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Keep Pace With Lighting Innovations

Posted: May 24, 2011, 1:15 p.m., EDT

Industry Voices

Where do you see lighting for aquariums going over the next year or so?
“Metal halides are still pretty much the state of the art in marine/reef lighting. There are lots of new LEDs out there, and it will take some time to see if they grow hard corals as well as halides.”
—Jeremy Russell, co-owner of Coral Reef Aquarium in Seekonk, Mass.

“The industry is definitely going towards LEDs, as the problems of price point, flexibility and long-term use are resolved. Also, it seems that the patent problem is solved if the fixture is a simple on/off.”
—Dave Troop, co-owner of
AquaticLife LLC in Burbank, Calif.

“We have been working a lot with LEDs, and this technology is definitely here to stay. Prices are coming down as the technology spreads out more in general purpose lighting. For aquariums, it will be the dominant lighting within a year or so.”
—Allen Fefferman, owner of Old Orchard Aquarium in Skokie, Ill.

“LEDs will become the basic lighting used for aquariums, although metal halides will always have their staunch proponents. Name-brand manufacturers are already offering a number of options.”
—Jeff King, owner of Pets Plus in Taylor Mill, Ky.

New technology is stirring up debate and driving changes in the aquarium hobby.

A number of aquarium lighting options are appearing in the marketplace. These range from new, small packaged aquarium systems with low-power LED lights to high-output LED systems designed for marine tanks to improvements in metal halides and a new “plasma” lighting system.

When it comes to high-end lighting systems for marine reef tanks, metal halides still seem to be the standard everything else is measured against. A whole pack of LEDs are in hot pursuit of this market segment, however.

“From the ones I’ve seen, LEDs are still lacking much of anything in the red spectrum,” said Jeremy Russell, co-owner with his wife Ruth Taunton of Coral Reef Aquarium in Seekonk, Mass. “Other than the soft corals, a reef tank needs the full spectrum light that a metal halide provides.”

 However, consumer familiarity and high energy prices are initiating a shift toward using LEDs in aquaria.

“Since LED lighting is something that customers are becoming familiar with on a daily basis now—the big box home stores have lots of LED products—they are very receptive to LEDs for their aquariums,” said Allen Fefferman, owner of Old Orchard Aquarium in Skokie, Ill. “Customers with large reef tanks are always concerned with the cost for the electricity to run those tanks, and many of them have asked us if LEDs would work for them.”

The concern over high electricity costs extends beyond the need to supply individual customers with products they want to the underlying condition of the hobby itself.

“Customers with new aquariums will often get shocked at the higher electricity bill that comes along with it,” said Ben Ros, director of operations at Marine Depot, headquartered in Garden Grove, Calif. “Keeping customers in the hobby is key for us. Most hobbyists will eventually want to upgrade their system or complete a second or third aquarium. At, we are hobbyists ourselves and know that the longer you are in the hobby, the more people you can invite in.”

Although many hobbyists are looking for LED alternatives as the price of electricity continues to rise, improvements are also being made in metal halides.

“Our new metal-halide lamps not only get the full spectrum right, with a blue peak, but our lamps also have UV protection,” said Jesse Sira, owner of Elos USA, headquartered in Pleasanton, Calif. “The owner of Elos-Europe was working on his tank, and got a sunburn on his bald head from the UV of the lamp he was using. He was concerned, and that is why Elos developed UV protection in our metal halide lamps.”

In light of the advances being made with LEDs, some in the industry may see LEDs acting as effective replacements for most applications thought to require metal halides. As a result, LEDs are now being used for all types of aquariums.

“LED systems are not for fish-only tanks anymore,” Ros said. “They can be used to grow photosynthetic corals, clams and plants. LEDs show a good promise in the future of lighting for aquariums. LEDs are being used in both household and commercial applications, so our aquarium customers will look for it in their aquariums.”

It is becoming commonplace for manufacturers to offer LED setups with entry-level products, as well as for more light-intensive uses. For example, Marineland offers relatively low-light LED setups in its new packaged tank systems, as well as brighter LED systems in its Double Bright fixtures, and higher lighting levels in their Reef Capable LED lights, the company reported.

Advances in aquarium lighting technology are affecting the way aquarists keep corals, and retailers can capitalize on innovations to improve their bottom lines.
Advances in aquarium lighting technology are affecting the way aquarists keep corals, and retailers can capitalize on innovations to improve their bottom lines.
Clay Jackson/
Though LED setups may be destined to eventually supply light to reef aquarists’ corals, not everyone feels they are ready for that duty. Various people in the industry said they think LEDs are currently insufficient to grow high-light demanding corals and other light-sensitive organisms.

“Many experts are now agreeing that PAR [photosynthetically active radiation] values of 100 to 150 are sufficient to grow SPS [small polyp stony] corals, and light levels lower than that are sufficient to grow LPS [large polyp stony] corals and softies,” said Les Wilson, director of brand development for Marineland and Instant Ocean brands, both owned by United Pet Group in Blacksburg, Va. “LEDs are more than capable of keeping clams, but the height of the tank and where the clam is placed can make a huge difference in the hobbyist’s success.”

Others in the hobby, however, disagreed that LEDs won’t be able to handle more demanding light applications in aquaria in the future.

“With the exception of some hard-core reefers who will never give up their metal halides, LEDs are soon going to be most of what will be around for aquariums,” Fefferman said.

In addition to LEDs, other new lighting options are becoming available. The Scottsburg, Ind.-based manufacturer Stray Light Optical Technologies is introducing a technology called “Plasma LiFi” for aquarium applications.

Lighting for PlantedAquariums

Planted aquariums are becoming very popular, and a beautiful aquarium full of healthy, thriving plants is within the capabilities of even beginning hobbyists.

The variety and quality of live plants available from distributors to the local fish store has grown immensely, as have the additives and substrates necessary to grow plants. Equally important, if not more important, is that there are many lighting systems available that will produce adequate light for planted aquariums.
Fluorescent lighting is the mainstay for a planted aquarium, and the T5 high-output (HO) linear fluorescent lamp is the best choice. A standard lighting reflector or full hood with two T5 HO lamps will produce good results, and there are a number of lamps available that have the spectrum and color temperature required by plants. In general, these lamps are higher in the reds and blues, and there are new “roseate” lamps that combine phosphors to produce ideal light for plants. LED lighting systems have been primarily targeted to marine reef aquariums, and they are usually composed of only white and blue lights. These will grow plants well, at a lower operating cost than fluorescents, though the newer LED fixtures for planted tanks are including some red. —DL

Lighting Controllers

Whatever the source of the light, having the setup on a regular schedule is very important.

“We insist that customers use timers on their lights,” said Jeff King, owner of Pets Plus in Taylor Mill, Ky. “Consistent light and dark periods are important in controlling algae in an aquarium.”

Even though simple appliance timers can have multiple on/off light changes scheduled during a 24-hour period, the newer aquarium lighting systems now offer very sophisticated controls. Some lighting system manufacturers are incorporating timer functions right into their fixtures.

“We allow the hobbyist to simulate any pattern of natural lighting,” reported Dave Troop, co-owner of Aquatic Life LLC in Burbank, Calif. “A typical pattern would be to have the Blue T5s on for 12 hours a day. White T5s or metal halides [would be] on for peak times, and LED blue ‘moonlighting’ [would be] on when all the other lamps are off.” —DL

“With plasma, you save energy, have less maintenance, and get a much better quality of light,” said Gerald Rea, CEO of the company.

One aspect of plasma lighting is that the Kelvin temperature of the light goes up as the amount of electricity the fixture is using is reduced.

“As you dim a Stray Light Seashine Fixture, its spectrum shifts towards the blue end,” Rea said. “This really make reefs ‘pop.’ The light stays white until about 50 to 60 percent light output, and below that really shifts blue.”

Though the technology is quite new to the marketplace and is relatively untested, some industry participants said the technical specs of this lighting technology could hold promise for finding applications in the aquarium hobby in the future.

There are many innovations becoming available for aquarium lighting. Retailers are faced with the choice of offering customers everything from relatively low-light-output LED fixtures and lighting for packaged aquarium kits, to higher output LEDs, new metal halide technology, and plasma and other “cutting edge” products.




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