Remember The Lighting

What is the most important part of a marine system? Lighting? Well no, it isn’t, seawater quality is the number one with both fish only and reef aquariums.

High seawater quality means there shouldn’t be any indication of ammonia or nitrite. Nitrate should be as low as possible (the guideline for a reef system is less than 10 ppm (parts per million) and for a fish only less than 30 ppm. Phosphate should preferably be undetectable. pH should be stable in the region 8.1 to 8.4. SG (specific gravity) for a fish only should be stable within the range 1.022 to 1.025, and in a reef system 1.024 to 1.025 (there are variations with SG which more advanced aquarists use for specific purposes). With a reef system there are more seawater parameters that could be monitored but those given are the basic ones.

So what has seawater quality got to do with lighting, this text is about lighting according to the title.

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There are occasions when an aquarist is completely at a loss to explain why the corals are not as they were, with reduced growth and less expansion. Tests have been carried out on the seawater and it is top notch. What could be the problem? Perhaps a disease that is hard to spot? In fact it could be the lighting. Great care is taken when setting up a reef system to ensure the lighting is suitable and the corals, hard or soft, will confirm this.

With a fish only aquarium the lighting is not of such great importance. Its function is to permit the fish to see and the aquarist to see the fish. In addition, if the lighting, which is usually fluorescent tubes, is chosen with care the fish colours can be enhanced. Some colours react really well to ‘marine white’ tubes, and likewise to blue (actinic) ones. There isn’t any reason why more than two tubes cannot be used, but at least two should be in use, say one ‘marine white’ and one blue (actinic). Doing this not only assists with fish colouration, it permits the aquarist to create a ‘dawn/dusk’ sequence. Using electric timers, the blue tube comes on first, then half an hour later the white. At the end of the day the white goes off followed by the blue. This avoids washing the aquarium with sudden light and plunging it into instant darkness, both bad practices.

The reef aquarium is a different story. With these systems lighting is a close second to seawater quality. Most of the corals commonly kept have zooxanthellae in their flesh. Zooxanthellae are single celled algae and the coral gets its colour from them. In addition the corals obtain food as ‘rent’ from the algae; authorities have quoted the level of food supply as 80% or more. Algae, as other plants, require light in order to photosynthesize. The light needs to have sufficient power to penetrate the seawater to the depth of the corals and reach the algae. Power is measured in watts (W). If power is insufficient then the algae will get too little, this is why different power requirements are quoted for aquariums with different depths. In addition, the spectrum needs to be suitable. Light is measured in Kelvin, otherwise known as the colour temperature. Though there is more than one colour suitable for photosynthesis with some corals, blue is the one commonly used by aquarists. Blue penetrates deeply into the seas and oceans. Generally all light types use the Kelvin scale. If metal halide lighting is in use, the bulb(s) commonly used are 10000K and 14000K. The higher the number, the more cold or blue the light appears. Many aquarists use blue (actinic) fluorescent tubes alongside their metal halides. Many commercially produced metal halide arrays incorporate these tubes.

With reef lighting it is also advantageous to have a ‘dawn/dusk’ sequence. Whether the main white lights are fluorescent or metal halide, having blue tubes allows the sequence to be arranged.

So corals, or rather the zooxanthellae in their flesh, need lights that have a suitable colour and in addition the lights need to have enough power to penetrate the seawater.

Provided the aquarist has chosen the correct lighting system in the first place and other requirements are as they should be, the reef display should be lovely. This continues for longer than a year or more when eventually the aquarist notes that the corals aren’t as they were, as said earlier. There appears to be a slow reduction in extension. Perhaps there is a slight and maybe continuing change in colour. Again as said, the aquarist gets out his/her array of test kits but nothing appears wrong, the seawater is still of high quality. How about the lights?

With a fish only system there doesn’t need to be too much concern about the lights. As said they are normally fluorescent tubes and need changing when there is clear discolouration or blackening at the end of the tubes. It is not long after this point has been reached that the tubes are likely to start flickering or fail.

With a reef system the lighting needs more careful monitoring. To the aquarist’s eye there seems to have been no change to the light, as the tubes and/or bulbs switch on normally and they seem just as bright. This is not so however. As time passes the tubes and/or bulbs start to reduce in power which means that, given time, less light will reach the zooxanthellae. In addition, over time the spectrum shifts slowly and the painstakingly chosen lights emit a changed colour, again something the corals will not appreciate.

The best way that a reef aquarist can proceed is to keep a notebook; it only needs to be a small one. In it can go all sorts of memory joggers – including when the lights were first turned on. The manufacturers usually suggest in their documentation how long the lights should maintain their original specifications. There is considerable discussion within the hobby about light reduction/change periods, some suggesting that lights should be changed every three months. I have no facts or scientific reports to argue with, but I feel that period is definitely safe but rather short. Changing the lights no later than one year seems to be a reasonable general guideline. My reef is lit by a fluorescent array, and I change every nine months and have not had any problems.

The aquarist carries out many maintenance activities, a number of which are quite rightly concerned with seawater. There are the test kits that need to come out of the cupboard regularly, the routine seawater changes that partially replace lost trace elements and dilute the sometimes troublesome nitrate. Then there’s cleaning that very useful device the protein skimmer and ensuring that seawater flow is optimal. Plus the rest.

The lights are just there. They may get an occasional wipe with a damp rag but that’s usually all. They’re very dependable and all that is needed is a bulb/tube change after a specific time lapse. This will keep the corals happy if other parameters are good.

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