Lighting the Way
by Ed Taylor
April 1, 2012
Having the right assortment of aquarium lighting along with a helpful, knowledgeable sales staff is a must for aquatics retailers.



Perhaps no other area in the aquatics field has changed so much in the past four to five years as the lighting segment. It is moving fast, and today’s new product may be tomorrow’s dinosaur. Lighting for marine aquariums, in particular, can be complicated—or very simple. It all depends on what a hobbyist is trying to achieve. Retailers need to have knowledgeable staff on the sales floor to guide customers in finding the products that best suit their particular setups, as well as the right product assortment to meet those needs.

There are three distinct types of marine tanks: fish, coral and combo tanks. A fish tank concept is quite well defined—all fish, no invertebrates. Likewise, a coral tank’s major focal point is coral, with a few odd things thrown in. A combo biotope, meanwhile, is the most challenging. In this environment, the owner is attempting to recreate a true reef environment with many of its diverse elements. Lighting is critical to the success of this endeavor.

The trinity of factors for successful reef keeping is well known to all serious hobbyist: water quality, adequate circulation and lighting. Two out of three will rarely work; all three must be in harmony, and improper lighting will result in failure.

Many people who want a coral tank do not understand how much it costs to build one or how to maintain it. While a few will be willing to spend what it takes to get the job done (within reason), you can imagine the reaction of a novice when you tell him that the lighting for his first coral tank will cost as much as all the rest of the equipment combined. One solution to this problem is to offer complete nano-tank kits. While smaller tanks are a bit more difficult to balance, they reduce the cost of the project to a more comfortable price for many people.

Nano-tanks also come with lighting and water circulation features built in, making them an attractive option to beginners. All the customer needs to get right is the water quality. The lighting for nano-tanks is a fixed parameter, so there is no guesswork involved. If a tank fails, it will not be due to improper lighting.

Once your store commits to the nano concept, you need to sell it by words and deeds. A nano-display should be dramatic and placed in a prominent location to attract as much attention as possible. And still, like all setups, nano-tanks have elements that can and must be replaced as they age and/or stop working properly. When this happens, customers will turn to retailers for help, so your store must be able to supply replacement parts along with advice. Consistency is critical to success, so replacement bulbs must be available immediately if there is to be no disruption in the lighting cycle. It does not take long to ruin months of proper tank care when the lights go out.

Rule number one is to carry bulbs that fit every brand and model of nano-tank you sell. Keep these small bulbs behind the counter or under lock and key; small, expensive items like these frequently disappear if they are not securely displayed.

Additionally, don’t forget that refugium sumps require fixtures, and many people run their sump lights 24/7. This gives them a life expectancy of about six months. For this reason, and to guard against the unexpected, I recommend that customers buy back-up bulbs when they purchase their nano-kits.


Decisions, Decisions
It is clear that marine tanks that house coral must have proper lighting. There is little room for error when it comes to bulbs for a coral fixture. If you ask ten experts, however, you will get ten different opinions on the best reef lighting options on the market today, which include metal halide, T-5 and LED bulbs. It is debatable which of the three types of lighting is best.

If a tank is properly maintained—including everything from having well-adjusted water parameters to the appropriately fed fish—the proper lighting can be accomplished with any of the three types of lighting or a combination. In fact, I am a firm believer in combo lights.

The question is: what should retailers carry on their shelves? There are no really good cheap reef lights for sale, but some, of course, are less expensive than others. Retailers need to know their clientele to find the price points. Stores can stock a couple of high-end items and a few low-end products, but they should try to stay in the median as much as possible.

The new LED fixtures are great for freshwater applications, and they produce a calm and pleasing illumination that causes a glimmer in the water similar to sunlight. Many coral enthusiasts are adding LED “retro” kits to their existing fixtures. These offer some benefits, but they are not intense enough to penetrate very far into the water without losing a good deal of their effectiveness.

I recommend LED’s specifically designed for reef applications. The perfect T-5 and LED combo light is still a dream but it will be achieved eventually. Look for LED bulbs that are actually inside T-8 and T-5 fluorescent bulbs. This will permit alternating series of T-5 and LED bulbs. It sounds like a marriage made in heaven.

In order to prevent customers from getting sticker shock, consider merchandising fixtures and bulbs for freshwater versus marine applications separately. Freshwater hobbyists do not need to be exposed to the complexity and expense of reef lights. Tried-and-true T-8 fluorescent bulbs are perfectly acceptable, with an upgrade to T-5 if the customers’ budgets can afford the price difference. For marine tanks in which only fish are stocked, the freshwater lighting equipment will be thoroughly effective. Still, if a hobbyist goes with a marine category fixture, he can use it for coral should he ever decide to upgrade. Lighting is going to be an exciting area for growth in the aquatics field over the next few years. Don’t be left in the dark.

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