Nano Reef Lighting Options – A Guide For Beginners

Nano tanks are any saltwater system under 40 gallons which became popular in the 90’s. These tanks are smaller versions of the massive tanks that have been around for ages, however they still require a fairly hefty investment of both time and money yet they can be thoroughly fulfilling when developed properly.

When starting and maintaining a nano reef, there are four crucial elements: filtration, current, lighting, and refreshing. In this article, we’ll discuss the proper way to light your nano reef which, as you’ll learn, is one of the most important components of a healthy and growing nano reef.


Nano Reef Lighting Options

Proper lighting for your nano reef is absolutely crucial as without adequate light, corals simply cannot thrive or live. Corals do best with lighting in the 6700-10,000 kelvin range and where you fall in that range depends on your setup but basically the lower end is for freshwater plants and some corals while the higher end is considered better for most corals.

Keeping plants and coral alive means investing in the best type of bulb and light for your ultimate goal. There are several options for you to consider:

Fluorescent Lighting – This includes several sub-options such as Power Compact Fluorescent, Normal Output, High Output, or Very High Output.

Metal Halide Lighting – Produces more lumens per watt than other sources but they do get extremely hot which is obviously a threat to marine life.

Light-Emitting Diode (LED) – Low voltage, energy efficient, long-lasting, and they stay cool. Check our our article on the best wifi led aquaurium lights with 165w.

LED vs Non-LED

In our opinion, we think the best option is to go with LED lighting because of how many benefits it provides. LEDs produce great brightness with less voltage and energy usage than other bulbs and while they do produce heat, it’s relatively little compared to Metal Halides. Also, the heat that they produce isn’t on the bulb itself, but rather on the back side of the LED which is why they’re usually mounted to heatsinks which we’ll discuss later.

The bulbs last up to 50,000 hours before dropping in light rating meaning it’s going to save you a ton of money over the lifetime of your nano reef. LEDs are also very easy to dim and control while offering many options for programming and effects due to a wide range of colors. This range allows you to create almost any desired color spectrum and stimulates sunrise, sunset, and moonlight which is vital for growing or acclimating coral.

LEDs can be placed on timers and controlled remotely via phone apps adding extreme flexibility to the long list of benefits. So while the upfront cost for LED is more than the other options, it’s definitely the route that we recommend.


Power Supply

If you need a power supply, which you may not if you’re running mains power, there are a few options for you to choose from.

Linear Unregulated – These are large and expensive but they give the cleanest power output.

Linear Regulated – Also large and expensive but gives you more control of your wattage.

Switch Mode – A smaller power supply and gives the same power as a linear power supply.


Reef LED Heatsinks

As we mentioned earlier, LED lights emit their heat on the backside of the unit and this is something that needs to be controlled and so is very important. The way to control LED heat is to mount the light to a heatsink which comes in a variety of shapes, sizes, and materials. Common materials are aluminum and copper with most people choosing aluminum for its ability to get rid of the heat.

An important consideration with heatsinks is the mass and surface area of it. Both play a major role in how heat will be handled and dissipated. The lower the mass, the quicker the heatsink will be saturated with heat. Also, the more surface area you have, the more room there is for the heat to transfer into the air.


Reef LED Optics or Not

Optics are another consideration and not one that is necessary in all cases. Their purpose is to focus the light into a smaller area so it may not be needed in your nano tank unless it’s over 12-14” tall. However, if you do opt for them, they come in many different angles which effect how tight the optic will be.  A tighter optic performs better at greater depths than a wide one will. Typically, optics that are 60 degrees reach 150W MH levels and 40 degrees can reach 250W levels.

It’s important to know that all optics are designed based on a particular brand of LED and so they may not work well on cross-brands. Make sure you read the specifications before purchasing.


Installation Tips

Now that you have all of your LED lighting components, it’s time to install your system. You’ll need basic tools such as wire cutters, screwdrivers, and drills as well as some not-so-common ones such as epoxy and a soldering iron. Practice with the iron a few times before you go to install the actual light. You can find tips and tutorials online if you need further help.



Nano reefs are a passionate pursuit of many people and one that is becoming more mainstream. With so much time and money invested in this small ecosystem, it’s vital to have proper lighting to ensure healthy growth of your plants and coral. We think the best way to make sure that this happens is through the use of LED lighting. With a little bit of preparation and planning, you shouldn’t have any trouble designing and installing your ideal lighting set-up.

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