Best Aquarium Lighting Solved
At AquariumSumps.com, in collaboration with one of our neighbors here in Colorado Springs, we did some of the most in-depth aquarium light testing we have ever done in this shop. We want to be known as a place that has just as much information as we do products, so that people know we really understand everything we’re selling inside and out. We spent thousands of dollars testing lights in hopes that our fellow reef tank owners could benefit from the information we concluded. We only used brand new lights right out of the box to ensure the bulb life of any LED hadn’t been depleted. We also used some of the best testing equipment in the world with Apogee PAR meters. They are extremely precise and very reliable. Having the right lighting is probably the most important thing on any reef tank.
In the aquarium industry just about everything ends up costing the same over the course of a couple years; give or take a hundred dollars. After everything is factored in, such as energy cost, bulb replacement, maintenance, parts, after about 2 years most lights are pretty much the same price. For instance, if you purchase a T5 to save money over an LED you’ll more than likely end up replacing enough bulbs to have paid for the LED. If you purchase metal halides instead of LEDs, then the energy cost will be a good deal higher, and bulb replacement can be fairly expensive on metal halides. Same with halides over T5s.
Many people disagree with our opinion that T5 lighting should not be used to keep corals, at least exclusively. If supplemented with halides or LEDs, then they can be a great choice. Over the course of 20 years it has just been our experience that T5s do not have the adequate power to sustain more light intensive reef tank members such as corals and clams.
Below you will find the list of lighting that we carry and our experience with the manufacturers, as well as what we have heard from customers, and our own private testing. We rated all the lights based on performance, are they worth the money, user friendliness, reef sustainability, construction and reliability, customer service, and warranties.
With every brand we carry we contacted these companies with emails that we created to see how they were with customer service. This includes response time, product knowledge, how they treat customers, and overall satisfaction from other customers when it comes to warranty issues. If the light you purchase should have an issue, we know it's of great importance to rectify that issue as soon as possible for the health of your tank. We called and emailed them with multiple scenarios to see how knowledgeable they were with their own products, how fast they handled warranty issues, and how courteous they were to customers who may be new to the hobby. It was entertaining to say, "I can’t figure out how to turn the light on?" and see how each company responded. We also considered dozens of customer reviews when it comes to every brand that we carry.
We put a tremendous amount of effort into testing lighting because to us it may be the most important component (next to a heater). One reason is because if a light goes down it can cause a huge amount of tank issues. We’re broke and don’t really know anyone else who has time to wait for a replacement light to show up or has unlimited funds to put credit cards on file with places until they get their new light and send back the old one. At AquariumSumps.com it’s a major factor that a company has both a phone number and an email to contact them. We know something as important as a light going down can be stressful, and people want responses fast.
If any manufacturer reads this section and disagrees with anything, these are simply the experiences we had after dealing with the companies as private individuals and not as a company. If you would like us to test another one your lights, feel free to let us know. We are not biased towards any brand. Almost all profit margins are the same when it comes to lighting.
The OVERALL WINNER!!!! There wasn’t light we tested that came close to Ecotech Radion lights. We’ll get into why in the ratings section.
During testing all lights were hung 9 inches off the water surface, unless otherwise stated. We used a medium amount of surface agitation (pictured) since most reefers do. Several people suggested we do the testing with the pumps off, but we don’t leave our pumps off all day; we wanted to know what our tanks were actually getting light wise when they are run how we run them every day. All of lights, regardless of grade of the light, the testing was consistent. For instance, the Kessil A360x still had a 20-40% DECREASE in PAR over the Ecotech XR15 Gen 4.
Let’s start with light cost per model grades:
AI Hydra 52 - $629
Ecotech Radion XR30 Gen 4 Pro - $839
Kessil AP700 $799
We tested nearly every model that each of the below light manufacturers make. Since the top of the line models gave us the most transparent numbers we chose to do our write-up based on those results. Please keep in mind though that the testing stayed fairly consistent. Example the Ecotech Radion XR15 outperformed the Aqua Illumination Hydra 26 which outperformed the Kessil a360X, etc.
#1 Ecotech XR30 Gen 4 Pro testing.
The first thing I'd like to mention is these lights were an inch HIGHER above the water surface then the AI Hydra 52 or Kessil AP700.
This light was amazing. PAR strength was so impressive that we're going to be switching most of the coral tanks in the shop over to them. We didn't expect to see such a huge difference between the top of the line Ecotech and top of the lines Kessil lights, but there was. For what's supposed to be 15 watts more on the Ecotech Radion XR30 Gen 4 Pro (195 watts) over the Kessil AP700 (180 watts) there was a massive increase in light levels. The cost isn't much more, but the PAR numbers averaged 20-40% higher.
The one thing we don't really understand is why the numbers are so much lower on the Kessil AP700 - we tested 2 LEDs. One of the employees here was wondering if it's due to the "Dense Matrix". Maybe since the beam is so direct or "concentrated", and not as spread out, that the medium amount of water surface agitation is causing it to break the light strength up more. We don't know though.
#1 Ecotech Radion
Light 10 inches off water surface and submerged 6 inches below water surface directly under the LEDs 500-515
4 inches to the left or right of the edge of the light and 6 inches below the water surface 285-305
10-13 inches below the water surface directly under the LEDs - 340-350
17 inches below the water surface directly under LEDs 350-370
20 inches below the water surface directly under the LEDs 270-280
Is the Radion really worth it? Definitely. We had several issues programming the AP700. The Ecotech programming software was nothing short of amazing. It offered full controllability when it comes to precise time, weather patterns, lunar patterns, spectrum, intensity, and many other factors. Honestly, we would have chosen the Aqua Illumination Hydra 52 over the Kessil AP700, you’ll see why below.
The performance of the Radions is amazing, all models. The customer service is just as good as the lights. These lights are so packed with the features that we’re surprised they don’t cost more. Even without any wires connecting the lights to one another or a computer directly, they still communicated wirelessly. The technology on the Radions surpasses anything else we have seen, and we couldn’t believe how much light the produced for such a small form unit.
#2 Aqua Illumination
Light 9 inches off water surface. Light meter 6 inches submerged directly under the LEDs 515.
4 inches to the left or right of the edge of the light 6 inches submerged 200-215.
9 inches below water surface directly under the LEDs 285-295
9-13 inches meter submerged the numbers*remained consistent
16 inches below water surface directly under the LEDs 255-285
20 inches deep directly under the LEDs 145-155
AI had a lot of similar features to the Radions, mainly because they’re distributed by Ecotech as well. The Radions were a good deal easier to program. The 135 watts the Hydra 52 was pumping out still somehow outdid the Kessil AP700 at 180 watts. Again, we are wondering if this something to do with the Dense Matrix of the Kessil having such a concentrated beam. If you’re in the market for a light with wireless technology benefits, but you don’t want to spend as much as the Ecotech lights, we highly recommend the Aqua Illumination LEDs. They’re based in the USA and their customer service is very good. They are easy to get ahold of, even though sometimes you might need to wait on hold for a few minutes before someone answers. However that to us is irrelevant because of all the programming features and performance of every AI model.
#3 ATI PowerModule T5/LED Hybrid
Light 9 inches off water surface. Light meter 6 inches submerged directly under the LEDs 450.
4 inches to the left or right of the edge of the light 6 inches submerged 275-295.
9 inches below water surface directly under the LEDs 275-295
9-13 inches meter submerged the numbers remained consistent
16 inches below water surface directly under the LEDs 205-235
20 inches deep directly under the LEDs 185-205
The ATI Powermodule is a big light with an even bigger price tag. ATI is a company with phenomenal customer service. Their lights all perform remarkably well whether you’re purchasing a PowerModule or a Sunpower. The only thing that we can’t understand is the cost. These lights can be double the price of even the most expensive Ecotech Radion and we don’t really understand why. The Powermodule has the addition of T5 lights, but we don’t believe that is worth the $1000 increase in cost. Both lights have a 1-year warranty, Wifi control, time of day sunrise, sunset & weather settings, customizable colors, and excellent companies behind them. Both lights are at the very top of their respected class. But we can not decipher as to why the ATI light is over double the cost in most cases.
Light 9 inches off water surface and submerged inches below water surface directly under the LEDs 285-305
4 inches to the left or right of the edge of the light and 6 inches below the water surface 175-185
8 inches below the water surface the numbers remained consistent.
10 inches below the water surface directly under the LEDs - 200-215
17 inches below the water surface directly under LEDs 205-22
20 inches below the water surface directly under the LEDs 175-185
This store used to be one of the Nations largest supporters of Kessil until we began testing them a couple years back. Kessil must have an extremely good marketing team lol For $450 their a360x still isn’t 100% wireless. You need to purchase the dongles whenever the hell they get released if you want to program all of your lights. Even then you still need to purchase the additional Spectral Controller.
Kessil uses a technology called Dense Matrix. Over the last couple years we only began to see this as a downfall. It’s supposed to be that this LED chipset uses a very straight, very narrow, very concentrated beam of light to accomplish better penetration into deeper tanks. We haven’t actually seen a single upside to it yet though. With the beam so concentrated it seems that even minimal surface water agitation can knock down PAR a large amount. This could be wrong, we have emailed Kessil without a response, so as of now we believe that water movement greatly diminishes the light from remaining at a higher level.
#5 Maxspect Curve & Recurve (testing was done with the lights set to deepest penetration)
Light 9 inches off water surface and submerged inches below water surface directly under the LEDs 185-215
4 inches to the left or right of the edge of the light and 6 inches below the water surface 135-145
8 inches below the water surface the numbers remained consistent.
10 inches below the water surface directly under the LEDs 165-175
17 inches below the water surface directly under LEDs 125-145
20 inches below the water surface directly under the LEDs 115-135
We purchased one of these and were not impressed at all. The larger form factor lights seem to be going extinct, which is why we couldn’t understand why Maxspect wouldn’t stick with smaller lights (such as the Ethereal) over these larger bodies. The Ethereal was a solid seller. When so much can be accomplished with something such as the Radions of Kessils, why even engineer lights of this nature? We can’t figure out what benefit it might have.
We couldn’t get the PAR levels to top 225 when the light is supposed to be pushing over 300 watts. We’re wondering if it may have been a defective light, but we don’t want to pay to find that out.
Another thing we didn’t care for when it came to these lights was, in general, what most hobbyists have come to know as “standards regarding warranty issues”. Most of the smaller body lights want us reefers to hang our lights almost a foot off the water surface to ensure condensation doesn’t ruin the valuable components. With both the Curve and Recurve there seemed to be a decent amount of condensation that would form of especially the LED shields when the stock tank mount brackets were used.
With the smaller form LED lights atleast the power supplies were enclosed for the most part. These have what looks like a CPU housing with a “screen” over it. After only 90-days the power supply was almost completely suffocated by dust and lint. We don’t want to pull it apart to view the inside because it will likely void the warranty but adding dust and moisture can’t be good for a unit like this.