Friday, November 14, 2014

Reefing On a Budget: Adding LEDs to Your T5 Fixture

When the upgrade bug strikes, perhaps the hardest part is realizing that the stuff that you have won't work for your next build. That's exactly what happened to me when I moved from a 40 gallon reef system to a gigantic 120 gallon. I had to upgrade almost everything, including the most painful of all, my lights. My 4-bulb, 36-inch AquaticLife fixture was great, but it simply wasn't going to power the new tank.

Time To Go Shopping

Day 1 - When I realized I'd made a huge mistake!

I knew that I'd eventually be moving to a 6-bulb ATI T5 system, but I needed to make do in the mean time while I saved up the cash. My answer? Take a horticulture T5 fixture and retrofit it with LED strips to give color and a sunrise/sunset feature.

I looked at a lot of different options, but finally settled on the TrueLumen Pro, 48-inch Marine Fusion model. The Marine Fusion is a mixture of 12k white and 452 nm blue lights that would allow me to have a nice viewing light for the tank without having to power on my T5 fixture.

The challenge that I had with adding the LED strip was that the design of the T5 fixture didn't allow a lot of room to work inside of the reflector area. I knew that I would need to mount the TrueLumen Pro to the outer frame, so I started measuring and finding the right place to get the job done. Unfortunately, the included brackets for the TrueLumen Pro were slightly too long to fit where I wanted them, so I had to improvise a bit.

I eventually settled on having the TrueLumen Pro on the outside rim of the fixture, and the brackets matched up almost perfectly. Hooray! With just a couple of pilot holes drilled, and using the included screws, I had the Marine Fusion strip in place in no time.

It's worth noting that, when Current USA says that the TrueLumen Pro is 48 inches long, that's exactly what they mean. For some of you, this can cause a problem if you're wanting to use the strip on a fixture that happens to be a bit shorter than 48 inches. If that's the case, I can recommend stepping down a size to 36 inches. In fact, I did just that after having a change of heart about the lighting color.

Points to Ponder

If you're considering taking a retrofit route, there is a lot to think about. We've seen some amazing fixtures that combine high end LEDs with T5, but I was aiming to "fill the gap" on a budget. All in all I'm happy with the results, but there are some things that I'd do differently.
  1. Measure! With better, more careful measurement I would have made a different choice about how I mounted the fixture.

  2. Consider your goals. I thought I wanted full-color sunrise/sunset. What I really wanted was actinic supplement and moonlight. Changing to the Deepwater Blue fixture got me what I wanted, but not before I made a costly mistake with the first choice.

  3. Rip it apart. You're going to be drilling, adhering or otherwise permanently changing your fixture. If you spend a few minutes to tear it apart before making a decision, you'll have a better idea of how you'll need to mount the light, how you can run the cables, etc.

  4. Buy a dimmer. Holy cow this light is bright! Don't underestimate how much power a big strip of LEDs can have. If you're going for anything less than daylight, you'll want to buy an inline dimmer. Fortunately, they're really inexpensive. 

Wrapping Up

All things considered, I'm really happy with the results that I've seen with this modification. If I had it to do over again, I'd change some things, but the end result would still be the same. I have beautiful actinic supplementation, my corals seem to love the extra light and I got the look that I wanted without having to break the bank.

RELATED READING: 5 Creative Ways to Use LED Light Strips