One of the most confusing aspects of setting up your tank is the lighting to use. Today there are many types to choose from, including the Incandescent, Fluorescent and the Metal Halide.
In this section I will give a brief description of each type and then some of the aquarium uses for each.

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  • Incandescent:This is the type lighting that you see around your home. Incandescent bulbs are used in lamps, desk lights and spotlights etc., these lamps give a natural pleasing light but are useful for only the smallest of aquariums. They give off a lot of heat and are not energy efficient.
  • Fluorescent:This is the most widely used aquarium lighting. They come in all lengths and wattage. They also can be made to any color spectrum from the Red to the Blue-White. These bulbs can be used on Freshwater plant tanks to Salt water Mini-Reef set ups. The fixtures for these bulbs are as diverse as the bulbs . There is the simple one bulb fixture, the multiple bulb type, where you can mix and match different color bulbs for that custom look. You can also purchase the components at any hardware store and design your own fixture.
  • Full spectrum or Daylight bulbs
    Full spectrum or Daylight bulbs try to closely imitate the look of natural sunlight. They provide a wide spectrum of Red, Yellow, Blue and Green light. These type bulbs are a good choice for use in most aquarium applications. These bulbs are also used at the same time with the Actinic bulbs used in Salt water setups. Full spectrum and Daylight bulbs offer a natural appearance and provide a good source of light for Freshwater plants. Some brand names to look for.

    1. Phillips Ultralume
    2. Coralife Trichromatic
    3. Aquarium products Beauty light
    4. Duro Vita Lite
    5. G.E. Chroma 50 and Chroma 75
  • Actinic bulbs
    Actinic bulbs provide their spectrum in the range required for the the Photosynthetic process and health of Marine corals and Invertebrates and to a lesser extent freshwater plants. Actinic bulbs should not be used alone , but in conjunction with other full spectrum bulbs. Actinic bulbs are heavy in the blue light and can give everything a bluish tint. Some brands to look for.

    1. Phillips Actinic 03
    2. Coralife 7100K actinic and Magtinic
    3. Aquarium products Blue Moon
    4. Duro Vita lite Aquatinic
    5. Voltarc Actinic
  • Other bulbs
    There are also available many hybrid bulbs which contain a mix of full spectrum and Actinic Phosphors, these can be useful where you have a light fixture that can hold only one.
  • Metal-Halide:The new kid on the block, Metal-Halides are the ultimate in aquarium lighting (and price). They are the best lights for Freshwater plant tanks as well as Saltwater mini-Reefs. These bulbs produce a very bright, high quality light. They come in the the most varied of color temperatures ranging from 4000o to 20000o Kelvin and the Actinic 03 needed by Reef tanks.Metal Halide fixtures are designed to either hang above the fish tank or be mounted in special tops, in order to disperse the light and the amount of heat radiated to the aquarium. Although the ultimate in lighting, due to their high cost and special safety requirements I do not recommend them for the beginner.


There are four main aquarium lighting situations.

  1. A Freshwater tank with no live plants.
  2. A Freshwater tank with live plants.
  3. A Saltwater fish only tank.
  4. A Saltwater Reef or semi Reef tank containing live corals and invertebrates as well as fish.

#1 Freshwater tank with no live plants

  • This type aquarium can be lit with Fluorescent lamps designed with color enhancement or simple shop lights available at the hardware store. The number of tubes and the duration of the lighting are not critical, as you only want to see your fish. Incandescent bulbs can be used on smaller set ups under 10 gallons in size. One drawback to this lighting is that as water quality goes down the growth of the undesirable brown and black algae becomes a problem.

#2 Freshwater tank with live plants
The options and choices involved in this type set up are a little more diverse. The plants in the tank need more high quality light for Photosynthesis. Here you can use two different types of systems.

  • Metal Halide systems provide the best lighting for aquarium plants. These lights provide intense high quality light without the need for multiple tubes. Metal Halide systems are very costly and are out of the reach of most beginner hobbyist.
  • Fluorescent systems can provide enough light for plants, but you will have to use multiple tubes. The bulbs chosen should be full spectrum to allow for photosynthesis, the so called aquarium plant lights sold are not the best choice.
    Fluorescent lamps come in different types the normal output (NO) or the very high output (VHO) are the most common. The VHO bulbs produce much more light than the NO bulbs but require a special ballast to ignite them. Multiple fluorescent tube fixtures are the best choice for the beginner.

#3 Saltwater fish only tanks

  • These set ups can be lit with multiple full spectrum fluorescent lamps in either the normal output or the vho system. Although the light is not required for the fish you want to make sure that is of a quality that will promote the growth of the Green algae that some marine fish relish. Insufficient light will promote the growth of the undesirable algae.

#4 Saltwater reef and semi reef set ups

  • These set ups need very intense high quality lighting. Smaller tanks can be lit with multiple fluorescent tubes, while the larger tanks will need VHO or Metal Halide systems. Proper photosynthesis can only happen with intense full spectrum lighting. Improper lighting in reef aquariums will cause the Zooxanthellae in Anemones and corals to die and they will shrink to nothing. It is important to know that lighting in a reef tank is more important than filtration.


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