LED Aquarium Lighting Comparison Guide: Everything You Need to Know

Estimated read time 11 min read

When it comes to lighting, LEDs are somewhat new to the scene and all the rage when it comes to just about every aspect of illumination, even in aquariums.

Who knew? It seems fish and plant life want to keep up with the times too!

With that said, you need to know which aquarium lights are worth your money and which ones should be left in the dark.

Before we go further I want to share with you three of my all-time favorite lights to use;

It’s essential to know the difference LEDs can bring to your aquarium over other types of lighting. Just because something is new doesn’t necessarily mean it will be better for you.

After reading through this guide you can weigh the pros and cons of LED lighting against other bulbs to decide which type is best for your aquarium. You’ll see how your lighting choice can not only affect your wallet but also the lives of your fish and plants that call that aquarium home.


My Favorite Lighting Types – LED, Halide & T5 Lighting

What is LED Lighting?

Chances are you’ve heard the term “LED Lighting” thrown around a lot these days. But, do you know what LED stands for? LED stands for Light Emitting Diode. With a name like that you can see why it goes by LED; it sounds much better.

The short version of how LEDs work goes like this. An LED is a semiconductor device that converts electricity into light. Since LEDs are semiconductors, electrons pass through and turn into light.

If you want to get into the scientific nitty-gritty of it all, check out this video:

While it may seem like LEDs have just recently been developed, the truth is that LEDs have been around for more than 50 years. It’s only taken a while for them to catch on.

But now that they have, they are certainly here to stay:

LEDs started seeing the spotlight in 2010. The U.S. Energy Department, among others, starting spreading the word about the benefits of LED lighting, and people started listening.

They listened so much so that in 2012 alone, more than 49 million LEDs were installed in the U.S. Ever since then; it’s been LED all the way. Even local municipalities have been replacing old school street lights with LEDs.

It seems everyone has seen the light, so to speak:

Why the sudden surge in LEDs?

When you hear about the benefits you’ll begin to understand why so many people aren’t looking back to the old light bulb as we know it. The future seems to be a lot brighter and cheaper due to LEDs.

Benefits of LED Lighting

LED lighting has a long list of benefits. Let’s take a look at why everyone seems to love LEDs.

Efficiency. LEDs use up to 90% less power than incandescent bulbs. Because of that, they cost less to operate. You know what that means…lower electricity bills. In a day and age when everyone is looking to save a few bucks, it’s no wonder why LEDs are becoming so popular. But you won’t be on the saving train right away. It’s important to note that you’ll pay more for LEDs upfront than you would for an incandescent bulb. In the end, the LEDs pay for themselves with the money you’ll save on your electric bill.

LEDs are in it to win it. LEDs are in it for the long haul. Has an incandescent bulb ever lasted you seven years? The answer is probably no. But, an LED light will! It sounds crazy, but it’s true. LEDs typically last ten times as long as compact fluorescent bulbs and 133 times longer than typical incandescent bulbs.

LEDs are safe. Safety is also essential when you’re talking about energy. LEDs don’t generate much heat, which means they can be left on for hours without much concern. They also won’t burn your hands if you need to touch them for some reason.

Environmentally friendly. As many people focus on environmentally friendly products these days, it’s good to know that LEDs are made from non-toxic materials. Fluorescent lights use mercury which isn’t exactly the Earth’s best friend.

Are there any drawbacks to LEDs?

LEDs are pretty much the model citizen of the lighting world these days. There aren’t many bad things to say about them. The only major drawback is that they’ll cost you more up front. But, as we mentioned earlier, you’ll soon forget about it after you see your lower energy bills.

Another thing to be aware of is that LEDs can be sensitive to the temperature they’re operating in. This means if it’s really hot where LEDs are working, it could cause them to go into overdrive so to speak. The same is true on the reverse with cold temperatures.

Why do I need lights for my aquarium?

When you’re talking about LED lighting for your aquarium you may ask yourself why you even need any type lighting in the first place.

Would you want to live in the dark 24/7?

Hopefully, your answer is no because your fish certainly don’t.

Aquariums need food so that fish can find their food, and plants can photosynthesize. Light also helps to prevent algae growth within the tank. That means less of a cleaning job for you.

Now that you know why you need to give those fish and plants some light, let’s take a look at your lighting options.

LED Aquarium Lighting vs. Fluorescent T5 and T8 bulbs

You’re ready to buy some new lights for your aquarium but you’re stuck between going with LEDs or Fluorescent T5 and T8 bulbs. Take a look at what each type has to offer:

LED Aquarium Lighting


The wattage you choose should reflect the type of tank you have. Keep all of these things in mind:

While that sounds pretty straight forward it can get tricky. That’s why there are lighting calculators to help you get an answer easier and quicker. Check out this lighting calculator for some help.

Once you have that nailed down, check out the pros and cons of LED aquarium lighting.


  • Less energy to run
  • Don’t generate as much heat as fluorescent bulbs
  • Dimming options (beneficial for nocturnal fish)
  • Long life


  • Higher cost than other types of bulbs
  • May need to be adjusted frequently

Fluorescent T5 & T8 bulbs

Since LED lights have been getting all the attention, it’s time to shift the focus onto Fluorescent T5 and T8 bulbs. Many people may have cast aside these bulbs ever since LEDs came on the scene, but there are reasons why they’re still in play in the marketplace.

Without getting too technical, fluorescent T5 and T8 bulbs are bulbs that work by ionizing mercury in a glass tube. This produces UV light that is then converted into standard visible light.

The difference in the T5 and T8 has to do with their size. The “T” in its name refers to the shape which is tubular while the number next to it relates to the diameter of the lamp in eights of an inch. So a T8 bulb is eight-eighths of an inch or one inch in diameter.

The T5 bulbs are often referred to like the newer version compared to the T8 bulb.

For a more in-depth look at their differences, check out this YouTube video:

Fluorescent T5 and T8 bulbs come in a range of different wattages. As with the LED lights, you need to figure out how bright of a bulb you need for your tank.

This lighting calculator is still the easiest and quickest way to figure out what wattage you need, that is unless you like doing all the math!

After you have all the logistics figured out, it’s time to weigh the pros and cons to see if fluorescent T5 and T8 bulbs are better than LED lights for your aquarium.


  • Affordable
  • Readily available
  • Great illumination (may vary depending on depth of tank)
  • Good for plant growth


  • Can emit too much heat at times
  • Needs to be replaced frequently
  • May not be ideal for extremely deep tanks because light is not emitted deep enough

LED aquarium lighting vs. Metal Halide

All of the benefits of LED aquarium lighting mentioned above here apply as well. From the longevity to the energy efficiency, there’s no doubt LEDs lead the way there.

But what about using a metal halide as an energy source for your aquarium? What are the advantages there?

Let’s take a look:

Metal Halide

Before we start talking about the benefits of metal halides in aquariums, we need to understand what one is. Metal halides are high-intensity discharge (HID) lighting systems that give off most of their light from an electric arc inside a small discharge tube.

Metal halides are popular when it comes to aquariums due to the amount of light they emit for their size.

For a more in-depth look at how metal halides work in aquariums, check out this video:

Metal halide aquarium lights come in two varieties, single-ended and double-ended. They also come in different wattages and color temperatures. Depending on the size of your tank, you can determine the wattage you’re going to need.

This lighting calculator is still the best resource. You input all your stats, and it will tell you what bulb wattage is best.

But, is the metal halide the best choice for your aquarium?

Let’s take a look at some of the pros and cons of metal halide lighting.


  • Bright illumination
  • Single fixture generates same brilliant result as multiple fixtures of other bulb types
  • Creates beautiful shimmering effect other sources do not produce
  • Light gives the aquarium a natural look
  • Some bulbs can last up to two years before they need replacement


  • Generate a lot of heat which increase water temperature inside the aquarium
  • Need to be aware of proper bulb placement so that there is ventilation inside the tank
  • May require a water chiller if bulbs give off too much heat
  • May contain a small amount of mercury which means it needs to be disposed of in a particular way

Who knew aquarium lighting could be so complicated, and there could be so many choices?

It’s like lighting your own home…but for fish!

That’s why there’s a lot to consider when choosing what type of lighting is best for your aquarium. You need to consider the level of illumination you’re looking for as well as how to import energy efficiency is to you.

Also, how do you want to spend your money illuminating your tank? Do you want to pay more money upfront on bulbs or your monthly bill?

If you’re still unsure which choice to go with, ask some friends who have aquariums. See what’s working and not working for them. You can also check out online forums where people always have a lot to say about just about everything.

By doing your homework you can save yourself a lot of time, money, and aggravation.

Do’s and Don’ts of LED Aquarium Lighting

There are rules for everything including LED lights in your aquarium. Keep these things in mind before you turn on the LED lights for your fish and plants:

Do your homework. Not every type of LED light will be right for your tank. Think about what you need to accomplish in your specific tank and use that as your guidebook. Getting the wrong light can have damaging effects on your fish and plants.

Experiment. Play around with the LED color settings to see what you can come up with. Use the technology to your advantage to make a beautiful setting in your aquarium.

Don’t over light your tank. Yes, there is a thing as too much light for your aquarium. Over lighting can lead to algae growth and even worse problems.

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