Aquarium Lighting

Lighting is one of the most important aspects of any aquarium setup, ranked well above the tank, stand and décor items as far as retail sales are concerned.


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The vast majority of aquarium customers require only basic lighting for their setups. Tanks of 10, 20, 30, 40, 55 and 60 gallons can look really good with merely a strip light (either using single or double bulbs). Large and specialty tanks, on the other hand, can benefit from additional fixtures or more intense illumination. For example, any tank with a depth greater than 20 inches will look a bit dark at the substrate level if it is not supplied with extra lumens. Likewise, a wide tank of 24 inches or more will look better with two fixtures, one near the front and the other further back. Show customers how this works with display tanks, which can also advertise fish, plants, décor items and filters.


Room & Tank Lighting
Direct sunlight or room lighting can have a dramatic effect on how a tank looks. If an aquarium is not properly positioned in a room, external light may ruin any ambiance created by the tank’s lighting. Placement issues to avoid include: (1) too much natural light falling on the tank, (2) a room thats primary source of lighting is a ceiling fixture in the center of the room, and (3) lights that might be reflected in an aquarium’s viewing area (the front glass). It’s difficult to show these unwanted conditions in a store, but using signage near display tanks can get the point across.

There are a variety of ways to position lighting above an aquarium. First and foremost, of course, is the strip light that sets directly on the tank, protected from the water by a glass top. Another technique is to place the light fixture on feet that raise it a few inches above the tank. In this application, a glass top need not be employed and this is particularly useful if the tank has emergent vegetation. For people who consider the light fixture itself unsightly, a full tank canopy will hide virtually everything above the tank’s top edge. If possible, the canopy should match the stand or you will be staring another décor dilemma in the face. Overhead pendulum fixtures can also be used, one for every two feet of tank length. These are usually reserved for marine reef aquariums, but they work really well for any setup.

To showcase lighting options, use display tanks with each of the lighting styles and vary the types of bulbs being used in them. Creating a static display that strictly features lamps is another good option. This exhibit is strictly to show people what the bulbs themselves look like, as the bulbs cannot all be illuminated at once. This display is a good way for retailers to explain the difference between T-5, T-8 and T-12 fluorescent bulbs. Compact fluorescent bulbs should also be shown in any pin configuration possible. Halide bulbs may be small or large (mogul) and this difference needs to be explained, as well.

Wattages vary from bulb to bulb and the only way to show this difference is with fully illuminated lamps over tanks. The same concept works for different types of light: incandescent versus fluorescent, actinic versus white, and natural versus plant. Bulbs of a similar type and intensity, but different wavelengths, will also look different. If a retailer is courageous enough to enter the brave new world of lighting, display, stock and sell LED light fixtures. Prices are not for the faint of heart, so I would not stock too many of these.


Light Pricing

Price is a definite concern when it comes to lighting. Most customers get sticker shock when they realize that a tank’s lighting is going to cost them as much as the tank itself. And, in the case of marine lighting, it can frequently be much more. Employees must be able to thoroughly explain why bulbs and fixtures are necessary and why the price is high.

Since bulbs or “lamps” are made of glass they are undeniably fragile. This means if they are left lying around on shelves or even in display racks, they can easily be damaged. Even more prevalent than damage, however, is theft. Bulbs just seem to go missing on a regular basis. Another problem is finding used bulbs in cardboard sleeves that should only contain new bulbs. There is one solution to all these vexations: put all bulbs under lock and key. Use glass (or plastic) display cabinets so that customers can see the merchandise. If there are good displays, most people can figure out what they are looking for. When they have decided on their purchase, they can get an employee to unlock the case for them. It’s a small price to pay for reducing bulb loss to virtually zero.

One of the big problems for the retailer when it comes to expensive marine fixtures is the Internet. A lot of customers are going to say they can get the same lighting for considerably less than what the store is charging. Well, the fact is they probably can, so decide if the store is willing to wheel and deal or if it is not worth dropping the price. If someone wants a fixture and nothing else, it’s almost never a good idea to drop the price more than the best sale price the store would normally offer. But if someone is buying a complete setup and they are complaining about the lighting part of the equation, there is a lot more room for “massaging” the figures. Most people won’t buy online unless their savings are going to be substantial (25 percent or $50 less). And don’t forget to mention the store’s guarantee when it comes to returning defective equipment.


Bulb Replacement

Most stores sell tanks as “loss leaders” so they can sell the other items to make real money. However, there is money to be made in aquarium lighting. Bulbs require frequent replacement if the tank is to maintain an even level of illumination. Many hobbyists pay little attention to this gradual change of both light strength and light spectrum. Typically, they don’t notice it until the bulbs burn out, at which point they run to the store seeking a replacement. Frequently, they neglect to bring the old bulb with them, which complicates the matter.

Retailers can save time and irritation (and make more money) by starting a bulb replacement procedure for their clients. Every time a new fixture and bulb is sold,  write on the bulb (with an indelible pen) the date it was purchased. Tell the customer to bring that bulb back in approximately eight months if he or she wants the illumination level and spectrum to remain relatively constant. This applies to both fresh and saltwater tanks, but especially those with live plants or live corals (respectively). Taking a little extra time with initial lighting can only help make things easier in the future.

Aquarium lighting can be as simple or as complicated as one wants it to be. If a store carries marine livestock and equipment, it is a necessity that the retailer knows the ins and outs of the lighting labyrinth. Concepts in reef lighting can be very technical in nature, but a retailer will never be well served in trying to make customers believe they know what you are talking about if they don’t. Get educated about all aspects of lighting and reap the rewards.


Edward C. Taylor has been in the pet industry for over 30 years as a retailer, live fish importer and wholesaler, and fish-hatchery manager.

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