10 Tips to choosing the best Aquarium Lighting

aquarium lighting

When it comes to aquariums, you should ask yourself the following 2 questions when choosing the best aquarium lighting:

  • Will it support photosynthesis in the aquarium?
  • Will it support marine animals that need extreme amounts of light to survive?

Most people prefer to buy a plastic hood for their aquarium tank that includes a cover and lighting. Why does this appeal to a lot of first time aquarium owners?

Standard normal-output fluorescent bulbs are perfectly acceptable for fish-only tanks, but they will not be able to support photosynthetic animals, and they will not be bright enough to accommodate other marine animals than need extreme amounts of light to survive.

Setting the right goals for the aquarium lighting

Before you purchase aquarium lighting, you have to set the right goals.

Why do you need aquarium lighting?

The 2 main goals of adding aquarium lighting are:

  • Improve the quality of life of the aquarium inhabitants
  • Better display the aquarium occupants and the characteristics of the aquarium

The main issue that must be taken into account when setting up an aquarium with artificial lighting is that the fish are at the mercy of the owner.

Artificial lighting comes with a plethora of issues and is problematic at best. This does not have to be an intensive project since there are so many great lighting resources that will not replicate the rays of the sun yet will duplicate to a degree what the fish can happily live with.

aquarium lighting

Make sure that the source of lighting does not affect the health of the fish

Improper or insufficient fish aquarium lighting can severely limit the fish contained within natural behavioral cycles such as feeding or even spawning.

This makes a huge difference in the quality of the visual spectacle that is the aquarium and in general the quality of existence for the little watery friends.

A great way to make certain that there is adequate light source for the fish is to look at this light per tank-size and see where the aquarium fits in the formula.

The importance here is not so much on the wattage but on the amount of light needed for sufficient lighting resources.

Make sure you have the correct aquarium requirements per gallon of water

Lighting requirements per amount of water:

  • 10-30 Gallon Tank Hood Light – 1 20W fixture is sufficient
  • 30-50 Gallon Tank Hood Light – 2 20W fixture is sufficient


Most home aquariums tanks can reach up to 100 gallons. It is therefore important to

  • Make certain that the light source reaches to the bottom of the tank.

Why is this important?

When the light source reaches the bottom of the tank, it retards the growth of both algae and mold and other forms of bacteria that thrive in the damp dark recesses of all fish tanks.

This video gives you examples of the type of light you need for your planted aquarium tank. You will also get recommendations on how many lights you’ll need for a bigger tank, how high you should place them, and in what way are T5 tubes different from their LED counterparts.

Make sure to purchase lighting from a reputable source

Normally a fish aquarium will come already supplied with a hood that houses a lamp or maybe two lamps and will recommend both a type of light source and wattage.

Normally, all you have to do is read the manufacturer lighting requirements for the aquarium tank and go purchase the lamp from a reputable lighting retailer.


Make sure that the aquarium lighting does not need to be installed close to the top of the water

Another great tip that can be offered right here is to make certain that the light source is not real close to the surface of the water.

There are so many electrical hazards related to proximity of lighting source to the surface water of a tank that it just makes good sense to raise the lighting source at least 2 inches off the top of the water line.

Buying aquarium lighting for a saltwater reef aquarium

If you intend to create a reef aquarium, your aquarium lighting needs will be different.

For example, even placing a piece or two of live rock or soft corals will require you to replace at least one of the bulbs in your hood with a higher Kelvin normal-output bulb.

A 10,000K bulb will usually be sufficient for some reed life, but only soft corals like mushroom coral (actinodicus) and sea mats would be able to live under the low lighting provided by two of these tubes.

The best types of bulbs for saltwater aquarium lighting

There are four main types of fluorescent bulbs:

  1. NO – Normal Output
  2. HO – High Output
  3. VHO – Very High Output
  4. PC – Power Compacts (also known as Osram)


There is also another type of bulb altogether known as metal halide (MH). Metal halide bulbs are rated solely by wattage and spectral output.

Since iodines and sodiums are not suitable for marine aquariums, you absolutely must avoid the type of metal halide bulbs that are found in commercial buildings and parking lots.

Getting aquarium lighting for saltwater aquariums with Fish-Only Systems

For fish-only systems, standard fluorescent bulbs are sufficient.

For reef aquariums, you need to ensure that you select enough watts for the number of gallons of water your tank holds.

A 55 gallon aquarium, for example, would need at least 165 watts, and up to 275 watts in order for photosynthesis to effectively take place.

In order to get that kind of wattage, you might need as many as 4-6 fluorescent tubes, which is far more than any standard hood can accommodate.

Thus for marine aquariums, one must generally choose VHO bulbs which require special ballasts. Or you could choose to go with metal halides instead.


A pre-made lighting system is NOT suitable for reef tanks. You will have to develop your own custom setup if you want the best possible solution. Some people use egg crates in their halide systems, but this is not advisable. A 250 watt halide bulb will melt egg crates!

Getting Metal Halide bulbs for saltwater aquarium lighting

The trouble with metal halide bulbs is heat.

They get very, very hot.

A 250 watt incandescent metal halide bulb will cause your tank temperature to rise precipitously.

More saltwater aquarium lighting tips

Make sure your hood keeps the bulbs 12-15 inches away from the water surface. This will allow some air to move between the bulbs and the water,

Add fans or a commercial chiller. If Chillers are too expensive for you, you can settle for fans for cooling.