LED Aquarium Lights, Lighting; How they work, DIY

Further Revised 6/25/15

Sections Include:

I would like readers to know, it will appear like like there is a bias toward a few particular LEDs and less care for many others. I need to say this “bias” is based on use, research [which IS cited here], and lots of input from true aquarium professionals, which maintain aquariums for a living. Not the “Hollywood” type aquarium keepers either. These are people, which set up aquarium systems for a living. Many of my contacts are well known as the largest importers of marine life in North America [based out of Los Angeles].

My biases are based on the above, not because I work for the company [which I don’t!].

Complaining that I have a bias is a “Straw Man” or a “ad hominem” argument!
Should I or anyone else, recommend something other than what we knows to works?

Likely, over time my biases will change since LED lighting is a fast developing and changing aspect of aquarium keeping. Especially among those keeping reef or planted aquariums.

From patents, PWM drivers, PAS [or PUR], and more, the science speaks for itself!! The repeated experiences back up the science! Lighting and aquariums ARE science, albeit with art and personal preferences mixed in!

I try and mix simplified science for easy reading along with a lot of practical experience in this article. I cite many other related articles to back up the science and these include articles, which are by trusted. Also backed by experienced individuals, which I know as well as many by people I do not know or even totally agree with.

Please read ALL my cited references and consider reading my other article about Aquarium Lighting in general. They provides some foundation to the hows and whys of this article, including all aquarium light types:
Aquarium Lighting Basics: Parameters, Lights Technology

*LED [light-emitting diode] Overview:

This aquarium light type uses semiconductor technology as its light source. A light emitting electrical diode.

The difficulty in developing LEDs for aquarium use, both reef and freshwater planted, is getting the correct wave length in light measurements called, nanometers and ultimately the usable light [PUR-PAS] of the emitters [PUR = Photosynthetically Usable Radiation. PAS = Photosynthetic Action Spectrum. Both are similar terms although PAS is more scientifically appropriate].

The picture above is of an office with many reef aquariums (which includes stony corals, SPS and LPS) set up with AquaRay LED lighting systems, please click to enlarge

Please reference this forum post for more about this picture:

Essentially, the best LED fixtures are NOT aquarium lights in the traditional sense, even the emitters are not a “bulb” as many people think.

High end LED fixtures use complex circuitry to evenly spread voltage over drivers and emitters to control each emitter precisely. Because of this, LED lights properly driven will not loose spectrum quality unlike ALL fluorescent lights, unless these emitters are daisy chained together, dimmed via linear or analog reduction, which is common.

For those who are unsure as to what a LED light can do for their reef aquarium or think these are still untested even as of 2015, here is an excellent newer website documenting the LED Light research at Saint Mary’s College of Maryland by Dr. Walter Hatch, showing better growth, spawning, and more.
St Mary's Marine Biology Experiments with LED Lighting
St Mary’s Marine Biology Experiments with LED Lighting

AquaBeam 2000 Reef White, 1500 NP Ocean Blue 1500 Aquarium LED Lighting
Forth generation AquaBeam Ocean Blue NP 1500s & Reef White NP 2000s are utilized in the aquarium pictured above.

These LEDs include the unique specifically reef designed Osram Olsam NP emitter.
First of it’s kind in the world. Designed to actually be exactly nature perfect in it’s color as a full spectrum PAR & PAS emitter with a more light blue appearance, but the power of a 20K dark blue.

For an ongoing University experiment using the AquaBeam NP 1500 Ocean Blue, please read this resource:
St Mary’s Marine Biology Experiments

100 Gallon Planted Aquarium with GroBeam and Marine White 600 LED Strips The aquarium to the left demonstrates LED lights used for a planted freshwater aquarium.
In this tank, (4) GroBeam 600 LED Ultima LEDs along with (1) Marine White 600 Ultima strips are employed.

Besides the excellent plant growth with only 60 watt of energy used, it’s noteworthy that this aquarium utilizes a bare bottom & potted plant method.
Please Click on the picture to enlarge

See this product source:
AquaBeam 1500 Ultima LEDs
600 Ultima LEDs (GroBeam, Marine White, more); at American Aquarium

Unfortunately, many planted freshwater aquarium keepers utilize LED fixtures such as the EcoTech Radion or Evergrow LED with too high a kelvin temperature due to too much blue light energy produced. Since, these were more designed for reef use.
The result is a light that might grow plants, but also will grow more algae, especially BBA if maintenance ever gets off for the aquarium. Then other work has to be done for the algae.

Aquarium Algae Control- BBA

Emitter History:
Based on my research and interviews, beginning in 2008 [and continuing to improve as of 2015], high end LED aquarium lighting started to become a viable replacement for metal halide in reef tanks under 30 inches and surpass most T5 aquarium lighting as soft and hard corals are able to thrive under the newer exacting high output LED’s.

This is not only due to the excite lighting output, but also due to the amount of light LEDs are able to provide. These LEDs have both quality and quantity light.

By this time, many planted freshwater applications were already having success with lamps such as the 6500K PAR 38 lamps, which not to be confused with the low output 3000K PAR 30 sold at places like Home Depot.
See: 6500K PAR 38 Planted Aquarium Lights

The LED emitters utilize certain compounds to provide the essential light energy required.

For example and only for a second I will get too scientific, the infrared emitter uses Gallium arsenide (GaAs) and/or Aluminium gallium arsenide (AlGaAs) for its semiconductor material while Blue (460 nm) uses Zinc selenide (ZnSe), Indium gallium nitride (InGaN), Silicon carbide (SiC), and/or Silicon (Si).

Having certain colors dialed in intensity [quality and quantity] are what are important. It also brings me to a point to note that manual adjustable emitters affect this quality and quantity… More so quality, which make them less than optimum.

One way to think of the high end LED fixtures, not low end LEDs, which have more in common with an LED flashlight, is these are computers, which emit light placed over the aquarium.
[See Proper LED Ventilation later in this article].

Above/left is a hard coral growing out under “quality” LED Lighting

Many of the LED aquarium lights now available can provide the “cool” shimmer effect, which is like the sun. This was previously only exclusive to Metal Halide lights [even the lower end Marineland and Ecoxotic Stunners can provide this shimmer].

That said, many of the lesser end LEDs should ONLY be employed for this cool effect (such as a compliment to T2s or T5s) or very basic fish only tanks.

For those who want exceptional freshwater plant growth or for their reef coral to “pop” with growth, they should stick with the very few patented LEDs available, such as the Pacific Sun, DiCon, or Orphek, & TMC AquaRay (with exclusive CRee & OSRAM OSLON emitters, drivers and PWM technology).

See these links: Orphek LED Review & AquaRay LED Lights

This link shows how certain emitter manufactures can have licensing programs [kind of like a patent] for specific emitters. These are designed specific for the aquarium LED fixture and cannot be bought as a regular “bin” emitter.
Citation: Cree Licensing Overview

Current Reduction Vs. Pulse Width Modulation:

What is also missed by many “lesser” knock off LEDs, is the drivers/circuitry used to power each emitter. Like daisy chaining Christmas lights together, one simply daisy chains an LED emitter without changing voltage and spectrum to each emitter in the chain. It is this circuitry that separates 80% of LED fixtures from the 20%, which have the proper circuitry and thus more expensive drivers to maintain exacting voltages between each emitter.

Emitters are meant to be ran at a certain voltage to maintain their spectral quality. Without the proper divers, if dimmed the emitters will shift in voltage, which shift color, and long-term use will cause them to fail. This fact can easily be demonstrated visually by slowly dimming a common incandescent bulb.
This applies to both LEDs intended for Reef and Planted aquariums.

Here is a helpful video I recently found that visually demonstrates color shift in dimming:
Incandesccent DimmingIncandescent dimming- cooler blue to warmer yellow color.

This concept also applies to controllers, which dim and brighten an LED. A controller best maintains the spectral output via pulse width modulation [PWM]. There are brands, which have dim-able drivers in the fixture. This allows it to use these controllers using PWM. Only a few brands offer this technology and can also be incorporate in DIY set-ups easily and at a decent price ($8).

This is important as PWM is effectively turning the LEDs on and off very quickly (faster than the eye can see) so there is no change to the spectral output as opposed to using linear or analog reduction (aka current reduction) and manual intensity controls used by many brands of LEDs.
This technology also will the lower watts to be used in LED fixtures, which will in the end save in operation costs.

HOWEVER this technology is not cheap! Up front. Compared to the lesser brands on the market, the cost might be $100-$200 more. But, the idea is to save more power for savings down the road.

Unfortunately, the vast majority of LED fixtures utilize current reduction (manual controlled rheostat), which can and does alter the light spectrum, also produces much more excess heat due to how “current reduction” works. As well, while some Chinese LEDs are now being supplied with PWM, these utilize a basic form similar to how an electronic DC to AC Inverter can use square wave, modified sine wave, or pure since wave; with pure sine wave being best and most efficient and square wave being poor and inefficient.

This is also why so many high wattage output LED fixtures require a fan. This includes both low end LEDs or even many of the “better” more popular brands.

What is also worthy of note is this wasted heat then requires a cooling fan, which represents wasted energy, which could have gone into lighting output your aquarium. Wasted energy converts to heat… This is why ANY aquarium LED utilizing “linear or analog reduction”, which is the vast majority, requires a higher wattage and more emitters to provide the same useful light energy/PUR so as to provide the same results as an aquarium LED that utilizes PWM and drivers!!!

Also, with Current Reduction, you are wasting considerably more energy not just in wasted heat, but also when lights are dimmed. In fact, if you dim your lights at night, you are still using considerably more watts of electricity than with PWM.

PWM uses only the amount of energy required to drive the emitters at the voltage required. This cannot be said for a simple intensity control (even little digital screens intensity control)!

So the long term energy costs with any LED, which uses current reduction (MOST) is going to be considerably higher, often paying the PWM tech. in most cases under a year!!

Lack of full PWM, also can cause much quicker degradation of the circuitry. The result is often a much shorter LED fixture lifespan, which is why so many, if not most LED makers only warranty their product for 3 years or often much less. Often less (heat damage from fans plays a major roll as well in shortening of the life of an LED fixture).
This is where it’s rather disingenuous [in my opinion] to advertise a 5 year lifespan while only warranting a product for a year. Many times, the fan will even stop working before the life span of the emitters, making the advertised lifespan useless.

From: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pulse-width_modulation
“The main advantage of PWM is that power loss in the switching devices is very low. When a switch is off there is practically no current, and when it is on, there is almost no voltage drop across the switch. Power loss, being the product of voltage and current, is thus in both cases close to zero. PWM also works well with digital controls, which, because of their on/off nature, can easily set the needed duty cycle.”

See also this video explaining PWM, which I can almost guarantee if your LED fixture uses a cooling fan is NOT USING PWM!!

YouTube Video Circuit Skills: PWM [Pulse Width Modulation]


Sum it up:
While Current Reduction and PWM both have their own pros and cons, from the aspect of a quality LED fixture, the lack of PWM (& use of Current Reduction) along with daisy chaining of circuitry is just one MAJOR reason NOT to consider ANY LED, which uses dozens of emitters to provide the amount of desired light lumens.

Yet, most the LED fixtures use dozens of emitters daisy-chained together, which is a shotgun approach (& more wattage/wasted energy) to provide required high output lighting.

In fact, even an emitter from a “newer” bin such as Cree XTE, which is simply daisy chained together, will lose emitter spectral quality too if they are just used in current reduction or manually dimmed. Versus the same Cree emitter, which has the correct constant current drivers to tie each and every emitter together.

Examples of these current reduction fixtures include the Blue Moon, TaoTronics, SkyLED, Marine Skkye, among MANY others.

Kelvin & Color Spectrums:

EcoTech RadionMany companies just add colors to their LED fixtures which adds more PAR to the fixture, but not necessarily PUR-PAS.

What they will do, is get lesser made primary emitters, such as a 6500K. They will drive the emitters at lower amps and add more emitters. Then they will add colors to add to important spectrums of PAR, increasing the overall PAR, which will provide an overall more useful energy. This is different than driving a quality primary emitter such as 6500K at a higher amps and allowing the full spectrum of the 6500K to fill in the necessary PAR. What this looks like is an overall lower PAR fixture outperforming a higher PAR fixture.

The color emitters are often used to make colors pop in the tank [which many reef keepers and some planted aquarium keepers desire].
This addition of colors such as reds and blues can help start the photosynthesis process via the “Photosynthetic Action Spectrum” [PAS], however other emitters such as cyan, especially greens, and yellows do little for the PAS and are more for adding color to the aquarium. These colors can also be added to try and make up important aspects of PAR to feed the photosynthesis process, which they are not getting from single high PAS emitters.

Some of the best emitters, such as the Osram Oslon NP Blue [used in reef aquariums] and the Cree XLamp XB-D [used in planted aquariums] already have these PAS spikes and do not need additional/supplemental LED emitters and are more efficient than using binned cool white emitters plus additional blue, yellow/orange, and reds.

The popular Reef capable EcoTech LED pictured above.

With the proper spectrum you can have a naturally colorful tank, which thrives while using less input wattage.
An example is the AquaBeam 600 Ultima, which is TMC AquaRay’s newer generation LED Fixtures with the CRee XLamp ML-E emitter.
Online Resource: AquaBeam 600 Ultima

The Kelvin temperature rating is commonly used to describe the type of light one can expect from a light fixture and is loosely connected to the light energy in Nanometers (this measurement of lighting is used by the aquarium industry).

Simply put Kelvin Temperature is basically a measure of the light color, however one can achieve this “color” with many different nanometer wave lengths. Many of these wave lengths are useless to the symbiotic zooxanthellae found in corals, clams, etc. This is what make a coral thrive and gain great color.

See Reference:
Aquarium Lighting- Kelvin

Think of how 1+9=10 as well as 5+5=10, as there are many ways to reach a Kelvin Temperature and not all are best for your photosynthetic aquarium inhabitants.

Similar can be said for planted FW aquariums.
Using this same example and assuming 1 and 9 are nanometer wave lengths, which are desirable, and 5 is not, the light using the 5’s are poor even though they achieve the same Kelvin rating!

The latest technology LED lights are very fine tuned in exacting wavelengths/nanometer outputs found within the best Kelvin Color temperatures.
Achieving the correct wavelengths in the correct amounts has been the challenge and is why a simple LED flashlight has about as much in common to an advanced aquarium LED as paper glider to a Boeing 777 airplane. Try hanging several LED flashlights to grow your delicate coral or plants, it will not work the best!.

This is an advantage, as useless green and yellow light spectrums can be partly omitted as well. This is done by using the best and newest generation emitters & drivers rather than generic cool white, warm white, etc. Green and Yellow colors are really only meant to plants and corals for reflecting the colors back for something like a “pop”.

Understanding Useful PAR
This brings us to PUR-PAS [Photosynthetically Useable Radiation- Photosynthetic Action Spectrum].
PUR-PAS from what I know, have read, and been taught is what all aquarium lighting really comes down to. This is not to discount the amount of PAR energy delivered in watts or Quantum Light efficiency.

PUR is basically the USEFUL portion of PAR as much as modern science currently knows, where as the similar PAS is the Photosynthetic Action Spectrum, which triggers most photosynthesis.

Often many aquarium keepers will measure PAR with a Quantum PAR Light Meter, not realizing that these meters only measure light within the roughly 400-700nm range of PAR, NOT the exact wavelengths contained therein, which are ESSENTIAL for corals and freshwater plants! These meters are less accurate as the spectrum moves from the center of the PAR Spectrum. I should also note, that not all PAR meters are equal and there is a wide variance in quality of results between the $150 models and $1000 models.

Remember my earlier example of 1+9 or 5+5 both equaling 10, it applies here!
See reference: Aquarium Lighting- Useful Energy for Photosynthetic Life

One can have a “high” PAR LED, which is primarily 550-600nm light energy that is far less efficient than a high PUR LED of lower PAR readings as the majority of popular LEDs utilize higher numbers of lower quality emitters and drivers. Their actual PUR output is lower than better LEDs that may have a lower PAR watt per watt. They may have the same amount of useful energy, it just takes more resources to ache vie the quantity of light.

See the comparisons below of the TMC AquaRay Reef White (top) and the EcoTech Radion (below)
Reef White Spectrograph
EcoTech Radion Spectrograph

It is quite obvious that the AquaRay Reef White has a considerably higher percentage of near infra-red and blue in essential PUR-PAS energy light when compared to the EcoTech Radion due to its use of green, cool white, and other emitters (which is at least 35% composed of “useless” yellow & green light energy while the Reef White is less than 25% of yellow/green along with much more near infra-red)

This YouTube Video displays a reef aquarium with one TMC AquaRay 600 Marine White and one TMC AquaBeam 1500 Ultima NP Ocean Blue on a TMC Multi Controller.
This reef tank has hard corals including one Montipora capricornis and one Acropora yongei.

More Information:
PUR/PAS vs PAR, Wave Lengths in Aquarium Lighting

  • Relative Photosynthetic Efficiency/Yield Photon Flux Curve

The RQE [created in the 70’s for terrestrial plants] describes the efficiency of particular lighting nm wavelengths for driving or feeding photosynthesis. This could be considered as “useful” light for plants, but we have to understand how water plays a role and also the amount of light supplied, not just the quality of light.
Economic Analysis of Greenhouse Lighting: Light Emitting Diodes vs. High Intensity Discharge Fixtures- Apogee

This RQE graph is pretty theoretical in the sense, that this is not something that’s being applied in today’s horticulture, because of efficacy and cost especially when water is factored in. HPS/MH bulbs were standard commercial grade and used, because of their huge useful amounts of blue/yellow (MH) and yellow/orange (HPS) range. In today’s world, where we are using LEDs, which are 5-10x more powerful than an HPS/MH (watt per watt), we can fine-tune what we are provided for optimum growth compared to energy cost. For terrestrial plants horticulturists are using reds and blues (3 to 1) for optimum growth. This can be seen in any money trail following large horticulture operations.

Here’s a current video about horticulture targeting useful light energy:
Vertical farms: “Making nature better”
Vertical farms: Making nature better

Applying this to aquariums, we need to understand, red/orange/yellow light has the highest RQE, meaning it is the most efficient at photosynthesis, but it is also the first type of light to be filtered out by water. They are also not the most appealing to the eye. Note that blue light is about 70 to 75 percent as effective as red light, but is also the best type of light for penetration of water.

Also understanding how much light protons are being supplied from LEDs. Current work shows quality emitters providing 5-10x more light than high discharge lights. Understanding that the intensity of blues and reds in LEDs and that the rest of the colors of the RQE are being supplied in a full spectrum light sources, we can know we are feeding our photosynthetic creatures, very well. It does come down to what type of emitters are being used for what is being grown.

To say it another way. For certain corals, a high amounts of blue (20-50K) is necessary to get a high useful amounts of PAS to the coral. For plants, blue for the primary photosynthetic action response is required, because they are under water [this is not as important for plants on land]. Added reds/orange/yellow can be used, but has to be a balance for visible aspects of how we see the aquarium. Many times greens will be used as an extra pop for reflective color back to the eye. All these important colors in the RQE, will be supplied with a high quality 6500K emitter for plants. This supplies high PAS blue, colors in the middle spectrum, and even important read at a high output. Corals do need the high blues, but other colors can be considered for coloration of the photosynthetic algae creating color for the coral. This needs to balanced in for more than just growth, but for visual appeal as well..

You could look at something like a 10K LED for plants, but looking at their spectrum, there’s a lacking of the important reds. A 10K emitter can be considered for a deeper planted tank, considering what we know about how light travels through water, useful PAS, and RQE. Something like 3000K LED will have more color in the RQE, but there will be a lacking of PAS, which will require more energy to keep up with a higher PAS spectrum.

There are great standards for what light is recommend for what is growing, but it can be recommended that someone just get a light that appears the best to them. A person will just need to understand how much energy it will take to grow what they will like. Someone could used 6500K with less energy. Someone could also like the look of 3000K, it will just take more energy to provide a great photosynthetic response.

  • RGB

Another popular trend is LED fixtures that allow the user to control color temperatures. These gimmicky and misleading RGB and Capacitive Touch features are completely useless, however these are popular “bells and whistles” that unfortunately many without a full understanding of lighting PUR fall for.
Controlling your RGB (Red, Green, Blue) of your light has little bearing on obtaining the exacting nanometer spikes necessary for photosynthetic life.

In fact the best emitters are designed to run at a specific color whether it is a XT-E cool white or XT-E 10,000K, and attempting to alter the color simply degrades the PUR.

Other RGB features utilize green, red, yellow, and other color emitters, but again, by attempting to dial in say a 6500K or 18000K Kelvin temperature, all you are doing is wasting copious amounts of energy in light spectrums that provide little or NO useful PUR for photosynthetic life!

The bottom line is there is no benefit from the RGB feature and in fact, they’re stressful/harmful to coral or can encourage algae growth with freshwater LEDs with this gimmicky feature (this feature is my main complaint with the otherwise good Pacific Sun LED). If maintenance of an aquarium is off, the colors from these RGB, while be the first aspect to cause algae in an aquarium.

  • Watts Per Gallon?

This is basically an “out of date” equation when used to cross compare lighting types, however we still can use it when comparing apples to apples.

In other words the newest generation LED emitters such as the similar patented CREE emitters would only require about .6 watt per gallon for high light Planted Aquariums and .8 watt per gallon for most Reef Tanks (under 24 inches). About .2 watt per gallon can be added to either (FW or Reef) for even more light or more depth over 24 inches.

However this does not apply to the many lower end LEDs now flooding the market such as the “New Fluval LED Lights” which provide little specifications other than CRI, which is not a parameter that should be used to rate any aquarium lights. These would be more like 1.5-2 watts.
Citation: Aquarium Lighting; CRI

  • Emitter Combinations Vs. Specimen Placement

Specimen placement is a major determining factor for which emitters to use (in nanometer/Kelvin output), in fact this is more important than the actual tank depth if for example all the high light requiring specimens are placed at 12 inches or higher in a 30 inch deep tank.

As a generalization, the use of more blue and/or higher Kelvin daylight is necessary for specimens, which are deeper in the water column (such as 14000K daylight for depths past 12 inches). Another consideration is whether the emitter is wide angle or more focused, as this can determine which emitter combination is best based on specimen placement.

Maxima ClamFor instance a Maxima Clam that is placed on the bottom of a 24 inch deep tank will likely do best with more Reef Blue emitters (50,000K @ 465-485nm) in the emitter mix, or even supplemental 20,000K Metal Halide.

Or better, I would suggest placing the Maxima Clams on shelves higher up on your “live rock” reef. (To keep your Clam off the bottom away from bristle worms, etc. as well as provide better lighting to your clams) Depending upon how far under the surface you place these and other photosynthetically sensitive inhabitants will allow for more wide angle LEDs such as the 1500 Ultima Ocean Blue.

Coral such as an Acropora coral placed on your tank “reef” at 6 inches under the surface may do well with lower daylight emitters, Which still have a high output and light spread.

With freshwater plants, this also holds true to some degree, so if a tank is well terraced, standard 6500 daylight emitters should be fine for most plants up to 20 inches, however adding higher Kelvin daylight, such as the Marine White 14000K might be suggested for tanks deeper than 24 inches.

More Benefits of LED Lighting over Traditional Aquarium Lights:

  • High Output LED lights do not have the heat problems of Metal Halides, use VASTLY less electricity, often last 50,000 hours, and are very compact. Some LEDs do produce a lot of heat too. If the fan fails, the fixture has to be replaced. LED fixtures with fans cannot be expected to last as long as the rating of an emitter, as the fan is not rated to last this long. This makes the LED fixture rating of 50,000 faulty.
  • The best LED fixtures produce less mostly useless as per PAS yellow/green spectrum light than traditional lights, as these new technology LED emitters can be selected for the exact wavelength of light, thus less yellow or green light is emitted [0 of these poor PAS spectrums are used in the horticultural industry].
    So, although the LED may seem less bright than some HO lights with the naked eye [such as T5s or MH], the actual output of light energy in spectrums we cannot see [based on CRI] is much higher, this is why gauging a light by what you see is generally inaccurate.
  • LED lights with optimum Kelvin, and more so, nanometer, PAR, & most importantly PAS & PUR output emitters may prove to be more suitable for planted tank lighting and reef tanks, because they offer superior flexibility when compared with traditional fluorescent lighting.

    When the better LED lights operate, the photometric radiation remains within a narrow band on the electromagnetic spectrum. Specific photometric wavelengths are often beneficial to some aquatic plant life and reef tanks.

    Controlling specific wavelengths becomes possible through a basic network of certain colored LED lights connected to a digital LED controller.

  • See Reference: Aquarium Lighting- PAS-PUR, Useful Light Energy

  • Since LEDs emit light only in very specific direction, the installer has the option to illuminate a precise area by simply rotating the polycarbonate tube casing. For this reason the LED does not need to produce as many lumens of light for the same results as most conventional lights. With most conventional lights, many lumens of important light energy are lost due to lack of focus, this includes power compacts and fluorescent lights in general, which need higher lumen outputs to achieve the same lighting parameters. One test shows at least a 166% difference of lumens at 20 inches in favor of the Aqua Ray LED for the same given wattage as compared to a compact Fluorescent.
  • Another advantage over ALL fluorescent lights, is that LED Fixtures do not loose output over time, most specifically the important PUR & PAS wavelengths found in PAR. Fluorescent lights on the other hand do, and this is easily tested by placing a lit one year old fluorescent of the exact same type, next to a lit new one of the exact same brand/type.

    With a 6500K fluorescent, the new one clearly has more blue than the more yellow older lamp!

  • LED, T8, Metal Halide, Sun light through Spectroscope A positive aspect of new generation LED emitter technology is by controlling exact Nanometer spikes/range, undesirable UV-B can be avoided. Many Metal Halides, often have some below actinic light energy, even if in small amounts this UVB can burn delicate corals.
    Please note the LEDs in the graph above are 2008 generation
  • With many of the better LED aquarium lights, the best amount of PAR/PUR/PAS “Blue” and “white” light can also be controlled.

    While 20,000K Fluorescent lights are popular and achieve good results, many are not correctly applied, however similar can be said about the incorrect use of blue in LEDs either due to the amount of blue emitters or due to low quality emitters and/or drivers that produce too much blue, without the essential red spikes.

    What readers need to understand is that reef corals, clams, etc. as well as some aquatic plants adapt to certain amounts of blue due to their natural depth that they generally are found in.

    HOWEVER, with the sun versus even the best of any light sold for aquarium use, 3 feet of ocean water, as an example, is not going to be the same as 3 feet in an aquarium with artificial light.

    So, when one places an LED, which is 75% blue or a 20,000K fluorescent light over a 18 inch or less in depth aquarium, you are likely simulating much more depth than the corals, clams, etc. are naturally used to as per PAR and PAS. Now deeper aquarium is likely going to need a higher Kelvin rated light.

    This does not mean this cannot work, rather you are providing less than desirable lighting for your reef inhabitants!!

    Think of it this way, if you have an automobile, which is designed to run on 91 octane fuel and you use 89 octane, likely your vehicle will still run, but not to its potential and with possible long term damage too. This is what happens when not all aspects of Photosynthetic response are met due to over use of blue lighting in a relatively shallow aquarium.

    *Aquarium Lighting, Photosynthetic response

*PAS & PUR vs PAR in Aquarium Lighting

Please read the IMPORTANT LED Cautions & Further LED Information Section for more on some of the subjects above only marginally addressed to this point!

LED Light Comparisons/Tests from 2008

A controlled test using terrestrial plants had some interesting results for which we can draw some conclusions for planted freshwater and reef aquarium LED light use.

For this test, full spectrum LED Grow Lights similar, but with a lower output to the newest version of the TMC GroBeam 6500K Daylight or 6500K TMC Mini 400 were used.

In this test, the LED Lights were PROVEN to substantially surpass Metal Halide Lights in growth. While this test is now somewhat dated, it is this test that convinced the friend in the industry that I gained a lot of knowledge from that LEDs have “now finally arrived” as a useful light for planted freshwater and reef saltwater aquariums.

The above/left picture displays the plant growth results comparing the same LED and Metal Halide Lights (please click to enlarge view):

The results of this controlled test has reef and planted aquarium implications, as photosynthesis is the same whether it be a terrestrial plant, a freshwater aquatic plant, or symbiotic zooanthellic algae found in corals. The only difference would be that light energy is quickly absorbed by water.

Many Metal Halide [such as a 14,000K or 20,000K] have excellent depth penetration, however modern LED lights such as an AquaBeam 600 or EcoTech Radion, with its 8x Cree XP-E Blue LEDs, have similar penetration up to 24-30 inches.
See: EcoTech Radion Review

It is still easy to make assumptions from the raw data based on this study with plants that a 12 Watt LED can at least replace a 100 watt MH of equal Kelvin ratings in aquarium applications. The TMC AquaBeam 1000 or 2000; 30 Watt LED should easily replace one 175-250 Watt Metal Halide of similar rating (14,000K for example) for marine applications up to 24-30 inches in water depth.
See this link for more: Premium Aquarium LED Lights

Metal Halide comparison with Natural Daylight LED LightsThe picture to the left shows the approximate useful PAR light energy (PUR) of a MH compared to a LED Light (both full spectrum daylight).

*Dark Blue = LED Lights
*Light Blue = Necessary PAR Spectrum of Chlorophyll
*Lavender = Metal Halide.


What is also noteworthy, is not only the more useful light energy from the lighting spectrum of the LED, but also the quantity amount of overall light protons being provided to the plant. In recent studies of LEDs compared to HM & HPS; LEDs produce upwards to 5-10x more light protons than these high light options. So, not only is there a precision of light, there is a quantity of this precision, which is unbeatable. This amount of light coming from LEDs, allows aquarium keepers to use far less PAR to achieve desirable growth.

More about the quantity of light from LEDs can be found:
Apogee Meters, Research Knowledge Base

Further LED Fixture Emitter Information, Myths:

  • Correct Wave Lengths:

As earlier noted, it is important to understand that not all emitters are equal, even the Cree or other binned emitters sold commonly for other applications are only as good as their correct wavelength output.

This is where there’s much misunderstanding as to emitter abilities based on emails friends and I in the aquarium hobby/industry have received.

Many think that high end patented emitters are equal to emitters sold for DIY projects or the many LED fixtures readily available in stores or the Internet which is simply 100% incorrect!

In another example, the nanometer range in the licensed-patented “emitter bins” used in the CRee XR-E for their blue are very specific, utilizing the maximum PAR range of 465-485nm found in the blue spectrum (400-500nm), unlike other lights and even other LEDs which either have multiple spikes.
Others such as the CRee XT-E peak at 420nm.

By peaking at these important spikes, maximum PAR needed by zooxanthellae photopigments in many corals is achieved.
Reference: Useful Light Energy for Photosynthetic Life

For instance, Cree Emitters used by Tropic Marine Center AquaRay/AquaBeam should not be confused with “off the shelf” Cree emitters sold for other lighting applications, as these do not produce the optimum PAS [Photosynthetic Action Spectrum] of Light required for delicate marine reef and freshwater inhabitants and plants. There are emitters that are designed specially for plant and reef use.

Assuming a Cree emitter is used, as noted elsewhere even within specific bins, many are updated regularly and then sold under exclusive contract.

TMC AquaBeam Ultra 1000 Reef White over marine aquarium
Those who use the logic as I read on a forum post about wattage such as this: maybe a nice fixture, but its way to small and you would need 12 of them” [30 watt TMC Reef White] to light my 120g” totally misses the PAS high output concept of a modern LED fixture and is still using the logic that is similar to placing twelve 40 watt cool white T12 fluorescent tubes over a his aquarium.

The fact is, he is 100% INCORRECT and as per light energy as only 4 of these lights would be required for this size tank which has easily been proven both in application and via the science of PAS-PUR, PWM, and heat as wasted energy!

Unfortunately many still refuse to either read or do their homework when it comes to “high end” LED fixtures.

(The Marine Aquarium to the above/left is pictured with 2012 TMC Reef White 1000 tiles & 500 Strips)

Be careful of many albeit capable LEDs now flooding the market that appeal to consumers with “bells & whistles” that while certainly adequate for reef use, fall short of being the best based on the known facts of proprietary emitter bins (as well as practical use).

Also be careful of over hyped LEDs, with high PAR values, which are not required, which will require a dimmer, or there will be serious issues to the plants to corals.

The EcoTech Radion & Aqua Illumination are awesome LEDs that are nicely made and presented, notwithstanding these are also good examples where lighting facts are covered by “flash” and good marketing in my opinion.

The bottom line is while their proprietary 40 and 70 degree lenses and feature rich controllers may be useful, these do not make up for the basics of PUR necessary for marine life along with wasted energy as heat!!
Again, this is NOT to say the EcoTech and Aqua Illuminations are not Reef capable, as use by many reef keepers proves these are capable, only that these LED Lights require a higher wattage input to product the same amount of useful light energy as those using proprietary/patented emitters, NO green or amber emitters (or other useless PAS-PUR emitters), and PWM technology!
PUR and more specifically PAS and excess heat produced equals wasted energy are FACTS of science. As well patents are a part of business, so naysayers can argue and make personal attacks all they want, but these are still facts!

Please reference this article for further information:
PAS-PUR vs PAR, Wave Lengths in Aquarium Lighting

  • LED Cautions

It’s important to note that there are many LEDs now available for the aquarium market that are not intended, or worse, improperly marketed as the primary aquarium lights.

These LEDs often make unaware aquarium keepers or those who do not do their homework to make the false assumption that these LEDs will work for their planted or reef aquariums when in reality, these LEDs are not powerful enough to keep photosensitive aquatic life. The truth is, there are only a handful of LED light fixtures that can properly light your high light need aquarium, such as the before mentioned TMC Aqua Rays, as well as a few other LED fixtures such as the lower PUR (but still reef capable) Aqua Illuminations, Ocean Revive/Evergrow, Maxspect LEDs.

This is why some LED lights have 90-120 watts with 30-50 emitters, compared to 12-30 watts with 8-12 emitters.

Also as noted earlier in the Overview Section, many of these same LED Fixtures simply “Daisy Chain” the emitters together which can and does change spectral quality.
See also: PAS-PUR, Useful Light Energy for Photosynthetic Life

As a comparison, the well designed TMC AquaBeam 1000 or 2000 ‘deeper penetration‘ LED at 30 watts will far exceed many of the 90 watt “cheapie” panels that have flooded the market.

This goes more so for the newer ‘wide angle’ Ocean Blue NP Ultima with 2 new patented Cree emitters and cutting edge patent pending Osram Oslon NP emitters (designed specifically for reef use).
See: TMC AquaBeam 1000 or 2000 LEDs & Ocean Blue NP Ultima LEDs

Think of it this way, you could actually light many planted or low end reef tanks with cheap hardware store T12 cool white bulbs (I know a friend who kept higher light planted 60 gallon tanks with six 40 watt T12 cool whites back in the early 1980s), however it takes literally multiples of these versus what a few much “higher end” T2 or T5 fluorescent lamps with a more appropriate kelvin and in particular PUR output to achieve the same results.

So, comparing these 90-120 watt LED panels with “off the shelf” non-specific emitters to high end LEDs, which use the newest patented CRee or Osram Oslon emitters is an apples to oranges comparison where the 90 watt or larger panel likely will produce poorer results with more energy consumed than the 30 watt AquaBeam LED (or less).

Here are a few examples of LED Fixtures, which are less than reef or planted aquarium capable or simply using a “shotgun approach” so as to be capable:

  • E.Shine (Stark):

    EShine older Generation LED knock off aquarium light
    E Shine LED, a Chinese LED knock off manufacturer, uses older CREE XR-E emitters that can vary from 6000K to 9000K without the specific wavelengths necessary for peak PUR. Instead they have more wasted yellow and green wavelengths.

    As an example even E.Shine’s own web site (& documents shared by a friend that was solicited by E.Shine) admits that the older generation 3 watt CREE XR emitters used for their Daylight Aquarium LED Lights vary from 6000~9000K; not the exacting emitters used by TMC AquaRay, Orphek, & a few others!

    The picture to the above/left is of an E.Shine LED that is often sold under many brand names such as the Stark LED. This is not the best light one should place over their delicate reef specimens unless multiple panels are used. The newest generation LED’s have vastly more PUR and are more efficient!

    The “out of patent” XP emitters used by e.Shine, Stark, etc. have an output of around 250 lumens when driven at their maximum current.
    The most recent Cree emitters produce 390 lumens when driven at the same current.
    The bottom line is while the E.Shine will work for a reef tank, it will take considerably more energy to produce the same results of a newer technology LED Panel (& thus a higher electrical bill)

  • Taotronics:

    Similar is the TaoTronics “Aquarium Coral Reef Tank White/Blue LED Lamp” with non-descript 1 Watt low end LED emitters as well as the somewhat reef capable TaoTronics “New Design LED Aquarium Coral Reef Tank Blue White 2:1 LED Grow Light”.

    The TaoTronics LEDs utilize a shotgun approach with less capable unexacting nanometer emitters without adequate drivers to regulate voltage. While these can and do work in reef applications, they partly defeat the reason of having an LED light to save energy as this LED fixture uses considerably MORE energy for the same results.

    This compares somewhat to my friend’s use of a dozen “shop lights” (cool white fluorescent lights) over his planted aquariums to produce the same results one modern GroBeam, T5, or SHO Light will produce.

  • Finnex:

    I will however note that at least the Taotronics utilizes a decent American emitter (Bridgelux) in a Chinese made fixture, HOWEVER Finnex is a Chinese made fixture that utilizes the Chinese made Epistar emitter, which is not even to the PUR standards of the Bridgelux or older generation Cree emitters!

    What makes these popular is: (1) price, (2) ease of out of the box set up, and (3) availability since these are sold by mass merchandisers.
    HOWEVER, it you are looking for a truly planted aquarium capable LED light the Finnex is far from it based on what I have already laid out in this article, not to mention their terrible warranty which is but 1/10th of the best planted aquarium LED light warranty.

  • Example of very low quality emitters (Sky LED, Fluval LED):

    A really good example of very low quality emitter use in mass is the “SkyLED 36″ Aquarium Light” with 378 LED emitters [sold by Amazon, Truaqua, & a few others]. At 23 watts and 378 emitters, this comes to only .06 watt per low PUR output emitter. Even an online search of pictures/videos shows that this large LED fixture is nothing more than a replacement for a standard 36″ T8 aquarium lamps (cicra 1980) and should certainly never be used for a Reef or high light planted aquarium.

    Another similar LED fixture with this same shotgun approach is the “Freshwater Bright LED by Beamworks” with .2 watt per LED (as well as too much algae growing blue for a freshwater aquarium)!!

    Another yet is the “New Fluval LED” with 312 emitters providing only 25 watts. There is no way to correctly regulate voltage over this many emitters, especially for the price point Hagen offers. Which is why all Hagen and the mass merchandisers selling this LED mention is CRI, not PAR or PUR.

    These previously noted LED fixtures have about as much in common to a TMC AquaRay, AI Sol, EcoTech Radion, Pacific Sun, Orphek and other higher end LED as a two AA cell LED flashlight.

    The bottom line is the SkyLED should NEVER be used for delicate marine reef life nor the Fluval LED or Freshwater Bright LED for a medium or high light planted freshwater aquarium!!!!

    Many professionals have used and tested many LED light fixtures/panels with these “off the shelf” emitters that simply do not produce the important light energy needed to support aquarium life, often resulting in multiple emitters necessary for good results.

  • Other Decorative Only LEDs; Ecoxotic Stunner, Marineland Double Bright:

    An example of a popular LED light system that is not Reef or freshwater plant capable is the “Ecoxotic Stunner LED Strips” sold by some supermarket type aquarium and pet stores. The Ecoxotic are well constructed, however the emitter bins used are lacking in many aspects such as lumens per watt, focused lumens, and most importantly; PUR/useful light energy. The PUR is expressed by not being as “fine-tuned” to the exacting nanometer ranges of the high end patented Cree emitter that TMC AquaRays have access to with their exclusive rights (see Cree Licensing Overview).
    These Ecoxotic (as well as Marineland Double Brights) are fine to use as compliments to your better T2, T5, SHO, VHO, etc. lights, but not as a primary lighting source for reef or planted freshwater aquariums!

  • DIY LED Fixtures:

This brings me to DIY LED fixtures, where I will be brief and point out that this may well be a worth while endeavor (if only for the enjoyment of building your own equipment).

Many have had reasonable success with over the counter CRee emitters as well as Bridgelux emitters.
Even the over the counter CRee emitters are still more capable than the Bridgelux, however with a shotgun approach of Bridgelux emitters many have still successfully kept reef aquariums with these DIY Bridgelux LED emitters [resulting though in much more electrical usage, which defeats the purpose of using LEDs].
Citation: http://www.marsh-reef.org/do-yourself/32703-bridgelux-vs-cree-led.html.

Please note all that has been stated here as per emitters and realize that to achieve good results you will need good drivers/ballasts to power your emitters (many prefer magnetic even though they run hotter and use more energy), and as per the emitters themselves you need to follow more of a shotgun approach since the best emitters are not sold over the counter.

Think of it this way– if you as a automotive ignition system seller have developed (at considerable cost) a new automotive ignition system that increases fuel mileage by 50%, you would want to sell this at the highest possible price with the most up front money to recover development costs.

So Ford offers you a good price for exclusive rights to your ignition system you would likely take it, but this also rules out selling this ignition system over the counter or to other auto manufacturers!
This is basic business sense as any manufacturer is going to want to recover development costs as quickly as possible and “off the shelf” sales is NOT the way to do this; AND CRee and Osram Olson are no different than any other manufacturer in licensing their products!!

This is what happens with the best patented emitters, so while you will be able to build your own LED fixture, you must realize that you will need to take more of a shotgun approach with many more “off the shelf” emitters than say an Orphek or TMC AquaRay LED requires with their exclusive patented emitter bins!

Of course this also applies to LED fixtures such as the “Marineland Reef Capable” that utilize off the shelf, often older generation CRee and other emitters.

The bottom line is a successful DIY LED Reef light is a reasonable goal, but you WILL use vastly more energy for the same results when you compare DIY Bridgelux LED fixture to a patented emitter LED fixture.

You will also need a strong understanding in wire, lighting, and maintenance. Of course, there will be a lack of a manufactures warranty as well, so repairs are done by the fixture owner.

I also highly suggest adding PWM dimmable drivers for DIY, which is actually a decent price for DIY for the benefits it has. These drivers will run under $10 per channel. It’s recommended to be able to dim these LEDs, starting slow and working up to their tanks lighting needs.

Basic Mounting Suggestion

Installation with modular LEDs or tiles are quite simple, whether it be a simple light retrofit in a hood/canopy, suspending the lights, or a DIY rack as shown in the picture to the left (click to enlarge).

In fact a DIY rack such as the one featured in this picture does not take much DIY ability at all and easily supports most LED Fixtures.

In my opinion, it’s superior to the pricey modular LED rack system sold by TMC, although this is where my friend in the business and I part ways, as he really likes the TMC modular system.

Depending on how much PAR is being used and even lens used on the fixture, will determine how high the LED need to be mounted.

See this related Aquarium Article Digest Post for further installation options/ideas:
Aquarium LED Light Installation Options

As well I strongly suggest reading this section: Important LED Ventilation

T5 to LED Comparison

*(2) 18 Watt T-5 Dual Fixture = $60
*(2) 18 Watt T-5 Bulb = $30
(it takes two T5 to equal one AquaBeam 600 12 watt in actual useful light energy)

*Startup cost for Fixture and bulb = $90

*Average yearly electrical cost = $15.77
*Yearly Bulb replacement cost = $30

Total T5 cost for 5 years = $318.85

* TMC Led Fixture = $150

*Startup cost for LED = $150

*Average yearly electrical cost = $5.26

*Total TMC AquaRay LED cost for 5 years = $176.28

Proper High End Electronic LED Venting, Moisture Prevention

Important LED Ventilation

Please read the above article section about the importance proper care and mountain of your LED Fixture Investment

*LED Summary;

In my conversations with aquarium professionals, as with ANY lighting or change of lighting; results should be seen WITHIN 6 weeks, whether positive or negative!
Regardless of the lighting type, if the corals or freshwater plants take a turn for the worse in say 3 months after a lighting change, likely there are other lighting parameter issues at play!

Both corals or plants will need time to adjust to their new lighting. Depending if the adjustment is to higher or lower light, both will “melt” back and regrow to the new lighting. It’s recommended to start slowly and work up.

Back to LEDs in particular;
The flaws of LED aquarium lights are quickly disappearing and based on the energy savings in electricity in wattage of the lights (as compared to MH) as well as electricity use for air conditioning or the cost of a chiller often necessitated by larger Metal Halides. I should also note that LED light technology is growing by “leaps and bounds” and many of the bugs including price are currently being improved upon.

LED Lights such as the The AquaRay LEDs, Orpek and a small handful of other LEDs are constantly improving their PAR and more importantly PAS by utilizing the latest [often expensive] patents or high in house development costs (or both)

Unfortunately, many popular LEDs that would be considered “good” as recently as 2010 such as the Current Power Brite LED light strip are slowly falling further back

As an example, the “Current” is more of a supplemental LED with an output that is about ¼ that of the best LED Strips.

As already noted earlier in this article, many “new” LED fixtures rely more on slick packaging and cool features rather than the essentials of reef or planted aquarium lighting: “Useful Light Energy”, and sadly this has fooled many forum readers from the feedback I have received.

TMC GroBeam 500 LED and 6400K T2 LightsLED Light systems are easily complimented with T2 fixtures for smaller applications or possibly the high in PAR for large tank applications (the SHO are a bit more DIY in applications, but if handy, they are often worth the extra time, especially for heavily planted freshwater aquariums).

See these links: T2 Light fixtures & SHO self-ballasted high output CFL

The picture to the above/left is a planted freshwater aquarium with 4 GroBeam LEDs and 4 6400K T2 lights (click to enlarge)

Another less known example are the small tiles useful for larger tank supplementation or Nano reef or planted aquariums.
The TMC Mini 500 & 400 LED are both designed for small Nano Reef Tanks under 15-20 gallons or supplementation of larger tiles or fixtures..

The picture to the left displays this light with a “MountaRay” bracket for easy attachment to small tanks.

This Mini 500 LED includes four lensed CRee patented-licensed XP-E 10,000K and one unlensed Blue CRee XP-E (the White LEDs can be switched off for “moonlight” mode).
Similar is the TMC Mini-400 for nano freshwater planted or refugium tanks.

See this review of the 400 (from Aquarist Magazine):
TMC Aquaray Mini LED 400 Aquarium Light Tile Review

See this Product Source for the Mini 400 & 500:
AquaRay LED Lights; Mini 400 & 500

The bottom line is, when you compare an LED aquarium light to the many popular CFLs in terms of lumens per watt, focused lumens, lower wasted light energy, low heat output, energy consumption and long life (50,000 hours vs. 8000 hours), the modern LED is generally a better light.

In long term cost since (as an example) a 12 Watt Aqua Ray GroBeam (natural Daylight) can easily replace a 55 Watt power compact, such as a Helio, when you compare ALL aspects of lighting as presented in this article (approximately 20-25% of LED wattage is required when compared to a typical HO G11 CFL).

When compared to even older T8/T12 aquarium lights, a third generation TMC Aqua Ray requires only 17% (or less) of the wattage for the required light energy of a planted or reef aquarium.

Another thought to add to this summary, I have found the newest generation high end LED Aquarium Lights to be one of the best lighting innovations for Reef or planted freshwater aquariums, however as of the latest update, there is no LED yet that can replace a 400 watt Metal Halide (currently the best I can give a thumbs up in replacing is a 250 Watt MH). An LED that can replace a 400 watt MH may be available in the future.

As a final note, reading reviews about LED Lights from forums or blogs that have not been updated since 2009 is about the same as a review of a 1993 Computer’s capabilities compared to those of a 2010 computer. As well even then, not all emitter bins are the same, and many otherwise nicely constructed LED lights such as the Ecoxotic Stunner are not using the best technology emitter bins (most of these bins are exclusive) and cannot be used in most LEDs for this reason.

For additional information, please see this full Aquarium Lighting Article from which this Digest article has been allowed to quote some information from:

Aquarium Lighting; Facts & Information

Also see this newer article for LED Installation Ideas:
Aquarium LED Light Installation Options

LED NEWS OF NOTE (Development Questions answered):

*XLamp XT-E White:
From Cree
“Cree XLamp XT-E White LEDs are the highest-performance white LEDs available. The XT-E LED delivers twice the lumens-per-dollar of previously available LEDs in the popular XP footprint. By leveraging the popular XP footprint, customers can easily incorporate the XT-E LED into existing XP LED designs to shorten design cycle and improve time to market.”

*XLamp XB-D White:
From Cree
“Smallest lighting-class LED enables dramatically lower system cost

Designed to enable lower system costs for lighting manufacturers, the XLamp XB-D LED doubles the lumens per dollar of previously available LEDs. Built on Cree’s SC³ Technology™ Platform, the XB-D White LED delivers up to 139 lumens and 136 lumens per watt in cool white (6000 K) or up to 107 lumens and 105 lumens per watt in warm white (3000 K), both at 350 mA and 85°C.

Cree XLamp XB-D color LEDs extend the double lumens-per-dollar performance of the XB package to color LEDs, delivering up to 40% higher maximum light output than XP-E color LEDs. The combination of performance and small size of XB-D color LEDs enable better color mixing and lower system cost.”


*Aquarium Lighting Facts & Information

*PUR/PAS vs PAR in Aquarium Lighting; Including Spectrographs

*Cree Overview

Such as this quote with further verification of our comments about the EXCLUSIVE Cree/TMC emitter rights:
“TMC, in tandem with Cree, tailored the newest Cree XR-E diode Kelvin temperature so as not too waste energy in the unneeded spectrum range. And, the TMC tiles do not use cooling fans”

*St Mary’s Marine Biology Experiments
A few Articles within this website I recommend
   *A Push for Excellence
   *The man behind the study
   *And, so it Begins. How to Mount?
   *Experiment Update 1
   *Sustainable Science Thesis & Abstract Update

*Visible and Ultraviolet Spectroscopy

*Economic Analysis of Greenhouse Lighting: Light Emitting Diodes vs. High Intensity Discharge Fixtures
[A good read, albeit aimed more at growing terrestrial plants than practical LED application in planted and especially reef aquariums. The comparison between HPS & LEDs misses what corals and even plants that live in water need as per PAS. Practical experience long before LEDs were even available for reef use shows their comparison to be false as noted by another source I cite that also cites this otherwise useful resource].

*Advanced Aquarist; The Best Lamp Is
[I do not totally agree with the methodology and conclusions [rather flawed in that much is left out], but still an educational read]

*Input from several aquarium professionals including: Aquarium Design, and Quality Marine USA (the largest importer of marine fish in North America)

*Red Slime Algae; Cyanobacteria in Aquariums
I should note that if you also have a UV Sterilizer, changing the UV Bulbs every six months can help with Red Slime control along with the more important aspect of good lighting with little of the yellow light bands.

So as to keep this already long article readable; NO Further Comments will be allowed; Thanks for understanding

Recommended Replacement UVC Lamps:
High Output UV Replacement Bulbs-Lamps

Recommended source for UV Sterilizers:
Aquarium-Pond UV Sterilizers

Copyright 2015, By Steve Allen

79 responses to “LED Aquarium Lights, Lighting; How they work, DIY

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  4. Wonderful review. Very extensive. Ive been trying to decide on what LED lighting (if any) was appropriate for my set up and now i feel i have a far more in depth understanding than before. Thank you!

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  7. Great article possibly the best on led aquarium lighting. I have been looking at LEDs for my aquarium for years now, but have yet to buy. I do have one question though still. Most of the info regarding the LEDs is related to growing freshwater plants or corals, and what is needed from your lights to do so. I currently have a freshwater tank, with a reef tank in the works. Already know what LEDs to use for the reef tank thanks to this article. Was wondering if there were any suggestions for my freshwater fish only tank. Have seen t5 led replacement tubes out there but very unsure if those would work, but that would save me the money of buying a whole new light fixture. Any thoughts on the t5 replacements and ideas on fixtures would be greatly appreciated

  8. Most of the T5 & T8 tube LEDs that I have seen do not have the correct wavelengths. These tend to be more comparable to cool white and other primarily visible light spectrum lights.
    Although fish certainly do not need the lighting plants or reef inhabitants do, there is still good evidence that the 6500 daylight wavelengths have a positive effect on fish. This would inlude the GroBeam LEDs or similar
    Please also see these articles:
    Aquarium Lighting
    A Healthy Aquarium; Disease Prevention
    (The second is primarily aimed at keeping a healthy aquarium, which includes a section about lighting)

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  10. Thanks for the articles. I have frequently visited those pages before and purchased a uv sterilizer from them and couldn’t be happier. I have seen a few new led light tubes that were in the 6500k range, that’s about as high as I have seen. Most are topping out at 5000k. The other issue is finding them, most are in china, and I don’t know how I feel about ordering something that may not work and I can’t return. Thanks again for the articles. Just looking for a way to keep the existing fixture I own, but with toning down the lights i have now. I have a t5 aquatic life fixture, which is amazing I recommend aquatic life fixtures to all my friends looking for something in that range. They also offer the best costumer service I have seen in years. Intact when I called about a question I spoke with the guy who designed the fixture, you just don’t see that very often.

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  12. Thanks for the great article! I have been asking around and searching the web for LEDs to replace the T5s in my nano reef and was struggling to get tips or product comparisons.

  13. Pingback: Aquarium LED Light Installation Options. | Aquarium Article Digest

  14. Very informative article. I have a 175 Oceanic Bowfront and am running three 400 MH bulbs with two 80 watt T5 bulbs. My small apartment is like a furnace in the summer and the chiller is constantly on, and blowing hot ait into the living room, which the airconditioners constantly fight (and lost the battle). My electric bills for my one bedroom apt. are almost 700 bucks a month the summer. (yeesh). So, I very much want to buy a LED system before the summer comes. Can you recommend a system to purchase? I have a little of bit of everything in my tank. SPS, LPS, clams, etc. My tank is 30 inches deep. Thoughts?

    • Mitchell, thank you for your comment, however this post is meant to provide tools to help readers determine the best LED lights for their situation via the links, information etc..
      For questions of this nature I would refer you to the Contact Page at American Aquarium Products LED Lighting

      Thanks for your understanding of the intention of this this article/blog post

  15. Donohoe Timothy

    I found this article, and others on this site, to be a wonderful source of good, solid, information. I’ve kept aquariums since the early 1960’s, but in a small way. I do not keep up with the latest technology. Informative writing like this is a real boon. I have one caveat, however. As a school teacher I tend to be critical (perhaps too critical) of writing. These articles are rife with grammatical errors, so many that it makes it difficult for me to read them. I would highly recommend that Steven Wright employ the help of a competent proof reader. I hope that’s not rude; I mean this as a constructive criticism. These excellent articles could be made even better with a little polishing.

    • Thank you for the nice comments and constructive criticism on the articles. I have been working on it, but there is just so much to fix with this site and the other sites. Any help is much appreciated!

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  17. I use one aquabeam 1500 XG (Ocean Blue) on a 65 gallon, just sitting on a glass top. Completely satisfied. Effect = holy crap. Curious about the effects timer now.

  18. kv only has meaning with black body radiators. leds make white by additive color, or blue or uv with phosphorous. many your blue par or in this case pur is no diff the cree 503 led, its blue. i think white light for pur is redundant anyway…..you need blue, want it less blue? add some green and red.

    • Yes and no.
      Kelvin temp is but a guide as for example not all 6500K lights are the same.
      However you missing the point (unless I am misreading your comment) of the important light energy wavelengths that make up with light. For one you will have benefit for reef or planted aquariums by adding green to your light energy mix, and this is the beauty of the top notch LEDs, as there is less useless green in the mix than other lights (including many low end LEDs such as the Marineland Double Bright)

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  22. Hey Steven, first of all thank you for your excellent information on LED’s, very informative. I currently have a very nice lighting setup, a DIY 2x55w CF bulb kit from Aquarium Hobbyist Supply, using the GE F&S 9k bulbs with a custom built fixture out of poplar in which the kit is mounted in with proper ventilation. This was great for plants when I had my 55g heavily planted, however the power is kind of wasted on my current 55g setup for Lake Tanganyika (not growing plants anymore). Plus the light is too bright and washing out some of the fishes colors I believe. I was considering retrofitting my older t8 shop lights with parabolic reflectors, t5’s (blue and white/daylight) and new ballasts but then for the $ was just considering going with pre-built lower end LED’s. It’s important to note that I just want the fish to look good and grow green algae for my Tropheus. Sure I would love a TMC but can’t justify the money when I don’t need the proper output so much. So basically I don’t care too much about PUR and lower quality emitters etc. and I just want something that is cost effective, will bring out my fishes colors, grow algae and provide the shimmer effect. I read over your reviews of lower quality led’s and am at a loss for what to choose. I read on a forum that the marineland double really doesn’t provide the shimmer effect but maybe this has to do with wave action at the surface, which my tank has plenty of? Any particular recommendations for the most cost effective good looking (as in brings out the fishes vibrant colors) light/LED/T5/T2 etc? Do the lower quality LED configs still help eliminate cyanobacteria (currently having a battle with the blue-green form). I think cutting down the light and not using the CF bulbs will help with this. Thanks for any help you can give me, I really appreciate it. Not really looking to spend more than $70 roughly.

  23. Pingback: What Depth Do Led's Perfom Well - Aquarium Forum

  24. Josh, for the price you are looking at there really is no reasonable LED, even the PAR 38s would break this budget.
    As well the light nanometer spectrum (little yellow/green) is important to Cyanobateria control, and this requires a very specific circuitry driver that will be well over $100.
    See this article:

    The ML Double Bright still provide some shimmer, but not much light.

    Your best bet would be a SHO, T2 or T5 to stay within this budget and provide reasonable light.

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  27. Pingback: Lighting is very imperative to the corals - Aquarium Forum

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  29. Pingback: Help: New Tank, Need Lighting System Advice - Aquarium Forum

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  32. While this article is exteremely informative about the differences in the LED’s that are available, one cant help but thing that the author works for or is related to TMC Aquaray based on the number of references made to their product. If the Aquaray is so good, how havent we heard more about it?

    • First I have many friends in the industry using these, and I use the AquaRays; so yes I am very partial to these for both reasons of experience and for research I have done.
      As for not hearing about these, I have a hard time answering this when these are all over the internet with many references to these LEDs.

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  34. Jody easkiovitch

    LEDs are so new in the realms of marines it is still unproven, most manufacturers will openly admit they believe the driver is good for 10 years / 50000 hours burning time but refuse to put a guarantee on it, why? Because its not been around long enough in a true environment only under simulated conditions

    • Normally I am not allowing comments, but I thought I would answer this aspect of your comment:
      I am sorry if this come across as insulting; however your facts and logic are skewed.
      First a 5 year warranty and 2 year power supply does not prove lack of confidence any more than an automobile warranty for two years means your car/truck will only last 2 years.
      As an example, I have and my friends have many Aquarium UV Sterilizers that are guaranteed for two years that are going on well over 5+ years.

      The other misinformation is LEDs is still not proven?
      Really? Besides my own use, I know so many aquarium maintenance professionals (who know even more) that represent literally 100s of VERY successful marine reef aquarium uses of LED fixtures

      • Jody easkiovitch

        Appologies for my comments, it’s just that I’m in the commercial lighting / exterior lighting industry so I see so many products that utilise LEDs and speak to manufacturers etc and get the same info back that no major LED company has had sufficient time to test products in reality only under simulated conditions, unlike HQI which has been about for longer than I can remember.

        Your articles here and on other sites are a gold mine of information as there seems to be a real lack of informative material for this niche lighting subject, it’s an area that I’ve been looking to research for a while but just not had much time or success with material.

        Please don’t get me wrong LED units In my opinion are very good but they still have a way to go before they are tried and tested, that’s not to say they don’t work it’s just that again how long have they been about in this application?

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  37. B E Schwartzman

    can you discuss the need for red led lights; are they necessary in a reef tank with sps corals?

    • This question is answered in my companion Digest post;
      Aquarium LED Reviews, in the EcoTech Radion Section

      • Steven,

        I note some of the new LED lights in the upper end of the market are using the new XT-E emitters. According the the CRee website, quote listed below.
        ” Cree XLamp XT-E White LEDs are the highest-performance white LEDs available. The XT-E LED delivers twice the lumens-per-dollar of previously available LEDs in the popular XP footprint.”

        I am curious to know if TMC will be upgrading to these emitters or are they locked in to use the previouseneration due to recovering patent costs etc?

        Have read so many good reviews on the Grobeams however these new emitters seem to be far superior. Could you assist?



  38. Pingback: Replacing MH with LEDS

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  40. Very thorough review if unfortunately sounding like an advert for TMC. Not really the fault of the reviewer if one product significantly out-performs the rest though. Certainly interesting reading for me having been out of the hobby the past three years due to the supposedly ‘quick’ house move… Sounds like LED’s are finally a viable option – and in some ways a better option for what I want to achieve..

  41. Justin Oughton

    Just to add to the comments about light output and growth.
    I have used Grobeam and aquabeam 1500 XG in a 4ft wide, 2ft deep freshwater planted tank and I have no problems with achieving strong rates of growth with or without CO2, even at low brightness settings.

    Regardless of Par and Lux figures, no you dont get the same light output as metal halide. I have a 300 watt MH that I used to use, and that thing pumps out light brighter than daylight. How could you compete with that really. But I would argue that for most applications you don’t need that intensity of light, and the risk of cooking your tank is real. You cannot conceal metal halide lights as the heat output is too great, and the amount of power drawn by metal halides is phenomenal and expensive. You can feel my ballast humming with the current draw. You also cannot control light output with MH units. The other drawback is that once you have MH lights positioned high enough above the tank to avoid heating the water, you are also essentially lighting up the whole room.

    On the plus side for MH,
    1. The depth of penetration is at 300 watts and 2 ft above the tank is well, about as good as the sun really.
    2. The aesthetic quality of the light from a 10,000k bulb is beautiful, it is like sun shining through the water onto beach sand with the shimmer of shadows from the ripples. There is no comparison. Yes you get a bit of shimmer with LED units but it really doesn’t compare. And no, LED units won’t ever really look or feel like the sun beaming through the water.

    So if you can afford the power bills, dispose of the excess heat, and don’t care too much about fixture aesthetics, lack of output control and excessive light spill, then go the metal halide.

    If you don’t have cash to burn and need a cheap light that will do the job, and can be concealed in a hood, then go flouro.

    If you have money, want great light control, have some degree of environmental conscience and can keep the unit cool and dry, go LED.

    They all work,
    They all have issues.


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  45. Thanks Steven! I am looking in to replacing the lights on my 38 gallon freshwater planted tank and these articles have been very helpful in demystifying the use of LEDs. I am tossed between going with the TMC GroBeam 500s and the Aquaticlife LED 0.5W Freshwater Light Fixtures. Since the AquaticLife freshwater LEDs have only been out for a couple of months, I haven’t been able to find too many reviews on them yet. Do you know anything about them? Any advice?

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  50. eshinesystems does sell directly to the public. July 2012 I bought a 30W Cree fixture and by November 2012 only 4 of 10 lights were still working. The warranty of one year and 3 years cannot be honored as they say they no longer make these units. They offered to send me parts so I can fix myself. Lesson learned.

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  52. Wow, this is an incredible article. Thank You so much for posting this on the internet. You have saved me time, money, and many headachs of almost buying the gimmicky “stunner strips” that support the claim they can soley be used for aquarium plant life ect. I have recently purchased 2 Kessil 160W and was amazed by how fast my plant life grew from using standard T5/T8 bulbs. Great!!! A+++

  53. Pingback: Aquarium LED Lights, Controllers; What is Best | My Aquarium Opinions

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  55. Sébastien Durand

    First of all THANK YOU for this amazing article… You shed the light on us all!!! Now my question I have a 90 gallon tanks (4 foot long) planted with demanding plants (glosso, and hemianthus)… I would like to have led lights with dimming capabilities to go with my Neptune setup. I am liking the Kessil but they will hardly fit in the canopy… So I considering Kessil Amazon (if I remove the top), GroBeam Ultima 1500 and the My Build Led… Could I get you input on this please!!!

    Thanks a lot

    • If you are looking for dimming LEDs, I highly highly highly recommend going with the GroBeam . With the TMC controller, these are the only LEDs that don’t loose their specimen when dimmed. They have something called Pulse with Modulation. You should take a look at this article that goes into these deeply. Look for PWM
      AquaRay uses “Pulse Width Modulation” (PWM) to control their LED lighting as opposed to using “Current Reduction” used by MOST competing brands of LED Fixtures.
      This is important as PWM is effectively turning the LEDs on and off very quickly (faster than the eye can see) so there is no change to the spectral output.
      As well there is MUCH LESS ENERGY LOST TO HEAT as with “Current Reduction” which is why cooling fans are necessary on so many other Aquarium LED fixtures, UNLIKE TMC AquaRays.

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  60. Wonderful work! This is the kind of information that are supposed to be shared
    around the net. Shame on Google for no longer positioning this post
    higher! Come on over and talk over with my web site . Thanks =)

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