Change is good, a summation of a transition from metal halide to LED lighting

By on Jan 19, 2012

After reviewing the Mazarra LED light on a 180-gallon and the AI Nano LED on a 34-gallon, I’ve been getting a lot of emails about whether I’m happy with the transition overall. There are a lot of aquarist on the fence about wether LED lighting is right for them. Some wonder if it’s the right time to jump in, while others are hesitant to move away from a lighting strategy that works.

With LED technology changing in both advancements and pricing, the timing question is a reasonable one. And when something you already have works, why change it? Instead of answering everyone on a individual basis, I figure I’d share my thoughts on reefbuilders. Please note, I’m not a lighting expert. I’m just a hobbyist voicing some humble opinions and observations.

Here were some of my initial concerns, and where they stand now.

  • The individual LED colors can cause multicolored shadows and glimmer lines on the corals and sand: This is definitely a potential issue which is more pronounced with narrow optics. I’m using 100 and 70 degree optics and still see it in some areas. It annoyed me at first, but no longer bothers me. The fixture I’m using does a good job of distributing the light. I’ve heard some of the cheaper fixtures are worse for these light artifacts. If you are on the fence, I would suggest seeing a few tanks in person. For me, it was a minor issue, compared to the flat look of T5s and the heat/electricity associated with metal halides.
  • The tank will have a ‘Windex’ look: I have not found this to be the case, personally. It is easily avoided by choosing a fixture that incorporates Warm White LEDs, or includes red and greed LEDs to balance the narrow spectrum that you get with just Cool White and Blue LEDs.
  • LED’s will have a narrow light distribution and create a dimmer and shadier tank: It depends on the tank dimensions and light fixture. Again, not all fixtures are the same. I find that wider optics do a great job increasing the light distribution and reducing shadows. But wider optics also reduce PAR. For larger and wider tanks, you might be better off with  metal halides in a quality reflector. LEDs do offer the opportunity to focus the light on the reef structure, instead of the whole tank. I like this idea. It has helped me keep the glass cleaner and reduced the amount of glare and light spillage into the room. In regards to brightness, this is a tricky one. Humans have a hard time interpreting intensity in the blue spectrum. Most LED fixtures place a lot of emphasis on Blue and Cool White LEDs, which results in a lot of intensity in a narrow range. They will appear dim to the hobbyist, but potentially bleach and stress many corals. There are numerous reef forum threads about folks having to start out at reduced output with a slow rampup to full intensity. Fixtures that include Warm Whites and/or Red/Green/Yellow’s tend to appear brighter to the end user.
  • There is some skepticism about usable life on LEDs: This is still an open ended question for me. Manufacturers claim that LEDs can last up to 50,000 hours. But how true is this? And will the fixtures last as long as the LED chips they house?

Now, onto some of the expected and unexpected positives:

  • Lower Temperatures: I have always preferred keeping my tanks around 75 degrees. My fish and corals tend to do better for me in this range. LED’s have made it much easier to keep temperatures down. I’m ok with the fact that my heater is running more in winter. It’s easier to warm a tank than it is to cool it.
  • Reduced glare and light spillage: My fixture illuminates the tank, not the room or the ground in front of the aquarium. I prefer open topped aquariums, but hated the fact that my lights blinded my 2ft tall toddler. She can enjoy the fish and coral without as much eye strain. We actually had to add a table lamp to the room to compensate for lack of  stray light.
  • Modularity: I love the fact that I can increase or reduce the number of modules, if I change tank sizes.
  • Dimming ability: Being able to dim the lights is awesome. It helps for acclimating corals, simulating changes in daylight intensities, and creates a more natural dawn/dusk effect. With one light fixture, I can alternate the look of my tank from 20k to 10k and back in one day. It’s great to walk into the room, and have the tank look a little different each time. Dimming is possible with certain metal halide and T5 ballasts as well, but more limited in implementation.
  • No annual bulb replacement: I’m a lazy hobbyist, and this appeals to my lazy nature.

At this point, everything reef related in my house is illuminated by LED. Even my refugium has a cheapo LED bulb over it. Has it turned me into an LED zealot? No, but I certainly love my lights. I still love T5 and Metal Halides too. I hate arguments about which is better. I still believe they all have their place. Right now, I think LEDs are an excellent choice for standard sized tanks. Once you get into the larger and deeper tank sizes, the cost factor makes them less ideal.

Metal Halides are still going to be the best bang for your buck on a big tank. But LEDs would make for great supplementation in those cases. I also think there is a big future in multichip LED’s for larger aquariums. The Ecoxotic Cannons and Kessil pendants are really nice in person. I hope to see higher wattage pendants with larger light distribution eventually.

So, is it the right time to jump into LEDs? Well, LED technology is improving constantly. Odds are, lights will get better and cheaper each year. So you have to consider your budget, and decide if the current pricing is acceptable. A lot of things come into play when you throw in electricity cost and bulb replacement. Are LEDs ready to compete against conventional reef lighting? For sure! There are still plenty of cynics out there, but I’ve experienced great results, as have others.

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