Aquarium Lighting Essentials

Retailers should stay up-to-date on the latest aquarium lighting options to benefit both their customers and stores.




Trends, statistics, reports and personal observations all point to one thing: the independent pet/aquatics stores are on their way back. Slowly but surely, they are taking back ground that was lost to the big-box and chain stores. The recent decision by Walmart to get out of the livestock business is indicative of a trend. Want to know why? I will give you a perfect example.


Just a couple of weeks ago, I was in an all-aquatics store, perusing the inventory, and one of the sales associates told me about an exchange she had with a customer. A man and his wife walked through the front door with a bag containing two fish. They were juvenile oscars about 1 ½ in. in length. These, plus one more, had been sold to them by a clerk at a chain pet shop—along with a 7-gal. tank. The couple was told that the tank would be adequate to maintain the three fish. After he got home, the man did some research online, only to discover how inaccurate and misleading that advice was. He decided he wanted to keep one of the oscars and give the other two to this store. After about 30 minutes of discussion, advice and showing the customer the proper setup that would be needed, a transaction took place. The man and wife bought a 60-gal. tank, set up with everything included, for several hundred dollars.


You know the moral to this story. The independent aquatics/pet shops believe in what they are doing. They are on a mission to help people understand what is necessary to maintain the livestock they have an interest in. Making a profit is important, but not at the expense of the customers and the animals involved. What does this have to do with aquarium lighting you may ask? That’s an easy question to answer—everything.


My personal experience with freshwater tropical fish goes back over 50 years. At some point in time, it became apparent to me that aquarium lighting requirements are more misunderstood than almost any segment of the fish-keeping hobby. Back in the day, there were three choices for aquarium lighting: none at all, incandescent lights or fluorescent lights. I believe everyone knows the major drawback to incandescent bulbs—they may heat the water up. If you want to maintain a certain water temperature, you use an aquarium heater, not light bulbs. Two 20W light bulbs above a 10-gal. tank will raise the water temperature significantly. What about fluorescent bulbs? Even these can raise water temperatures, but, at least, not as dramatically.


My main goal in keeping fish was to breed them. At first, I concentrated on African Rift Lake cichlids, but soon I was ranging to exotic things like gobies, leaffish, knifefish, splash tetras, etc. There is one thing I can tell you with certainty about virtually all freshwater fish and fish tanks. Historically, the lighting has been too intense. Most fish are fine with no dedicated light at all. If the room is well lit by natural light over most of the day, that’s all the fish require. In a room without natural light, a small fluorescent fixture above the tank will be adequate. The drawback to what I am suggesting will be obvious. A fishkeeper will not be able to observe his fish unless the tank is well lit. So lighting is for the benefit of the tank owner, not the fish


The over-lighting of aquariums has been a problem for many years. It is only recently that something has been done to alleviate this situation. Before I tackle that subject, let me say that modern day fluorescent tank lighting does work, it is just not a perfect solution. First of all, most tanks have a glass top or full hood to prevent fish from jumping out of the tank. This is extremely important since many fish love to jump, especially if they are being chased by other fish. But when you put an aquarium light directly on a glass top, it heats up the glass. As water is splashed on the under-surface of the glass by aeration, filtration, power heads or even fish, it tends to leave residual drops that grow algae like a factory production line. Pretty soon, the entire under-surface of the glass top is coated with a thick mat of green algae. At least this cuts down the light to the tank, but that is no way to achieve the desired effect.


A lighting fixture with fluorescent bulbs needs to be elevated above the glass top by at least 2 in. This will prevent heat buildup in that narrow space between the fixture and the glass. The perfect solution is a box light. The front of the box hinges up to permit access to the glass top. Fish, therefore, are easily fed. And the box has vents to allow heat to escape. There is a hole in the top of the box that the light fixture fits into. An adequate spacing between the fluorescent bulbs and the glass top would be 6 in.


When you observe such a piece of equipment from a distance, it really looks much nicer than a fixture sitting on top of a tank. Now, however, enter the new age of lighting with the LED phenomenon. This solves many of the old problems, but does have one significant drawback. When you sell LED fixtures, you lose a good deal of repeat sales. Fluorescent lights require replacement on a regular basis, LED lights do not. In fact, in most cases they cannot be replaced.


In order to prevent the LED light source from touching the glass top, manufacturers have ingeniously developed a wire hanger or wire foot that moves the fixture at least
2 in. away from the glass. Problem No. 1 solved. The next problem is the light source being too bright. Gone are the days of being stuck with a single output of light. With LED’s, not only do you get as much wattage as you want, you get a wide variety of different colors of light. And all of these are not only dimmable but also programmable. Now consumers can start the day with a low level of blue lights, turn those brighter over a period of time, add a few white lights, add more white lights, turn those brighter over a period of time, and then do everything in reverse.


These light sources are all modified by a small hand-held device much like a TV controller. These controllers have built-in timers that permit a wide variety of activities. Many of them work in conjunction with your smart phone, so you can control your lighting through an app on the phone. Would you like a pleasant sunset, a thunderstorm with thunder and lightening flashes or perhaps a simple night light? Any of these are available, and they can be achieved without even getting up off the couch. In this case, modern technology is a wonder.


I recommend that LED lights have controls on the fixture itself, as well as through hand-held devices, but this is not the case with all LED fixtures. The heat generated by LED bulbs is considerably less than that of fluorescents. However, that does not mean there is no heat. So LED cluster lights should have fans to dissipate the hot air. These are known as active heat sinks.


Reef Lighting

Now, let’s talk about lighting for one specific type of environment: the coral reef. Most reefs consist of numerous types of organisms, not all of which are corals. Lighting requirements for these animals are vastly different. If you want a fixture or group of fixtures that can support all types of marine life, you need some fairly sophisticated and  expensive pieces of equipment. Being in the aquatics trade, you know the difference between soft corals and hard or stony corals. Reef-building corals are frequently referred to as “stony” because they actually build coral reefs by secreting the chemicals necessary to construct the houses they live in. Not only that, stony corals have evolved to be able to utilize algae that lives inside the coral animal to produce food for them. It’s the classic definition of a symbiotic relationship.


But, as with everything else, there is a trade-off. The coral is unable to grow and expand its living space strictly by the food it captures from the sea. It must gain nourishment from the algae as well. This is usually no problem in the wild, but in an aquarium it’s a big problem. In order for the coral to stay healthy, the algae inside of it (Zooxanthellae) must receive adequate light. At the genesis of coral maintenance in captivity, the glaringly bright and hot halide and metal halide bulbs were the only solution to this problem. But then, like a miracle, LED lights were perfected that were bright enough to accomplish the same thing, but without the unwanted heat production.


The price of LED lights has everything to do with whether they are capable of keeping stony corals healthy. So, where does this leave you? Many of the better LED lights are produced overseas and the price online is often unbeatable—even by you as a retailer. Is there any reason to stock products that you know your customers can buy online for virtually the same price you do? Also, what lights will you use on your stony coral displays? Will you employ one brand in the store, but sell a different brand to your customers? That sales strategy would certainly appear to be flawed.


One of the reasons there are so many reef stores is that making a profit in this area of the trade may require an expert—both in corals and business acumen. Few general aquatics stores can match this level of sophistication. Another important element is the growing availability of coral frags produced by garage-breeders around the country, who undermine sales from reputable stores.


The moral of this story is to be as diversified as possible in your aquatics department. Don’t depend on one aspect of your sales to make an uneven contribution. General hobbyists will buy a great deal more light fixtures than a few “coral-heads.” As always, however, you need knowledgeable sales people who know the products and are good with customers. The “more things change - the more they stay the same” seems to be an axiom that can be applied to the past, the present and the future. 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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