Aquarium LED Lights, Controllers, PWM; What is Best

Reef Aquarium with best LED lightI will look at three important facts of LED Aquarium Lighting:
(1)Pulse Width Modulation versus Current Reduction
(2)RGB Features
(3)Emitter Technology, Cool White Emitter Use and More

Revised 12/14/16

OVERVIEW

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Important update (1-14-15) about EcoTech lack of disclosure about spectrum control over their LED fixtures. See end of article

Rather than review actual equipment, I am going to look at the science behind what goes into Aquarium LED Lighting, in particular for reef or high light planted freshwater aquariums.

To be blunt, my reason is simple, it’s to hopefully stem the tide of misinformation that many forums in particular seem to be spreading, whereby otherwise intelligent people will recommend clearly inferior light despite facts of known science.

Then, rather than discuss the facts, many will resort to “Straw Man” personal attacks on persons counting myself arguing that I or others are biased.
To this argument, the simple answer back is, “OF COURSE I’M BIASED”!! If both the science and results say something is better, why would I use the inferior equipment in my clients aquariums?
The one forum that really stands out is “Reef Central” where a comment I read elsewhere on the internet backs up my own observations and that is, if you disagree with EcoTech LEDs, this will bring out the “ban hammer” for RC faster than you can turn your head!

Now to the facts!!

Pulse Width Modulation versus Current Reduction:

There are two major approaches to dimming/controlling LEDs: PWM and Current Reduction [aka linear or analog, reduction of electrical current over distance].

PWM dimming greatly reduces color spectrum changes in the LED with varying brightness levels or ramping up or down.
Since the LED utilizing PWM essentially runs at a constant current when it’s on and at no current when it is off. However, PWM comes at the additional expense/cost to create the PWM waveforms.

While LEDs are complex semiconductors that convert an electrical current into light, one of the advantages are that LED emitters can be modulated (turned off and on) at high speeds without degradation, which thus favors PWM.
Reference: Light-emitting Diode (LED)

One potential negative of PWM is some switching “noise” can be produced, but this is easily filtered with an inductor and a capacitor, the result is any noise is very minimal and normally drowned out by water of the aquarium.
More importantly, this very minor potential negative is often exploited by less than honest internet articles or especially forums as a way to distract from the facts that the use of linear or analog dimming employed by the vast majority of aquarium fixtures is vastly inferior, wasting a considerably amount of PUR spectrum and light energy as heat!!!!
Any almost inaudible noise from LEDs controlled via PWM is going to pale in comparison to the fan noise due to the heat LEDs create by using “reduction of current” dimming, which produces more excess heat!

In depth reading about this subject for naysayers (this means you Reef Central & Other Forums!):
How to Dim an LED Without Compromising Light Quality

“Current Reduction” or aka “reduction of current” or “analog” dimming can use a simpler and thus less expensive circuit, but the variable current supplied to the LED means that the regulator supplying the current to the LED must absorb any power not supplied to the LED.
This additional power arises from the difference between the raw supply voltage powering the LED/regulator subsystem and the voltage across the LED. This results in wasted heat energy that then often requires cooling fans.
This wasted heat equals wasted energy and is why ANY LED driven by “Current Reduction” WILL REQUIRE a higher wattage of energy input to provide equal PUR output, thus partly defeating the purpose of purchasing an LED to save energy.
As well many have reported break downs or even fires with these cooling fans.

JUST AS IMPORTANTLY, “current reduction” (analog) dimming may be inappropriate for applications such as aquarium reef or planted aquariums that require a constant color temperature. An LED emitters color WILL change depending on the current driven through the device.

Notwithstanding, many of the most popular aquarium reef LED lights utilize Current Reduction; this includes the Current Satellite LED, EcoTech Radion, Aqua Illumination, TaoTronics, Ocean Revive, among others.

Also notwithstanding, some controllers utilize modified PWM similar to how some A/C to D/C Inverters use modified sine wave conversion versus true since wave conversion.
The Current Controller is one such example (the price often tells the story here).

Further Reading:
Aquarium LED Reviews; EcoTech
Review of Ocean Revive & Evergrow LED Lights for Reef Aquariums

OK, ready readers for my bias?
The aquarium LED light that utilizes PWM is the AAP/TMC AquaRay, which has enjoyed considerable popularity in Europe and in fact has been around longer than many of the popular LEDs, but thanks to excellent marketing by EcoTech, Evergrow, Ocean Revive, and others, as well as a public fed by this marketing and forum posts that refuses to read any science based information, it is not as well known in North America.

Currently, the STILL industry leading AquaRay is the ONLY aquarium LED on the market to fully utilize PWM, with the only other opinion being DIY. NONE OF THE POPULAR BRANDS DO!
This is part of the reason the AquaRay LEDs do NOT need fans that break down regularly for heat control!

This is not to say that these before mentioned LEDs cannot keep a reef aquarium, as to say so would immediately disqualify anything I have stated since many advanced aquarium keepers have done quite well with these other fixtures, I am only stating that these are not maybe the best and that anyone looking into a new reef aquarium LED fixture needs to do more homework than just reading forum posts.

See the graph below for a better visual understanding:

PWM versus Current Reduction in Aquarium LED Lights, Lighting

Please also reference:
*Aquarium Lights, Lighting Information
*Aquarium Lights, Which are best?
And my post dealing with the wide difference in LED warranties and how manufacturers handle these:
*Aquarium LED Warranties; Reef or Planted

RGB Features versus PUR:

This is another popular feature, that is nice from the human prospective, but has no bearing on reef marine aquarium life or planted freshwater aquariums.

Controlling your Red, Green, Blue emitters and thus the term RGB has no bearing on exacting nanometer spikes essential to light sensitive aquatic life.

The misinformation here arises from the over use of PAR meters which will NOT tell the difference in an aquarium LED light using RGB features and one utilizing more exacting LED emitters.
What is important is PUR (aka Photosynthetically Useful Radiation, Useful light), not as much PAR.
This of course can vary from plant to plant and coral to coral, depending upon the natural strata of water these aquatic life forms are found in.

The Finnex Ray 2 is a popular LED in some planted aquarium forums, but again by using cheap Chinese made Epistar emitters in large quantities, it achieves excellent PAR readings, but totally misses the boat when it comes to the all important PUR.
Why else do you only see PAR noted for these LEDs and not PUR?

If you are actually still considering a Finnex LED, you need to read this article that compares LED warranties; if this does not convince you as a reader that this is a LED that no one should purchase, I have some beach front property to sell you on the Arctic Coast of Alaska:
Aquarium LED Warranties, Including Finnex

Further References:
*LED Aquarium Lights, Lighting; RGB
*PUR Versus PAR in Aquarium Lighting THIS IS A MUST READ WEB ARTICLE!!!

Emitter Technology, Warm White, Cool White Emitter Use and More:

This is one of the more comical aspects of many who promote inferior LED Lights, and that is the use of Cool White and Warm White LED emitters.
This includes the EcoTech LED’s use of Cool White emitters and the Maxspect Mazarra LED’s use of Warm White emitters.

As I have read elsewhere, these same persons recommending these two LED before mentioned LED fixtures would NEVER recommend a T5, T8, CFL or any other aquarium light that is either “warm white or “cool white”, YET SOMEHOW THESE LEDS GET A PASS ON THIS POOR LOGIC???

While these before mentioned LEDs along with many others such as the TaoTronics have certainly proved themselves in aquarium lighting, they are doing it an expense of the best emitters, the best controllers/drivers, and gimmicky features that only lower light quality.
All at a higher electrical cost for results these LEDs do achieve as well as a lifespan as much as 1/4 of the better builds.

Many will attempt to use a PAR meter to prove their LED quality, but again this can be very misleading when one looks at the facts.
Please Again Reference:
*http://www.aquarium-pond-answers.com/2012/03/pur-vs-par-in-aquarium-lighting.html

The result is extra heat and a requirement for more electricity used for the same results.

THE FACTS ARE, an EcoTech Radion at 140 watts is going to product less usable light energy (PUR) Per Watt than a 30 Watt AquaRay Ocean Blue NP 1500

To say your EcoTech Radion at 140 watts produced better results is an apples to oranges comparison. When PER WATT, the numbers says otherwise.

In the end, the facts are inarguable, despite what many might say in forums that often result in attacking the authors of articles such as this or making up silly & inaccurate statements about noise from fixtures employing PWM such as one I read on Reef Central, then further resulting in others copy and pasting this BS all over the internet!!!!

Important Update

A another professional in the field sent me an interesting email about his interaction (or lack of) with EcoTech customer support and control over the spectrum (PWM) for their LEDs. This professional understands the importance of PWM and wanted to understand EcoTech “control”, because of his interest in obtaining new LEDs. The professional emailed EcoTech, and simply asked them how they control their spectrum of the LEDs. See the screen shot of the email sent to EcoTech:

EcoTech, AquaRay, LEDs, Controller, Spectrum, PWM, Shift in spectrum, customer support, opinion

Wanting to know how EcoTech controls spectrum of their LEDs.

So, from what I have gathered, this professional emailed EcoTech and from my understanding, STILL has not received a response back back to answer the question. First, WHERE IS ECOTECH SUPPORT? Moreover, WHY ARE THEY NOT ANSWERING THE QUESTION? AT LEAST MAKE SOMETHING GOOD UP ECOTECH! Anyone reading this article can take a guess. CAUSE THEY DON’T CONTROL SPECTRUM SHIFT IN THEIR LEDs!
HOW’S A PERSON TANK LIGHTING IS BEING AFFECTED??? No one knows, and that’s the point! People put so much effort into their reef tanks, why not provided them with the best, or is colored emitters and user gimmicks your game?

People can be getting far more USEFUL light energy with their aquarium LED lighting! Since this article is so popular already, I’m hoping people get the memo and EcoTech gets the hint. CONTROL YOUR SPECTRUM PEOPLE! Your reef and plants deserves it.

OTHER REFERENCES:

*http://fab.cba.mit.edu/classes/MIT/961.04/topics/pwm.pdf

*http://www.digikey.com/us/en/techzone/lighting/resources/articles/how-to-dim-an-led.html

*Wikipedia; Pulse-width modulation

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EcoTech and Aqua Illuminations LED Review

EcoTech and Aqua Illuminations LED Review, ComparisonRevised 5-6-14

I will start this review of these two popular LED Aquarium Lights in a different way from my other reviews.

The reason is while these are nice, feature rich LED fixtures that produce good results, these are NOT the best and the scientific evidence is easy to find if you simply dig deeper than an aquarium forum or Google search. This IS well known in the industry science based information to back this statement up.
Yet, I was made aware by a couple of clients of personal attacks in forums against the authors of blogs/websites that bring up these points/evidence rather than deal with known facts or simple professional experience. While admittedly my experience and that of my friends in the professional aquarium service business who use many different LED Fixtures is anecdotal, this still counts along with known FACTS about current LED Aquarium Lights.

So after a little digging on the Internet and even more digging around by asking friends in the industry, I found a revealing fact, and that is these two companies; EcoTech and Aqua Illuminations, often speak at and sponsor forum and club meetings.
As well you have persons such as Sanjay Joshi heavily promoting these LED fixtures using his credentials as proof, yet ignoring the science of PUR & PWM while going over board on PAR readings produced by emitters producing high amounts of USELESS PUR light energy, while copious amounts of input energy is lost as heat due to the technology used to drive the emitters. Unfortunately I know of professionals with vastly more experience than this man [in one case 1978 versus 1992)], yet this person gets so much credibility? One reason I also suspect is catchy, cool photos that prove nothing. If someone produces great photos proving man never landed on the moon, would you believe this too [unfortunately this has been done too].

What does this mean? well for one I think the moderators and members lose most of their objectivity due to sponsorships and gullibility of reading pseudo scientific information as noted earlier. So when they read about a review that promotes the “wrong” LED and shows the short comings of EcoTech, Aqua Illuminations, and other LEDs, these persons resort to personal attacks.

Admittedly I cannot prove my opinion as to the ‘why’ of these actions, but I ask anyone reading to otherwise explain why it is primarily forums/clubs that promote these two companies LEDs while trashing those who question them?

So what are the known facts besides the observations made by me and so many others in my profession that show both these LEDs to be good LED fixtures, but not the best?

* Drivers/Circuitry:
Both the EcoTech and AI Sol do not attempt to use dozens of low output one watt (or less) emitters daisy chained together which further lowers the actual PUR output of each emitter.
Rather both these fixtures go the route of quality CRee emitters tied together with excellent circuity. This is important as unlike other light types, the more emitters in a circuit the more complex the drivers must be to keep very exact voltage for optimum useful energy output.
This is a problem with the Sky LED.
See my post about these LEDs: TaoTronics, SkyLED, Skkye Marine, LED Light Reviews
.

However this is where the EcoTech MAY have a couple negatives; as I understand that when you have controls to vary RGB output, this results in less than optimal PUR light output.
I have to admit that I do not know for a fact that this is a problem, although this makes sense as an LED is not a bulb, rather a light emitting diode, and even small changes of voltage can therefore affect spectrum.
But what I do know is that I would rather have a factory set LED fixture where by the emitter output is EXACTLY what my reef inhabitants need without wasted green emitters to make a ‘pretty green color’ should I choose. I would also note that it would be easy for me or a client to inadvertently change the RGB setting to a less than desirable nanometer output.
For me, I have to agree with other blog reviews that this is not a desirable feature of the EcoTech Radion, but I would also state from my use that this is not a “game ender” either.

The other negative for the EcoTech Radion XR30, Radion Pro, & Aqua Illuminations is the need for a cooling fan that the AquaRay, and other high end LEDs that utilize the vastly superior PWM* technology do not require.
From my discussions with others who know more about electronics than me, this indicates more heat producing voltage spikes are being allowed in the emitter drivers.
These same voltage spikes also degrade essential PUR/Useful Light energy output and wastes energy that would otherwise go into lighting your aquarium.
In fact wasted energy as heat is probably my biggest complaint with either fixture and in fact is one of the more provable facts against these two LED fixtures, as it does not take much more than a 5th grade education to realize that ANY energy that is going to heat is NOT going to light your reef aquarium!

*PWM = “Pulse Width Modulation”
Reference: Aquarium LED lighting; PWM

* Emitters Used:

The AI Hydra Fifty Two uses (16)Cree XT-E Cool White, (4) OSRAM OSLON Deep Red, (4) XP-E Green, (12) Cree XT-E Royal Blue, (8) OSRAM OSLON Very Deep Blue, (4) SemiLED 415nm Violet, & (4) Edison Opto 400nm UV

While definitely an improvement on earlier AI LED models, the facts are that the standard binned Cree XT-E Cool White LED emitters used by AI are inferior when it comes to important PUR light production.
As well the use of UVA 400nm emitters is questionable, as at this time there is no science based evidence that this is a beneficial light wave length when it comes to PUR required by corals and in fact possibly burn corals.

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The EcoTech Radion uses Cree XT-E Cool White LEDs run at 5W each, Cree XP-E Blue LEDs run at 3W each, Cree XT-E Royal Blue LEDs run at 3W each, Cree XP-E Green LEDs run at 3W each, Semi LED Indigo LEDs run at 2.5 watts, and Osram Oslon SSL Hyper Red LEDs

As noted in another LED Review Website, that was attacked by the Trolls of one of the forums I referred to, the mixture of blues is the biggest selling point of the EcoTech Radion. The emitters used compliment each other very well in this LED fixture.
Reference: Aquarium LED Reviews; EcoTech

Now the down side: While the EcoTech attempts to get around the use of Cool White emitters by boosting output, the fact remains that cool white is even worse than the use of 6500K emitters for a reef aquarium.
You couple this with the totally useless green emitters and you have a lopsided PUR heavily favoring some excellent blue PAR, but more useless green than is necessary, which also comes from the cool white emitters.
On one positive note, the red emitters do salvage the PUR spectrograph, so this results in at least a reasonably capable Reef LED with some wasted green light energy.

Another interesting point about the EcoTech Radion, is that its emitter color mix is similar the TMC AquaRay Color Max.
The Color Max uses Uses 4 Daylight Cree XP-G (9000K); and 2 green, 2 red, and 2 blue Cree XP-E Power LED emitters.
YET, I have seen the Color Max panned for being more of a decorative LED light when while this is partly correct, it has a color mix very similar to the EcoTech Radion including a better daylight emitter. I find this hypocrisy among Reef Keepers rather amusing

* Emitter Patents:

This is where I have noticed attacks getting personal in some forum posts I was forwarded.
My guess is since they either cannot grasp this FACT of business or do not want to deal with it, they attack the “messenger” of these facts.
It is not rocket science that most businesses have development costs and when these business have new patent on either an existing product update or an entirely new product, they are to sell these to the highest bidder or those companies that have contracts for newest patents.

Where am I going with this? Well it is quite well established in the industry that TMC has patent rights for the newest Osram Olson & Cree emitters. The result is the XT-E emitters used by EcoTech or AI Sol is NOT the same emitter used by TMC.
The result? This also is not rocket science and that is the XR, XT and XP emitters used by EcoTech and Aqua Illuminations are certainly good and capable emitters, they simply ARE NOT the best available as these are simply the over the counter emitters ANYONE can purchase.
No different than an earlier generation electronic devise may work quite well, but is not as capable as the newest generation. This difference usually results in a less efficient emitter, lower spectral quality, or both.

* Warranties:

Both the EcoTech and Aqua Illuminations are only warranted for a year, not a lot for an expensive electronic device, especially when others have up to 5 year warranties!
A new post from this website looks at LED warranties, See:
Aquarium LED Light Warranties

* References, Recommended Resources:

Aquarium LED Light Reviews

LED Aquarium Lights, Lighting

TMC Aquarium LED Light Review

Ecotech Radion XR30 LED Light Review

YouTube; Why the AquaRay that uses PWM Technology is the Best LED

And finally, yes I too have a Bias; I am biased toward products that work BEST and have known facts to back them up!