What is the best lighting for a reef tank?

LED lighting provides control and adjustability, economical running costs, cool running and a small, compact form factor. Because of all of the above attributes its the most popular type of lighting for reef tanks. It does differ in controllability, brightness and spectrum depending on make and model though, and how it fits to the tank. And all LED lighting is not the same. 

Retrofit LED lighting 

Retrofit LED can be really useful for the reefkeeper because it enables an LED upgrade to tanks supplied with fluorescent tubes and closed top hoods. Most come with fittings to enable a thin LED light tube to fit in the housings that the fluorescent tubes usually sit in, and some are length adjustable too. They usually just have a simple on/off function and fixed spectrum, so the most popular option would be to retrofit one marine blue LED tube and one marine white LED tube, enabling the keeping of easy soft corals like Zoas and Mushrooms.

If the tank has space and facility to do so, fit two marine blue and two marine white but better coverage and increased brightness, and it should enable the keeping of most LPS corals too.  

LED Lightbars

Lightbars can also be retrofitted, or some come with mounting legs to stand on the rim of the tank. Remove tank lids or fit a lightbar to a rimless tank and they are easy to slide forwards and backwards for maintenance, and access. 

Most lightbars have simple on/off functionality although some have extra dimming functions. Consider one marine blue and one marine white a minimum for most reef tanks, with two marine blue and marine white being brighter and better. Many lightbars have a degree of waterproofing so will survive taking an accidental dip in the tank. 

High powered LED lighting

High powered LED lighting is necessary for demanding SPS hard corals as they require very bright light. Light is focussed in a puck or matrix with lensing or reflectors to produce bright light that can penetrate at depth. High powered modular lighting is the most popular choice with reefkeepers as its controllable and the user can adjust the spectrum from white to blue, and add extra colours to make the corals pop and the tank look pleasing to the eye. 

A lot of high powered LEDs requires fan cooling so these lights aren’t for tanks with closed topped hoods and instead should be suspended above the tank on wires or with mounting arms. They’re not waterproof either so don’t drop them into the tank as it won’t be covered by a manufacturers warranty. Individual modular lighting enables you to start with one light on a small tank and then just add another if you go bigger. Many are wi-fi enabled and can be controlled together on a single phone app

T5 lighting

Corals grow very well under multiple T5 lighting and T5 light tubes are still available. Start with a minimum of one marine white and one marine blue with reflectors, but better still is two or more of each. They’re lack of control and the need to replace bulbs has disadvantaged them against LED, but they can grow corals as well as any leading LED light on the market. 

T5s can be upgraded by adding additional LED lighting, and hybrid T5 LED units are very popular in America with many believing a mix provides the ultimate in spread, spectrum and intensity.        

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Jeremy Gay is an author and freelance aquatic specialist. A former editor of Practical Fishkeeping magazine, he offers a wealth of experience on all things aquarium and pond.

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