Fish Tank Lights
by Giorgina Devereaux
Fish tank lights are essential in improving freshwater and saltwater aquariums. The proper aquarium lighting will provide vital energy to photosynthetic organisms, such as plants, anemones, and coral. Fish tank lights also play a role in influencing fish behavior and physiology, which is crucial for the overall health and well-being of the entire aquarium. When natural conditions are duplicated using the correct spectrum and intensity of light, the survival and growth rate of your plants, corals, and invertebrates is increased.
There is a diverse selection of lighting options available giving you the opportunity to provide the proper lighting conditions for the aquarium inhabitants. A basic rule to follow is to provide 1 to 2 watts of lighting per gallon for fish-only aquariums, 2 to 5 watts per gallon for freshwater-planted aquariums, and 4 to 8 watts per gallon for reef aquariums.
Fish tank lights consist of the following grades and intensities:
• Incandescent Lighting
• Normal Output (NO) Fluorescent Lighting (also known as Standard Fluorescent Lights; it includes T-5, T-8, T-12)
• Compact Fluorescent Lighting
• Metal Halide Systems
• Power Compact Fluorescent Lighting
• T-5 High Output (HO) Fluorescent Lighting
• Very High Output (VHO) Fluorescent Lighting
Even though incandescent lights encourage plant growth, they do not provide as much benefit as a regular normal output fluorescent light.
Normal output fluorescent lighting is available in a variety of spectrums (in different shades of white). While most bulbs appear white when you place them inside the tank, when viewed side by side, you can see the difference in shades. Some bulbs are designed to penetrate further into the water, which in turn helps with plant or coral growth in taller tanks. Other bulbs are designed to provide the best spectrum for plant growth in shorter tanks. And then other bulbs are designed to bring out the natural colors of fish, and others are designed to simulate the light about 30’ under the surface of the ocean. If you are not growing live plants or corals, any white bulb should work well.
For all fluorescent lights and metal halide systems, the bulbs are available in spectrums identified by a “K” number, which represents a temperature on the Kelvin scale. The specific color of light emitted by these bulbs is similar to the light that would be emitted by a strand of Tungsten (a normal light bulb filament) if that strand were heated to that temperature in a vacuum. These lights allow you to simulate the environment you wish to have in your aquarium.
How well the light penetrates to the bottom of the tank depends on the height of the tank. This is not an issue with a short tank. If the height of the tank is past 18”, the water interferes with the light making it difficult to reach the bottom of tank, which in turn, this light is no longer strong enough to support live plants or photosynthetic live corals. Power compact fluorescent lighting and very high output fluorescent lighting penetrates further into your water column and provides effective lighting for tanks up to 30” high. Metal halide lights provide the best penetration in tanks over 30” high.
With most aquariums, you will need to leave the lights on for 10-12 hours per day, but if you are growing live plants or live corals, you should increase this light duration to 12-14 hours per day. Consider getting a timer to turn your lights on and off. Depending on whether the tank is in a room that is not completely dark, the time the lights are on should coincide with the ambient light in the room. For instance, the aquarium lights should be on during the day and off at night.
Normal output fluorescent lights should be replaced every 5-7 month because the intensity of light begins to fade and it loses its ability to help the plants and fish. While you may not see this difference until you replace the bulb, it makes a difference to the plants and fish. Remember to replace the starter once a year. With compact and very high output fluorescent lighting, you should replace the bulbs once a year or whenever the bulb burns out. Unlike normal output fluorescent lights, these bulbs maintain their spectrum over time and do not degrade as fast. With metal halide systems, they should be replaced every 8-12 months. When changing metal halide lights or very high output bulbs, remember to check the ballasts to see if they are working well, and if they are not, they should be replaced at the same time.
Incandescent lighting is the least expensive type of lighting, but needs to be replaced much more often than other types of bulbs. These are regular screw-in type bulbs that generate a lot of heat, which makes it more difficult to regulate the temperature in your fish tank. Since these lights use more power, your operating costs will be higher.
Normal output fluorescent lighting also known as standard fluorescent lights are very versatile and the easiest light source to use for fresh and saltwater fish only aquariums. While these are a little more expensive than incandescent lighting, they last longer and use less power. There is a wide selection of these bulbs available allowing you to customize your aquarium lighting, which include:
• 50/50 or actinic white bulbs – This emits a blend of white and blue light that helps recreate actual marine lighting conditions. The combination of white light and blue actinic light encourages photosynthetic coral growth.
• Color enhancing bulbs - This emits light from the warm end of the color spectrum and enhances color. This is ideal for fish-only fresh and saltwater aquariums.
• Full spectrum/daylight bulbs – This emits all of the wavelengths of visible light and closely mimics the visual effects of natural sunlight. These bulbs contain a blend of all of the colors of the color spectrum and are used for all types of fresh and saltwater aquariums.
• Actinic bulbs – This emits light mostly from the blue end of the color spectrum. By recreating lighting conditions found in deep water, it provides the light energy necessary for proper photosynthetic coral growth. These are ideal for reef aquariums.
• Plant bulbs – These lights stimulate plant growth and maximize photosynthetic activity for lush planted aquariums because of the peak light emissions in both the red and blue regions of the color spectrum.
• High intensity bulbs – These bulbs emit bright light with a high color temperature (Kelvin-rating) that ranges from 10,000°K to 20,000°K. This crisp white light is commonly used in combination with actinic bulbs in marine aquariums. The 20,000°K bulbs will emit a bright white-blue light that simulates deeper marine light conditions.
This type of lighting is available for all but the smallest aquariums.
Compact fluorescent lighting has a higher light output than standard fluorescent lights. A compact fluorescent system incorporates dual or quad tube bulbs resulting in much greater intensity and higher light outputs than standard fluorescent lights. One compact fluorescent light fixture does the job of two standard fluorescent fixtures and requires half the space. It has the benefits of fluorescent lighting that includes low operating cost, lower heat emission, and a nice selection of bulbs with color temperatures for freshwater and marine aquariums.
Metal halide systems are high intensity discharge (HID) lighting systems that are comprised of a main glass bulb with a series of wires connecting another glass bulb (arc tube) within it. As electricity makes its way through the arc tube, the gases and metal salts contained within the tube produce light. These lights use a lot of energy and produce a lot of heat. These fixtures are ideal for reef aquariums (inhabitants that require high lighting conditions) as well as for aquariums deeper than 24”. Due to the fluctuation in the light emitted by metal halide lights throughout the course of the day, they should be used in combination with some type of fluorescent light.
Power compact fluorescent lighting provide slightly more than three times the amount of light of a normal output bulb of similar length. They are available in linear or square pin configurations. If you have purchased a power compact fixture, make sure the replacement bulbs have the same pin configuration. This type of lighting is becoming popular with live plant and reef enthusiasts. You can find several varieties of bulbs as thread-in bulbs, which fit most incandescent light fixtures.
T-5 High Output (HO) fluorescent lights are the most advanced fluorescent lighting available. With only a 5/8” diameter, these thin bulbs produce almost twice the brightness of standard fluorescent lights. This allows you to fit more of these thin bulbs into the same amount of space.
Very High Output (VHO) fluorescent lighting is the popular option for people that have densely planted aquariums, very tall aquariums, or reef aquariums. In order to work properly, the bulbs require special ballasts. These lights provide nearly three times the amount of light of a similar length normal output bulb.
Decorative fish tank lights are available by the manufacturer Hydor in the following designs:
• Ancient Ruins Pyramid
• Eiffel Tower
• T-Rex Dinosaur Skull
• Statue of Liberty
• Stump Log
You are sure to amaze family and friends with these striking designs that set the stage for a beautiful, colorful aquarium.
Other decorative fish tank lights include:
• Marineland Color Changing LED Bubble Ring
• Marineland LED Bubble Wands
• H2 Show LED Lights (available in the following colors: red, blue, green, multi-colored)
LED lights provide better color rendering and the shimmery effects are similar to those found in more expensive halide light systems.
Fish tank lights have a come a long way in terms of design. One type of lighting to consider is LED bubble wands that feature an amazing display of light and bubbles. The submersible LED lights illuminate a curtain of air bubbles and create a lovely underwater show.
Remember that the quality of aquatic life in your aquarium is related to the quality of light. Choosing the right lights for your aquarium depends on the needs of the marine life. By duplicating the natural lighting conditions, you will increase both the survival and growth rates of aquatic life while allowing you to enjoy a more realistic ecosystem. Before choosing a fixture, evaluate the initial and operating cost. Also consider fixtures that do not use a lot of electricity and will have a long bulb life.
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