Aquarium Lamps and Fixtures

Knowledgeable retailers with the right inventory can make lamp and fixture sales soar.


One of the biggest challenges facing retailers who sell both freshwater and marine livestock and products is educating the customers about lighting their aquariums–most people don’t know anything about proper illumination for tanks.

The fixture and lamp segments of the trade have evolved explosively in recent years, but most of this innovation has come in the area of the reef aquarium. (Freshwater fish tanks can be maintained with almost exactly the same lighting equipment that was available 30 years ago.) Today, the trend is to use smaller diameter bulbs (T-5) with multiple bulbs per fixture. Metallic channels behind the bulbs are engineered to reflect the vast majority of the light produced into the aquarium. This might be considered more “bang for the buck,” except the “buck” does not go as far as it used to. T-5 bulbs are considerably more expensive than the old T-12 or even the intermediate T-8 diameters. This increased cost is partially due to the “high-output” ratings of the T-5 bulbs.

Fixtures with multiple T-5 bulbs require fans to dissipate the heat generated by the bulbs. Such fixtures should not be placed directly on glass tops; temperature differences between external and internal surfaces of the glass may cause it to break. Likewise, canopies must have vent holes near the fixture fans.

Fixtures with T-5 bulbs may come with one, two, four, six or even eight bulbs. The six- and eight-bulb fixtures are best left to marine applications, while the four-bulb light does well on deep freshwater tanks of 30 inches or more. Four T-5 bulbs can easily illuminate a 40-inch deep aquarium from top to bottom. There are, of course, many different T-5 bulbs to choose from depending on the tank’s requirements.

The average freshwater aquarium needs only an average fixture. If live plants are not being employed, a single-lamp fixture may be enough to do the job. Still a double-light model will provide more equal illumination from back to front. High-output (HO) lamps are unnecessary unless the customer is setting up an aquatic garden environment. T-8 or T-5 bulbs will provide plenty of light for the fish–the real question is how long should the lights be left on? There is no one perfect answer since every aquarium has its own unique set of circumstances, but there are some general guidelines.

Fish should be fed at least twice a day and most people prefer the lights to be on during feeding. As long as the tank is not located in a totally dark room during the day, light fixtures can be turned on and off during the day with no adverse effect to the fish. In fact, there are benefits to multiple light phases. For example, lighting phases provide a feeding period for nocturnal feeders during the daylight hours. Fish owners should remember that fish need to sleep just like humans, so it is never a good idea to leave the lights on constantly. Generally, lights should not be on longer than 14 to 16 hours a day. Even a reef tank requires a considerable dark phase–exclusive of “lunar” lighting.

How do you solve the problem of turning the lights on and off during the day? It’s simple and a really good sales opportunity for retailer–timers. Retailers should stock a selection of them.  Many HO fixtures will be three-plug in nature, so a heavy-duty timer is necessary to handle this load and are the safest to use–and therefore, to sell. Also, marine tanks require multi-circuit strips with multiple built-in timers for sequencing lights of different types. These are complicated but necessary to get the job done.

Sound Advice

Retailers that stock a large selection of live aquatic plants and aquatic garden equipment will want to recommend a different light setup for people following this discipline. Typically, more wattage is better, but using multiple fixtures rather than fixtures with multiple bulbs will spread the light more evenly from back to front and will reduce the amount of heat generated by the lights.

A customer buying his first reef fixture presents a great sales opportunity for a retailer, since a novice will have no previous experience to draw conclusions from and will be open to suggestions. A retailer that has equipment that covers the spectrum of reef lighting is more likely to make a sale. There are basically five alternatives: single option metal halide (one or more lamps); single option T-5 HO fluorescent (two or more lamps); combo option with metal halide and T-5 HO lamps; complex option with metal halide, T-5s and moonlights; and L.E.D. fixtures.

It is not possible to carry every brand of fixture, all models of each brand or every lamp selection of every fixture of every brand. Retailers will need to make some difficult decisions and restrict in-house stock to those items that best lend themselves to the character of their businesses. A high-end store can afford to carry a significant number of expensive fixtures, but those fancy lights would probably sit around a long time before they sell in an entry-level shop. Still, any retailer serious about marine reef sales, should have on display at least one representative from the five major fixture groups.

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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