Advances in Aquarium Lighting: the New Fluorescents

Aquarium enthusiasts have looked for different features in aquarium lighting over the last century. Window light gave way to electric fixtures in the early years of the hobby to provide consistency and convenience. In the 1960’s, fluorescent lights overtook incandescent because they ran cooler and cheaper. The seventies and eighties gave us an assortment of “show” and “grow” spectrums to pick from to grow plants, appeal to the eye, and make that swordtail look really, really red. In the 1990’s, we just sought more power, as multi-bulb fixtures and metal halide lamps brought vitality to reef tanks around the globe. With the dawn of the new millennium upon us, it seems only natural that another change awaits – by government decree if necessary.

As a result of the Energy Policy Act of 1992 (EPACT) and its implementation through the United States Department of Energy, Americans will eventually be saying goodbye to many of today’s commonplace fluorescent lighting fixtures – including some of those used on aquariums. Over the next decade, many of today’s standards will be slowly phased out in favor of technologically advanced units that produce more light while using less energy. Since lighting accounts for about 20%-25% of our nation’s electrical energy usage, the ramifications of these plans could have a huge impact on our overall energy consumption.

Saving a couple of watts on a single aquarium hood doesn’t add up to much for the home aquarist – probably not more than a few pennies per month on the utility bill. But upgrading a wall full of fixtures in the aquarium room can lead to substantial savings for the pet store, particularly when multiple bulbs are run off each electronic ballast. The dealer might also be eligible for additional savings in the form of rebates from his local electric utility, reducing the payback time for the installation of the new fixtures.

And of course, Uncle Sam is looking at the big picture, where thousands upon thousands of households and businesses are each saving just a few watts, but the nation as a whole is reducing its need for energy. The most cynical among us might also point out that lighting manufacturers, who were allowed to help write the Act, might also benefit from upgrading millions of fixtures across the continent. Regardless of any political implications, new lighting standards are already being implemented, and aquarium dealers will need to understand the basics of the latest technology.

For aquarium use, the most likely lighting designs to benefit from the new government standards are the T8 and Compact Fluorescent fixtures. Both have a sufficient lumen/watt ratio to make the EPACT cutoff, and are designed to use cooler-running electronic ballasts that save even more energy. Aquarium versions often use special phosphors for higher output and better color rendition.

Energy efficient “T8″ bulbs should not be confused with standard, run-of-the-mill lamps that just happen to have the T8 diameter (for example, the F15T8 bulb that comes in most standard 10 gallon aquarium hoods). T8 does indeed refer to the 1″ diameter (the T-number is basically in 1/8ths of an inch, so T8=1″, T12=1.5” and so on), but the new T8s use less electricity for the same or greater light output. They are also designed for use with electronic ballasts that can save even more electricity over standard magnetic ballasts. The energy savings in most common sizes is in the 15% – 20% range; e.g. the commonplace 4-foot 40 watt lamp can be replaced by a 4-foot 32 watt version, 3-footers are 25 watts instead of 30, and 2-footers are 17 instead of 20.

T8 lamps and fixtures will likely find their place in standard aquarium setups, since they produce about the same amount of light per foot of bulb as their standard fluorescent counterparts. There are currently very few producers of T8 aquarium bulbs, and a limited selection of lamps as compared to seemingly endless array of standard fluorescent lamps. However, the basic four alternatives – plant grow, daylight, actinic and 50/50 – are all readily available at prices comparable to good quality standard fluorescents. And as lamp manufacturers continue to gear up their factories to meet the EPACT standards, there will likely be a wider assortment available at even better prices in the near future.

T8s are also becoming popular with some do-it-yourself aquatic plant enthusiasts, who often use many bulbs over an aquarium for optimum plant growth. Since an electronic ballast to run 4 lamps is nearly the same price as a single lamp ballast, it’s fairly cost effective for them to build a multi-bulb enclosure. They also take advantage of the energy efficiency, cooler running temperature, and even the reduced bulb diameter to cram as many bulbs as possible into the fixture.

T8 bulbs are backward compatible, meaning they can be used in the older standard fixtures, but only to a limited extent. They use the same 2-pins on each end configuration, and come in the same standard lengths; in fact, some sizes are easier to get into and out of aquarium light units because of their smaller diameter. However, in low-end light fixtures with inexpensive or poor quality ballasts, T8 bulbs may not fire up at all, or may exhibit pulsing or waving effects that indicate insufficient start-up power. In higher quality fixtures, the lamps will actually use the full wattage of the ballast (for example, a 32 watt lamp will draw 40 watts), resulting in greater light output than either a normal 32 or 40 watt fixture. However, the trade-off is that lamp life may be greatly decreased. If the T8 bulb is installed in a water-resistant lamp holder meant for a T12 bulb, a rubber washer should be used to keep water out of the socket.

Compact Fluorescent Lamp (CFL) fixtures, on the other hand, are a completely different animal. Picture a standard fluorescent tube folded in half (don’t try this at home) so all the pins are on one end and you’ve got the concept – and almost the picture as well. You’ve probably seen the small 7-watt, 9-watt and 13-watt CFLs during the last few years at the hardware store, where they are sold as energy efficient replacements for incandescent bulbs. Larger lamps, mostly 28, 55 and 96 watt versions, have been available in a few high-end reef lighting systems for a few years, and are now starting to turn up in a few more standard high-output aquarium lights from leading aquarium manufacturers.

The big advantage of compact fluorescent lamps is a very high light output for their physical size and energy consumption. A 55 watt CFL with the proper ballast can put out as much light as TWO standard 40 watt fluorescent bulbs, using of course much less electricity and taking up about half the space. They are particularly useful in heavily planted aquariums and reef tanks, where many hobbyists want as much light as they can squeeze in above the tank. In addition to high output and energy efficiency, a CFL may also have a longer useful bulb life, and throws much less heat than standard fluorescent, high output fluorescent, and especially metal halide lighting.

Due to their innovative design, compact fluorescent lamps are not backward compatible with other fluorescent fixtures. As a matter of fact, there are even some incompatibilities within current bulb designs, with some models using 4 pins and others 2 pins. Compact fluorescent lamps also require an electronic ballast specifically matched to their wattage and pin configuration. The starting mechanism may be built into the ballast or, less commonly, the bulb itself. As such, “upgrading” an existing light fixture to CFL essentially means to replace all the working components.

Like the T8 fluorescents, CFL fixtures and lamps are currently available from only a few sources, and the selection of spectral choices is still a bit limited. But this situation is again likely to improve dramatically as lamp manufacturers continue to move away from the old technology. CFL aquarium fixtures typically sell for a little more than a double-tube fluorescent strip of the same physical size, even though they put out a lot more light.

As with any innovation, the disadvantages of the new fluorescent lighting systems may still outweigh the advantages for some users at the present time. For one thing, the technology is still new enough for there to be a certain amount of trial and error involved: one aquarium light manufacturer has already recalled a compact fluorescent fixture that had serious overheating problems. Similarly, there’s always a possibility that any new product will have unforeseen problems that didn’t show up in the pre-market testing. When our shop converted to “energy-saving” fluorescent ballasts about a decade ago, over 30% failed within 90 days (I guess that’s one way to save energy). It certainly wouldn’t be surprising if there were a few more bumps on this road as well.

In addition, standards for lamp design have not fully settled out, and there is a possibility that some models will have limited availability in the future. It’s unlikely that any fixture will become orphaned in the manner of “BETA” videocassettes, but there may be very few choices or price competition if you select a model with the wrong pin combination or wattage.

On the other hand, investing for too long in the older, doomed technology is no bargain either. In addition to paying higher energy costs all along, replacement lamps and parts will eventually become unavailable or overpriced, forcing an upgrade. While it’s unclear how soon the new regulations will have a major impact on the aquarium industry, it’s safe to say that change is inevitable.

This article originally appeared in

Pet Age Magazine