Aquarium Lighting

Your aquarium is a whole other world, and the lighting you install can make all the difference in how your underwater friends will react. The right fish tank light can help with plant growth while also keeping your corals healthy.

As an aquarist, it’s essential to know which type of light is best for your aquarium – from fluorescents to LEDs – so that you can have peace of mind knowing everything is in order!

Finding the best lighting for your aquarium should not be that difficult for you now since I will cover the four main types of lighting:

Fluorescent Lighting
Compact Fluorescent Lighting
Incandescent Lighting
Metal Halide Lighting

What you need to do now is to take your home aquarium to the next level—give your aquarium a complete lighting system. To do that, first, we must understand what makes up an aquarium lighting system.

What Makes Up An Aquarium Lighting System?

The basic aquarium setup usually comprises a tank, hood, and lighting. The lighting system alone includes different components. These are sold separately or combined in various permutations.

Before purchasing these items, consider carefully the purposes they are intended for, the options available, and the pros and cons of each item.


As most aquariums require regular maintenance, a full hood that opens up with ease would be a practical choice. Glass hoods are suitable for those using more sophisticated mix-and-match lighting systems.

Metal halide lamps generally produce high emissions of heat and harmful UV radiation. If such lights are used, they are best fitted in hoods that come with built-in fans and UV-absorbent filters.

Hi-tech lighting hoods are sleek, compact, and efficient in design—and more expensive, of course. Most are designed for customized bulb sizes that are not readily available.

Glass hoods are suitable for those using more sophisticated mix-and-match lighting systems.


Lighting hoods fitted with electronic ballasts can be operated by timers which automatically turn the lighting system on and off at the same time every day.


When light strikes the water surface, it enters the water and gets absorbed by
particles or is reflected (depending on the angle of the light rays). This is where reflectors come in—these devices direct light where it is needed.

There are two types of reflectors: Divergent and convergent, which either scatter or focus light rays into the aquarium.


A shield is a useful piece of glass separating the bulbs and the aquarium surface. It keeps water away from the bulbs, which could shatter or explode if rapidly cooled while running.

It helps prevent the glass from falling into the aquarium if a bulb should break. It helps to keep heat away from the water and reduce the harmfulness of UV emissions.

Shields should be cleaned regularly as they reflect or refract light rays, thus affecting the direction and amount of light striking the water surface.


Hoods may be fitted with ballasts, which come in various shapes, sizes, and designs. Select one appropriate for the particular bulb and wattage used. Otherwise, a burnt-out lamp or even a fire could result!

Ballast is necessary to regulate the voltage from the power source in your house levels to enable the lighting to operate correctly. It comprises a transformer and capacitor and converts electrical energy from the power outlet into bulb energy. Ballasts and bulbs are rated in milliamps.

Aquarium Lighting
Well-lit Aquarium

Fluorescent Lighting vs. Compact Fluorescent Lighting

There are advantages and disadvantages to each type of aquarium lighting. Some may be more suitable for particular kinds of aquariums than others.

For a standard aquarium kept in a living room, fluorescent bulbs are probably the most practical choice. Energy-efficient and safe, they are a staple for hobbyists who intend to keep only tropical fish.

However, those with reef and planted freshwater aquariums may find it more effective to use multiple fluorescent bulbs or a combination of different types of lighting to achieve the desired result.

The human eye and plants respond to light differently, so a good mix of different types of bulbs would help get the best results for plant growth and, at the same time, create the desired visual impact.

Fluorescent Lighting

The bulbs are long glass tubes that contain phosphor bits. When an electrical current runs through the tube, these phosphors heat up and activate to emit visible light. Different mixture of phosphors will give different spectrum, intensity, and color properties.

Fluorescent bulbs come in different colors, wattages, and lengths. Bulbs are rated according to milliamp. Most are inexpensive and have a relatively long bulb life.

Regular output: about 400 milliamps
High output (HO): about 800 milliamps
Very high output (VHO): about 1200 milliamps

VHO fluorescent bulbs give excellent results in lumen production (light as perceived by human eyes) and keep a low running heat. Another advantage is that the bulbs are available in many color renditions, so it’s easy to mix and match.

Compact Fluorescent Lighting

This form of lighting can be described as fluorescent light on steroids. Powerful and energy-efficient, it is an economical source of high-intensity light.

Compact fluorescent lights are smaller than fluorescent tubes but produce much more light. This means they offer high efficacy in deeper tanks, as light intensity diminishes significantly with every inch of water it has to penetrate.

Incandescent Lighting vs. Metal Halide Lighting

Incandescent Lighting

These types of lights are inexpensive and versatile and suitable for both big and small aquariums.

In smaller aquariums, there is an advantage of fitting many different types of these bulbs into a smaller-sized aquarium hood. However, in deeper aquariums, such lighting may be inefficient as the bulb life is short and lumen (brightness of light) output inadequate.

When shopping for incandescent bulbs, bear in mind factors like colors, wattage, connector type, and bulb life.

Incandescent lights can produce a significant amount of heat. This can be helpful or detrimental depending on how and where the lights are used. More often than not, they are detrimental to smaller aquariums as smaller bodies of water are more vulnerable to temperature fluctuations (caused when lights are switched on and off).

To lessen the impact of the heat produced, ensure that proper circulation and ventilation are provided.

Metal Halide Lighting

These types of lights are more compact and aesthetically appealing than fluorescent lights. They are particularly popular with a reef or planted aquarium hobbyist as an intensive light source. They are “sun-like,” as they can create the pretty dancing and rippling effects often seen when sunlight is
reflected off the surface of a body of water.

When buying metal halide lighting, first bear in mind the fish and plants you intend to keep in the aquarium so that you can determine how bright the bulb should be and which colors you would like to use.

The bulbs come in a variety of colors and temperatures. Temperatures are indicated by the “degree Kelvin” of “K.” The lower the degree K, the whiter or more yellowish the light appears; the higher it is, the more bluish the light.

Enthusiasts with freshwater planted aquariums may prefer a lower K bulb (around the 5,500 to 6,500 K range), whereas those with saltwater reef aquariums may prefer bulbs within the higher range. (10,000 to 20,000 K range).

Like incandescent lights, metal halide lightings can also produce a considerable amount of heat and thus raise the aquarium water temperature. Besides providing adequate ventilation, some tanks – especially reef aquariums, which require strict temperature parameters – may also need a
chiller unit to cool the water.

These bulbs also come with various fittings, such as pendant lamps, independent bulb hoods, ventilated hoods, combination (fluorescent, compact, halide), or hi-tech hoods.


Conclusion paragraph: I hope this blog post has helped you learn about the different types of aquarium lighting available.
Feel free to share your thoughts in the comment section below!