A common question facing many saltwater aquarists is “What Saltwater Aquarium Lighting Should I Buy?” The answer really depends on what type of fish or coral you plan to keep. If you plan on keeping just fish and live rock, then stock fluorescent lighting that may have been included with the aquarium will be sufficient. Some hobbyists add a more intense fish tank light to make the fish only aquarium brighter, but this may cause unwanted algae to grow on the glass and rocks.

If you plan to keep a reef aquarium with different corals, you will most likely need to upgrade your lighting. Most corals are photosynthetic and require light to survive and grow. The most common upgrades are Power Compact, T5, Metal Halide and LED.

Powder Compact Saltwater Aquarium Lighting

Power Compact is available at most pet stores, but is not always the best option. Power Compact is suitable for aquarists wanting to keep soft and LPS coral. Although Power Compact is more intense than normal fluorescent lighting, the bulbs need to be replaced every six months. A typical 48” fixture typically has four 65 watt bulbs. Over a three year period, at an average cost of $25 per bulb, you would spend $500 just in replacement bulbs.

T5 Saltwater Aquarium Lighting

T5 or T5 High Output is not always available at pet stores and is usually ordered through an online retailer. T5 is suitable for people wanting to keep soft, LPS and SPS coral in aquariums less than 24” tall. A typical 48” T5 fixture might have four 54 watt bulbs. The bulbs need to be replaced every year, so over a three year period, at an average cost of $25 per bulb, you would spend$200 in replacement bulbs, a $300 savings over Power Compact.

Now wait, isn’t Power Compact more intense than T5? No, T5 is far more intense than Power Compact. Don’t get caught up with watt comparisons or watts per gallons. In this situation, you are comparing apples to oranges. A 54 watt T5 bulb may be three to five times more intense than a 65 watt Power Compact bulb. It just uses less power to create more light; it’s more efficient. When selecting a T5 Light, it’s important to consider reflector quality. Always purchase a fixture with Single Light Reflectors or SLR. These reflectors will dramatically increase the output of the fixture.

Metal Halide Lighting is not always available at fish specialty stores and usually need to be ordered online. Metal Halide is suitable for hobbyists wanting to keep soft, LPS and SPS coral in aquariums without an immediate height restriction. 10K Metal Halide Bulbs need to be replaced annually whereas 20K bulbs will need to be replaced every six months. The average Metal Halide bulb costs between $75 and $100, and the typical 48” fixture has two bulbs. Metal Halide Bulbs also emit light from a single point, this creates a shimmering effect. Metal Halide Fixtures can also heat up your aquarium, so additional fans or a chiller may be required.

LED Saltwater Aquarium Lighting

LED Saltwater Aquarium Lighting combines the efficiency with power. Most LED lights are  as intense or more intense than the average Metal Halide Fixture, but is uses less energy and produces less heat. This means you still get that great shimmering effect without the need for a chiller. Most LED Aquarium Lighting Fixtures also have adjustable color options so you can set the bulb kelvin temperature. LED bulbs will last for 20,000 to 50,000 hours, which means there is nearly no bulb replacement costs. The only drawback is the start up cost.

Saltwater Aquarium Lighting Reviews

So for most hobbyists, T5 lighting is the hands down the best choice. It usually costs more than Power Compact to get started, but is cheaper in the long run. It is nearly as intense as Metal Halide, but doesn’t create as much heat. It usually a good idea to start your search online to compare lighting fixtures and pricing between the different saltwater aquarium lighting suppliers. You’ll find that prices on saltwater aquarium lighting vary 10-20% between different vendors.