Updated: March 10, 2021 - By: - Categories: Equipment, Reef aquarium

The rise of LED technology in recent years has directly contributed to the convenience of keeping corals in home aquariums. LED lights are usually effortless to set up and install. They also produce less heat and have a longer lifespan, up to 5-7 years and more. These qualities make LEDs the best choice for reef aquariums that need very high output lighting.

The LED lights used in reef aquariums differ from their freshwater counterparts in various ways. Let’s take a look at some of the factors that make reef aquariums so unique.

How to choose LED lights for reef aquariums?

20-gallon-reef-tank.jpg

The types of corals in your reef aquarium are an important factor in deciding which light is right for the tank. Fish-only with live rock (FOWLR) tanks will need less lighting than reef tanks, soft coral tanks need less lighting than hard coral tanks, and Acropora corals require the highest lighting of up to 500+ PAR.

There are many factors to consider when you are in the market for a good LED light for your reef aquariums. First of all, you have to choose the right type with blue lighting that corals can use for photosynthesis. Then, ensure the light you choose provides enough light for the corals you have in the tank.

The following parameters can help you determine which product is the best fit for your tank’s requirements.

Choosing the right type – Color temperature (Kelvin rating)

color-temperature

Kelvin ratings (1,000-12,000) and corresponding light colors (wikipedia.org)

Color temperature, which can simply understand as the color of the output light, determined by its Kelvin Rating. The deeper the natural habitats of a coral species, the more blue (higher Kelvin rating) it adapts to. This is because when sunlight (white light) penetrates deeply through the water, only blue light with higher energy remains while other light colors with lower energy are absorbed.

Corals are most beautiful when growing under specific light colors, based on the species. The light colors are not necessarily that of their natural habitats. The truth is that corals thrive well under white light (6500K) but appears less attractive colors (commonly yellowish). However, white lights also promote harmful algae as algae tends to use more red, yellow, and green light for photosynthesis, compared to coral.

Lower color temperatures facilitate growing but sacrificing coloration. Giving more blue, corals have to adjust their pigment to adapt to the light, and the result is usually more attractive colors.

So, which Kelvin ratings are suitable for reef tanks? 10,000K is optimal for both growth and coloration, go higher when your focus is on the colors. The range from 10,000-20,000K is commonly used by reefers. This range provides adequate blue for coral photosynthesis and fluorescence, less white for microalgae, and gives the most stunning view for enjoying.

Based on different stages of your reef system, you should use a specific color temperature for the balance between growth and coloration. It is better to start with the lighting conditions (colors and intensities) similar to that of the tanks of the stores where you buy your corals from, then gradually change, based on their appearance, to slowly acclimate the corals.

Enough quantity/intensity – PAR

For aquarium lights, the PAR indicates the amount of radiation that corals can use for photosynthesis and growth, so-called photosynthetic active radiation. It varies in the aquarium based on the distance between the reading spot and the light. PAR is typically measured as the units of μMol/m2/s.

PAR measurement of a ViparSpectra fixturePAR measurement of a ViparSpectra fixture

The previous picture shows the PAR measurements of a ViparSpectra reef light fixture. As you can see in the picture, further spots from the light get lower PAR readings. Basically, different types of corals need different PAR levels to thrive properly. And your work is to put the right coral in the right spot where it receives just enough of what it needs. Please that I mean “just enough” because too much lighting can cause bleaching and death.

How much lighting (PAR) for soft/LPS/SPS corals?

The following information can serve as a guide for various saltwater aquarium species:

Species Light level PAR range (umol*m-2*sec-1)
Fish only with live rock (FOWLR) not specifically require just bright enough
Macroalgae low (*) 30-50, like freshwater plants
Low light LPS (around 30% of LPS) low 50-100, require regular feeding
Soft corals, Mushroom, most LPS low – moderate 100-150, suitable for most
Zoanthids, Palythoas, several LPS moderate 150-200
Derasa clams, Anemones, several SPS high 250-300
Montipora and other SPS intense 300-400
Crocea and Maxima clams, Acropora SPS extreme 400-500+

* Low: < 100, moderate: 150, high: 250, intense: > 300. These apply to all articles on Portland Aquarium.

It is better to start with the lighting conditions (colors and intensities) similar to that of the tanks of the stores where you buy your corals from. However, if you don’t know where to get started, acclimate your corals with lower PAR of their respective PAR ranges, then slowly increase to prevent bleaching.

Manufacturers usually provide you the PAR metrics of their products, especially ones that are specially for photosynthetic organisms like plants and corals. However, if you can’t find this information from the manufacturer, try to search on Google, so many reefers publish their measurements on forums or their websites.

Apogee PAR meterApogee PAR meter

You can also measure it by using a PAR meter; however, this instrument will cost you a fair amount of money. The Apogee PAR meter with its waterproof sensor is intended for measuring in water environments, including saltwater reef aquariums.

How many watts per gallon for reef LED lights?

In case you can’t find the PAR information of the light you are interested in, you can use our ‘watt per gallon’ guide for reef tanks. It is not as exact as the PAR but gives you a relative view of the light.

Based on the PAR of many reef tank LED lights on the market, we suggest the following table:

PAR @ 12-inch depth PAR @ 24-inch depth Estimated watt/gallon
30-50 (macroalgae, refugium) 0.5-0.7 W/GAL
100-150 (Soft corals, Mushroom, most LPS) 30-50 (macroalgae) 0.8-1.2 W/GAL
150-300 (Zoanthids, Palythoas, high-light LPS) 50-100 (low light LPS) 1.2-2.5 W/GAL
300-450 (Montipora and other SPS) 100-150 (Soft corals, Mushroom, most LPS) 2.5-4 W/GAL
450-600 (Crocea and Maxima clams, Acropora SPS) 150-200 (Zoanthids, Palythoas, several LPS) 4-5 W/GAL
250-300 (Derasa clams, Anemones, several low-light SPS) 6-8 W/GAL

The table is only applied for LED reef lights. 3-4 watts/gallon is enough to grow most types of corals provided that different-demanding corals are placed in different spots, near or far from the light source, where they get just enough light they need.

Other factors to consider

Some other factors to consider when making the purchase are:

Best LED reef aquarium lights – PAR comparison table

Model Our rating PAR Reviewed version Available options Ideal for Spread LEDs & channels Controller
ViparSpectra 165W LED light editor's ratingViparSpectra 165W LED light 325 @ 24-inch depth 165-watt 165/300W High light SPS corals 24 x 24″ 55 LEDs with two channels blue and white built-in timer, remote control
Current USA Orbit Marine LED Light 24-inch editor's ratingCurrent USA Orbit Marine IC PRO 100 @ 21-inch depth 144-watt (72-inch) 42-144W (18- inches) soft/LPS/ low-light SPS corals 72-inch length 288 LEDs, two channels mobile app control via Bluetooth
NICREW HyperReef Aquarium Reef Light editor's ratingNICREW HyperReef 50 128 @ 24-inch depth 50-watt 30/50/ 100/150W most types of corals 18 x 18″ 24 LEDs, two channels
AquaIllumination AI Prime 16 HD Reef Aquarium LED editor's ratingAquaIllumination AI Prime 16 HD 100 @ 24-inch depth 60-watt AI Prime 16/32/64 most types of corals 24 x 24″ 17 LEDs, 7 color channel Bluetooth app control
Lominie LED Aquarium Light, Saltwater editor's ratingLominie S120 saltwater LED light 80-watt 48/80W most types of corals 24 x 24″ 68 LEDs, 4 channels remote control for color adjustments
Kessil A360WE Controllable LED Tuna Blue editor's ratingKessil A360WE Tuna Blue designed for deep penetration 90-watt lower output Kessil A160WE most types of corals 24 x 24″ densely-packed LEDs
NICREW Saltwater Aquarium Light 36-inch editor's ratingNICREW Saltwater 36-inch 110 @ 12-inch depth 32 watts 18-36 inches saltwater fish, live rock, soft coral, and LPS corals 36-inch length 117 LEDs, 2 channels included timer for day and night
DSunY 3X LED Reef Light editor's ratingDSunY 3X LED Reef Light 110 watts per unit High demanding SPS 72-inch reef 40 LEDs, 4 channels timer controller with preset modes
Relassy Aquarium Led Light 800W editor's ratingRelassy Aquarium Led Light 300W for 30-inch deep tanks 300 watts High demanding SPS 150-200+ Gal deep reef 168 LEDs

Reef tank LED light reviews

ViparSpectra 165 W LED light for high light SPS corals

The ViparSpectra 165W LED light focuses on providing high lighting output, as it is scientifically engineered to keep the PAR output and coverage balanced. The PAR value can reach 325 at 24-inch height, which is high enough to deal with even the most demanding reef tanks.

PAR measurementPAR measurement

This product also prides itself on including a full spectrum of colors to achieve the balance of strong output and stunning visibility. This layout can promote the photosynthesis of corals, ensuring a healthy ecological environment for your aquarium. This also benefits the growth of any SPS and LPS corals present underneath.

The light fixture with a built-in controllerThe light fixture with a built-in controller

The light features both two color channels, blue and white, adjusted uniformly from 0%-100% to meet your corals, reef, and fish’s different needs. You can turn on the blue and white channels simultaneously or turn them on separately, as these two channels are controlled independently. Each channel can be programmed separately with an included timer, too.

You can use the white channel only for a freshwater planted tank; however, it is not economically efficient to use a reef light in this way.

Wireless remote controlWireless remote control

The remote control is easy to understand and use. The CLOCK button is for setting your local time for the first setup; the four C1,2 ON/OFF buttons for setting the times to turn on/off channel 1 or 2; the arrows are for easier programming; the OK saves your customizations.

For prolonging its lifetime up to 100,000 hours, the fixture uses a cooling system with two quiet fans. It also comes with two hanging kits for easy setup.

Current USA Orbit Marine IC Pro for soft/LPS corals

The Orbit Marine LED from Current is an affordable pick if your tank is low-average demanding in lighting. It features ultra-bright LEDs covering the entire color spectrum. The numbers of LEDs of different fixture sizes are given in the following picture.

Spectrum and PAR measurementSpectrum and PAR measurement

This product contains a higher ratio of actinic blue spectrum LEDs that are advantageous to corals. Wide-angle dispersion lenses evenly spread light over your entire tank while ensuring superior color blending. Because of its average PAR output, it perfectly suits reef tanks that house soft, LPS, and low-light SPS corals.

Mobile app controlMobile app control

It comes with a controller to use with a mobile app for you to fully program the light schedule and color channels. Both iOS and Android apps are available for download.

The app includes a preset 24-hour automatic lighting schedule and various ready-to-use modes. It also allows you to control Current USA wave markers within only a single app, which is a big plus of this product.

The preset lighting program greatly creates a 24-hour natural biorhythmic lighting cycle and you don’t need to worry about which lighting schedule to go with. From start-up to sundown, the Orbit Marine can replicate and stimulate the realistic sunrise, bright daylight, dimming sunset, and moonlight in your aquarium.

The light also offers modes that dim at regular intervals to create cloud cover effects, storm modes complete with lightning strikes, and innovative evening modes that include lunar and dusk – it’s sure to add excitement and intrigue to any aquarium.

This product also boasts a no-brainer installation process with its extendable brackets, which enable it to fit most aquarium fish tanks 72-80 inches wide. Other options are also available for tanks from 18-60 inches long.

NICREW HyperReef 50 – cheap and high output

The new HyperReef aquarium light from NICREW is a fantastic product to look at for your reef tank. It features a full-color spectrum that can promote optimal coral growth and enhance dramatic coloration while creating a gentle shimmer throughout the aquarium. This gives the product an edge over its competition, as it is designed explicitly with corals in mind.

NICREW HyperReef Aquarium Reef LightNICREW HyperReef Aquarium Reef Light

The 50W unit also boasts very good PAR output with a peak of 128µMol at a depth of 24 inches. With this high performance, it works well for a nano reef (which is usually around 12 inches deep) with even the most demanding SPS. It is also available in many other options from 30 to 150W, with impressive outputs and very affordable prices.

The PAR of the 150W unit is impressively 305 at 28-inch depth. That means it produces enough light for high light demanding corals like SPS. So, based on the coral types you have and the sizes of your tank, you should use suitable light units to provides sufficient lighting for the corals.

The recommended spread of the HypeReef 50 is 18 inches in diameter and the maximum spread is up to 24 inches. This means one unit will perfectly fit a 10-gallon nano reef tank without any problem.

Two color channels and three modesTwo color channels and three modes

The touch button control on the front of the light allows you to switch between modes with the M button, and adjust the intensities of blue and white channels independently with the B and W buttons.

This product uses smart fans for temperature control, ensuring the working conditions remain optimal and consistent.

Moreover, this product also features easy installation and flexibility as other clip-on LED lights. It comes with a tank mount and you don’t need to buy anything for the setup. The tank mount works fine for both rimmed and rimless tanks.

The HyperReef 50 doesn’t include a hanging kit for hanging options while the HyperReef 150 does. However, if you want to hang it, just buy a hanging kit. I prefer mounting to hanging for small light units.

AquaIllumination AI Prime 16 HD Reef Aquarium LED

The new AI Prime 16HD is a product from Aqua Illumination (AI). It is a compelling option to consider, as it incorporates 16 LEDs and an all-new TIR (Total Internal Reflection) optic. This enables the product to provide higher PAR values, and the improved optic design ensures a better spread and penetration of light in the tank.

This product is designed with ease of use in mind, and an excellent quality of life feature that this LED light has is the ability to control it via your phone. This can be done through an existing myAI app, which is free, simple, and easy to set up. The light connects to your smart device via its BLE (Bluetooth Low Energy) onboard without an additional device requirement.

The app allows you to easily create a lighting schedule for your aquarium so that all the LEDs work in conjunction with each other. It also features an acclimation mode allowing you to set starting intensity for your livestock to settle in, which will then increase over time. It also allows for the period which you require.

The big drawback of this product is that it isn’t ready for the setup as it doesn’t include anything for hanging or mounting itself. Luckily, it is compatible with many hardware options from the manufacturer to serve different applications from mounting to hanging. These devices can work with many light units.

Lominie S120 saltwater LED light for nano reef tanks

This clip-on LED light is ready to use for a nano reef tank under 10 gallons. It is built with 68 x 3W LEDs, which are divided into four channels for independent and easy control with a remote. Thanks to the design, you can fully customize the light to reach your desired color and intensity.

Please note that it doesn’t have a built-in timer and the remote is only for color customizations. It is compatible with a Wifi controller (sold separately), which works with a mobile app to control many light units. The Wifi controller allows for timing, color adjusting, and features a few ready-to-use modes.

Lominie S120 saltwater LED lightLominie S120 saltwater LED light

What I love best about this product is its setup ease and flexibility. It is very easy to set up with the bendable gooseneck, just slide it onto the back edge of your aquarium, then secure it with two included plastic screws. With the recommended spread of 24-inch diameters, one unit is perfect for a 24-inch cube or a small reef tank under 20 gallons.  You may need more than one unit for larger tanks.

Kessil A360WE Tuna Blue controllable LED aquarium light

The new A160WE LED light from Kessil is another featured product. This product uses a densely-packed LED array to provides a powerful light source for better penetration without sacrificing coverage. It is capable of providing up to 24 inches of the spread of light from a compact fixture measuring 3.6 inches tall and only 4 inches in diameter.

The main selling point of this product is its high performance and low maintenance design. It is compatible with a spectral controller from Kessil (buy separately), which allows for an automatic lighting schedule and customization ability. Each unit features two ports for connecting with a controller and another light one. This forms a daisy chain of multiple lights controlled with only one controller.

kessil-tuna-blue

Image from Kessil

By setting up many light units at small intervals, you can make the total PAR output as high as you want to meet the needs of a deep reef tank. This feature is also useful for aquarium stores that have many nano reef tanks.

The light also has a wide range of different features, such as the shimmer feature, which imitates natural sunlight on a coral reef. Two control knobs on its back allow you to respectively adjust the intensity and color spectrum to meet your desired lighting.

This simple and compact unit operates so quietly with its innovative heat management. It comes with two hanging kits for the setup.

NICREW saltwater aquarium LED light, cheap for low light corals

Another option from Nicrew but with a bar-structured fixture and extendable brackets for easy mounting on aquarium edges. This saltwater aquarium LED light is not only cheap but also comes with everything you need for the setup, including a dual-channel timer wired within the power cord.

NICREW saltwater aquarium light 30-inchNICREW saltwater aquarium light 30-inch

The PAR @ 12-inch depth is 110, which provides just enough light for most low-moderate light corals including most Softies, Mushrooms, Anemones, LPS, and Zoanthids. That are all most saltwater starters want to have in a small reef setup from 20-29 gallons.

DSunY 3X LED Reef Light 360W for 100/120/125-gallon reef

This combo comes with 3 units and is intended for a 72-inch reef system (100/120/125 gallons) with a depth of around 20 inches. You can’t use one unit for a 20-gallon tank because the output will be so large that only very high-light SPS corals can survive.

The set comes with a controller that is specifically designed to simulate the effect of natural sunlight on home reef tanks. The smart controller allows you to fully customize light intensities at specific times of a day and it will repeat your setup day by day. It also gives you so many preset modes and weather effects that are ready to use.

Smart controller with multi preset modesSmart controller with multi preset modes

The product’s multi LEDs provide a full spectrum of colors. The lens’s beam angle is 120 degrees, which ensures that the light will be spread evenly throughout the tank. It also boasts a product lifespan of 50,000 to 80,000 hours.

For the setup, it comes with three adjustable hanging kits and two-panel rail kits for hanging options. It also comes with double S-shaped hooks for placing the controller on.

Relassy aquarium LED Light 300W for large reef 150-200+ gallon

This 300W LED light from Relassy is a great featured product for large reef systems. It includes 168 LEDs and 24 reflector cups. The product enables its light to reach as deep as 30 inches into your reef aquarium with almost no loss in light energy by focusing the light beam. This can be a swaying factor for people looking to set up deeper and larger coral tanks.

Relassy Aquarium Led Light 300WRelassy Aquarium Led Light 300W

It is simply designed with two switches enabling you to adjust its two-color channels blue and white freely. It has a port to connect to another light in case you need to use more than one unit on your tank. It doesn’t come with a timer and you have to buy one if you don’t want to turn it on/off daily by your hands.

This product also boasts a cooling system that automatically turns on its fans if the temperature exceeds a certain threshold. Like other LED lights for large tanks, it comes with hanging kits for hanging.

Frequently asked questions

Which light schedule is best for reef tanks?

reef-aquarium-light

A lighting schedule indicates how long you should keep the LED lights on in your reef aquarium ever. The primary objective of a reef aquarium is to simulate a natural ocean environment for the corals. While it’s impossible to perfectly replicate the ocean’s unique habitat, with a little trial-and-error, you’ll find a reef tank lighting schedule that works best.

Most reef tanks need 10-12 hours of lighting a day to thrive, based on the intensity of the light. If you run the light in a higher PAR range of your corals, you will need less lighting time and vice versa. You can add 1.5 hours of relatively low intensities on both ends of the main photoperiod to acclimate the corals to the changes between day and night.

How much light should be delivered to the corals?

The amount of light required in a reef aquarium largely depends on the types of corals it hosts. Different kinds of corals need different levels of PAR to grow to their full potential. The best choice is to opt for the strategic approach of placing the corals closer or further away from the lights, to ensure that each coral gets the right amount of light.

How can I determine light acclimate and intensity?

A sudden increase in light levels is one of the leading causes that stress corals and trigger a phenomenon known as coral bleaching. This occurs when a coral colony loses its symbiotic zooxanthellae. This is the algae that give the corals colors and nutrients for life, and their expulsion can often lead to a lighter or completely white appearance and death.

bleaching-coral

Bleaching coral

It is recommended to always acclimate your corals at low PAR spots of their respective PAR ranges, then slowly increase to prevent bleaching.

What lights for a refugium?

refugium

Growing Chaeto algae in a refugium

A refugium is a smaller, supplemental aquarium kept in tandem with a saltwater or reef tank. Its primary function is to continually cycle water into and out of the main tank for additional filtration. The main purpose of it is to remove nitrate by using green plants, especially macroalgae. Plants use nitrate as their nutrients for growth and propagation. Then you can easily remove a part of their population.

Your main purpose is to grow, grow, and grow the macroalgae at the highest level. You don’t need to enjoy your refugium. So, choosing an LED light that is best in growing plants is all you need for a refugium. You can use a freshwater plant white LED light for the refugium; however, refugium lights with more red and blue in the spectrum are better to grow plants.

Why are reef lights so expensive?

Generally, LED lights designed for reef aquariums are expensive. This is because they have to be developed according to the unique demands of the various types of corals, and must be capable of producing high Kelvin ratings and PAR output.

Due to coral needs, reef lights consume more energy and produce more heat, which requires an effective cooling system. This is in contrast with fish-only or planted aquariums, whose lighting requirements are not as intensive.

They also use a lens for better coverage and color blending. Combine this with the nature of reef aquariums as a niche hobby, and it is no surprise that LED lights usually come with a hefty price tag.

Conclusion

Selecting the right LED lights for your reef aquarium can be a daunting task, as the unique demands of the corals place more restrictions on the types of lights that are best suited to create a healthy ecosystem in the tank. The products covered in this article are a great jumping-off point, but it pays to do some further research to satisfy your tank’s unique needs.

Lucas has been keeping successful fish, planted, and reef tanks for many years. He loves to collect aquatic organisms and keep as many aquariums as he can.

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