The Best Aquarium Lighting

The Best Aquarium Lighting

The Best Aquarium Lighting

by Summer Johnson, Marketing Specialist, Parrott Aquatic

Aquarium Lighting

It’s easy to get lost when choosing a lighting system for your tank. Let us help you pick the right one.

Proper aquarium lighting is essential for maintaining a happy and healthy tank. With rapid changes in lighting technology, it’s hard to know what aquarium lighting works best for your tank. It all depends on your aquarium’s purpose. Are you growing plants or corals? LPS or SPS? Is it fish-only? By answering these, you’ll be on your way to making an educated decision on the best lighting for your tank.

To skip the text, use our aquarium lighting infographic HERE!



  • Visibility: In its most basic function, aquarium lighting allows you to see and enjoy your aquarium.
  • Photosynthesis: Light provides vital energy for plants, anemones, coral, and animals who produce their own food through photosynthesis. (Read this if you need a refresher on photosynthesis.)
  • Behavior: Lighting consistency can impact your aquarium’s behavior and sleeping patterns.



We’ve listed some common “uh-oh” lighting scenarios below and the symptoms they could cause in your tank. If you think your tank is suffering from poor lighting conditions, call a professional to check your light conditions with a PAR Meter reading.

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Symptoms of Poor Aquarium Lighting
We’ve listed some common symptoms of poor aquarium lighting. Call a professional for a PAR meter reading if you notice any of these symptoms in your tank.
  • LIGHTING LEFT ON TOO LONG promotes green algae growth and may stress fish by changing their natural sleep cycle.



  • LIGHT INTENSITY THAT’S TOO HIGH scorches your tank like a sunburn.


  • LIGHTS LEFT OFF TOO LONG won’t provide enough energy for photosynthesis causing photosynthetic plants and animals to slowly die of starvation.


  • LIGHT INTENSITY THAT’S TOO LOW stunts photosynthesis causing the tank to slowly die.


Let’s explain this more realistically: You wouldn’t keep your kid awake (or make them sleep) for your own convenience. You wouldn’t let your child outside on a sunny day without sun-protection, and you wouldn’t starve them. By investing in your aquarium’s lighting, you will ensure that none of these things happen to your tank.

Having an aquarium means taking care of it like the rest of your family. Please be a responsible pet owner and contact your aquarium specialists if you suspect something is wrong.



Understanding Light
Before choosing the best aquarium light, you need to know the basics.

You’ve probably heard about Kelvin and Lumens, but there are other ways we measure light. Here we’ve listed some common definitions of different light measurements.

  • KELVIN – Kelvin measures light’s color temperature or intensity. The light spectrum ranges from bluish, cooler hues to reddish, warmer hues. vibrations in a wavelength determine it’s hue. With that said, the higher the light intensity, the bluer the hues.

The more you know about light’s intensity, the more equipped you are to provide the correct lighting conditions for your tank.

Measuring light’s intensity is important for aquariums because it tells you what life it can support.  For example, SPS corals require a higher intensity light on the Kelvin scale than LPS corals because they are naturally found closer to the ocean’s surface.  Conversely, LPS corals require less intense light because they are found deeper in the ocean.

The Kelvin Scale measures light's color and temperature.
Kelvin is a common unit of measurement for light color and temperature.
  • LUMEN – Lumen refers to the amount of light produced by a light source. You might see this measurement on flashlight packaging.


  • LUX – A derivative of Lumens, Lux refers to the number of lumens falling on an object’s surface. In other words, Lux measures how bright the surface of an object is to the human eye. It also explains the relationship between surface brightness and the distance of the object from the light source.



  • PAR – PAR refers to lightwaves that fall into an appropriate range for photosynthetic growth. Ask a professional for a PAR meter reading for your tank to get your lighting conditions just right.


  • WATTS – Watts measure how much energy it takes a light to operate.

Now you know how to measure light, let’s compare different kinds of light to see which works best for your tank. As we mentioned before, each aquarium is unique, and you should customize your lighting kit accordingly. Below we’ve listed some general information about different kinds of aquarium lighting.


Types of Aquarium Lighting

We all know there are different kinds of light bulbs for our home, but the same goes for our aquarium. Below we discuss the pros an cons of the 4 major types of light bulbs.

Incandescent Bulbs


Incandescent Bulb.
Incandescent bulbs work well for beginner, fish-only, fresh and saltwater aquariums.

Kelvin Range of Incandescent Bulbs:

  • Soft White: 2700K-3000k
  • Bright White/Cool White: 3500K-4100K
  • Daylight: 5000K-6500K

Pros of Incandescent Bulbs:

  • Incandescent bulbs are used for fresh & saltwater, fish-only aquariums for beginners.
  • These bulbs are user-friendly and are affordable to replace.
  • Incandescent bulbs offer a wide range of intensity to allow some color control.

Cons of Incandescent Bulbs: 

  • The light intensity for these bulbs is not adjustable. If you need to change your light intensity, you’ll have to replace the bulb.
  • Most incandescent bulbs won’t last long, so you’ll need to replace them often.
  • Incandescent systems cost about 3.5x more to operate than fluorescent and other newer lighting systems.
  • Incandescent bulbs don’t offer high-intensity lights suitable for reef tanks.
  • These bulbs are also prone to overheating which can cause fires and harm your tank.

Compact Fluorescent Bulbs

Compact Fluorescent Light
Compact Fluorescent lights are a step up from regular incandescent bulbs and operate 3.5 more efficiently.

Kelvin Range of Compact Fluorescent Bulbs:

  • 4500K-6000K

Pros of Compact Fluorescent Bulbs:

  • Compact fluorescent bulbs can be used for fresh and saltwater aquariums.
  • These bulbs are designed to produce more light in the same amount of space by using 2-4 tube bulbs. So you’ll use fewer compact fluorescent bulbs to achieve the same effects of incandescent bulbs.
  • Compact fluorescent systems are affordable to install and operate.
  • Compact fluorescent replacement bulbs are affordable.
  • Similar to incandescent bulbs, a wide range of bulbs are available for color control.

Cons of Compact Fluorescent Bulbs:

  • Compact fluorescent lights only offer a few high-intensity lighting options, but these are not suitable for reef tanks with corals.
  • These bulbs burn out somewhat quickly, but not as fast as incandescent bulbs. You’ll need to replace them often.
  • Compact fluorescent bulbs do not offer lighting intensity adjustments. If you need to change your light intensity, you’ll have to replace the bulb.

Metal Halide (HID) Bulbs

Metal Halide Lights
Metal Halide lights are appropriate for some high-intensity reefs.

Kelvin Range of Metal Halide Bulbs:

  • 3000K-20,000K

Pros of Metal Halide Bulbs:

  • Metal halide bulbs are best for reef tanks with high-intensity lighting needs.
  • Some metal halide bulbs can support beginner corals.
  • These bulbs are good for large or deep (greater than 24″) aquariums that require more light.
  • Metal halide bulbs come in different color intensities for some color control.

Cons of Metal Halide Bulbs: 

  • Metal halide bulbs are very expensive to install and replace.
  • HID lighting kits require an additional piece for setup called a ballast. This is to help regulate starting currents.
  • The replacement bulbs are expensive, and cost begins around $50.00.
  • Most metal halide bulbs are not adjustable.  If you need a different light intensity, you’ll have to replace the bulb.
  • Towards the end of the bulb life, these lights will begin to fade and lose their color intensity. This could cause harm to your tank if left under these conditions for too long.

Light Emitting Diode (LED) Bulbs

LED Aquarium LIght
LED lights are a great choice for tanks with high-intensity lighting needs.

Kelvin Range of LED Bulbs:

  • 2700K-7000K

Pros of LED Bulbs:

  • LED lights are the newest lighting technology in the industry.
  • LEDs are adjustable and offer exceptional, precision color and intensity control.
  • These bulbs work well for all tanks, especially advanced reef tanks.
  • LEDs are able to support LPS & SPS corals.
  • They have the lowest operating costs.
  • LED bulbs can last up to 20 years.

Cons of LED Bulbs:

  • LED setups are expensive up-front, but pay off over time because operating costs are so low.
  • Replacement bulbs start at $80.00.

What’s in your aquarium?

What's in Your Tank?
Depending on what you have in your aquarium, your lighting needs will vary over time. Take a look at what lighting works best for your aquarium.

Now we know all the different types of light, and how to measure them, but which one is best for your aquarium? Below are generally accepted rules for choosing light for your aquarium. Be sure to ask your aquarium specialists for a professional PAR meter reading to find out exactly what works for your tank.

  • Fish-only Aquariums = 1 to 2 watts of lighting per gallon.


Fish-only aquariums are a little more forgiving in their lighting needs. You could use a normal fluorescent bulb, but if you want something long-term, look at LEDs.


  • Freshwater Planted Aquariums = 2 to 5 watts per gallon.

We recommend LED lights for freshwater aquarium plants because it’s more cost-effective. Regular fluorescent bulbs won’t last long, but an LED light will work with the same intensity even after 1000 hours.


  • Reef Aquariums = 4 to 8 watts per gallon.

Most reef aquariums will have a combination of LPS and SPS corals. You’ll find LPS corals are more common in reef tanks because they grow at greater depths in the ocean. It’s easier to replicate the natural, low-intensity light they prefer in comparison to the high-intensity light required by SPS corals.

SPS corals are more difficult to maintain because they naturally grow closer to the surface on an ocean reef. It’s easy to scorch them if the lighting is too harsh. We only recommend SPS corals for serious aquarists because the LED lighting kit required is a large investment.


What lighting brand should I use?

Like anything, you’ll find a lot of different brands while you’re doing your research. To make it easier, we listed our favorite brands for aquarium lighting below.

Ecotech Marine:

Ecotech Marine
We use our Ecotech Marine lights for our frag tank at the shop.

Ecotech Marine‘s patented HEI design and Radion bulbs make them a titan of the industry. Their lights increase the PAR range in your tank while showing off its robust colors in style. They have a sleek suspension design and a wireless control app for your convenience.


Although we use our Ecotech lights for growing coral in our frag tank, they have 3 different Radion XR light kits for pros of all levels. Their Radion light has an amazing spectrum that’s great for mixed reefs with SPS & LPS corals.


Kessil also has high-quality light appropriate for mixed reef aquariums. We don’t recommend them for SPS corals. What sets Kessil lights apart is the realistic shimmer effect. It looks natural and eye-catching!  We also think they have the best customer service, and the best warranty in the industry (2-years)!

Ryan from Bulk Reef Supply reviews the Kessil A360W. He concluded that when mounted correctly, Kessil’s light does a great job of distributing light evenly. The A360W also offers a broad PAR spectrum suitable for smaller SPS dominant tanks.

Kessil Lights
We use our Kessil lights on our coral tank at the shop.




Protect your investments and choose your aquarium’s lighting carefully. Your inhabitants will “tank you” for it later! To get the most enjoyment out of your aquarium, hire a professional for a PAR Meter reading. This is the only way to ensure your tank lighting is set up properly.

Give us a call at (865) 253-2846 to schedule a PAR Meter light reading or to learn more about lighting for your aquarium today!



The Best Aquarium Lighting Review:

Did you miss something? We’ve got you covered.  Check out our snazzy infographic below to recap what you’ve learned.

The Best Aquarium Lighting
Need help choosing the best lighting for your aquarium? We’ve put together some helpful information for you here!

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