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Saltwater Aquarium Lighting Guide

by Brian Dunleavy
Saltwater Aquarium Lighting Guide

Stuck on finding the right lighting to make your corals' colors pop?

Choosing the appropriate lighting for your aquarium may feel overwhelming, but do not worry, as with our lighting guide, you will be able to choose the right lighting for your saltwater aquarium setup

There are a few things to consider before heading down to your local fish store (LFS) to buy your aquarium lighting. What is your budget? Does the lighting need to support only fish, or have you got aquatic plants and/or corals? How big is your aquarium? All of these factors will play a part in which lighting fixture to buy. 

In this article, we will cover the different types of aquarium lighting and the pros and cons of each type. 


How Much Lighting Do Reef Aquariums Need?

Depending on what corals and other tank inhabitants you have inside your aquarium, will depend on how long you need to leave the lights on and what *PAR level you need to provide. Generally, well-established reef aquariums require 9-12 hours of lighting per day. 

If your lighting provides a high PAR level, then the amount of lighting may need to be reduced. So always check your specific coral’s requirements and if you are unsure, speak to your LFS. 

*PAR: Photosynthetic Available Radiation - is the intensity of light that is in the proper spectrum for corals to use for growth and coloration. 


Types Of Saltwater Aquarium Lighting

Many people think that “light is just light”, but where they are wrong, is that the lighting you select will make a difference to the tank inhabitants you keep. 

There are three main types of saltwater aquarium light setups available, and you should take your time to go through each option, so that your fish and corals will thrive. 

Fluorescent Lighting: T5s

Let’s kick things off with arguably one of the best “old-school” lighting options for aquariums - T5s!

T5 aquarium lighting may not have the ‘cool’ features that LED fixtures have to offer, but T5s lighting offers the same PAR levels, and they are awesome at blending and spreading light inside aquariums. 

Even though most hobbyists are switching to LEDs, give T5s a chance before you completely disregard them. 

What makes T5s still popular is their color spectrum, which can be controlled by selecting different bulb colors, and their intensity which depends on how many bulbs you have. When scheduling T5 fixtures an outlet timer or smart plug is best, yet, some now come with built-in timers. 

The reason why many hobbyists have switched to LEDs is because of the fragile T5 bulbs that have a short lifespan. So, if you do go for T5s then just note you will need to replace them every 6 months even if they haven’t died yet, because the color and intensity will start shifting. 


Pros:

  • Great for color blending
  • Lower fixture cost than LEDs and Metal Halides 
  • Excellent for coral growth 
  • Plenty of color options
  • They produce more lumens (2,900 - 5,000 lumens) than other light fixtures
  • They are powerful, so you only need a few, depending how big your aquarium is

Cons:

  • The bulbs need regular changing
  • The bulbs can be expensive
  • They have a high power consumption
  • Many require outlet timers

LED Lighting

LED lighting is fairly new in the hobby, but they have quickly become one of the most popular choices for aquarium lighting. However, many long-term reefers are still not convinced with LED fixtures. The thing is, they provide all the benefits that Metal Halides can, plus they have very few downsides, so when people argue that Metal Halides are better than LEDs, its a tough one!

Most LED lighting fixtures also allow you to fully control them. You can control the intensities and color spectrum, making them a very adaptable lighting system to support both fish and corals.


Pros:

  • LEDs have a longer life expectancy than T5s and Metal Halides - they can easily last 5 to 10 years
  • They consume hardly any energy, which means a cheaper energy bill
  • LED aquarium lights can produce 2350 lumens
  • You can control the intensity and colors produced
  • They produce less heat than other lighting fixtures
  • Their running costs are lower than other lights

Cons:

  • Their initial cost can be expensive
  • They can be difficult to find because they are still new and popular

Metal Halide Lighting

Metal Halide lighting is still one of the highest-power lighting fixtures. Their high intensity makes them an ideal choice for coral growth, yet LEDs can produce the same amount of light, but with a cheaper running cost. 

Metal Halide aquarium lighting burns brightly because the glass bulbs are interconnected with wires, because of this, Metal Halide fixtures can get very hot. So, if you aim to cut costs on your electricity bill, Metal Halides  may not be the best decision.


Pros:

  • They are powerful, which is great news for your corals’ growth and coloration
  • They create a beautiful shimmer in the water
  • The color lighting is fantastic
  • The lights are super powerful - some have a light production of up to 1000 watts (75-100 lumens/watt)

Cons:

  • Metal Halides can get extremely hot
  • They consume a lot of power 
  • Metal Halides have a short lifespan - bulbs need replacing every 6 months
  • They often need to be coupled with T5 lighting
  • They have limited color options

Our Top Picks For Aquarium Lighting

Discover our 5 top aquarium lights!

  1. Neptune Systems SKY
  2. Al Prime Fuge 
  3. Aqua Illumination Prime 16 & Hydra HD Series
  4. EcoTech Marine RADION XR15 G5 PRO
  5. Aquatic Life Coral Cover Hybrid

Summary

Selecting the right saltwater aquarium lighting is important for your tank inhabitants. There are three options to choose from: T5s, LEDs, or Metal Halides (MH). While LEDs are becoming increasingly popular, many hobbyists still prefer “old-school” lighting fixtures like MH and T5s, despite their higher running costs. 

If you have any lighting questions, or what lighting fixtures we have to offer, do not hesitate to contact the Reefco Team!



by Brian Dunleavy