While the Current USA Orbit Marine LED Aquarium Light can supply sufficient lighting to most reef tank corals, it is not a coral-specific light, so projects dedicated specifically to coral growth and breeding should look elsewhere.
Price at time of publish: $60 (18-24 inch)
Best High End
Kessil A160WE Controllable LED Aquarium Light
Best option for coral growth
Requires multiple bulbs of various spectrums for full coverage
If you want full customization and have a large budget, consider these Kessil lights. These lights are very powerful and come in separate blue and white light options. You will likely need to combine a few to get the effects that you desire for a complete spectrum. If strong, robust corals are your goal, then this is the best option for you. Kessil lights can be adjusted to best suit many different coral species.
Price at time of publish: $260
NICREW Marine LED Fish Tank Light for Coral Reef Tanks
Provides exceptional spectrum for coral growth
Sensitive to moisture
The NICREW Saltwater Aquarium Light is the best available on the commercial market for a budget reef lighting system. This basic setup does come with a sunrise and sunset interval and will work well for most corals.
The main downside to the NICREW Saltwater Aquarium Light is that it is sensitive to moisture, which is not the best thing you want in an aquarium light. It is recommended by the manufacturer that you have a glass or acrylic canopy to protect your light, but this may alter the LED spectrum.
Price at time of publish: $52
Best Simple Setup
WILLS 165W Aquarium Lights
Easy to setup
May need multiple units
If simple sounds like your style, the WILLS Full Spectrum LED lights are a quick and efficient setup. Multiple lights can be linked and have a simple two-spectrum option. Each block has varying control of a blue and white light spectrum that can be the same across multiple units or vary between blocks depending on your tank's needs.
Despite its simplicity, the WILLS Full Spectrum LED provides good light for most corals. It may not have all the fancy features of some of the other models, but lighting doesn’t have to be complicated. This system includes integrated fans to preserve LED longevity.
Price at time of publish: $90 (15.7 inch)
Best for Beginners
Fluval Sea Marine 3.0 LED Aquarium Lighting for Coral Growth
Easy to set up
One piece unit
Limited customization and programming
If you’re just getting started with reef tank lighting and some beginner corals, the FLUVAL Sea Marine LED Lighting system is an excellent, moderately priced system that comes with a fully customizable app and low-light intervals day-night cycles. The system is fully integrated into one light bar.
For a beginner model, the FLUVAL Sea Marine system is easy to set up and get dialed into your needs very quickly. It should serve the lighting needs of most beginner corals and can be integrated with many FLUVAL tank systems.
Depending on what species of coral you choose, you may have very strict lighting requirements or you may not have to get something very specific. The Current USA Orbit Marine is the best option for most reef tanks, balancing customization and comprehensive features with a reasonable price.
If you're more experience with reef tanks and have specific needs, look instead to the Kessil Controllable LED Aquarium Light.
What LED spectrum is best for coral growth?
When selecting an LED light for your aquarium, pay attention to the light spectrum and see if your light is made for saltwater, freshwater or both. For reef systems, you are looking for a wide spectrum, between 400-700 nanometers. These levels are important to the photosynthesizing zooxanthellae that live in symbiosis with your coral.
Does it matter to have a low light period for my tank?
A sudden swing from dark to light may not be the best idea for many fish and corals. Most saltwater pet fish have grown accustomed to abrupt switches from night to day, but you may find that your fish are calmer and your corals happier with an in-between low light setting.
Yes, you can go for a snazzy system with set “dawn” and “dusk” periods, but you can also get away with a slow increase in light intensity. Some reef tank owners like the ease of using a pre-set cycle with sunrise and sunset. There are even lighting setups to simulate how much moonlight would be present in a 28-day period. This is really not critical unless you are engaged in the difficult work of breeding your corals.
What is the best way to set up a lighting kit?
Most lighting kits come in an adjustable length that will run across the top of your aquarium. Unfortunately, LED lighting often gets in the way of standard lids, so your tank top may be open when you first set up your LED lighting kit, which can cause more evaporation than usual.
When arranging corals, it is best to know how deep each species needs to be in order to have proper access to light. Placed too deeply, your coral will not have enough light and no kit will work as it should. And you may not consider it, but some corals do not play nicely with their neighbors! Various coral species can overtake another’s space and even secrete various chemicals that kill off their neighbors. Be sure to thoroughly research any corals you plan on bringing into your system and make sure everyone has enough space and light!
Does it matter if I use a freshwater or saltwater specific light?
Most light systems are better at freshwater or saltwater, but not both. It is a better investment to use a saltwater-specific system especially if you plan to have corals in your tank. If you are more interested in a reef tank with no corals, you do not have to be as picky with your lights.
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This roundup was written by Dr. Jesse Sanders, DVM, a practicing aquatic veterinarian with 10 years of experience working with aquariums and fish tank owners. Prior to veterinary school, she spent years working in large public aquaria, getting toasted by ancient halogen bulbs. Her practice sees many varied marine tank setups and she’s familiar with a broad swath of equipment across her many years of experience.