When it comes to a lush, underwater, planted aquariums, the proper lighting is essential. Unfortunately, many basic aquarium lights are not designed with plant growth in mind.
And we get it – Choosing the best planted aquarium light for your set up can get overwhelming! That is why we put together this simple, yet detailed guide to help you choose the perfect light for your planted aquarium.
We’ll explain what you need to know about aquatic plant lighting, the difference between light types, and finally, our review of the best LED aquarium lights for growing aquarium plants.
If you want to grow healthy, aquatic plants you have to provide them with enough energy from the right kind of lighting – so let’s get to it!
For nano planted aquariums up to 20 gallon containing freshwater shrimp and fish – my top pick is the Fluval Planted Spectrum Nano. It is a simple fixture that will light up the tank to support plant growth. For the technology that is built in, it is extremely reasonably priced!
My Top Pick:
How to Choose Your Planted Aquarium LED Light
When selecting which LED light will be the best choice for your planted aquarium, we recommend considering the following criteria.
- Is the aquarium light designed for freshwater plants or saltwater corals, or both?
- What is the color spectrum? This will give clarity to answer #1 because saltwater tanks need more blue light, where freshwater needs more yellow
- Does the overall, exterior design aesthetic meet your liking?
- Will you need to purchase mounting hardware separately?
- Tank width and depth vs. number of lights needed, or will the light reach the substrate
- Does the light have a timer or programable adjustment capability?
- Can the light intensity and color be adjusted separately?
- What aquarium plants do you have in your tank or would like to grow? Every plant needs a different intensity of light to thrive
Pendant or Spotlight Style Aquarium Lights
1. Kessil A160WE Tuna Sun – $$$
Kessil is a specialty lighting company located in San Francisco. The company is famous for their unique style of LED aquarium lighting that produces a spectacular shimmering effect, and delivering superior quality in the fixtures.
The A160WE Tuna Sun is a compact pendant light that is suitable for both freshwater and saltwater tanks.
It is compact light measuring 4″ x 2/48″ / 10/2cm x 6.3cm
It is designed to be suspended over the aquarium, using the gooseneck mount that’s sold separately. It does come with a mounting clamp, however many people report are not ideal because they limit the spotlight feature.
Customizing Light Intensity & Color:
One feature that is raved about is the controllability of both light intensity and color.
Light intensity and color is controlled by turning the control knob on the back of the light. As dials aren’t everyones preferred method, the good new is this light can work with many control units for more precise selections. We recommend the Kessler Spectral Controller.
Also, the light is dimmable, and this is done manually via the control knob, or with one of the digital control units stated above.
The Tuna Sun allows you to adjust the color spectrum of the light too. You can change the look from bright white to golden sunset, and blue-pink moonshine.
Kessil has perfected their technology, so that the LEDs produce wavelengths that mimic the sun, and provide for the increased photosynthetic absorption of your plants.
Many saltwater aquarists reported their coral exponentially growing within a matter of 60 days using the Tuna Sun setup. Freshwater tank owners report explosion in new growth and height of their aquatic plants.
How Many Lights Do You Need?
For larger aquariums it is recommended that you use two lights. Two lights is often sufficient to cover a side to side distance of 36” to 48” for both saltwater and freshwater. Adding multiple lights can add a unique visual element to your tank if you choose to have different light colors projecting from the different lights.
Double light setup:
Select one light as the ‘primary’ and you will link the second light to the first using the Kessil “Link Cable”. To adjust the light intensity and color, use the manual knob controls on the top of the fixture on the first ‘primary’ light. This will control both lights simultaneous. If you opted for the Spectral Controller add-on, then you can connect this to the first ‘primary’ light, the cable for connection to the second is included with the controller, this will take over and control both lights.
- Ideal for saltwater mixed (coral + fish) aquariums down to 18-20” depth, side to side coverage of 24”
- Ideal for freshwater aquariums down to 24” depth, side to side coverage of 24” (20-40 gallon tank)
- Sleek modern design
- Optional gooseneck mounting system
- 100% Silent
- Programmable with the controller
- Does not have a built in timer – needs controller
- Highly customized with Kessil Spectral Controller
- $$ much higher on the price, especially if you go with the mount and controller
Check out Kessil’s Tuna Blue Light if you are wanting a Reef Tank specific light!
2. Fluval Nano Plant Spectrum LED Light – $$
Buy with confidence with the Fluval Nano LED fixture! Complete with a Smart app. that is bluetooth connected.
This LED aquarium light is designed to work as a single light over smaller or nano planted aquariums. The small footprint makes it easy to get full coverage in a shallow aquarium. Best for freshwater planted aquariums, as it offers 6 unique band-waves, not quite enough light intensity for saltwater corals.
If you have a nano or pico reef tank, the light that is recommended is the 7 band-wave, higher intensity, Marine Spectrum Nano Light.
The sleek, black top design makes for a sophisticated, modern look. The top light itself measures 5″ x 7″
Adjust the height of the mounting arms from level with the water surface all the way up to 12 inches above. One limitation the light has is its max distance from the tank edge outward is 4 inches, making it more suitable for nano sized planted aquariums.
The light attaches over-the-back of the tank using the provided mounting bracket and clamp. From the base, the light can pivot left-right, up-down. To tighten the clamp to the tank edge, there is one twist nut on the front of the unit to do so. It is made of durable, hard plastic so it will hold up for many years, and can be tightened very securely to the tank edge.
With the popular, rimless tanks, this aquarium light will work if the wall thickness is no greater than 5/16 of an inch. One thing to note, is the clamp does extend into the tank .75 of an inch, so if you have a lid this might be an issue.
Customizing Light Intensity & Color:
The light comes pre-programmed with biotope-specific settings and a 24-hour light cycle. In order to do this, you will use the App. and select the “pre-programmed options” this will automatically give you sunrise, daytime, sunset, and night moon cast.
Honestly, the App. is really rad! A lot of development has gone into the App. creation, making it easy to use and HIGHLY customizable. Simply slide left right and see it instantly on a full color spectrum graph.
What I love about the App. is when I’m on vacation I can rest assured everything is working great! Set the timer and let it work it’s magic – making it easy to give your planted aquarium the ideal lighted sessions so that you don’t accidentally initiate overgrowth of algae.
How Many Lights Do You Need?
The Fluval Nano is densely packed with LEDs making it easy to grow all types of plants in a small aquarium. Multiple fixtures can be added for larger aquariums.
The max recommended size for one light is up to a 20-gallon tank, being ideal for 10-gallon and smaller for full light intensity down to the substrate. Max depth is recommended to not exceed 12 inches.
Multiple Light Set-up:
Fluval makes this incredibly easy with the App. Get as many lights as your tank needs and independently bluetooth sync them to the App. and adjust accordingly. No need for additional cables or controllers.
- Small fixture for nano planted aquariums
- Planted Spectrum for freshwater tanks
- Marine Spectrum for saltwater tanks
- Bright enough for sun-loving plants
- Comes with a mounting system, adjustable up-down, left-right
- Pre-programmed, 24-hour cycle
- Bluetooth control via the App.
- Easy to have multiple lights because each is controlled independently through the App.
- $ affordable, especially since no other items are needed
3.Penn-PLAX Cascade Plant Growth LED Clip-On Light for Rimless Aquariums – $
The Penn-Plax Cascade clip-on light is designed specifically for shallow, desktop or nano freshwater aquariums that are no larger than 5 gallons.
This aquarium light is suitable for plant growth, with 12 high-powered LED lights that emit red and blue light, but will not be adequate for saltwater tanks. The light is ideal for low-light plants like Anubias and ferns.
Where this light shines, is in the look and design aesthetic. Unlike many aquarium lights, this Cascade has a stainless/silver finish for a sleek modern look. The total measurements of the light box is 4.5″ x 4.5″ and only 0.5″ thick, standing on two vertical mounting rods.
The mounting bracket is extremely sturdy, easy to clamp on, and allows for simple removal so you can work inside the tank. What’s most appealing about the bracket is it is clear plastic, and almost becomes invisible when on the tank.
However, it is relatively wide measuring 5 inches across, so for extra nano tanks be aware of this. On my 2.7 gallon Penn-Plax Vertex, Betta tank, the hang-on Cascade filter + the light takes up the entire width of the tank.
The fixture can be safely mounted on an open-top aquarium. There is no worry about accidental splashes. However, the height of the light cannot be adjusted.
Customizing Light Intensity & Color:
This light uses a simple on/off switch on the control box midway down the cord. You’ll need an aquarium timer to control it for accuracy. There are no pre-programmed settings or dimming function. You get all 12 LED lights and that’s it.
- Compact light for rimless desktop or nano aquariums
- Simple setup
- Sleek, modern stainless design
- Comes with a sturdy, mounting bracket system
- Cannot adjust height
- Simple on-off switch – not customizable
- $ – Budget option, but great quality
Bar LED Planted Aquarium Lights
4. Current USA Satellite Plus PRO – $$
The Satellite Plus PRO fixture looks more like a traditional mount-on-tank design.
The sleek housing sits on slender metal mounting legs. The legs are adjustable to fit a variety of aquarium widths. There are four sizes that fit tanks ranging from 16 up to 60 inches wide.
The fixture provides full spectrum light for strong plant growth while producing vivid colors and brilliant shimmer effects like sunlight penetrating a lake. Good for low and high-light type aquatic plants.
Each fixture uses a combination of white LEDs blended with blue, red, and green (RBG) LEDs to recreate sunlight over your aquarium.
This fixture is perfect for traditional rectangular tanks with a depth of no more than 18 inches (46 cm).
- 24 hour on/off timer with a 15-minute sunrise and sunset feature
- Adjustable color spectrum and intensity
- Six presets including cloud cover, fading lunar, storm and lightning
- Easy control with the wireless remote or fixture touch pad
- 120-degree reflector provides full coverage.
5. Finnex Stingray 2 – $
The Stingray II aquarium light packs white and RGB LEDs in a sleek aluminum housing.
Finnex uses a unique blend of true actinic (blue), true red, and white LEDs to create accurate daylight conditions suitable for live plants.
All Finnex Stingray fixtures use certified power supplies guaranteed to send safe current to the LEDs. This prolongs the lifespan of the light and prevents stressing of the components.
The light is available in seven models for aquariums widths ranging from 12 to 48-inches (30-122 cm). The light sits on top of the aquarium using adjustable plastic legs.
This bright light allows you to raise light-loving plants under the fixture and other plants throughout the tank.
- Three-position switch for easy selection of color modes
- Moonlight mode simulates evening
- Sleek design
- Recommended for rectangular tanks up to 20 inches tall
- High light output.
Why Aquatic Plants Need Light
Just like land plants, aquarium plants run on light power. They use light energy to make food for growth and release oxygen into the aquarium.
Plants contain light-absorbing cells that gather energy from the sun and use it for energy.
When we put them into our aquarium, we must do our best to mimic natural sunlight above the aquarium.
Without lighting, the plants gradually yellow and die.
Will Any LED Grow Aquarium Plants?
LED lighting is everywhere!
But not every, or any LED will work to grow your aquarium plants.
LED aquarium lights are specifically designed for freshwater aquariums or marine reef aquariums.
The freshwater LED fixtures are engineered to reproduce the light spectrum of sunlight shining down into a lake or stream. The LEDs have been selected to produce a natural-looking white light, to the blue lights needed for coral growth.
Unlike early day-glow fluorescent aquarium lights, freshwater LED lighting will enhance the natural colors of freshwater fish, allowing you to see the myriad of colors and subtle shading that exists on freshwater tropical fish.
Aquatic plants require full spectrum lighting to thrive in an aquarium. Without the natural light spectrum, aquatic plants will gradually lose their coloration, drop leaves and melt away.
One of the measurements of the light spectrum is the Kelvin unit.
Natural daylight, on cloudy to sunny days, ranges from 5500K to 7000K. Look for a LED that can provide this range of light quality (for freshwater planted tanks).
Some more advanced freshwater LED aquarium lights allow you to create light that mimics early dawn, dusk, moonlight and more.
Basic LED lights can be controlled by a conventional timer that plugs into the wall. They are mounted above the aquarium either on legs that rest on top of the aquarium or hang from the ceiling.
When you shop for an aquarium light, know how wide your aquarium is. LED lights come in a variety of lengths that match the length of the aquarium.
This is especially important to consider when selecting a light that sits on top of the aquarium frame, or edge of a rimless tank.
Key LED light features to look for freshwater aquariums:
- 5500-7000 K light output minimum
- Programmable timer, intensity and color adjustments
- Mounting system
- Match the fixture length and depth to your aquarium
Benefits of LED Aquarium Lighting
LED light technology is extremely efficient. That’s because LED lighting consumes much less energy than traditional bulbs.
LED fixture uses a variety of colored light emitting diodes to create very specific types of lighting. Some are designed to provide cold-looking white light. Others create a warm glow.
LEDs last for years and don’t burn out nearly as often as other lights.
Unlike fluorescent bulbs, LED technology runs cooler. This prevents overheating of the aquarium water.
LED aquarium light fixtures are less bulky and more attractive than traditional aquarium lighting fixtures.
Is Blue or White Light Better For Planted Aquariums?
When shopping for a LED light, be sure to choose a model designed for freshwater or saltwater use.
- Reef lighting has a lot of blue LEDs, which work well for corals but should never be used with live freshwater plants.
- Freshwater lighting has a lot of white LEDs. Look for a LED fixture that specifically says it is for freshwater aquariums and live plants. Freshwater plant lights use a different combination of colored LEDs that create light that mimics sunlight passing through a tropical river or marsh.
Reef aquariums need to be bathed in light so all the corals and other invertebrates receive the light energy required for photosynthesis. There are many LED aquarium lights intended for reef aquariums with live corals.
Look for a dense array of LEDs with light focusing lenses. This ensures that the light is distributed across the entire reef aquarium.
Be sure the reef aquarium light has the capability to provide daylight (up to 10,000K) and blue actinic lighting. This mimics the way sunlight penetrates the seawater on a reef.
Some reef LED lights use individual white, red, blue and green LEDs to create specific light Kelvin specifications and special blue LEDs to recreate sunlight that penetrates deeper seawater.
Other LED lights have the colors pre-set while some models allow you to experiment and change the color temperatures.
For smaller reef aquariums you have the option to select a LED light that sits on top of the aquarium but if you have a larger aquarium it is common to hang the LED lights above the tank.
For your freshwater aquarium, be sure it has the capability to provide daylight (up to 5500-7000K).
How Many Hours Should Aquarium Lights Be On?
Aquarium plants, just like their land plants need a full “days” worth of light. This is typically 10 to 12 hours of light. Now, with that said a common mistake people make is running the lights too long and they trigger an algae bloom!
One factor to consider is where the tank is placed in your home. If it is near a window, receiving the UV light from the sun, then reduce your aquarium lights to around 6 hours.
Aquarium plants that require “high light” will need longer, more intense light – this is made easy with the selection of a light that has high customization features like the Fluval Planted Spectrum Nano light.
How to Match the Light to the Aquarium
With old-fashioned fluorescent lighting, you could use a “watts per gallon” formula for most aquariums. All that’s changed with LED lighting.
The watts per gallon rule is not very useful because LED technology provides more light per watt.
Some LED fixtures are designed to illuminate a certain spot directly under the light.
Other fixtures use a tank-wide array of LEDs to spread the light out through the entire aquarium.
The best way to choose the right size light is to read the light’s specifications on recommended aquarium depth or dimensions.
Keep in mind some plants like strong lighting while others, like mosses, will thrive in dimmer lighting.
You may not need a super-power fixture, depending on the depth of your aquarium and type of plants you’re keeping.
But we’ll make it even easier by reviewing the top LED lights for growing freshwater plants and giving recommendations based on plant type and tank size.
My Top Picks
For nano planted aquariums up to 20 gallon containing freshwater shrimp and fish – my top pick is the Fluval Planted Spectrum Nano. It is a simple fixture that will light up the tank to support plant growth. For the technology that is built in, it is extremely reasonably priced! With the App. and unlimited controllability of light intensity, color, programmable settings, it’s unbeatable. Fluval is also a tried and true brand within the aquarium/fish keeping space, so have confidence with your purchase and an honored warranty if anything were to occur.
For traditional rectangular aquariums the Finnex Stingray 2 overs a lot of lighting features, sleek looks, and bright light output.