Recently, I was having a discussion with other hobbyists about aquarium lighting, and one of them made the comment that he was rather confused by all the changes in types of lighting and the higher costs involved in high output systems. Another immediately pointed out that, while there are significantly more choices, the pricing has actually gone down. This lead to a review of the various types and costs of aquarium lights. As short a time ago as 2009, the aquarium lighting scene was covered by PowerCompact lights, Metal Halides, and the new introduction of a few T5HO fixtures. As is normally the case, the newer T5HO systems did cost a bit more for the same type of intensities seen with PowerCompacts. Some of the selling points for the T5HO included the higher output per watt, less energy consumption, and longer useful life, up to two years for most applications. The smaller diameter bulb (T5 means the bulb is 5/8” in diameter) also made it easier to design polished reflectors around each bulb in the fixture and direct a higher percentage of the light output towards the aquarium. At this time, the traditional “full hoods” were rapidly falling out of favor with their older T12 and T8 bulb requirements.
By 2012, the cost of the PowerCompacts had reached their lowest prices in several years, and the new standard of lighting was the T5HO fixture. The cost on these fixtures had also dropped from introductory pricing, and the variety of fixtures was unprecedented. There were fixtures with 2, 4, 6 or 8 T5HO bulbs for just about any application. An additional feature to the T5HO bulbs was the ability to offer more color temperatures than available with PowerCompact lighting. Hobbyists now had access to bulbs specific to freshwater planted aquariums, daylight and actinic bulbs for mini-reefs, and even a few “color” bulbs for a fish-only style aquarium. This was probably the height of use for the T5HO fixtures because also introduced at this time were some of the first commercial LED lighting systems.
The LED fixtures were generally limited to use for marine aquariums and low light demanding coral/mini-reef aquariums. Advantages to LED systems included even higher output per watt (15-25% more), more energy efficient design, and, since LEDs are a point source lighting system, nearly all of the light could be directed towards the aquarium with the proper lens design. Also, the cost of replacement for the lights is nearly eliminated with the 50,000 hour life span for most LEDs. In most cases, there were no cooling fans on the fixtures, allowing these to run in near complete silence. The designs for these LED fixtures are compact, with a sleek profile, light weight, and very rugged construction. A few early designs also offered the ability to control the output, create sunrise/sunset, and even mimic storms and lightning, along with the true moon cycle. The problem was these fixtures were several thousands of dollars and somewhat unreliable.
Flash forward to 2014, and the LED fixtures are starting to capture all phases of aquarium lighting. They can now be found in fish-only full hoods for general low-level lighting, submersible lighting with or without an associated bubble wand, strips to accent or increase output of existing T5HO lights, or as part of a modular system for high intensity output. The manufacturers have also developed LEDs for the use on freshwater and planted aquariums, based on the development of RGB (Red/Green/Blue) output LEDs. With the marvels of modern microcircuits and computing power, manufacturers have also been able to offer the changing intensities, sun rise/sunset feature, and storms with a remote control with customizable settings. And, unlike their thousand dollar forefathers, they sell for hundreds. Now you can sit back, relax, and change the color temperature of your aquarium without leaving your seat. (Let’s be frank here, most likely a Lazy-Boy, boys with their toys!) The newer models can offer high intensity for a reasonable cost for the most demanding mini-reef system. An additional benefit of the LED lighting is the lack of heat transfer to the aquarium, eliminating the need of the use of a chiller, a several hundred dollar savings in itself. When was the last time a light helped you save money and easily paid for itself in under a year or two?