Aquarium Lighting Types & Different Setups

Selecting the right aquarium light is one of the most important fish tank accessories in determining factors in the health of the fish tank fish and plant life in your tank.  The healthiest aquariums are those that closely mimic the natural conditions of the inhabitants, and aquarium lights are a big contributor to creating the perfect environment.  They are not only important for the health of your fish tank, but they are also one of the most important aquarium decorations you will have as well, affecting the look of the entire fish tank.


The contents of an aquarium will determine the type of bulb that should be used and the amount of time per day it should be left on.  You can use aquarium stands to hide all the wires from the light bulbs as well.  Use the following to guide the search for the perfect aquarium lighting to fit your needs.

Most starter fish tank sets include a small tank, a filter, an aquarium light bulb and a built in fixture.  Typically, the lights included in these sets are fluorescent.  They do well to light fish-only aquariums, and will not generate an amount of heat they may harm the fish.  The light given off by this type of aquarium light bulb is not very intense and is not recommended for tanks that include plant life.  Some advantages of fluorescent bulbs are that they are easy to replace, use little energy, and replacement bulbs can be purchased almost anywhere.

Aquarium LED lighting can be used as the primary source of light in an aquarium, or to simulate moonlight overnight.  LED lighting is a favorite among aquarium enthusiasts because the light bulbs rarely need to be replaced.  They also require less energy than other high power options. To supplement another light source, consider lunar LED aquarium light bulbs.

These are left on overnight and provide light that will not disturb diurnal fish, but that is bright enough to simulate moonlight for nocturnal life.  In addition to mimicking the natural environment of the fish and plant life, they enhance a tank’s overnight beauty.  LED lighting may be used with fresh or salt water tanks, and bulbs can often be installed into the included light fixtures.

For tanks that will house reefs, it is essential to install equipment designed for reef aquarium lighting.  While some LED or fluorescent lights may provide the intensity necessary to support coral, a metal halide aquarium light is considered to be an ideal option.  These are high intensity lights that illuminate an aquarium with a concentrated beam.  It is recommended that one bulb be used for every 4 square feet of tank space.  Those with large aquariums will need multiple bulbs to provide the necessary light to support reef life.

Metal halide aquarium lighting requires the installation of special fixtures and ballasts.  Any fixtures included with a tank will not support these lights.  In addition to the special fixtures, metal halide bulbs require the installation of a cooling system.  The intensity with which these lights burn generates a great deal of heat and a supplemental fan system is required to keep the tank and bulb cool.

Running the lights and the fan system for the recommended 12 hours a day will have a noticeable impact on energy bills.  Any aquarist should factor this cost into the purchase of their aquarium lighting system.

Before embarking on any DIY aquarium lighting project, it is important to keep some general guidelines in mind.  The wattage of an aquarium light bulb will determine the number of gallons it will effectively light.  When calculating the best system for your tank, keep in mind the number of gallons the tank holds as well as the plant and animal life it will support.  For tanks that will house only fish, one will need 2-3 watts per gallon.

Tanks that contain both plants and fish will require higher intensity light, with the recommendation being around 4 watts per gallon of water.  A Dwarf gourami could really bring a tank to color. Reef aquariums require the most energy to sustain, and healthy reefs require at least 4-6 watts per gallon.  If coral or anemones are present, the figure rises to 8 ½ watts per gallon of water.

To ensure that your lighting schedule remains consistent, ask your supplier about purchasing and installing a lighting timer.  As a rule, artificial “sunlight” should be provided for 12 hours a day, and those with lunar lights should turn them on for the remaining 12 hours in a 24 hour period.  Depending on the natural habitat of fish in an aquarium, these times may need to be adjusted to better reflect the conditions present in their original environment.  Anytime new lights have been installed, keep a close eye on the temperature of the tank to make sure it remains within acceptable ranges.

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