Reef Tank

What is the best light for my reef tank?

There is a lot of information out there on reef tank lighting and there have been many evolutions in lighting technology since most of that information has been written. It can be very frustrating to find unbiased and up to date lighting recommendations. So in this article I will give you the best up to date information (as of May 2018) that I can, all in one place.

One of the most common questions I am asked is: “What is the best light for my reef tank?” That question is very difficult to answer without knowing the answer to a few other questions first. Most importantly, “What are you trying to keep?”,  “How deep is your tank?”, and “What is your budget?”

Since I can’t ask you these questions directly, I will list some of the lights that we use below and describe their benefits and limitations. Starting with the cheapest viable lighting option and going all the way up to the ultimate reef lighting systems.

Good Reef Lighting on a Tight Budget

These lighting options are good for soft corals or mixed reefs that aren’t too demanding of your light spectrum and intensity.

165 Watt dimmable LED Aquarium Light

In the past the cheaper LED box lights that came out of china were decent at keeping many corals alive due to their high wattage and intensity, allowing the light to penetrate into deeper water and provide reasonable PAR values at depth. Those lights, however, had many lingering problems. Mainly: the WiFi control was almost unusable, the lenses (or lack of lenses) spread the light too much, the fans were loud and unreliable in a high humidity area (like the top of your aquarium!), and the light spectrum was lacking. These new lights are still very inexpensive and have fixed most of the old problems well enough to recommend them as viable reef lighting now. Just don’t expect any customer service from these pop up companies, which in my opinion is the major drawback of purchasing these lights. But for the price? They are definitely worth the gamble and can keep even some stony corals alive.

Mid Level Reef Lighting

These lights will come with many more features than the budget lights, but still won’t break the bank.

Current Orbit Marine IC PRO LED

We have been using current LED fixtures for a while, and I can say that they have come a long way. The initial generations had their problems with faulty ballasts or controllers, but over the years the components they are using have improved in quality and I am getting much better results from these lights. As always, Current will stand behind their products and honor any warranty claim, so that is a big step up from the budget lights. The new IC series of lights have the ability to control a lot more with the remote. You can now program the lights to come on at any time of day and for any amount of time (This was a frustrating problem on the older models.) They also can be easily programmed to add random daily weather patterns such as clouds passing or thunderstorms. The new IC lights also come with the Loop controller that can control up to 3 of Current’s new eFlux Wave Pumps.  Unfortunately they don’t mention anywhere that in order to connect the pumps to your Loop system you need to buy a Wave Pump Manifold HUB, but when you do get it all set up it is really nice to have your lights and pumps controlled in one place.

Kessil A360WE Controllable LED Aquarium Light, Tuna Blue

These lights are probably on the border between mid level pricing and the Elite lighting systems, coming in at around $400 each, but I couldn’t do an LED lighting write-up without them. The new E-series LEDs from Kessil are great lights and will really make your tank pop. Most people are used to longer strip lighting systems that cover the whole tank, but these lights are just pendants. This means you will need at least 1 to 2 feet of clearance above your aquarium for them to hang in order to get the maximum suggested coverage (24″ for the W model and 18″ for the N model)

Kessil also gives you a few different ways to control these lights which a lot of companies tend to overlook. You can control them manually with the two dials on the light (one for color and the other for intensity.) You can also use a number of different external controllers to control them, including Neptune’s Apex system or Kessil’s Spectral Controller.

If you like the Kessil A360 but won’t be keeping a lot of stony corals, or are planning on more of a softie/mixed reef tank, I would suggest looking at the Kessil A160WE Light. It offers great color and similar coverage to the A360, but you will save a few hundred bucks on lighting.

Keep in mind that with a 24″ max coverage radius you will need to purchase multiple units for larger tanks and the distance between the lights will sometimes create a shadow effect between them if you do not have the lights high enough or if you hang them too far apart. The one caveat I need to mention about hanging lights very high off the tank (any lighting system) is that you will be wasting a lot of light on the front and back walls of the aquarium, and this will create excess algae. You need to find the sweet spot that will allow you to get good side to side coverage without too much direct light on the front glass. This is especially hard in some of the more narrow tanks.

Elite LED Lighting Systems

These are the best systems money can buy. While I don’t personally believe they are necessary to sustain reef animals, they have been proven to keep the most demanding corals alive and thriving. If you go with these lights I know you will be happy with your purchase, but be prepared to spend big bucks.