The Best Grow Light Systems for Any Occasion

beau.unruh (Flickr)

beau.unruh (Flickr)

All lighting systems try to mimic the full spectrum rays of the sun, but they all do this to varying degrees. The red and orange lightwaves bring out heavy fruit and buds. Blue light gets seeds growing and sets the plant up for a tight growth habit.

Some of the grow lights listed here create a full spectrum of bright light, and you can’t ever go wrong with that. Another type keeps up intensity while the third offers wide coverage combined with easy blue to red adaptability.

CFL T-5: The Standard Light

Compact fluorescent lamps have replaced incandescent bulbs, and for good reason. Incandescent bulbs emitted heat and gave growers no choice but  to increase the distance between plants and light. When this reduction occurs, the plant receives less light and growth suffers.

The development of low-heat CFLs gave growers a chance to purchase some of the least expensive grow lights and to place them in close proximity (aim for 24”) above the plant allowing the leaves to soak up bright, full spectrum light.

Cristina (Flickr)Some advantages of these grow lights, aside from their low-cost, is their ease of use. Since they provide full spectrum light these bulbs can be used for starts, maturing plants and mature plants. Additionally, if you are a gardener with a variety of indoor plants, these grow lights are suited for all of your plants regardless of their stage of development.

Some drawbacks to CFLs are their lack of coverage. These bulbs work best for single plants or groups of small plants. If you are worried about your single orchid or a cacti container garden, then these are great grow light. Additionally, for fast growing plants you can purchase clip-ons so the lights are easily maneuverable as the plant grows.

Most beginning growers who use these grow lights might wonder which light brands are best. It really depends on what factor are most important to you. If you are considering straight economics then choose a brand that has a high lumen rate (this measures light intensity) and low wattage (this means it uses less energy).

Overall, most growers recommend Spectralux and Phillips brand CFLs.

LED: The Best Improved Lighting System

When LEDs were first introduced pretty much everyone was amazed at how little energy they used. Indoor gardeners, however, weren’t quite as taken with these grow lights because the lights were not full spectrum. Over the years, engineers have developed and improved LED panels so that they feature both high intensity blue and red light. Though the lights may look dull to the human eye, they are working!

Jared Tarbell (Flickr)

Jared Tarbell (Flickr)

Many growers swear by LED. They like the relatively lower power bills. They appreciate the lightweight panels. This aspect is especially appealing to growers who use tents and greenhouses. Additionally, the lights emit low heat so they can be placed in close proximity to growing plants.

Like CFLs, the coverage area is minimal and is best used for single or grouped plants. LED detractors often cite the start-up costs as a deterrent and recommend that beginning growers stick with CFLs.

But, ask around at garden stores and nurseries and it will become obvious that LED users are loyal to their lighting technique. They are impressed at how far the panels have come in past  decade and a half.  Because this grow light system’s technology has been developing, and is still developing, veteran growers don’t think buying used is a good idea. You really won’t know what you are getting and may end up with a panel that doesn’t produce high level blue or red light.

LED loyalists recommend purchasing panels from companies that have been developing the technology for the past decade or so. These companies are in the forefront of LED technology. Businesses like CAL Lightworks produces the highly recommended Solar Storm 440.  G8LED manufactures G8-450+90W Red. Another company, Advanced LED sells their DS-300 panels online, just like the others mentioned here.

HID: The Multi-Faceted Large Crop Lighting System

Here’s where grow lighting systems gets cool. High Intensity Discharge lighting systems are mostly used in commercial nurseries and have the largest coverage area of any of the other systems. They shine their light all around. And, HID lights come in two varieties. Metal halide bulbs (MH) produce blue spectrum light. This is the type of light seedlings seek out when they first start to grow. Blue light keeps plants from being leggy and promotes vegetative growth. The second kind of HID bulb is the HPS or High Pressure Sodium lights. These lights emit the reddish orange waves that plants need to bud and fruit. The best of both worlds right?

Well, it can be a bit problematic for a new grower. You have to know when to change out the bulbs, and the bulb changing can be a nuisance. However, if you want to invest in what I think is the coolest part of this grow light system, then buy an integrated system that was developed to allow all the bulbs, both MH and HPS, to stay in place while you, the grower, get to hit a switch (also called a two-way or a convertible) that allows you to choose which light you want to shine on the plants.

What’s not so cool about the system is that it emits heat. If you go this route, then you will have to ensure that your growing space is kept cool. This can also increase your energy costs.

On the other side, HID enthusiasts like to mention (often) how HID lighting systems are cheaper than LED systems. Many users purchase their lights from EYE Hortilux but other top producers include Lumatek and Sun Pulse.

What is Best for You?

Several factors come into play when choosing a grow light system. You’ll want lighting that you can afford, lighting that you need (no reason to overdo it) and lighting that will bring out the best in your plants, in terms of flowering, fruiting and compactness.

All of the lighting systems here are the best, but they may not be the best for your plants or for your expectations.


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