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Saltwater Aquariums Demystified | Part 07: Lighting, Heating, & Circulation

Table of Contents

I) Introduction

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1) Types of Lighting

There are five types of aquarium lights:

  • LED– quickly becoming the hobby standard, these lights are energy efficient, they run cool, are dimmable, and often programmable.
  • T5– these are small fluorescent tubes.
  • Metal Halide– the old standard in the hobby, they put out a lot of light, a lot of heat, and use a lot of energy.
  • Power Compact– not often used in the hobby, these u-shaped fluorescents don’t put out a lot of light.
  • Hybrid– any sort of mixture of the above categories.  Currently we see metal halide/t5 hybrids and led/t5 hybrids.

2) PAR

Photosynthetic active radiation is light that falls in the visible range of 400-700 nanometers, and is the light that photosynthetic cells need for survival.

Most soft corals and lps corals need PAR in the range of 50-100, while most sps corals need much more at 250-350.

How do you know how much PAR your lights are putting out?  Well, you can check out different forums, go the the manufacturer’s website, or purchase an expensive waterproof PAR meter.

3) Our Picks

a) LEDs

Reefer Breeders Photon V2

I currently own two of these Photon V2+ from Reef Breeders.  They are a middle of the road price wise, but super sleek looking and programmable using the included controller.  

I think that once Reef Breeders develops an iPhone or Android app to run these lights, these would be my go-to for high end lights.

Chinese Made Black Box Lights

In the hobby, we simply refer to this kind of light as “Chinese black box lights.”  I think it’s because they are made in China, and regardless of the brand, they are large black boxes.

Whatever brand you go with, these are inexpensive fixtures, some of which are programmable.  I own two of these, and use the large size for my 40-gallon breeder style quarantine tank.  

Good value for the price.

Kessil A80 Tuna Blue
Kessil Gooseneck Mount

I currently own two of these Kessil A80 lights: one for my freshwater nano tank and the other for the saltwater nano tank.

Kessil makes a great product, and I think this Tuna Blue is perfect for a nano tank up to 20-gallons.  You can control the intensity and spectrum with the knobs on the top, and it is crazy affordable at under $140 at the time of writing.

Just make sure you pick up the Gooseneck Mount as well.

Aqua Illumination Prime 16 HD
AI Flex Mounting Arm

I love these lights so much that I bought two of them for my neighbors tank!  Compact LED’s, these lights are fully programmable using the iOS or Android app.  One of these lights is perfect for a 20-gallon tank.

But for a 40-gallon or larger tank, I would either pick up two of these, or get the larger fixture the AI Hydra 32 HD.

b) T5 Compact Fluorescents

Coralife Aqualight Dual T5 Lamp

Here’s why I like T5 lamps: they are fool-proof.  What mean is that you only have two programming options: on or off.

For beginners, trying to program LED lights can be super-daunting, and if you don’t get it right you can damage or kill your corals.  But T5’s you just turn them on and off and that’s it.

This T5 fixture from Coralife is a great introductory light, perfect for your standard 20-gallon tank.

You will need to replace the bulbs every year though, so take that into your price calculations.

c) Programmable Digital Timer

Programmable Digital Timer

This is by far the most inexpensive way to automate your lights.  If you go with one of the lights above that is not programmable, then just pick up one of these timers, and bam, you have a programmable light!

III) Heaters

a) Our Heater Picks

Eheim Jager Glass Heater

This is hands-down my favorite heater.  I currently run six of these in my home tanks.  I’ve owned at least two of them for five years and they are still running strong!

Just make sure you pick up the correct size for your tank, and why not pick up two for redundancy sake.  Then all you need to do is set your primary heater to 78 degrees, and your secondary heater to 76 degrees just in case the first one fails.

Finnex Titanium Heater

What I like about these Finnex titanium heaters is a) they come with a controller and b) they are almost indestructible!

There are various sizes, so just make sure you get the right one for your tank… and no, bigger is not better when it comes to heaters.

b) Controllers

Temperature Controller

I mean, I could recommend some fancier products, but I’m not going to.  I own four of these Bayite Temperature Controllers, and at the time of writing (2020) they only cost $30.  They have replaceable temperature probes, and work like a charm.

You can control both a heater and a fan from this controller, to within 0.1 degrees, not too shabby.

Here’s my advice with this unit: buy it, but two if you need to, they are worth every cent.

IV) Fans & Chillers

a) Fans

dual head aquarium fan
Tunze Aquawind Aquarium Surface Cooling Fan

As long as this fan can be mounted on your tank, it will get the job done.  I use a similar fan on both my 24 gallon reef tank and my 120 gallon build, and, while this is not scientific, it keeps the water about 2 degrees cooler.

I live in Palm Desert, and with the summer temperature of our home at 78 degrees, my tanks tend to creep up to around 80 degrees with the added heat from all of the equipment.  But with one of these plugged into my Bayite controller, my tank stays at 78.

Yes, it does use evaporative cooling, so that does mean you will lose more freshwater everyday, so be prepared to top off your tank a bit more than usual.

AC Infinity Cabinet Fan With Controller

If you have a sump, then you’ll probably benefit from one of these.  I have one in my 120 gallon, and it keeps the humidity and temperature way down. This fan is meant to remove humidity from your cabinet, not to be mounted above your water for evaporative cooling.

b) Chillers

Chill Solutions Thermoelectric Chiller
1/2 horsepower brown saltwater aquarium chiller on white background
JBJ Arctica Titanium Chiller

Alright, there are two types of chillers:

  • Thermoelectric- that’s the one on the left.  These have a super low profile, and are rated for tanks up to 30 gallons.  You do need to buy the plumbing and a pump to make these work.  You can also daisy chain several together for more cooling power. These are great for small tanks.
  • Full Size- obviously I don’t know what to call this one. These are basically large air conditioners which sit next to your tank and can handle a heavy-duty load.  A lot more expensive, but work for either larger tanks or if you need a ton of chilling capacity for a smaller tank.

V) Pumps

a) Specifications

To get the right size and type of pump, consider these factors:

  • Submersible/External– most pumps, and in fact all pumps below, are submersible.  But some of them can be plumbed externally. 99% of beginners will be purchasing a submersible pump.
  • AC/DC– Alternating current or direct current.  Typically, AC pumps are less expensive, tend to vibrate a bit more, only have one speed, and use more energy. DC pumps use less electricity, have variable speed, vibrate less, and are more expensive.
  • GPH– Gallons per hour.  When purchasing a return pump, you want a pump that will turn over your entire water column 10-15x per hour.  You also need to factor in the loss of pumping power based on the height your water has to travel from your sump to your display.

b) Utility Pumps

Cobalt MJ1200
Sicce Synra Silent 1.0

I use utility pumps for all sorts of things:

  • Mixing saltwater.
  • Refilling my RO/DI reservoir.
  • Water changes.
  • Extra flow in my tank.

I’ve used the Cobalt MJ line of powerheads for many years and they are extremely versatile.

On the right is the Sicce Syncra Silent line of pumps.  I primarily use these as lower cost return pumps for small tanks, but they also make great all-around utility pumps.

c) Return Pumps

Sicce Syncra Silent
Reef Octopus VarioS

On the inexpensive side, I choose the Sicce Syncra Silent line.  Great for small to medium sized tanks, these are work horses that can last for years with proper maintenance.

For a more expensive controllable DC pump, Reef Octopus makes a great product.  There are many different brands out there, so choose the one that is right for you.

d) Wavemakers

Hydor Koralia Pump

By itself, the Hydor Koralia is a simple AC circulation pump, but if you pair it with the Smart Wave Pump Controller, it becomes a wavemaker.

There is nothing fancy at all here, but if you are on a budget, why not?  These pumps work great, are perfect for small tanks, and cost a fraction of other wavemakers.  

I personally own a couple, and I use these more for utility purposes, but for what they are, I have no complaints.

Maxspect Gyre

I have looked at these for years, but never pulled the trigger because I thought they were too bulky.  Well, I was wrong!

I finally installed one on my 120 gallon, and it puts out so much flow that I can’t run it at full strength or my anemones pull in.

A bit difficult to program, just watch the manufacturer video to learn how.

d) Dosing Pumps

Kamoer X1 Bluetooth Micro-Pump

I really like this little dosing pump.  Really easy to setup and calibrate with your phone. I’ve used other peristaltic pumps before that were a bit more complicated and bulkier, so I really enjoy the simplicity of this little guy.

e) Air Pumps

This battery powered air pump is great to have in case of a power outage.  And for under $10 (at the time of writing), it’s a no-brainer.

I’ve owned mine for several years and only had to use it twice, but I’m always glad I have it when it’s needed.