Fish Tank Lights – Saltwater Aquarium Lighting

If you are looking to information about saltwater aquarium lighting or planted fish tank lights, then you are in the right place. This article contains must have information that will help you make an informed purchase decision because it is packed full of saltwater aquarium lighting recommendations and tips that you won’t find anywhere else.

If you are looking to buy fish tank lights, saltwater aquarium bulbs or replacement parts then the best place to start shopping is online. As a previous owner of a brick and mortar fish store, I can tell you that most local pet stores mark up their light fixtures 50-100%. This even includes the big box retailers. Online stores also carry a wider selection, so you are more likely to find exactly what you are looking for at a lower price. If you find a saltwater aquarium lighting fixture or accessory and you decide to buy from your local fish store, be sure to ask if they can match the price of an online retailer. If they don’t have the item in stock, you can request that they special order it. Most of the time, they are happy to do it to keep your business.

Saltwater Aquarium Lighting

Selecting the appropriate lighting for your Reef Aquarium can be difficult. This simple, straight forward guide should help you select the best fixture for your needs. If you plan to keep a saltwater aquarium with only fish and live rock (FOWLR), then you will only want normal output fluorescent lighting (the stock aquarium hood that was included when you bought the tank), but if you want to keep other livestock like corals and clams then you will need more powerful fish tank lights. Also note, you can upgrade your light fixture at any time if you decide to convert your FOWLR tank to a reef. Do not use more intense lighting on FOWLR tanks because it will cause more algae to grow.

Power Compact Saltwater Aquarium Lighting

I do not recommend this type of lighting for reef aquariums unless you have a small nano aquarium like a Biocube or Nanocube. There are currently better options available. If you decide to go with a power compact, then I recommend the Coralife Aqualight line of fixtures. These fixtures have been time tested and have been proven durable and reliable. Replacement bulbs and parts are readily available. See the planted fish tank lights section for more information.

Metal Halide Fish Tank Lights

This type of saltwater aquarium lighting is recommended for aquarists planning to keep SPS corals and clams, or if you have a tank deeper than 24 inches. Like the sun, metal halide bulbs have one point of light, so it creates a beautiful shimmering effect. Most fixtures will feature powerful HQI bulbs, also known as double ended bulbs which are intense enough to keep almost any type of coral species. You will commonly see 250 watt or 150 watt HQI metal halide bulbs paired with T5 or Power Compact Actinic Blue bulbs to create a dawn/dusk effect. A typical saltwater aquarium lighting cycle may look like actinic bulbs on at 9am, metal halide bulbs on at 10am, metal halide bulbs off at 8pm, actinic bulbs off at 9pm. The actinic bulbs are sometimes listed as 420nm, 460nm, or 20000K and will help make corals fluoresce. Although metal halide fixtures are powerful, they do have several disadvantages. They create a lot of heat, which may need to be offset by a chiller and they use a lot of energy which can drive up your electricity bill. Most fixtures also have one external ballast per bulb that can be located in the stand. Some ballasts weigh as much as 15 pounds and require a 10 by 10 inch space. Metal Halide bulbs come in many different colors, but the color of the bulb will vary based on the ballast you have. For example, if two saltwater aquarists bought the same metal halide bulb, but one had Brand A ballast and one had Brand B ballast, the bulb might appear whiter on Brand A and more blue on Brand B. Also with one bulb, if you find that you do not like the color, it is hard to make changes because you can’t replace one bulb (like with T5 or Power Compact) to make the aquarium whiter or bluer. Another important factor to consider when buying a metal halide saltwater aquarium light is the quality of the reflector. Large, high quality reflectors will distribute the light better, but these reflectors are typically available for only mogul or single ended metal halide bulbs. To use a single ended bulb, you may need to purchase several individual parts or a retrofit kit. 20,000K Metal halide bulbs are typically replaced every 6 months, whereas 10,000K bulbs can be replaced once per year. Quality bulbs cost between $60 – $120 per bulb and each bulb usually covers 24 inches. So a 75 gallon, 48 inch aquarium would usually have two bulbs.

T5 Saltwater Aquarium Lighting

I recommend this lighting for almost every saltwater aquarium that is 24 inches deep or less. T5 lighting is more powerful than power compact and can be just as, or more intense than metal halide. What I like about T5 lighting is it is less expensive than power compact because the bulbs are replaced less frequently and it produces less heat and uses half the energy metal halide requires. Fixtures are available for tanks 24 inches to 72 inches long and typically come in two, four, six and eight bulb sets. The wider your saltwater aquarium, the more bulbs are recommended. I recommend one bulb for every three inches wide your aquarium is. So a 75 gallon, 18 inch wide aquarium should have six bulbs. Unlike metal halide, T5 ballasts are small and are located inside most light fixtures. The only disadvantage to T5 is that it doesn’t create the shimmering effect metal halide does. There are many T5 bulbs available, so you’ll be able to select from a nearly endless color section. This gives you complete control of how you want your aquarium to look. When shopping for a T5 fixture make sure that it comes with high quality reflectors, as the reflector is more important than the quality of the bulb. If you need to replace T5 bulbs, I recommend ATI AquaBlue Special (it’s really white) and ATI AquaBlue+ (actinic/blue) to create a dawn and dusk effect. I prefer a one to one ratio of AquaBlue+ to AquaBlue Special.

Satwater Aquarium LED Lighting

As advancements in technology occur, Aquarium LED Lighting will probably end up replacing power compact, T5 and Metal Halide fish tank lights over the next ten years. Aquarium LED Lighting offers the power and shimmering effect of metal halide without the heat and power consumption. In the near future, most saltwater aquarium lights will also contain a controller to adjust the color spectrum and intensity. That means you’ll be able to dial in the exact color of light. For now, Aquarium LED fish tank lights are too expensive for most hobbyists, but there should be a dramatic reduction in price over the coming years.

Saltwater Aquarium Lighting Conclusion

The best saltwater aquarium lighting for most aquarists is T5. These fish tank light fixtures will be around for many years to come and offer a wide range of bulbs choices. They also provide enough intensity to keep almost any coral, without the heat of metal halide. The startup cost is comparable to power compact, but the bulbs last twice as long. I recommend starting your search online and comparing several fixtures to see which will work best for your saltwater aquarium.

Saltwater Aquarium

Freshwater Fish Tank Lights

I’m going to cover some freshwater aquarium lighting basics. If you have a normal freshwater fish tank, you will want to replace the light bulbs in the aquarium hood every year. As the bulb ages, it begins to shift colors. Although the change is subtle, it will cause unwanted algae growth. If you find that your fish tank light fixture isn’t working anymore, don’t throw it out. It might be that the starter has gone bad. This takes about 30 seconds to replace and costs as little as $5. Another tip for preventing algae growth is to put your fish tank lights on a timer and have them run for 12 hours or less per day.

Planted Fish Tank Lights

For those with planted fish tanks, you may be considering power compact or T5 lighting. I’m going to make this easy for you, buy a T5 aquarium light. Here is why. Power compact fish tank lights are older technology. Power Compact bulbs typically need to be replaced every 6 months because they rapidly lose their intensity. A standard 55 gallon aquarium would have four 65 watt bulbs, or a total of 260 watts. Each bulb costs about $25 online or $50 retail, so your total operation costs for the year is $200-$400 depending on where you buy your bulbs. A T5 light for the same 55 gallon aquarium will also have four 54 watt bulbs. Now you are probably thinking to yourself, wait that only has 216 watts of power, it is less intense compared to power compact. This is a myth, T5 lighting probably 5 to 10 times more intense than power compact fish tank lights, but it uses less electricity to run. Therefore, a T5 fixture is more efficient because it produces more light and uses less power. You may have heard a rule about watts per gallon, this is an old standard used in the 1980s and 1990’s. Freshwater T5 fixtures cost and power compact fixtures cost the same amount of money to buy, but T5 bulbs only need be replaced one per year. Each bulbs costs about $25 online, so bulb replacement costs for the year are about $100. When selecting a bulb for a planted tank you may opt for a 6500k rating bulb. This k or kelvin rating is the bulb color; in this case it is yellow. You will find that plants grow faster under these fish tank lights, but if you are less concerned about growth you may select a 10000K bulb, which is whiter and more desirable to the eye.