Get Lighting Right the First Time. Reef Tank & Saltwater Aquarium Illumination | BRStv Buying Guide
Not all reef tank lights are created equal and there really is a myriad of things to consider when choosing the right light for your aquarium. Some of this may not be as obvious as you think such as the type of output or your general desires for aesthetics in the tank. What about your coral goals or long-term vision for the tank? All of this, and much more, is critical to making the best decision for lighting success. Our BRStv Buyer's Guide to Reef Tank Lighting will first outline the four major categories or types of lighting you will choose from followed by a list of the most critical considerations so you can decide which matters most to YOU. After all, it is your reef tank and your success is what matters and we want to give you the knowledge to achieve that.
Reef Tank Lighting Categories
- Wide Angle Floodlight: A single-point source light that floods a large area with light at a wide angle so it can be mounted closer to the water's surface. Creates a high-contrast appearance because it creates shadows with all of the light illuminating from a single source. Works really well for encrusting type corals that spread out. The small form factor looks nice and makes it easy to mount multiples together and cover a larger tank. This includes the popular EcoTech Marine Radion and Kessil A360X as well as your classic Metal Halide lamps.
- Narrow-Angle Floodlight (Elevated Lighting): Very similar to the above wide-angle floodlights in terms of form factor and applications but the angle of output is much narrower which requires a higher mounting height to cover the same area. Great for situations in which you want to mount the light higher up. Aqua Illumination Hydras and Orphek Atlantik fall into this category.
- Soft-diffused Light: T5 fluorescents and LED strip lights to create this kind of output. The perfect answer for SPS tanks or any kind of branching corals because it eliminates shadows by blanketing the tank in light that comes from multiple angles. ATI Sunpower fixtures or the Reef Brite XHO LED strips fall into this category.
- Hybrid - T5/Floodlight combos or LED strips alongside an LED floodlight which gives you the best of both worlds. The floodlight provides you with the power to penetrate and gives you that high-contrast appearance while the soft-diffused supplements help eliminate the shadows and fill in the gaps for an even spread of light. AquaticLife T5/LED Hybrid or one of the ReefBrite X-Series Hybrid kits can accomplish this. A hybrid light approach will ultimately provide the most effective coverage for mixed reef tanks and SPS dominate tanks.
Directly, this is the maximum amount of electrical power the light can consume which directly reflects the strength of the output. More wattage = more output = more $$. With modern LED lighting, we see three distinct classes or groups of lights based on wattage: 50-watt range, 90-watt range, and 150-watt range. We can directly relate that wattage to coverage and cost. Not only does more wattage cost more upfront, but it also costs more to operate in terms of electrical costs. The trade-off is more wattage means better coverage and penetration over deeper tanks.
For example, over a 48" tank I could choose to run four 50 watt lights or I could choose two 90 watt lights. Fewer fixtures mean fewer cords, less mounting hardware, and generally speaking an easier installation. You also have to consider paying for wattage you don't need; those 150-watt range lights are often overpowered for a typical mixed reef tank and would require that you tune it down. Then again, running your LED light at 50% power will likely result in a longer total lifespan.
- 50 Watt Range - Most affordable and smallest profile, great for nano tanks and generally you are using one light for every 15" of tank length.
- 90 Watt Range - The sweet spot for common aquarium sizes. Great for 24" - 48" long aquariums and you will typically need one light for every 24" of tank length.
- 150 Watt Range - These are the big guns designed for larger tanks over 48", SPS dominant reef tanks or just more mature reef tanks that required heavy output lighting to get the coverage. One light for every 24-30" of tank length is typical
Mounting options are important because aquarists are often limited by or just have strong feelings about the mounting options. The advice is to research the available mounting options for prospective lights and ensure those options will not only be compatible with your tank but will also be aesthetically acceptable to you. Every tank is different and you have to consider what it is going to take to get your brand new LED lights above your reef.
Can you suspend it from the ceiling? Do they offer a tank mount or hanging bracket? Does your tank have a rim or Euro-brace? Does it look nice or match your home decor? Will it fit inside your canopy? What kind of reviews does the mounting hardware get? These are the kinds of questions you need to ask yourself when it comes to mounting options. Talking to other hobbyists or reaching out to our BRS Customer Service team can be of great assistance. Sometimes you just have to get creative and come up with solutions of your own if you have a particular situation that limits a typical mounting scenario.
The shimmer occurs when light reflects off the surface of the water creating that natural-looking flicker. Exactly what you would see in the ocean as sunlight passes through the surface and onto the reef. There is an entire range of shimmer you can choose from these days from something like the Kessil which produces a very strong, natural-looking shimmer all the way through something like T5 Fluorescent which produces zero shimmer effect. Most of the others fall somewhere in the middle. What level of shimmer do you like to see?
LED lights opened up a whole new door to control your reef tank lights. Not only can you control the photoperiod and intensity, but you can also control the spectrum! This is a double-edged sword because it gives you the ability to produce something harmful to the corals. Too much or not enough light is one thing, combine that with an insufficient spectrum and you are setting your sel-up for failure. If your not prepared to do the necessary research and take the time to set the light up properly, choose a light fixture that serves you something successful. Most of the manufacturers these days have caught on and are providing presets for hobbyists or even going as far as locking the spectrum to only allow minor adjustments. Nonetheless, it is important to understand the level of control your getting and what you will be up against when the time comes to turn the lights on!
Some LEDs give you the option to add or change out the lenses. This could be as simple as a diffuser to cut back on the shimmer and better blending or something that will change the angle of the output. This helps you accommodate various tank sizes and shapes or focus the light to penetrate deeper into the tank where you need it. While not all lights offer functional lenses, if this feature interests you, take the time to research your options.