As a beginner, choosing equipment for your new reef aquarium can be a little intimidating because of the sheer volume of options and varying price points. You want something within your budget but are also not willing to sacrifice quality and usability. 

Aquarium lighting certainly falls into this arena and even more so because you're keeping a reef aquarium. Reef aquariums contain photosynthetic corals that rely upon light to survive. In order to make the best decision for your reef tank, it's important to understand what it takes to support a reef aquarium and get the features you will need to be successful. 

What Makes A Reef Tank Light

  1. PAR: The light must emit sufficient PAR - Photosynthetic Active Radiation to support photosynthesis within the coral. PAR is how we measure the quantity of light that is usable by the corals.  Not enough PAR and the corals cannot photosynthesize. 
  2. Spectrum: The light must produce a sufficient spectrum to support photosynthesis within the coral. Spectrum is the colors of light measured in wavelengths. Corals require a particular spectrum of light that is heavy in the blue wavelengths to photosynthesize correctly. 

Types of Reef Aquarium Lighting

There are technically four different types of lighting technologies available for saltwater hobbyists to use over a reef tank.  In recent years, LED lighting is dominating the scene for a variety of reasons but most notably the efficiency and advanced controls that LED offers to hobbyists. 

  1. Metal Halide: The original gold standard of reef aquarium lighting, they produce a very natural spectrum, look great, and provide plenty of PAR to grow any type of coral. The downside is they are bulky and emit a ton of heat which can be problematic over an aquarium. 
  2. T5 High-Output Fluorescent: These are skinny fluorescent tubes that have a higher output compared to your standard fluorescent shop lights but use similar technology. They produce a very even spread of light that covers the tank very effectively and you can mix and match the various bulb colors to produce a successful spectrum. They don't produce as much heat as metal halide lamps either which is a bonus. The downside is the bulbs need to be replaced annually which drives up the operating costs. 
  3. LEDs: Light Emitting Diodes are the most popular choice because they are compact, very efficient in terms of electricity consumption, and produce minimal to no heat. They also will last many years without diminishing output and give the user advanced control options that are not possible with other types of lighting.  Many modern LEDs can be paired with your smartphone which allows you to set schedules, change the spectrum & intensity, and even produce lunar lighting and weather effects. The downside is the coverage and aesthetic they create in your tank can vary dramatically so choosing the lights wisely is important.   
  4. Hybrids: This is when hobbyists use a combo of lighting technologies, most often LEDs and T5 fluorescents. The benefit here is you get the coverage and extra PAR from the T5 tubes combined with the efficiency, power and control of the LEDs. Hybrids are really one of the most effective ways to successfully illuminate a reef tank but can be pricey.  

How to Choose the Right Light

When shopping for reef tank lights on our website, you will be faced with more than 200 different options but thankfully you can narrow things down pretty quick.  First, get the idea of metal halide lighting out of your head because it really is just a dated technology.  There are simply much better options between the LEDs and T5 options. 

  1. Align with Tank Goals: You need to choose a light that is suitable for a reef aquarium. This will be advertised by the manufacturer which will often provide PAR/Spectrum data as well as give you the appropriate coverage area. Soft corals and LPS corals don't require as much light as SPS corals so the ability to produce higher PAR values is important for those planning to keep predominately SPS corals. As a first-time tank owner, you are likely shooting for a mixed reef with a little of everything.  
  2. Fits Your Tank Dimensions: The light(s) must effectively cover your tank's dimensions. For example, a 24" cube tank will likely only require a single LED fixture whereas a 72" x 24" aquarium will need 3-4 LED fixtures or more. Reference the manufactures information for coverage area to know for sure.
  3. Be Sure It Has a Suitable Mounting Option:  The light must be mounted over your tank and some LEDs have limited mounting options. Just be sure to consider how you want to mount the light and choose something that can accommodate those needs.

BRS Recommended

LED Lighting

LEDs certainly dominate the market and can be a great choice for a beginner. Choose from one of the major lighting manufacturers and you should be successful as long as you follow the guidance of those that came before you. Take advantage of the provided presets and don't stray from what has proven to be successful.  With the advanced control of LED lights comes the responsibility to tune the output and spectrum correctly.

Learn More with BRStv: Which Light Is RIGHT for Your Tank? - 5 Types Of Saltwater Aquarium Lighting Ep: 27b

T5 Fluorescent Lighting

T5s have a few advantages for first-time tank owners and may very well be a better choice over an LED.  You won't have to worry about setting the spectrum or tuning the output, just choose a fixture that matches your tank length, install the bulbs, and put the fixture on a timer.  This will 100% give you the right spectrum and output to support coral growth without the need to fuss with any kind of controls.