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The ABCs of LEDs, Part 1 By Robert Farnsworth, MarineDepot.com Reef Squad

Responsible reefkeepers know conservation is playing a huge role in the growth and evolution of the aquarium hobby. Yet, those outside the aquarium hobby sometimes fail to recognize how much we, as a community, truly care about Mother Earth and her oceans. We support efforts to eliminate abuses in collection, encourage captive breeding and propagation and, in general, try to raise awareness to ensure a sustainable future for the marine environment and hobby we love so much.

One of the ways to help is by reducing our carbon footprint by using energy-efficient equipment with our aquarium systems. With the recent influx of LED light technology, having an eco-friendly tank has never been easier.

Light Emitting Diodes, or LEDs, have the ability to create intense, high output light using less electricity. We can now produce the intense light needed for photosynthesis for less than half the cost it would have required only a couple of years ago. Saving energy reduces the impact of aquariums on our beloved wild reefs.

LED aquarium light is evolving at a rapid pace. Today we will address some of the most frequently asked questions people have about LEDs. We will clear up some misconceptions and explain why the advantages of LEDs are helping them live up to the marketing hype.

How Does an LED Light Save Me Money? They Are So Expensive!

LED technology, at least at the time of this writing, does not come cheap. Prices have already dropped considerably since LED lights first began being mass produced for the aquarium industry, but the micro-engineering and electronics used to construct LED lights are, at the moment, more expensive than fluorescent and HID. Unfortunately, the result is higher upfront costs for aquarium hobbyists looking to purchase LED light fixtures for their tank.

What we want to make clear today is the long-term benefits of LEDs far exceed the short-term costs. On average, LED lights use 50% less energy than alternative solutions yet produce the same PAR values required to successfully care for coral reef inhabitants.

In short, you will save money on your electricity bill every month. If you are currently running metal halide lights, the cumulative savings may be substantial. The radiant heat produced by LED lights is also negligible to non-existent in many cases. With less heat being transferred into your aquarium, the less likely you are to need cooling equipment, like fans or a chiller, to bring down the temperature of your tank. That is even more money in your pocket that may have otherwise been spent buying hardware and paying to operate it each month. Arguably the greatest benefit, at least, to those of us who have been in the hobby for a while can attest, is you will no longer have to replace your aquarium light bulbs every 6-18 months. Metal halide bulbs can cost up to $130 apiece! Imagine how much money you will save over time by investing now in an LED light fixture. Aquarium LED diodes last 5-7 years under normal use, sometimes longer depending on the quality of the LED and how frequently it is used.

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With diodes being smaller than bulbs, manufacturers are able to design compact LED fixtures that are aesthetically pleasing. Big, bulky and box-like fixtures are an eyesore to any living space. LED lights, on the other hand, look sleek, smart and stylish. LED lights also use small transformers, so many can be retro-fitted to fit inside your existing aquarium canopy. The most recent wave of LED aquarium lights integrates controllability options like timers, dimmers and color selection. Both Digital Aquatics and Neptune Systems aquarium controllers now have dimming modules you can connect with certain LED lights to automate timing and dimming for dawn-to-dusk simulation.

LEDs shine brilliantly into aquarium habitats, producing a natural sunlight-like shimmer effect previously only achievable using metal halide lighting systems. Many LED light fixtures feature precise, angled lenses and unidirectional light emission to reduce glare and light spillage. Some LED fixtures are linkable and can run off a single power source; others are modular and can be equipped with additional LED light strips to accommodate specific needs and future growth.

I’m Sold! Which LED Is Right For Me?

There are a lot of factors to consider before purchasing a LED light fixture. The size and type of the aquarium, your livestock, budget, how the light will look and be situated are among the most important characteristics to contemplate before you make a final decision.

Mounting

One of the first things to consider is how to place the light over your aquarium. Some LED light fixtures can be suspended using hanging kits, others can mounted to the aquarium or wall while others can be retrofit into place inside your existing light fixture or canopy. If you are only adding LEDs to accent existing lighting, you might go with something like Current USA TrueLumen Pro Striplights or Ecoxotic Stunner Strips. If you are looking to hang your fixture, you might opt for the EcoTech Marine Radion XR30w or one of the Kessil pendants. Many, but not all, LED fixtures can be mounted in different configurations to accommodate the user. The Ecoxotic Panorama Pro is one of the most versatile, with tank and wall mounts as well as retrofit and hanging kits sold separately. Kessil pendants, like the A150W, A350 and A350W, can also be mounted using an optional gooseneck clamp. The Dimmable JBJ Unibody also has a gooseneck positioning arm, but it is integrated into the fixture to hide the cords. The bottom line is there are different ways to mount these lights. Just be sure to research the lights you are considering so you can plan accordingly.

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Tank Size

To illuminate your entire aquarium, you will need to choose the right size LED light or a combination of lights to achieve full coverage. Because LEDs are point-source lights, they are often uni-directional and do not offer great light spread. Fortunately, most aquarium supply manufacturers now equip their LED fixtures with angled lenses to spread the light more effectively. The drawback though is the intensity of the light is affected.

We typically recommend one high-output LED light fixture for every two square feet of tank space for a mixed reef aquarium. Strip lights can be added to supplement color and/or provide dawn-to-dusk cycling. Of course, this is only a very general rule of thumb, because much of the “how many lights will I need?” question will depend on the size of your tank, the fixture you choose and how well the light is spread. Due to customer demand, manufacturers are increasingly becoming more forthcoming with information and specifications about their products. Plus, as more hobbyists adopt LED technology as a primary light source, there will be more documented cases on what works and how much light to use. We like to encourage anyone considering an LED aquarium light to
contact us so we can help guide you in the right direction. Reading product reviews and testimonials from other users is also highly recommended.

Light Color

The current crop of LED fixtures popular in the marketplace are not designed for hobbyists to swap out the diodes to run customized color schemes. Instead, a mix of fixtures and/or diodes can be used to create different light spectrums. Example: place an
Orphek DIF-30 30 Watt 120 Degree LED Pendant over a 60-gallon cube with two 24″ Current USA TrueLumen Pro Deepwater Blue 453nm Actinic LED StripLights. You will achieve metal halide-like growth without the energy consumption, highlight the dazzling colors of your corals with excellent blue supplementation and run a dawn-to-dusk regimen using classic light timers.

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Manufacturers recently began releasing light fixtures with different color diodes built in that you can individually control to create just the right color for your tank. The EcoTech Marine Radion XR30w, JBJ Unibody, Maxspect Mazarra P-Series, Orphek Nilus and Kessil A350 are a few examples. Dimmable LED fixtures are among the most expensive lighting options currently available for aquariums, but the long-term savings and their ability to adapt to the evolving needs of hobbyists make them a worthwhile investment. With the appropriate dimming modules, Neptune Systems and Digital Aquatics aquarium controllers can also control many of the new dimmable LED fixtures.

The most common color combination you see in LED lights is white and blue because they are proven to support photosynthesis in coral. Still, kaleidoscopes of color are making their way into LED aquarium lights. New research is being conducted to find out exactly what mix of red, green, blue, purple and white might get the best response from corals. Hobbyists continue to debate the merits of this veritable rainbow of color. Do these color spectrums only benefit us, our corals or both? It is an exciting time for the industry and it will be interesting to learn more as new data becomes available.

Tank Inhabitants

Corals that have high light requirements should be placed within the first 12″ to 18″ of water under LED light. Medium to low light corals can be placed 12″ to 24″ from the water surface. Plan ahead and place your corals appropriately within your aquascape. You can consider a lower output LED light if you have no intentions to keep light demanding corals, SPS, clams and anemones. For aquariums deeper than 30 inches, be sure to place corals based on the above mentioned guidelines.

Conclusion

Using LED technology as a primary light source in aquariums is still a relatively new phenomena. Some information is still fuzzy, yet the benefits are difficult to ignore. New information is surfacing all the time as manufacturers become more forthcoming about PAR values and what sizes tanks and life their lights are suitable for.

If you use LED lighting as the primary source of light for your aquarium, please leave a comment below to share your experiences with us and other readers.

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