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Originally run in WWM Digital: http://www.wetwebmedia.com/ca/WWMDigitalMagV1Ish2.htm 

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LED Lighting, the New Horizon in Aquarium Lighting?

by James Gasta The Panorama stand mount accessory is designed to fit onto existing systems securely and safely.
Ecoxotic photo. 

The new trend in lighting our marine tanks, both FOWLR and reef, seems to be progressively leading to LED Lighting. Until recently, LEDs were too expensive to use for most lighting applications because they are built around advanced light emitting semiconductor material. These devices have dropped considerably in price over the last few years making LED lighting a more cost effective option for a wide range of applications, including ours. Although LED lighting systems are currently more expensive than T5, HQI, and MH systems, in the long run they are a better buy for the following reasons.

'¢       Greater than 160 lumens/watt available now, with an expected 200 in'¨         the near future

'¢       No compromise between efficacy and CRI

'¢       Useful Kelvin temperatures readily available

'¢       No wasted light, any pattern possible

'¢       Up to 50,000 hours of life

'¢       No filament to break

'¢       Reaches full brightness in nanoseconds

'¢       Creates the shimmering effect associated with MH and HQI lamps

'¢       Contains no mercury, lead or other heavy metals

'¢       High in energy savings

'¢       No heat transfer to aquarium thereby no noisy fans or chillers to run

'¢       No costly lamp replacement

IceCap LED Moonlight Tubes Blue, Blue LEDs 470nm. Tubes have 75 emitters. IceCap photo.

'Unfortunately you will find that '50,000 hours' is thrown around by almost every LED company in our industry - and its simply not true. Most manufacturers are not using high quality LED chips, they often will overdrive the LED chip (up to 1000mA), or have no temperature protection. In the end the LEDs will fail prematurely (often within 2 years), and end up just disappointing customers. It's unfortunate, but its all too common in our industry.' -- Ike Eigenbrode/Ecoxotic


LEDs (or light-emitting diodes) work by applying a low voltage to a light emitting diode/semiconductor contained within the device itself.

 'I do think that one day soon, LEDs will be the primary light source for aquaria. I just don't think we are quite there yet in intensity, coverage, and efficiency for any/every reef tank yet. For larger displays in particular, I think you can get better coverage and intensity for nearly the same wattage from MHs over LEDs right now. That may change soon, though. And I also worry about the lower quality units that I am seeing come into the market. Some appear to be poorly made and/or not very energy efficient.' -- Steven Pro


A pair of Ecoxotic hoods in use over an established marine aquarium. Ecoxotic photo.

The Reef Culture Aquarium Store in Tempe, AZ uses Ecoxotic LED Modules exclusively for lighting their display tanks exclusively, thus saving energy costs and providing ease of tank maintenance. Ecoxotic photo.


LED hoods can be affordable and fill basic fish-only roles such as the Double Bright Lighting System from Marineland, with 16 one-watt LEDs and with 8 lunar LEDs in a 36-48" fixture. There are also high-end systems such as Ecoxotic's Panorama Hood available in two models (17.5" and 23.5") designed to support photosynthetic organisms like corals and giant clams. These models are also available as retrofits. Another company, Reef Brite also produces comparable LED modules designed for retrofitting and/or installation in custom canopies.

 'Just a few years ago I thoroughly tested two LED fixtures from different manufacturers, and to tell the truth, I wasn't impressed at all. The prices were prohibitive, too. However, things are changing quickly and I think that the time may come, sooner rather than later, when LED lighting becomes the primary type of lighting used over our aquariums. Like so many other things electronic, the products are getting better and the prices are coming down at the same time.' -- James Fatherree

 Depending on the manufacturer, lamp life can vary tremendously, anywhere from 10,000-50,000 hours. Less expensive fixtures will generally use LEDs providing somewhere between 10,000-17,000 hours of lamp life and can have up to 75 lumens per watt and PAR ratings not meant for reef aquariums. Higher priced fixtures such as those from Ecoxotic and Reef Brite use either more LEDs or higher output LEDs manufactured by Cree and/or Edison-Opto. These LEDs have a much higher lumen per watt, PAR rating, and longer lamp life, up to 50,000 hours. 

A typical Cree LED board. Cree Co. photo

'As hobbyists become more and more aware of the power consumption our aquariums use on a daily basis, energy efficiency equipment alternatives are becoming increasingly popular. At the forefront of this push is LED lighting, which utilizes a considerable amount less of energy consumption, while having virtually no heat transfer into the aquarium itself. Now that we are approximately four to five years into using LED lights for our light loving animals, this technology has proven to be a viable alternative to metal halide and fluorescent lighting, even for our most light demanding inhabitants.' -- Jeremy Brower, Premium Aquatics

How do LED systems stack up against other types of lighting? A test was conducted on a 20 inch cube tank lit by a fixture containing six T5HO lamps totaling 120 watts. At mid level, the PAR reading measured 170. Replacing the T5HO fixture with a 42 watt Ecoxotic Retro (to be released soon) produced a PAR reading of 240. In all fairness, there are other factors to consider when comparing LED lighting to other types of lighting. Type of lamp, Kelvin temperature, and depth of tank all play a role in comparing PAR readings. Aquarists with deep reef systems will obviously choose HQI or MH lighting as LED, T5HO, and PC light penetration are limited in this regard.

'It's quite obvious that the LEDs have come of age in providing a viable solution to lighting reef aquaria. While a lot of other factors that may be involved in making decisions such as power savings, cost, longevity, controllability, cost of ownership etc. these are not the factors considered here. Based solely on quantitative light output data, I am excited about the future of this technology for reef aquarium use.' -- Sanjay Joshi, Advanced Aquarist Magazine, February, 2010.

Energy Efficiency

Energy savings are one of the biggest assets of using LED lighting. If we take a twin 175 watt metal halide fixture and use a rate of 0.15 per kilowatt hour, based on 10 hours use per day, the yearly cost would be a little over $190.00. Comparing this with two of Ecoxotic's 23.5" Panorama fixtures, the cost would be right around $50.00 per year, and keep in mind, no additional energy consumption for cooling fans or chillers which are typically required in these systems.

That amounts to a savings of $140.00 per year just in electrical consumption, and you can add to this the cost of yearly lamp replacement and energy use by supporting equipment such as fans and chillers. Yes, the initial investment for LED systems is high, but in the long run you will be saving a substantial amount of money.

There are many options available to aquarists with LED lighting, including full hoods, retrofits, modules, strips, pendants and components for DIYers.

If you already have an existing aquarium light fixture (or canopy retrofit system) and want to add some additional color enhancement, LEDs could very well be the way to go. The specific wavelengths LEDs produce definitely will make the colors 'pop' in your fish and corals, they also produce the beautiful ripple/shimmer effects associated with higher output lighting such as metal halide and HQI. These are often labeled as 'stunner strips' and are becoming increasingly popular for hybridizing existing lighting.

Business end of an Ecoxotic pendant which contains 49 individual LED chips. Ecoxotic photo.

Above: Marineland's Double Bright LED Hoods (Available in 3 sizes) are capable of providing a higher light output than a standard fluorescent double bulb strip light. The 36-48" model shown above.
Below: Marineland's soon to be released Reef Capable HO LED (48-60" model shown). Expected release date is late Oct. 2010. Both photos copyright Marineland.



'Aquarium product companies appear to be rightly focusing their R&D capabilities on LED lamped lighting products, as their operating costs/lamp lifespan are far better than MH/HQI fixtures. As to LED spectral and intensity characteristics, they also have improved over the past few years, yet do advise aquarists to do their homework on what product/fixture will suit their specific needs, as these fixtures are still somewhat expensive. Then be sure your buying from a reputable source, as warranties mean little if the company goes out of business.' -- Bob Goemans

A word of caution should be noted here. There are many LED fixtures and retros available to aquarists that are not meant, or falsely advertised as primary aquarium lights. These LEDs will give aquarists not doing their homework a false impression that LEDs are not powerful enough for a Reef or planted freshwater aquarium. My advice is that you do your homework on any LED system you may consider purchasing to ensure PAR value, lumen output, and Kelvin temperature meet the needs of your inhabitants.

Another factor to consider is advertised lamp life, it could be misleading. Presently, many of the high power LEDs that are being produced by reputable LED manufacturers claim 50,000 hour lamp life. This is achieved by not exceeding the recommended operating current of 350mA per lamp. Some fixture manufacturers may overdrive LEDs in an effort to reduce the number of lamps in the fixture which in turn lowers production expense at the cost of lower lamp life. All of the above should be carefully researched before making your LED lighting purchase.

CCx and CCy are dimensions of chromaticity. In a nutshell, chromaticity is a system that allows all perceived color to be described objectively as two coordinates. See: http://www.wetwebmedia.com/ca/WWMDigitalMagV1Ish2.htm for further explanation. Cree co. photo.


As you can see, the future of LED lighting is very bright (no pun intended). High power LED development is increasing on a daily basis along with component costs steadily dropping. In a recent press release at Cree, the company states:

 'We have now broken the elusive 200-lumen-per-watt efficacy barrier for a single white power LED, said John Edmond, Cree co-founder and director of advanced optoelectronics. This is a result of improvements in blue optical output power, lower operating voltage and higher conversion efficiency. We continue to push the envelope in white LED technology to enable the highest efficiency white lighting products in the marketplace.'

Cree's tests confirmed that the LED produced 208 lumens of light output and achieved 208 lumens per watt efficacy at a correlated color temperature of 4579 K. The tests were conducted under standard LED test conditions at a drive current of 350 mA at room temperature. Although it will be some time before these LEDs will be available to manufacturers, and in the Kelvin temperatures we desire, this continuing combination of technological advancement and decrease in component cost will no doubt lead to an increasingly well-priced, effective, energy efficient solution to any aquarists lighting needs. It is hoped that this information will be beneficial to those considering switching to, or supplementing their existing lighting with LED technology.

Clownfish and anemone under Ecoxotic
Panorama LED Fixture. Ecoxotic photo.



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