T5 vs LED Lighting
The last few years have seen a major move away from T5 lighting toward LED lighting. The belief has largely driven that shift change among hobbyists that LED lighting units are more energy-efficient and provide better quality illumination for plants, fish, and corals. So, is that true, or are the traditional T5s still the best choice?
To help you decide, we’ve put together this comparison article, and we take a detailed look at some of the pros and cons of both T5 and LEDs in aquarium lighting.
What are T5s?
The “T5” refers to the 5/8-inch diameter of the fluorescent tubes that are used in T5 lighting units. Older T8 and T12 tubes are older in design and don’t produce as much light as the more modern T5s.
T5 lights are very stable and produce highly predictable results. For that reason, T5s have been the lighting system of choice for many experienced hobbyists and horticulturalists.
Customizing a T5 lighting system is easy, as there’s a huge range of bulbs across a wide color spectrum to choose from. You can further alter the amount of light shining into your aquarium by choosing a reflector that gives you the effect you want. To get the most bang for your buck, use hydroponic light fixtures that fit your aquarium size.
What are LED aquarium lights?
LEDs are a type of semiconductor called "Light Emitting Diodes" or LEDs.
Very simply, LEDs emit light when electrical current flows through them, releasing energy in the form of photons. The color of the light produced by the LED corresponds to the photons' energy and how they react inside the semiconductor.
LED fixtures give you an astounding range of options when it comes to the spectrum and color of light that’s available to you.
High-quality LED lighting units, such as our favorite, the Ocean Revive Arctic T247-B Full Spectrum Dimmable LED Aquarium Reef Light, offer multi-control options, too, including remote control units and some even offer apps. Some LEDs provide you with options to control the lighting effects in your tank too, which is critical for corals that prefer a more stable environment.
If you have a tropical, freshwater tank, you can create a sunrise effect, a storm, or switch to relaxing mood lighting that encourages nocturnal fish species to become more active during the daytime so that you can observe their natural behaviors and make sure that your pets are eating enough.
Generally, T5 fixtures don’t come with these features.
LED units often have a timer so that you can have your aquarium lights come on and go off at preset times to suit your aquarium inhabitants. That’s a very handy feature to have if you’re out at work every day, or you go away from home on business or for a vacation.
Although a few T5 lights are programmable and come with integral Wi-Fi, most are simple plug-and-play units. You simply choose the bulbs you want, load them into the fixture, and plug in the unit.
Lighting spread and output
LEDs create intense light directly under the lighting unit, which gradually diffuses as the light radiates outward. Although that’s fine for medium and low-light aquarium plants, you’ll need to think carefully about where to place plant species and corals that need higher levels of light.
Choosing an LED light for a planted tank can be tricky, as the lighting's output and quality vary tremendously between brands. Many units are too weak for growing plants, and, unlike fluorescent tubes, LEDs often don't produce UV light unless UV-specific diodes are used.
Also, LEDs are pinpoint light sources, and that can create shadows. Another issue with poorly designed LED fittings is that they can create a "disco-ball" effect of colored lines across the substrate and rocks in the tank. Compared to good quality T5 lighting fixtures, LEDs are not as efficient at stimulating pigmentation in red plant species.
In contrast, T5s produce a linear source of light distributed equally over the bulb's whole length. When combined with a high-quality T5 reflector, an even spread of light is created that bathes the whole aquarium. T5s don't create as many shadows and virtually no hot spots.
Upfront and running costs
LEDs have the edge over T5 lights as they are more energy-efficient in that they use less electricity, and the bulbs last longer. However, when compared, the difference in electricity usage between LEDs and T5s is not as great as you might think; it’s the initial set up and maintenance that makes the difference.
LEDs are very energy efficient and don’t have bulbs that require regular replacement, although they are sometimes more expensive to buy. In comparison, T5s have bulbs that generally need replacing every six to 12 months, but they are cheaper initialy to buy and set up.
There’s no difference in the light that’s produced by an LED or a T5 lighting unit. However, it’s generally easier to produce light of different wavelengths and spectrums by using T5 tubes and reflectors, as many LEDs don’t offer a particularly wide spectrum choice. Also, there’s a great choice of bulbs for T5 lighting units, which you don’t get with LEDs.
So, LEDs are a fun option that often come with lots of customization options and handy features. You can set your LED lighting unit to come on and switch off when you want it to, and you can even control the whole setup remotely from your phone wherever you are in the world. That said, your fish, plants, or corals won’t be impressed by a lightning storm effect in their tank, and all the fancy bells and whistles are purely there for your entertainment.
Both LED and T5 lighting options can be used to produce healthy, freshwater planted aquariums and vibrant, thriving marine and reef tanks.