AskBRS Tips For Simplify Aquarium Lighting

A saltwater reef aquarium light is one of the most important (and expensive) pieces of equipment you will need for a new tank. Sufficient light is necessary to support photosynthesis among the corals and achieve that dazzling fluorescence that is so iconic in captive reef systems. The light output and spectrum are what make a reef tank unique when compared to any other type of aquarium.  

The good news is lighting is arguably the easiest piece of equipment to get right. Lighting does not require maintenance, you only have to set it up once, and as long as you made the right choice to begin with, you won't ever have to worry about lighting being a contributing factor to problems in your tank. 

AskBRS Tips For Simplify Aquarium Lighting

Reef tank lighting made easy! We've answered the top 5 most frequently asked questions about saltwater aquarium lighting from our AskBRS Facebook Group. 

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1. Which light should I get?

It is best to choose a light based on the coral or livestock you plan to keep. Available mounting options, control features, and the general aesthetic are certainly important factors to consider, but ultimately the light needs to be powerful enough to provide the level of output and coverage you need to maintain the corals you plan to keep. It should also be noted that attempting to keep a mixed reef aquarium where different types of corals are kept together often poses the biggest challenge for beginners since different corals have different lighting and flow requirements. Creating the ideal environment for multiple types of coral inside a single aquarium is no easy feat.

Read More: What You NEED To Know About Reef Tank Lighting

  • Fish-Only (no corals): No minimum output requirements. Choose a full-spectrum light that can illuminate your entire tank end to end. 
  • LPS & Soft Corals: 50 - 100 watts of LED lighting per 24" square area is ideal to achieve PAR levels of 50 - 150 PAR throughout as much of the tank as possible.
  • Mixed Reef: 100 - 150 watts of LED lighting per 24" square area is ideal to achieve PAR levels of 150 - 250 PAR throughout as much of the tank as possible.
  • SPS Corals: 150 - 200 watts of LED lighting per 24" square area is ideal to achieve PAR levels of 250 - 350 PAR throughout as much of the tank as possible.

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2. Do I need extra hardware to mount my light?

Mounting is important to properly implement a reef tank light and this will vary depending on the type of lighting you choose. Strip lights, for example, are often mounted much closer to the water's surface compared to a high-output pendant-style light which are often suspended or attached to some kind of elevated mount. Once you narrow down your lighting options, do a bit of research to find out whether or not mounting options are included or sold separately, and then decide if you can accommodate the required mounting solutions. Mounting hardware will contribute to the overall aesthetic so find some pictures of the light installed on other tanks to get that visual. 

LED Lighting over reef aquarium

3. How do I set up my LED light?

Perhaps the most difficult step in setting up a new light is getting it programmed.  In days past, you simply attached the light to a timer and called it a day. With modern LED technology, the advanced control options are much more complex and will require that you set the spectrum, intensity, and photoperiod of the light.  Once set, you will NEVER need to adjust the light settings again which is very important because the worst thing you can do for your corals is constantly adjust the light.  

For first-timers, it's best to just use a preset spectrum that MOST reef tank lights provide right out of the box. Attempting to adjust the spectrum using color sliders without the know-how can take you down a frustrating path. The photoperiod should be a total of 10-12 hours with a 1-2 hour ramp up and ramp down time. The last and final part of the setup will be adjusting your maximum intensity which will require you to use a PAR meter because there is no way for you to know how much light is reaching the depths of your aquarium without measuring it. 

Adjusting LED Lights

4. Do I really need a PAR meter?

Yes, a PAR meter is necessary to confidently set up a new reef tank light in most cases. PAR (photosynthetic active radiation) is the amount of light within the wavelength range (400 - 700 nm) that is usable for photosynthesis. As we defined above, there are certain PAR ranges you want to achieve inside your tank to provide the right output for corals. Simply use the PAR meter and take measurements throughout the top, middle, and bottom areas of your tank and adjust the light intensity accordingly. Increase the light intensity to increase the PAR and vice versa.     

SPS Coral

5. My corals aren't looking good and I think my lights are the problem. 

As we mentioned, lighting is very much done successfully with a set-it-and-forget-it approach. So long as you do it right the first time, your corals will adapt and be able to thrive inside your tank. If you're struggling to keep certain corals alive or wish to see better growth and coloration, lighting is most likely not going to be the answer. Water chemistry, water quality (nutrient levels and contaminants), and/or sufficient water flow are the most likely culprits. Changing your light output or spectrum will only prove to further stress and irritate your corals.

If you find yourself troubleshooting, don't get fooled into thinking that adjusting your light spectrum will magically make your corals grow faster or display more vibrant colors. If you trust the process and set up your light correctly, there is no reason you will need to adjust down the road.