Saltwater Aquarium Lighting Guide
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Saltwater Aquarium Lighting Guide

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Last updated on November 17th, 2023


Saltwater Aquarium Lighting Guide

The Saltwater Aquarium Lighting Guide compares the most popular reef tank lighting options, including LEDs, T5s, and Metal Halides. Looking at color spectrum & PAR to help pick the best saltwater aquarium light for your tank! Saltwater aquarium lighting is a common discussion in the reef tank community, especially when it comes to coral growth. Whether you are a beginner, trying to grow coral faster, or want corals to have better color, saltwater aquarium lighting is almost always the first thing to consider.

As we look through the different types of saltwater aquarium lighting options, keep in mind that there are a lot of people loyal to specific types or brands of aquarium lighting options. For example, many people are still arguing that metal halide light fixtures are the best lighting for reef tanks. Though there is great par and specific color to come from these lights, don't forget to put your bias aside and look at other facts such as LEDs having the ability to determine color spectrums, and modify PAR. Features that are not available with Metal Halide.

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Though I expect this guide to have controversial replies, I intend to approach the topic of saltwater aquarium lighting with simple data. I will then provide recommendations based on the information provided. All of this to help you identify the best light for your saltwater aquarium.

Get the BEST Saltwater Aquarium Light for YOUR Reef Tank

Before we start, there will always be someone that buys a $100 light on ebay and claims it will keep all sorts of coral. Though some people have been able to keep SPS coral, including acropora, alive under low quality saltwater aquarium lights, this does NOT mean you should try to do so as well. One lesson that nearly ALL successful reef keepers will tell you is not to look for the cheapest option that might work. Instead, spend a little more up front to prevent your coral from dying. Saving you money, stress, and disappointment in the long run.

Let's take a look at the different types of saltwater aquarium lighting options available. Additionally, we will look at what makes some options better than others to help you decide the best reef tank light for your tank!

Why NOT to buyChinese Black Box Saltwater Aquarium Lighting

On a variety of forums and social media I see people recommend low cost black box aquarium light fixtures from ebay, especially to new reef keepers and those looking to save some money. Though there is nothing wrong with saving money, and these lights may be able to grow most coral, there are a couple other things to consider with these lights.

The first is safety. These saltwater aquarium lighting fixtures are not often UL Certified. This means they are not considered safe to operate within the United States. There have also been reports of these lights starting fires. As such, I strongly encourage you NOT to use them. There is no price on keeping you and your family safe.

The second thing to consider is when people say "My coral grow great under these lights". Though it may be true, these cheap black box LED fixtures can grow coral. That doesn't make them the best reef tank light for your tank. These lights don't have the ability or change the color spectrum as much as you may need, leading to a non-ideal spectrum. Additionally they don't have the color blending or intensity you would want for a high end SPS tank.

The point I want to make is that these lights can grow coral, but coral can grow faster and have better color with a better light.

Finally, I want to note the quality of these lights. Like nearly everyone else, I've used black box saltwater aquarium lights in the past. Within a year, they've all had something break. For me, the timers failed and left the lights on overnight, or never turned on at all. This can, and did, lead to coral stress and death; in both cases. The corals I lost cost far more than the saltwater aquarium lighting fixture. Plus I had to replace the light with what I should have bought in the first place.

Save yourself the time, money, and stress. Start strong and you will have success!

Types of Saltwater Aquarium Lighting

Saltwater Aquarium T5 Lighting

I'm going to start with arguably one of the best "old school" lighting options. Though it doesn't have the features of LED aquarium fixtures, T5 aquarium lighting offers PAR similar to modern LEDs, but spread and blending that cannot be beat. Though most of the world is switching to LED aquarium light fixtures, don't discount the T5 Fixture.

With T5 lighting, the color spectrum can be controlled by choosing specific bulb colors. The intensity is determined by how many bulbs you are running. Scheduling is generally done through an outlet timer, smart plug, or Reef Tank Controller. Though some T5 aquarium light fixtures may have built in timers as well.

One of the main reasons why T5 saltwater aquarium lighting is going away is because of the bulbs. Beyond the fact that they are fragile, making them hard to ship and store. T5 bulbs for reef tanks only last about 6 to 12 months. Though the bulb itself may not die, the color and intensity will shift. This will happen slowly and may be difficult to see. Which is why it's best to simply replace bulbs every 6 months. Ideally staggering which ones are replaced to prevent shocking the coral.

Replacing these bulbs twice per year may be expensive over time, depending on the number of bulbs. The lighting and color blending, however, is nearly unbeatable. Some of these saltwater aquarium light fixtures even have timers and multiple channels, making them a good lighting option for nearly all situations.

Benefits of Saltwater Aquarium T5 Lighting

  • Some of the BEST color blending.
  • Lower cost fixtures than LEDs and Metal Halide.
  • Can have GREAT coral growth.
  • Can supplement other LED or Metal Halide lighting for better color and growth.
  • More than enough color options to get the reef tank light spectrum you want!

Disadvantages of Saltwater Aquarium T5 Lighting

  • Some fixtures do not have multiple channels or timers built in. You will need to buy outlet timers.
  • Regular changing of bulbs (every 6 months) can be expensive.
  • Higher power consumption than LEDs.

Saltwater Aquarium LED Light

Modern LED saltwater aquarium light fixtures are the new standard for reef tanks. Though some long-term reef keepers have not bought in to the LED lighting market, the truth is, they provide all of the benefits of Metal Halide and have very few downsides.

Benefits of SMART (Connected) LED Saltwater Aquarium Lighting

  • Aquarium lighting schedule can be controlled with an app, without additional timers.
  • Color Spectrum can be modified with fine granularity.
  • Features such as ramping up and down lights to prevent coral stress.

Benefits of ALL Saltwater Aquarium LED Lighting

  • Longer Life Expectancy - Many of these lights easily live 5 to 10 years with regular maintenance, which may be cheaper in the long run.
  • Nearly no power consumption, meaning a cheaper electricity bill!

Disadvantages of Saltwater Aquarium LEDs

  • Price - LED aquarium lighting can be expensive compared to the alternatives, but the advantages make them worth the additional cost.

Saltwater Aquarium Metal Halide Lighting

Metal Halides, also known as "MH", are still one of the highest power saltwater aquarium lighting options. Though metal halide aquarium lights are strong, and still an ideal option for coral growth, LEDs have been able to produce just as much light with more advanced features. LED aquarium lighting is also significantly lower cost to operate. Metal Halide saltwater aquarium lights use a lot of electricity and get very hot. Meaning that not all of the electricity is going to light (wasted as heat). You will likely notice metal halide saltwater aquarium lights on your electricity bill, where LEDs will likely not affect the energy bill as much.

Benefits of MH Saltwater Aquarium Lighting

  • Powerful lighting for coral growth and coloration.
  • The water shimmer is unbeatable.
  • The color of lighting is great!

Disadvantages of MH Saltwater Aquarium Lighting

  • The fixtures get VERY hot. Be careful as they can be a fire hazard.
  • Very high power consumption. You will notice it on your electric bill.
  • Have to change bulbs regularly (6 months).
  • No ramp up methods or fine control.
  • Often needs to be supplemented by T5 lighting.
  • Very few color options.

Saltwater Aquarium Lighting Comparison

We've discussed the different types of saltwater aquarium lighting options, but that doesn't answer the question "which saltwater aquarium light is best for me?". Based on the above comparison on the different types of saltwater aquarium lighting, I have put together a list of comparisons between the fixtures I would recommend in different categories.

Saltwater Aquarium T5 Lighting

When it comes to T5 lighting, most fixtures are essentially the same. The key difference is whether they have a built in timer or if you need to use one or multiple outlet timers. I suggest the ones with the timer built it. Either way, try to get one with at least two channels. This will help you ease the lights on each day, rather than turning the lights on all at once.

T5 Bulb Comparison

Though the fixtures may be nearly the same, when it comes to Saltwater Aquarium T5 Lighting, the bulbs make all the difference. For that reason, the clear front runner is ATI. ATI's Saltwater Aquarium Lighting T5 Bulbs are top of their class with specific color spectrum for each bulb. Let's take a look at the different bulbs.

T5 Saltwater Aquarium Lighting - ATI True Actinic

The true actinic T5 bulb peaks at the 421nm light spectrum. This spectrum is optimal for coral growth and florescence. Often times this bulb is used to supplement LED and Metal Halide light fixtures.

Purple Plus
T5 Saltwater Aquarium Lighting - ATI Purple Plus

Purple Plus uses a combination of red spectrums and blue spectrums. This bulb will help bring out pink, purple, and red colors within the coral.

Blue Plus
T5 Saltwater Aquarium Lighting - ATI Blue Plus

The Blue Plus T5 Bulb combines the 460nm and 420nm spectrums needed for coral coloration and growth. This is a "best of both worlds" bulb that offers most of the color needed. It may, in fact, be too blue for most. As such, it should be supplemented with a Coral Plus and/or Aquablue Special bulb.

Aquablue Special
T5 Saltwater Aquarium Lighting - ATI Aquablue Special

The Aquablue Special bulb focuses on being a full spectrum bulb with a focus on blues. It makes a good supplement for the Blue Plus bulbs.

Coral Plus
T5 Saltwater Aquarium Lighting - ATI Coral Plus

The Coral Plus T5 combines some of the best Saltwater Aquarium Lighting T5 spectrums. With a breakdown as follows:

  • ~50% Blue Plus
  • ~40% Aquablue Special
  • ~10% Purple Plus

Having a combination bulb such as this helps get a full spectrum for T5 fixtures with less available bulbs. Though slightly whiter than I prefer, it provides a full spectrum and can be supplemented with other bulbs for preference and coloration.

Comparing T5 Saltwater Aquarium Lighting Bulb Color

There is something to be said for being able to see the colors in action! Here is a great video explaining the different colors to help you decide which bulb is right for you.

Recommended T5 Fixtures

As previously noted, the fixture itself is not as important as long as you have a way to control the lighting. As such, I did a little digging for ideal fixtures and here is what I came up with:

However, if you can find a good, used fixture, I highly suggest going that route as these fixtures tend to last a long time!

Saltwater Aquarium Metal Halide (MH) Lighting

Metal Halide Saltwater Aquarium Lighting remains the most output per fixture. Likely only needing one every 2 or 3 feet of tank depending on if you are doing heavy SPS coral or mixed reef. These lights have a strong output and cannot be dimmed. Mixing Metal Halide Lighting with T5 saltwater aquarium lighting makes for an optimal way to gradually increase light for the coral and make for one of the best shimmers and coloration in reef keeping, at a reasonable price.

The metal halide bulbs should be replaced twice per year, or once every six months. Realistically, if you're not looking for the next "high tech" solution, metal halide lights make for a great option in saltwater aquarium lighting. After reading more about it, I am almost tempted to shift back myself. The downside is really that you cannot control color and intensity as well as with LEDs. Metal Halides are based on the bulb itself in combination with T5s.

Shop Metal Halide Saltwater Aquarium Lighting

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About the Author

Reef Stable Founder John Krenzer

John is a Software Engineer with a passion for saltwater aquariums, as well as the founder and president of Reef Stable. He started in the aquarium hobby as a child with a 20 gallon freshwater aquarium. His interest in aquarium life grew and in 2008, John set up his first saltwater aquarium.

Today, John maintains a 120 gallon mixed reef aquarium as well as a 210 gallon aggressive species aquarium. These large tanks are contained within the same system, sharing a sump as a means to reduce total maintenance and increase total water volume.

John writes articles for the blog as a means to learn about more reef aquarium topics. These articles act as a reference for the readers as well as himself. John updates these articles frequently to provide additional information or make corrections as new information becomes available.

About Reef Stable

Reef Stable was initially founded in 2019 as a reef tank parameter log to fill a need. Reef Stable quickly grew, becoming a location to solve all of your reef tank problems as well as a place to learn.

Reef Stable now provides a Reef Blog, Reef Aquarium Guides, Coral Care Guides, Identification and Solutions for Pests and Algae, and Reef Dosing Calculators, in addition to the original Reef Parameter Log.

Reef Stable continues to grow, striving to provide a single location for all your reef tank needs!

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