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Aquatic Marketplace: Fluorescents Lead, LEDs Gain Speed

Posted: April 16, 2013, 7:00 p.m. EST

Traditional aquarium lighting still rules, but the alternative narrows the gap with lower pricing and greater energy efficiency.
By Kristin Mehus-Roe

For the past few decades, the word in aquarium lighting has been "fluorescent.” Almost every aquarium was lit by fluorescent or halogen bulbs. In recent years, however, new technology in the form of LED (light-emitting diode) lights has changed the waterscape dramatically.

"The big thing in aquarium lighting is the continuation of LED lighting lines expanding and the diversity of lighting out there,” reported Dave Troop, co-owner of Aquatic Life in Los Angeles. He explained that while LEDs have been used in high-end reef set-ups for the past couple years, price kept most hobbyists away from the technology.

According to those in the industry, the benefits of LEDs are many: They use less electricity and release less heat than fluorescent lights, there are a range of photosynthesis-supporting lighting options, and they are integrated more easily into high-end systems.

LED aquarium lighting
Light-emitting diode (LED) lights remain a high-end option today. Courtesy of Aquatop Aquatic Supplies
"The LEDs were used in reef-keeping because that category is used to paying premiums, but with the pricing of LEDs coming down the way they are, you are getting more use in the entry-level customer,” Troop said. "You’re seeing LEDs in the fish-only marine set-ups and even the freshwater set-ups.”

Glowing Strong
For most aquarium hobbyists, fluorescent lights remain king of the aquaria environment.

Sean O’Gara, assistant manager at The Fish Store in Seattle, said fluorescent remains very popular—particularly the high-output bulbs.

For stalwart aquarium and vivarium suppliers, such as Zoo Med Labs, based in San Luis Obispo, Calif., fluorescent lights remain the mainstays of their lighting lines.

"While these bulbs are our entry-level products, they remain the standard for many seasoned fish, aquatic plant and reef keepers,” said Ashley Rademacher, animal care and education coordinator for Zoo Med.

Troop acknowledged that T5 bulbs remain the bread and butter of his product line, adding, "They are a good light line, but at the same time we have to worry about the LEDs trending up.”

Bright Stars
Despite Zoo Med’s commitment to fluorescent bulbs, the company is moving into LED lighting.

"Our newest lighting has yet to hit the market,” Rademacher said, "but consumers can expect to see LED aquarium hoods coming from Zoo Med soon.”

The move toward LEDs has been astonishingly quick, as evidenced at several shows this year, Troop said, noting one major aquarium manufacturer didn’t feature fluorescent lighting at the most recent show—only LEDs.

"We’re seeing a pretty sizable swing going from traditional to LED,” Troop added.

Aquatop Aquatic Supplies jumped feet-first into the world of LED aquarium lighting, according to Mary Ann Giorgio, marketing manager for the Brea, Calif., company. She pointed out that the company has sold LED lighting for the past two years.

"We thought LEDs was where it was going,” she stated.

The company now offers a range of LED lighting, from its first clip-on LEDs to its Sky LED series, which supports photosynthetic light for plants and coral, she added.

"The LEDs are definitely the high-end items these days,” said O’Gara. "With the high output, you can grow plants and even the more difficult coral.”

Green Is a Go
The upswing in sales and availability of LED lighting has an increasing number of aquatic segment customers, retailers and manufacturers thinking about environmental sustainability of the products they purchase, sell and create.

"You’re getting similar light output with less energy consumption,” Troop said. "Our higher-end customers know that’s one of the benefits. LEDs don’t require replacement every nine months; a good LED lasts 50,000 hours.”

Because LEDs don’t put out heat, coolers are used less or become obsolete, "knocking that equipment out,” he added.

Phocus on Photosynthesis
Whether opting for LED or fluorescent lights, many hobbyists are looking for lighting that will support the growth of coral or plants in their aquaria.

Sean O’Gara at The Fish Store in Seattle and Maryann Giorgio at Aquatop Aquatic Supplies in Brea, Calif., both said the question they are asked the most these days is about the best LED light to support photosynthesis and allow the growth of coral and plants.

Zoo Med Laboratories in San Luis Obispo, Calif., manufactures several fluorescent lights designed to provide this support: the FloraSun, designed to promote plant growth; the CoralSun, which promotes coral growth and supports reef invertebrates; and OceanSun, which provides a deep-water photoperiod for fish and invertebrates.

In response, many manufacturers already are jumping onto this rising trend. Aquatop has a new line coming out called Sky LED that is created specifically for plant and coral systems, and Aquatic Life in Los Angeles launched its reef LED lighting line last year.

Troop also pointed out that while Aquatic Life does not distinctly promote the environmentally friendly nature of LED lights, the company sees this in retail stores quite a bit.

"We haven’t positioned it exactly that way,” he said, "but you hear the store employees add it up.”

Employees often point out to new aquarists that while a fluorescent light might be less expensive initially, they’ll need to replace it in six to nine months, and the energy output—meaning cost of electricity—will be higher.

"Most stores see the LED as a solution that they want to get into customers’ hands,” Troop said. "The transition is happening through that.”

While O’Gara said some customers come into the store seeking an energy-efficient lighting system for their tanks, many others might simply want the least-expensive way to get started.

Lights and Action
Not every new LED innovation is about environmental benefits or plant and coral growth. Industry insiders said sometimes it’s just about glamming up an aquarium.

Zoo Med’s new LED hoods will feature some changes that allow hobbyists to customize their lighting, Rademacher said.

"The High Output LED hoods will have a modular design so that LED panels may be removed and replaced,” she said, adding that this will allow hobbyists to create their own lighting patterns with several different colors. The design also allows customers to replace just one panel when an LED burns out; they won’t need to replace the entire hood, Rademacher said.

"There are a number of little submersible accent lights, and some of the LED lights have controllers, and you can change between spectrum options,” O’Gara said, adding that there is even a light system designed to connect to your computer, allowing a whole range of spectrum changes to be made remotely. At $600 a pop, however, it hasn’t been a huge seller, O’Gara said.

Even as Aquatop Aquatic Supplies embraces LEDs and life-supporting lights, the company realizes that many hobbyists just want the fun of seeing their fish clearly.

"Our LED C series lights up the tank but doesn’t have any life support; you turn on the switch, and it’s like a disco light,” Giorgio said. "It’s fun and inexpensive.

"LED lighting that supports photosynthetic coral and plants is a great way to transition from a discotech tank to a more sophisticated and quieter eco–system,” she continued.

Train to Sell
Like so many industries, aquarium lighting companies combine a little of the old with the new when it comes to sales. Zoo Med, for example, still provides representatives for training store employees and at trade shows. The company also advertises in traditional media and attends and exhibits at trade shows and conventions.

In addition, Zoo Med makes use of the Internet’s reach: a well-developed website, an active Facebook page, YouTube videos showing how to use the products and QR codes on the packaging, all of which allow shoppers to quickly get product information through their smartphones while browsing the lighting selection at their local hobbyist or pet supply store.

Troop explains that while Aquatic Life advertises traditionally, it doesn’t do a great deal of education in stores or with the dealers. Instead, the company supplies detailed specification sheets that allow retailers to provide the basics to their customers, as well as provides videos on the company’s website to assist with product use.

And while Aquatop is doing a great deal of traditional advertising, it also is creating videos to help customers use the equipment and providing training for distributors.

At The Fish Store, the staff keep several set-ups going at all times, which allows customers the best way to make decisions on what they want for their own tanks. It also allows staff to show a customer how to use a product or system without having to open a box or search the Internet.

"We have a number of different systems on display,” O’Gara said, "and that definitely helps with sales.” 


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Aquatic Marketplace: Fluorescents Lead, LEDs Gain Speed

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Reader Comments
Don't know who you have been reviewing for this, but at our Shop, LED's rule and Fluorescent Lighting is quickly taking a back-seat...only the low priced starter sets now come with fluorescents... for high-end aquarium setups LED sales far out-sale fluorescents, and halides have just about disappeared.
DONNIE, Plymouth, NC
Posted: 7/1/2013 8:28:17 AM
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