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Do it Yourself (DIY) LED Aquarium Lighting System

Do it Yourself (DIY) LED Aquarium Lighting System

By Tony Griffitts

Light emitting diode (LED) lighting systems have been around the aquarium hobby for over a decade now and within the last few years have been becoming common on aquariums. Some aquarium kits now include a LED lighting system. While the cost of a LED lighting system have been cost prohibitive for many hobbyist in the past, there are now more economical choices.

Commercial aquarium LED lighting systems are now available in many different configurations and intensity. Many of the aquarium LED lighting systems include diodes of different spectrums and/or the ability to change light color.

LED lighting systems have some advantages over other forms of aquarium lighting systems, they produce less heat, and use less power. LED lighting systems can give you the same light shimmering effect as metal halide when the surface water is agitated. LED lights often last longer than other forms of aquarium lighting.

LED “light” produces less heat than other forms of aquarium lighting systems, but the electronics needed to produce the light can get hot. Many aquarium LED lighting systems include small fans to keep the circuit boards cool.

Many commercial aquarium LED lighting systems have multiple diodes mounted on a single circuit board. This creates a problem when one diode fails. In most cases a faulty diode cannot be changed. For this aquarium DIY LED lighting project a spot light with a single LED light was used, if it fails, unscrew the light from the socket and screw in a new light.

The aquarium used for this DIY LED project is a 50 gallon (190 liter) Eheim, 39 3/8in x 15 5/8in x 19 1/2in (100cm x 40cm x 50cm). Originally this aquarium came with two 30 watt standard fluorescent lights (60 watts total) inclosed in a canopy. While this light was adequate for most plants, the red wendtii (Cryptocoryne wendtii) struggled to grow.

A few years ago I replaced the standard fluorescent lighting system with a four 39 watt bulb high output T5 retrofit system (156 watts total) made by Catalina Aquarium. This lighting system increase the growth rate and reproduction of the red wendtii. This system generated a lot of heat both from the electronics and the bulbs so I had to install a small fan on the canopy to keep the system from overheating. The use of a fan caused a lot of evaporation.

Since installing the three LED spot lights over the aquarium three months ago the plant growth has been very good. The red wendtii is now reaching the surface of the water and the leaves are now 2 inches (5cm) wide.

For this DIY LED project I used parts and material available at local hardware stores. The top of the canopy was removed as the new LED spot lights are being used as pendant lights. The removal of the top of canopy still allows for a lot of evaporation, but not as much as with the fan with the enclosed canopy.

Pothos (Epipremnum aureum) and Spathiphyllum (a.k.a. Peace Lily, Brazilian Sword) were tied to bamboo with cable ties (zip ties) along the back of the open top aquarium to take advantage of the ambient light to help with nitrate reduction.

Bamboo installed above the waterline with pothos and Spathiphyllum attached with black cable ties.

Bamboo installed above the waterline with pothos and Spathiphyllum attached with black cable ties. The use of these plants on the system helps control nitrate.

The frame for the lights was made of 2x2 lumber and I used “L” shaped brackets to tie the wood together. Bayco’s 300 Watt Incandescent Portable Work Light were used for the sockets to screw in the 23 watt 5000K LED spot lights (Model #: LPAR3814005KLEDG5). The 5000K bulb is a natural daylight color spectrum that looks white compared to 3000K which looks yellow.

Bayco work light used for this aquarium LED DIY project.

Bayco work light used for this aquarium LED DIY project.

The Bayco work lights come with an aluminum dome which I chose to remove. To remove the dome, the sockets were unscrewed and a few wires had to be unscrewed from posts.

One inch black mounting base for cable ties were used for fastening the power cords to the frame. A screw was installed in the middle of the mounting base for added security. Power cords were routed behind the frame. Velcro tape was attached to the base of the frame and the canopy to add stability to the structure.

Bayco light socket with a 23 watt 5000K LED spot installed over the aquarium.

Bayco light socket with a 23 watt 5000K LED spot installed over the aquarium.

This light conversion dropped the total wattage from 171 (156w for HO T5 and 15w for a fan) to 69, which is 102 watts in power savings. The aquarium operates much quieter now without the fan running with the lights on. Plant growth has also improved and the aquarium now has a sunlight shimmering effect. Total cost for this LED DIY project was $211 including the plants. No cost was added for the bamboo since it came from my garden.

DIY aquarium LED spot light frame.

Bracket used to tie the lumber together. The base of the frame has Velcro between the base and canopy frame.

DIY LED aquarium spot lights

Power cords from the Bayco work light sockets are routed behind the frame and tied to black mounting bases with cable ties.

Top of aquarium with the DIY LED spot lights installed.

Top of aquarium with the DIY LED spot lights installed. The face of the LED lights were mounted 10 inches (25 cm) above the waterline and 11 inches (28 cm) on center from each other.

Updated photo taken 32 months later.

Updated photo taken 32 months later. Spathiphyllum was removed and only Pothos remains. For more photos click here.

Parts List for DIY Aquarium LED Project

Source Description Qty Price Amount
Lowes 23w PAR38 5000K LED Spot Light 3 $37.98 $113.94
Lowes BAYCO 10 1/2 in. Work Light fixture 3 $15.67 $47.01
Lowes 1 3/8 x 1 3/8 x 47 11/16" Lumber 3 $2.97 $8.91
Lowes Brackets (L shape) 4 per pack 6 needed 2 $3.27 $6.54
Home Depot 1" Black Mounting Base for Cable Ties 10px 1 $4.36 $4.36
Home Depot Wood Screws #6 x 3/4" 1 box 1 $3.92 $3.92
Home Depot 8 in Black Mounting Tie 100pk 1 $8.47 $8.47
Home Depot Pothos (Epipremnum aureum) 6 in pot 1 $7.98 $7.98
Home Depot Spathiphyllum (a.k.a. Peace Lily, Brazilian Sword) 1 $9.98 $9.98
  TOTAL     $211.11

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