Having a vibrant, lush aquarium filled with healthy plants is the dream of many hobbyist aquarists. However, achieving this type of planted tank requires paying special attention to lighting conditions. Proper aquarium lighting is absolutely essential for facilitating vigorous plant growth while preventing nuisance algae overgrowth.
There are a few key factors to consider when it comes to dialing in optimal lighting for planted aquariums. By understanding how adjustments to intensity, duration, and spread of light impact plants, you can provide just the right environment to help aquatic greenery thrive.
Key Factors That Affect Aquarium Lighting
Intensity – The brightness level of the light plays a major role. Low or moderate light plants like Java Fern and Anubias require lower intensity lighting around 20-40 lumens per litre. In contrast, concentrated high output lighting systems producing 90+ lumens per litre are necessary for extremely light-demanding species like red plants and carpeting plants. 
Duration – The daily photoperiod, or number of hours the lights are on each day, must also be tailored to plant needs. 8-10 hours per day works well for most community planted tanks, but some tanks require split lighting periods with a siesta break in the middle to prevent too much light.
Spread – Having even distribution of light reaching all areas of the aquarium is pivotal to prevent dead spots. Optimal spread might require raising lights higher above open-top tanks or selecting specialized optics.
Choosing the Right Aquarium Lighting System
Modern aquarium lighting systems now available help planted tank keepers provide full control over intensity, duration, and spread of light. Here is an overview of top options:
LED Aquarium Lights – Energy-efficient LEDs are now the gold standard of planted tank lighting. Full spectrum LED fixtures specifically designed for planted tanks allow for intense, customizable and shimmering aquatic illumination. Finnex, Fluval, and Nicrew make exceptional LED lights for planted aquariums.
T5 HO Fluorescent Lights – Although less efficient, high output T5 fluorescents produce significant usable light for plants, especially in deeper tanks. Consider T5 HO systems from brands like AquaticLife and Sunblaster.
Halide Lights – Metal halide and ceramic halide systems provide the most intense light of any traditional lighting system. However, their higher heat output makes cooling a challenge. Popular planted tank models come from brands like Hamilton and Aqua Medic. 
When selecting your aquarium light, factor in the types of plants, tank dimensions, and whether your setup is low, medium or high-tech. Purchase a system that aligns with your aquarium goals and plant requirements.
Key Tips for Optimizing Aquarium Lighting
Once you have an appropriate lighting system for your planted tank, focus on fine-tuning settings to maximize plant health and growth.
Start Low & Gradually Increase – Intensity and duration should start on the low end of plants\’ acceptable ranges and slowly ramp up based on response. Watch for signs of insufficient light like small, stunted leaves versus fast algae growth indicating too much light.
Use Separate Day & Night Cycles – Program lights to come on in the morning and shut off 12 hours later to establish a normal circadian rhythm. Fauna need 6+ hours of complete darkness nightly. 
Use Timers & Automation – Manual operation leads to inconsistency. Buy external timers, controllers and dimmers to effortlessly maintain optimal light cycles in tune with seasonal changes.
Closely observe how plants respond – distributing nutrients efficiently, producing vivid coloration, growing vertically – and make gradual lighting adjustments to meet their needs.
Recommended Aquarium Lighting for Purchase
Ready to upgrade your existing lights or buy a new system? Here are my top aquarium LED recommendations across a range of tank sizes and budgets:
Nicrew ClassicLED – Excellent for 10-20 gallon tanks on a budget. Choose from 18 to 30 watt models.
Beamswork DA Series – Impressive value for medium planted tanks up to 75 gallons. Multiple sizes available.
Fluval Plant 3.0 – Top of the line for high tech planted tanks from 45-120 gallons. Extremely customizable.
Follow the tips covered here and invest in a suitable lighting system to unlock your aquarium\’s full planted potential! Let me know if you have any other questions.