To Light, or Not to Light

When it comes to aquariums, lighting is important not only for presentation, but also to maintain a happy and healthy tank.




When it comes to aquarium lighting, proper techniques can be the key to a sale, and there are some rules that should be followed. For example, do light the tanks in your store that house fish for sale, but don’t over-light those tanks.


I have seen just about every type of lighting situation you can imagine. By far, the most effective fish display is achieved in a darkened room with a low ceiling and individual lights on every aquarium. However, for some reason, this style of display has disappeared. It may have to do with the cost of building a separate room inside your store, but this fish room can both make you money and save you money in the long run. You will increase revenue because this type of display shows fish in their best light. You will save more money because the separate room can be heated to a warmer temperature that is best for the fish.


Let’s shine a light on freshwater environments first. Your store has tank after tank in row after row and, for the most part, all the lighting should be the same. This means you should use the same bulb in every fixture, and you should always use bulbs that you have in stock. Sure, those bulbs from a big-box hardware merchandiser are cheaper, but they do not bring out the nuances of color that the aquarium bulbs do. If you carry multiple brands of light bulbs, pick only one for your general display. The others you can use to illuminate special exhibits—maybe even employing them to showcase the difference between various brands.


LEDs are the new fluorescents. There is much to love about LED lights. They are relatively inexpensive, easy to install and extremely variable in color. In addition, they rarely burn out, are light-weight, and generate very little heat. Fixtures can be strung together and they are virtually waterproof, since the bulbs can be embedded in plastic or covered by a waterproof lens.


So, why would you sell anything else? The answer is: lack of repeat sales. If bulbs don’t burn out, you will lose that segment of the business. Still, it may be worthwhile to avoid this question and go with the flow. Your biggest competition in selling LED fixtures will be online retailers. Trying to match their prices may prove to be a big headache.


Don’t sell the same brands of LED lights that your local competitors sell. Look for lights that are not available to everyone unless they are willing to put in the time and effort to track them down. Whatever brand you end up choosing for your main product line, use in your display aquariums.


Just because you carry LED lights doesn’t mean you shouldn’t carry fluorescent fixtures as well. In fact, I still prefer T5, and even T8, bulbs for freshwater applications. One reason for this is that these bulbs produce some heat, and tank water benefits from the heat. The tank heaters will have to work less and, therefore, cost less to run. When it comes to marine fish, maintaining a stable temperature is extremely advantageous in preventing outbreaks of disease. And by carrying fluorescent fixtures, you will not lose the sales for replacement bulbs. Any product that brings people back to your store on a regular basis is very important to your bottom line.


More Than Fish

In your store, coral tanks and fish tanks are best kept at different temperatures. Corals seem to stress easily if temperatures go up, and due to the heat generated by many types of coral lights, there is a constant battle to keep water temperatures down. The answer, in most cases, is to use a chiller. Coral lights and marine fish display lights need to be different. The only exception comes with the few fish you throw into coral display tanks to make them look realistic.


Within the coral department, lighting is extremely important—easily as critical as water quality, coral selection and coral location. Many of your coral customers will understand the significance of lighting—others will not have a clue. Your store needs to be a source of basic information, as well as expert advice. For beginners, you and your employees must emphasize how crucial lighting is in the maintenance of healthy coral.


Hopefully, you have fully embraced the concept of the aquatic garden in your shop. If your live plant selection is full and robust, you will be able to sell plenty of ornamental plants. The key to success here is having the talent necessary to create beautiful displays. But even if you can do this, you still need the proper lighting to make it work. I have yet to be convinced that this can be accomplished with LED lighting. Perhaps it can, but I know for a fact that fluorescent lighting works quite well.


In the case of aquariums dedicated to live plants, there shouldn’t be a glass top. The surface of the water needs to be exposed to the air so that there is plenty of room for plants to grow emergent—extending their growth above the water’s surface. In this situation, the lighting must be located considerably above the tank’s surface. The tricky part is, the light must still be able to penetrate all the way to the substrate where ground-cover plants grow. In a deep tank—24 in. or more—this may require strategically placed spot lights that illuminate precisely the plant you want. As in most coral tanks, extraneous lighting—especially from sunlight—can cause algae blooms. You may consider using a UV-sterilizer to keep both environments crystal clear. As critical as the set-up for a live coral tank may be, the aquatic garden theme can be equally challenging when it comes to lighting.


One final question is, where do you place lighting equipment for sale in your store? The fixtures themselves should be separated according to their function—salt water versus fresh water. Try to set up displays that showcase different styles and brands of lighting, but restrict these to their respective departments. In the case of replacement bulbs, secure them behind lock and key. There are too many opportunities for these to be broken, switched or pilfered. It’s not that difficult to help someone who needs a new bulb.


When it comes down to it, sell what works. Don’t try to carry the most expensive brands of coral lights on the market if you don’t believe you can sell them. The internet will be your biggest competitor in most cases. You will be challenged to meet the online price for these costly items, but this is where customer service comes in. Treat your clients well, and they will repay the favor. If someone buys an expensive fixture—say $600 or more—I give them a special numbered and dated card that will give them 10 percent off all purchases over the next 90 days. It’s my way of saying, “Thank you for your business.” Sure, they might have saved a little initially by buying online, but that discount card is the gift that keeps on giving.  Do you see the light at the end of the tunnel now?  PB


Edward C. Taylor has been in the pet industry for more than 40 years as a retailer, live fish importer and wholesaler, and fish-hatchery manager.


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