The reality is, your probably going to choose an LED light for your saltwater aquarium, it's just the most efficient option for a modern aquarium. There are, however, other types of saltwater aquarium lighting that you just might want to consider.  Across there board, there are 5 different types of lights for your tank.

5 Types Of Aquarium Lighting

  • Refugium Lighting
  • Metal Halide
  • T5 Fluorescent
  • LED lighting
  • Hybrids

This is the first of a two-part series in which we explore the pros and cons of all 5 types of saltwater and reef aquarium lighting in hopes of helping you make the best choice for your very first tank.

Refugium Lighting

Refugium lights are not designed for your display aquarium, rather they are specifically tailored to illuminate a refugium and promote the growth of macroalgae. The main difference is the spectrum which peaks in the red, magenta, and blue wavelengths that will promote photosynthesis among the macroalgae but won't look all that great over your display. Most refugiums lights these days are taking advantage of LED technology and you will find many of the major LED manufactures offer a refugium-specific fixture.

  • Great for growing macroalgae
  • Less expensive
  • Small form factor
  • Not meant for a display tank
  • Encourage nuisance algae growth

Metal Halide

For many years, before LED lights hit the scene, metal halides were the preferred choice for reef tank owners. The spectrum and spread were great and you couldn't mess things up so long as you bought an aquarium-specific MH bulb.  That said, they consume a ton of energy and run hot, which is exactly why LEDs have gained such a leg up.  While some hobbyists still run Metal Halide lamps to this day, a majority of tank owners have made the switch to T5 or LEDs. Metal halide lighting is most certainly NOT the best choice for a beginner, especially since we have such a great selection of LEDs available.  

  • Proven track record
  • Lower initial cost
  • High par and great spectrum
  • Beginner proof
  • High heat transfer
  • Considerable energy consumption
  • Large bulky fixtures
  • Requires annual bulb replacements
  • Lack of easy mounting options

T5 Fluorescent

T5s are just like any standard fluorescent bulb except they are skinnier and operate using less electricity compared to say your standard fluorescent shop light.  The bulbs come in a variety of colors from white daylight to actinic, allowing the user to customize the spectrum with a mixture of different bulbs. They have proven to be a great choice for reef tank owners because they are more efficient than a metal halide and provide a great spread of light over the tank. They don't produce a natural shimmer like you get with Metal Halides and some LEDs, but they do help reduce shadowing because the light is emitted from multiple angles across the tank. 

  • More affordable initial cost
  • Mild heat transfer/energy consumption
  • Beginner proof
  • Consistent spread, eliminates shadows
  • More expensive long term
  • Mounting options are not great
  • Relatively large fixture
  • Some heat transfer occurs

Next to LEDs, a T5 fixture is a second-best choice for a first-time tank owner. They are fairly easy to set up and simply require you to get the right combo of bulbs to produce the perfect spectrum for your tank.  Bulb manufactures have done a great job producing bulbs specifically for reef tanks making bulb selection easy.  One major downside is the ongoing cost of bulb replacements which happen on an annual basis in most circumstances. If you're on the fence, take some time to observe both an LED light and T5 fixture in action over a tank, choose the one with the best appearance in your eyes.


Curious about LED Lighting and LED Hybrids?
Watch Video: Which Light Is RIGHT for Your Tank? - 5 Types Of Saltwater Aquarium Lighting - Ep: 27b

T5 Fixtures and Bulbs