LED Aquarium Lighting Goes Mainstream

High-end lighting has become an important part of local fish store business, with both freshwater and marine hobbyists turning to bright, technologically advanced light-emitting diode (LED) fixtures to meet system needs.

Retailers report that LEDs are no longer the exception in aquarium lighting—these lights are now in mainstream use.

"We switched to LEDs almost 10 years ago and haven’t looked back," said Bruce Kelley, manager for Aquatek Tropical Fish in Austin, Texas. "There will always be customers who insist on using metal halides and T5 lighting systems. However, the decrease in widely available bulbs for these fixtures, their shorter lifespans and higher energy costs, coupled with advances in spectrum and ease-of-use, have solidified LEDs in market share."

LED fixtures have advanced from the early strip-light configurations common in the hobby. Now, LED panels are becoming more popular.

"Fixtures with LED panels are what’s popular, and not LED strips, metal halides or T5s," said Alexander Dillard, owner of Top Shelf Aquatics in Winter Park, Fla. "In my store, sales of these types of lights are dying. Customers are moving away from these."

That being said, Dillard added, manufacturers are blending LEDs with older types of fixtures to meet market demand. Other retailers noted this trend, as well.

"Almost everything we sell is LED now," said Steven Myers, owner of Reef Plus, an aquatic retailer in North Aurora, Ill. "Kessil does have a T5 LED hybrid fixture, where you can add different LED modules to the hood. It’s an interesting product. But most customers are interested in LEDs now."

Interest on the freshwater side of the hobby has shifted to planted tanks, and, as a result, freshwater hobbyists are increasingly turning to high-output LEDs to meet plants’ growth demands.

"We definitely have customers come in asking about lights for planted setups, even though we’re mostly focused on coral," Myers said. "That part of the hobby is showing a lot of growth."

Aquatic lighting sells well across the board, whether customers are advanced hobbyists or only starting out.

"Our customer base is all over the spectrum in terms of experience," said Paige Elder, owner of Buzz N’ B’s Aquarium Pet Shop in Erie, Pa. "The majority are beginners, or they’re not looking for anything super high-end lighting wise. The LED strip lights from Marineland are probably our No. 1 seller."

Integrated control options for lights are also popular, and younger aquarists are seeking connected features for their lights.

"Millennials are looking for tech-infused product features, such as app integration, controllability and customization," said Damian Hall, senior marketing manager for the Hagen Group in Mansfield, Mass. "LEDs have become the standard in the marketplace. Starter aquarium kits all come with LEDs. … Technology-focused products will continue to drive the market."

Margins and Sales Growth

Overall, the aquarium lighting segment is seeing sales increases, retailers reported.

"Lighting sales are very much a growing field for us," Kelley said. "We try to keep up on trends and market analysis to match customer wants and needs."

Some industry participants have noted issues with shrinking margins.

"The margins [on lighting] aren’t great," Elder said. "It’s not like that’s our bread-and-butter by any means."

Dillard concurs that margins are often slimmer than what would be ideal, but it’s a category still worth investing in.

"The margin has really not been an issue," he said. "When I look at my shelf, I want to create a blend of products that averages roughly 40 or 50 percent margin. But when you do $250,000 or $300,000 a year in EcoTech and AI products, that blend is definitely affected because the majority of your dollar sales are at a 30 percent margin. That being said, I would rather sell an $800 item and make $240 than sell a $100 LED from China and make $50. … Industrywide, the margin’s shifting closer to that 30 percent range."


While most aquatics retailers are guaranteed at least some lighting sales in their stores, putting fixtures on display in-store to attract customers’ attention can help maximize sales potential in the category.

"The only truly effective method of merchandising almost anything is displaying it on an aquarium in the store," Kelley said. "Ideally, you will be able to show off different settings to showcase strengths and weaknesses of each system."

Lighting needs to be in operation to display its full potential, and customers respond strongly to lights positioned over display aquariums.

"The lights we use are right in customers’ faces," Dillard said. "Our flagship display is right beside the counter. The first two things I want customers to see are a shelf devoted to the Neptune Apex on the right and a shelf devoted to EcoTech products on the left. On a lot of the aquariums we have in our store on the floor, we have AI lights over them. Also, all of our display tanks and all of our retail coral tanks have EcoTech Radions."

Customers are more tech savvy and better educated than in the past, according to industry professionals, and retailers should keep this in mind when building their displays.

"Today’s customers are more educated about equipment than ever before," Kelley said. "Being able to show different lights for different applications is our No. 1 tool in the lighting world."

New Products

A Tech Infusion

Several new lighting fixtures have appeared on store shelves recently.

Hagen Group has introduced its Fluval 3.0 LEDs, which are designed to operate with either a touch switch or through the company’s FluvalSmart app, which is available on mobile devices.

The fixtures feature independent color-spectrum control, an IP67 waterproofing rating and 120 degrees of illumination, said Damian Hall, senior marketing manager for the Mansfield, Mass.-based company.

The app offers 24-hour light cycle programmability, full control over the lighting spectrum and pre-set habitats.

"It is important to have the right light spectrum for both a planted and reef tank," Hall said. "We have plans to update the app and allow for additional features as time progresses."

Nano aquariums continue to be popular in the hobby, and lighting designed specifically for these setups is increasingly appearing on the market.

Zoo Med Laboratories recently introduced its AquaEffects Nano LED with Sound, which features synchronized lighting and sound effects, a fully customizable light spectrum and true UVA diodes to promote species’ natural behaviors.

The Nano LED also features a programmable 24-hour timer and the ability to ramp lighting up or down, along with sound effects and dynamic weather effects, said Andrew Elston, animal care specialist for Zoo Med Laboratories in San Luis Obispo, Calif.

"Consumers want to be able to tweak their lights to their specific aquarium needs rather than buying a static light that only turns on and off," Elston said. "Adjustable color channels, integrated timers and optional add-ons are all features that appear to be rising in popularity."

In the reef aquarium hobby, lighting sophistication has reached new heights. Among the most popular lights for reef aquariums is the EcoTech Radion​ line, retailers reported.

"The EcoTech Radion​ is definitely the trending light," said Alexander Dillard, owner of Top Shelf Aquatics in Winter Park, Fla. "EcoTech’s fixtures are dominating the market. They do a great job partnering with local stores, offering store displays and storage options for retailers. EcoTech has also put a lot of money into research and development. They make sure their light’s spectrum and LEDs are going to meet customers’ needs."