I’ll let you in on a secret. When we first started The Aquaponic Source website in the spring of 2010, I had very little interest in carrying grow lights. Yes, I knew grow lights were critical to indoor growing. Yes, our customers were going to expect us to carry a complete line of lighting equipment. But lighting came in so many styles and sizes that I felt that it would really be a burden to our young business to carry enough inventory to truly offer a representative product line. Plus, we were doing all of our R&D in our backyard greenhouse and it didn’t need lighting except to extend the day length in the winter….which I was not allowed to do because of our town light ordinance. My final justification for ignoring indoor lighting was that there were plenty of hydroponic stores out there that did a decent job selling lighting, so our customers had the option of turning to them for their aquaponic grow lighting needs.
All that changed when we moved into our new facility in Longmont this past summer. With the various systems we are operating in our new space, we have joined the ranks of our customers who depend entirely on grow lighting for successful aquaponics. We have great plans for our system show room and R&D grow lab, but both depend on having good, low energy, low heat, lighting options. This forced me to learn much more about grow lighting, and I’ve been fascinated (and a bit obsessed) by the topic ever since.
Through many conversations with vendors, and loads of both online and offline research, we’ve developed a line of aquaponic grow lights that we think makes sense for the unique needs of aquaponic gardeners. What are those unique needs? First, aquaponic gardeners generally grow a wide variety of produce vs. the single “medicinal herb” crop that most indoor lighting was created for. The notion of fine-tuning their grow lights by switching between blue and red spectrum bulbs, for example, is not appealing. They want a hassle-free, full, daylight spectrum light. Second, aquaponic gardeners tend to be very energy conscious both for cost considerations and because they are either concerned about sustainability, or because they want to go off-grid, or both. Third, aquaponic gardeners generally don’t want to spend a lot of time “geeking-out” over every detail of the wave lengths, photosynthetic photon flux density, absorption sensitivity, etc. They just want to know what lighting option is going to give them the best bang for the buck over the lifetime of their garden. We are growing lettuce and tomatoes here (and lots of other cool plants), not “high cash value” crops.
Based on all of these factors, we’ve come down to the best five, daylight-spectrum lighting options for aquaponic gardeners:
- Compact Fluorescents – The most economical option for lighting growing spaces that are smaller than 3’ x 3’.
- T5 Fluorescents – Great for seed starting and lighting rectangular beds that are up to 4’ in length. Low heat, so you can keep the bulbs close to the plants, which makes these fixtures ideal for growing spaces with low ceilings. The main drawback is the need to replace the bulbs every 9 months.
- HID (High Density Discharge) – The vast majority of indoor growing has been, and probably will continue to be done using HID. They do a fantastic job of growing plants for a relatively low initial cost. And because HID setups are generally configured with interchangeable ballasts, reflectors and bulbs; you can mix and match components to fit your particular taste and budget. The downside of these fixtures is again that the bulbs need to be replaced every year, and they generate more heat than any other fixture.
- LED – I’ve been pretty skeptical about LED fixtures because of what I’ve heard and read in industry literature. The common thinking was that, while LEDs have tremendous potential for the future because the bulbs never need to be replaced they just don’t grow plants well enough yet to justify the high prices. My tune has changed completely since the “discovery” of Black Dog LED fixtures. I’m convinced that these fixtures are the best on the market today, and I’ve seen some amazing growing results with my own eyes (Black Dog headquarters is conveniently located about ten minutes away from my home). Plus they offer a lifetime warranty. I now believe the days of LED growing have arrived.
- Induction – Last, but definitely not least, are the Inda-Gro Induction light fixtures. Price-wise, these fixtures are between the HID and LED options per square foot of coverage. But like LED fixtures, the bulbs rarely need to be replaced. And also like LED, the actual amount of energy being focused on the specific spectrum of light used by the plants vs. being used for the visible spectrum or in heat generation is higher than in HID lighting. This makes it a very efficient fixture, and one from which we have seen excellent growth results.
If you would like to further explore lighting I’ve added a much more detailed explanation of aquaponics grow lighting, including a multi-year cost analysis, in the FAQ section of our website, and in the Grow Lights section of The Aquaponic Store. And for those of you living in or visiting Colorado please come visit our Colorado aquaponics facility and see all of these lighting options in action!
I am in the middle of researching this too. My goal to get energy consumption as low as possible makes me lean toward LED, but then what LED? There is a massive price spread between Chinese LED lights and American made. On one hand I have heard the Asian manufactured units do not produce as much usable light and end up growing less on the production end, on the other hand I have heard they work just fine, especially for the cost savings.
HI Rob. I definitely fall in the former camp. LEDs are an excellent example of “you get what you pay for”. In my ten years of experience with indoor growing I can say with certainty that you will have an inferior growing experience with a cheap LED fixture, in part because it will only pull one watt per diode, vs the 5 watts that a superior fixture will pull. Yes, this consumes less energy, but you then have less energy being converted into light for your plants.
What about “natural daylight” fluorescence? They aren’t “grow lights” but they seem to be doing fine with my seedlings. Also, what about the high intensity LED’s that are like flood lights?
(small system, 100 gallon for Tilapia and single grow bed about 4’x2.5′ in my climate controlled basement)
Hi Sylvia, I do belief LED is the way for the future. Fish aquarium shops in Malaysia are rapidly going towards that direction due to its power saving ability and “stylishness”. We have plenty of sunlight here and temperature pretty much stays between 25 to 34 degrees celcius year round so, I don’t do indoor aquaponics. But I do think LED lighting is a good bet.