Finding the right lighting for coral reef tanks may seem a little bewildering. There’s a lot of talk about the necessary wavelengths and spectrums, fluorescent blues and the hues… and what in the ocean have Zooxanthellae algae got to do with it?
In this guide, we’ll make things a bit simpler for you. Without needing to write a master thesis on coral photosynthesis, you can still understand plenty enough to choose the best lighting for reef tanks.
Here Are Our Top Picks for Reef Tank Lights on the Market Today
Fluval Sea Marine 3.0 LED Bar Aquarium Lighting for Coral Growth
- Balanced combination of multiple LEDs for optimal coral photosynthetic activity, growth & viewing
- Features 6 unique LEDs, including 400, 420, 440, 460nm LEDs for outstanding blue spectrum coverage
First up, we have the versatile LED Coral Light Bar from Fluval. It comes in 3 sizes: 32 Watts, 24-34 Inches, 48 Watts/ 36-46 Inches, and 59 Watts, 48-60 Inches. To extend the series, Fluval offers a well-received smaller version for nano coral tanks.
This unit features a balanced combination of multiple LEDs with essential actinic blue spectral wavelengths to encourage and sustain strong coral growth and color.
The light offers a variety of customizable features that can be controlled by the Fluval app on your phone and includes 3 convenient pre-sets: Sunny reef, Deep Sea Glow, and Color Boost.
These are ideal if you want quick and easy deployable settings and will still be great for your coral’s growth.
Another nice feature of this lighting setup is the extendable mounting brackets that allow you to install these lights on a variety of aquarium widths easily.
Things We Like:
- Tried and tested lighting for brilliant colors and strong coral growth.
- Customizable, with convenient dimmer settings on the timer.
- Robust design and a 3-year warranty from a trusted brand.
Things We Don’t Like:
- Lights can get rather warm.
- Only Bluetooth control – no wifi.
AquaIllumination AI Prime 16 HD Reef Aquarium LED (Black)
This is a highly acclaimed spot light style LED lighting unit from Aqua Illumination (AI), a well-known specialist in the coral lighting field.
Luckily, this model is extremely powerful but features dimmable bulbs to set things up to your desired lighting levels.
Its highly customizable design allows you to create all kinds of different spectrums via the Bluetooth app. The social media groups associated with this light are a great source of information on getting the right settings for your personal taste and coral types.
This is a modular style system, with each unit suitable for up to 40 gallons. This is helpful if upgrading to a larger tank – you simply need to buy an additional unit. Multiple lights, however, could become expensive.
Aqua Illumination offers a one-year warranty with their products.
Things We Like:
- Premium unit, superb quality coral lighting.
- Modular system allows you to change the number of lights for different tank sizes.
- Gradual ramping and advanced timing features to adjust the lighting throughout the day.
Things We Don’t Like:
- Expensive if you need to buy more than one.
- You need to buy mounting separately.
NICREW Saltwater Aquarium Light, Classic Marine LED Fish Tank Light for Coral Reef Tanks, With 2-Channel Timer
- One ClassicLED Marine light will support saltwater fish, live rock, soft coral, and LPS corals. For low light SPS corals, we suggest using two lights
- Available in multiple sizes and includes extendable brackets on both ends to accommodate both rimless and framed aquariums length 18 - 24 inch
One of the most affordable LED coral lighting bars on the market, with some nice features. It comes in 5 different sizes, ranging from 18-60 inches, with sliding, locking legs to make precise size adjustments.
This light features 445nm and 460nm blue, 10,000K white, and RGB LEDs. A higher ratio of actinic blue spectrum LEDs balanced with full spectrum creates a good fusion for reef setups.
One Nicrew Classic LED Marine light will support soft coral and LPS corals, but for low-light SPS corals, two lights are recommended. However, even two of these lights will work out cheaper than a single unit from many of its competitors.
The unit has a dual-channel timer to ramp lights up and down 15 minutes before ‘sunrise’ and 15 after ‘sunset.’ As you might expect from a cheaper unit, however, there are no advanced features to change light intensity throughout the day.
This light is notably prone to water damage, and the manufacturers recommend a glass or acrylic canopy to protect the unit and extend its lifespan.
The unit comes with a one-year warranty.
Things We Like:
- Inexpensive, great value for the features included.
- Size range and adjustable legs to match many tank sizes.
- Cool and quiet to functionality
Things We Don’t Like:
- Issues with the light getting wet unless a canopy is used to keep it dry.
- A single unit is not bright enough for SPS corals – you’ll need to buy a second one.
- Only basic timer settings mean it’s impossible to program light fluctuations during the daytime.
Orphek OR3 Reef Aquarium LED Bar – for Coral Pop Fluorescent Color Growth and Illumination – 5 Watt Dual Chip LEDs
- The new model OR3 60 – 2022 comes with NEW LEDs! – Orphek is worldwide recognized by being the leader in LED Aquarium lighting solutions capable of delivering products that provide perfect intensity/efficiency.
A customizable LED reef lighting bar in 24, 36, or 48 inches sizes. Orphek is well-known as a leader in aquarium lighting, and this has proven to be a highly-regarded model.
They offer this unit in 3 different color combinations: Blue, Reef Day, and UV Violet.
The innovative design features 18, 24, or 36 customizable 5-watt dual-chip LED bulbs which are extremely energy efficient.
Orphek proudly advertises that these lights run very cool and are very long-lasting. These LEDs use only half the power of the older style T5 bulbs.
The UV/Violet model utilizes bulbs that emit safe light levels in the UV-A spectrum for maximum coral growth, color, and fluorescence.
Things We Like:
- Excellent reef lighting from a long-term specialist.
- Advanced LED bulb technology for lights that are energy efficient and long-lasting.
- UV-A wavelength option for amazing coral fluorescence.
Things We Don’t Like:
- The one-year warranty doesn’t reflect the claims for long-lasting bulbs.
- Disappointing colors with the Reef Day Plus spectrum option.
VIPARSPECTRA Timer Control Dimmable 165W LED Aquarium Light Full Spectrum for Grow Coral Reef Marine Fish Tank LPS/SPS
- VIPARSPECTRA Timer Control Series V165 LED Aquarium Light is scientifically engineered to keep the balance of the PAR output and coverage.
Strictly speaking, Viparspectra is not an aquarium specialist, but they know a thing or two about lighting. They’ve been innovating a variety of indoor lighting systems for over 10 years, and their lighting for reef tanks is proving to be very popular.
This is a 16-inch wide rectangular unit with an inbuilt timer and customizable settings, controlled by the nice little remote in the package. The dimmable feature allows you to adjust the brightness in the two channels separately.
One lighting unit is only designed to illuminate 24”x24” surface area water, so you’ll need more than one for a larger tank.
This 165-watt light can beam very brightly and is suitable for all kinds of photosynthetic corals. Comes with a one-year warranty.
Things We Like:
- 55 customizable LED bulbs are great for a variety of color spectrums.
- Very bright light, suitable for all kinds of corals.
- Modular design that can be increased for upgrading tanks.
Things We Don’t Like:
- You’d need more than one for tanks of over 40 gallons, which could get expensive.
- Fans can be a little noisy.
Understanding Reef Tank Lighting
If you’re looking to get started in the world of saltwater aquariums, there seems to be a lot to learn! Compared to freshwater fishkeeping, so many more variables have to be considered, and lighting is one of them.
Let’s be clear: Not all saltwater setups are ‘reef tanks.’ There are three main types of saltwater aquariums:
- Fish-only aquariums (FO)
- Fish-only-with-live-rock aquariums (FOWLR)
- Reef aquariums
With the first two types, you have much more flexibility when it comes to lighting. Since there is no coral or plants to look after, you just need to choose a type of lighting that suits you and your fish. These types of tanks are perhaps better choices if you’re new to the big wide world of saltwater fishkeeping.
Reef tank lighting is a little bit more complicated – and that’s because even though corals are officially animals, they still require photosynthesis to survive. Let us explain.
Wait, Corals Are Animals?
Yes! Corals are actually a collection of tiny creatures from the animal kingdom called polyps. Looking a little bit like miniature sea anemones, they sweep nutrients from the ocean with their tiny tentacles.
As the polyps grow, they lay down limestone secretions that become the coral reef’s skeleton.
Why Corals Require Photosynthesis
If polyps are animals, why do they need photosynthesis? Well, because polyps don’t live alone!
Coral reefs are like a symphony of different organisms, all collaborating. One of the critters essential to coral growth is the Zooxanthellae – a microscopic type of algae that lives inside the coral tissue.
These microalgae give the coral beautiful, vibrant colors that most fishkeepers like!
The Zooxanthellae benefit from the coral by absorbing its metabolic waste, while the coral ‘breathes in’ the oxygen given off by the photosynthesis of the Zooxanthellae.
To make things simpler, some people have termed corals photosynthetic animals. While this is not quite true, corals do have algae living inside them, so it’s near enough!
Without this miracle of symbiosis, the coral would die. That’s why you need to get your tank lighting right to keep the Zoooxanthellae algae happy and photosynthesizing strongly. Natural sunlight is great for this!
The Light Spectrum That Supports Coral Growth
Now, the next thing to understand is that not all types of light are suitable for growing corals.
While photosynthesis uses all types of light to function on dry land and in water, some light wavelengths (colors) are better at penetrating than others. The spectrum of light and spread of light is also crucial for coral growth.
Red, orange and yellow are all absorbed within the upper water column, whereas greens, blues, and purples penetrate deeper, which is why deep water appears as a ‘deep blue.’
Coral algae have adapted to live in deep water, where most of the available light spectrum is blue – so in the home aquarium, you’ll need to provide them with this same color of lighting for them to be happy and produce enough oxygen for your corals to thrive.
To help better understand how corals are adjusted to the cooler end of the way of the spectrum, check out this helpful video.
Blue – The Most Important Part of Light Spectrum for Coral Growth
So if the algae responsible for keeping corals alive relies mostly on blue light – it’s not hard to guess which part of the spectrum is the most important when lighting our reef tanks.
Not surprisingly, blue is also an attractive shade of light in the aquarium since it makes things look like a deep water coral reef would naturally. Blue light helps many fish and coral colors to ‘pop.’
Balancing the Spectrum
Still, blue light alone won’t bring out all the colors in your reef tank, and species of coral that live in shallower waters need to have a certain amount of other light spectrums in the mix.
Just be aware that adding too much white light can increase the growth of other types of algae. A phenomenon noticed by marine tank owners for years and confirmed by scientific experiments studying algae for biofuel!
These other types of algae can become problematic in large quantities, so you’ll want to situate your tank away from sunlight and carefully monitor how your light spectrum promotes or suppresses its growth.
The art of balancing your light spectrum may seem quite daunting. Still, luckily many of the lighting units we’ve reviewed come with preset programs to make it easier for you to choose lighting that will be visually appealing and functional for your reef ecosystem.
Modern Reef Lighting – Adjustable LEDs
LED technology has revolutionized marine tank lighting in recent years by offering more energy-efficient and cooler systems. It can create a bewildering array of lighting effects – from multiple bulbs of various colors.
However, LED bulb quality varies, and some manufacturers are now promoting innovations that reduce bulb heat to prolong longevity. The color spectrum of some bulbs can also be adjusted to channel light in the entire tank.
Reef aquarium LED lights are often controlled by a purpose-built remote control or even an app on your phone using BlueTooth or wifi technology. They can also include advanced timer settings.
Timer Settings and the Lighting Cycle
A reef tank is a micro-ecosystem interacting with coral, fish, and millions of microorganisms. For it to thrive, you need to replicate natural coral reef lighting conditions as closely as possible, and the light spectrum isn’t the only consideration.
The lighting cycle or the timing of your tank’s lighting also plays a crucial role in helping your tank inhabitants feel at home.
With their multi-channel timers, modern setups have made it much easier to automate this. Most lighting systems will now come with ‘sunrise’ and ‘sunset’ settings to gradually ramp the lighting up and down at the beginning and end of the day.
This valuable design feature eliminates the shock that coral and fish used to suffer when lights would suddenly turn on or off, helping them to remain healthier. Outstanding aquarium light is crucial for healthy fish!
You should conduct lighting tests for the different lighting modes and lighting fixtures which are key features in your tank. Your light and brightness output are directly proportional to your power consumption, especially when the tanks have wider coverage.
However, you should invest in a spectral controller, a handy feature in brightness control.
More advanced models allow you to alter the light’s different spectrums and intensities during the day. This not only looks stunning but also can be used to mimic the light fluctuations and even weather effects you’d typically experience from day to day on a coral reef.
While some reef tank owners like to keep a gentle ‘night light‘ on to give a moonlight effect, it’s best not to use this too often.
Remember that in nature full moon only happens once a month, and fish that are exposed to the glare of a white light every night may not be able to rest properly, leading to health problems.
Scientists believe that the moon cycles play an important role in fish and coral behavior and reproductive cycles, so you may wish to turn on your tank’s gentle night lighting settings to coincide with the full moon period each month.
The rest of the time, set your lighting timer to give your fish and coral 9-12 hours of light, followed by at least 10 hours of total darkness to keep them healthy and happy for the long run.
What Are Metal Halide Lights?
Before LED lights, reef tank owners often used metal halide lights to illuminate their aquariums. While these lights are incredibly bright and suitable for a large range of corals, they are also less efficient and tend to get very hot.
Furthermore, they’re normally just a single bulb, meaning they’re less customizable.
Although commercial aquariums still sometimes use metal halide lights for their brightness, they’re no longer favored for the home reef setup.
Do Corals Need Red, Green, Purple, or UV Light?
Some species of coral will appreciate a certain amount of every color, yes!
There’s a lot of confusion about which light spectrum corals need. To keep things simple, think in terms of the basic principles. Corals growing in shallower water will naturally be exposed to a fuller range of colors, whereas deeper water species are only exposed to ‘cooler colors’ – blues and purples.
There are an infinite number of possible combinations of light spectrums you could go for, but traditionally reef tank owners would often simply go for 50% blue and 50% white light.
Since white light contains all the colors in the visible light spectrum, this combination is great for a wide range of corals.
Some people believe that small amounts of UV-A light also benefit corals, which is why some LED systems now incorporate UV-A wavelength bulbs into their units.
UV-A also helps some corals to fluoresce.
What Is Coral Fluorescence?
Coral fluorescence makes some corals appear glowing in shades of red, blue, or green in dim light or at nighttime. Fluorescence happens when pigments inside the corals react to strong light by absorbing the cooler blue, purple, and UV side of the spectrum.
This can be spectacular at night, which is why night dives have become so popular on coral reefs.
There are still several competing theories out there as to why corals fluoresce. Still, you can hear a bit about the ‘sunscreen theory’ and see some stunning images in this short video on coral fluorescence.
Our Top Pick
Modern advances have produced an amazing array of lighting options for reef tanks, but our favorite this time has to be the Fluval Sea Marine 3.0 LED Aquarium Lighting for Coral Growth.
We love how it’s highly adjustable in its functionality and size and produces a light that’s both delightful to the eye and excellent for coral growth.
Fluval is also difficult to beat in terms of its quality of products and reliability. Their 3-year warranty proves this is a product they have confidence in, so you can too.
Click here to get your hands on the Fluval Sea Marine 3.0 LED Aquarium Lighting for Coral Growth.