Vivarium Construction 102
Vivarium Lighting 101

Everything you need to know about illuminating a vivarium!

 
 

Intro To Vivarium Lighting

Selecting lighting for your vivarium can be daunting at the beginning. There is so much information about lighting online, that it can be challenging and confusing to figure out what type of lighting will be necessary to get the job done. This article will explain both the basics and some of the more advanced aspects of what should be kept in mind when selecting a light source for a vivarium. Everything from inexpensive compact fluorescent bulbs to the higher-end LED fixtures are described, with PROs & CONs listed for each style. Whether you are building a commercial exhibit or just a quaint little desktop vivarium for your home or office, we hope this article assists you in making an informed decision when deciding on how to illuminate your vivarium.
 
Please Note: Vivarium Lighting 101 is just as much about theory as it is about practical application. If you'd prefer to jump straight into selecting the light source for your vivarium, or don't care to learn why we recommend certain lighting setups, please select your enclosure size on our Vivarium Lighting Kits page. You'll be taken to an enclosure-specific page which describes all the lighting kits we have available for your enclosure, plus a list multiple alternative solutions beneath the lighting kit description. All of the available options we carry are presented for every enclosure size, and we hope it makes figuring things out as quick & easy as possible. Otherwise, if you are looking for a deeper understanding, read on!

Section 1: Lighting Basics

Understanding basic lighting terminology

In order to accurately describe a light source, we'll need to understand the terms necessary to do so. Below, we'll get into some of the basic units of measurement for light including Lumens, Kelvin, and PAR. Beyond that, we touch on the Inverse Square Law, which is a critically important concept describing how light is affected when projected over a distance. By the end of this section, we hope you'll be able to understand exactly what the statistics listed for any light source actually mean, and how we can apply them in the real world.
 

Lumens

A rating of how bright the source will appear to the human eye

Lumens Vivarium Definition A lumen is the unit of measurement for the total amount of visible light emitted by a source. Most lights are rated for luminous power (often abbreviated as "lm") by the manufacturer, to help consumers compare bulbs with different ratings. If there are two 1000 lumen rated bulbs in a fixture, the total luminous emittance will be approximately 2000lm, as lumen amounts add up when using multiple sources. While understanding the overall manufacturer rating of a light source is useful, it doesn't describe how much light will "hit" a vivarium.
 
The term for metering how much light is incident on a surface is called illuminance, which means lumens per square meter. (lx or lux for short) Keeping an eye on illuminance numbers is crucial when building a vivarium because these measurements may help us determine whether or not a display will look sufficiently bright enough to human eyes. Everyone has a different opinion on what level of illuminance looks best in a vivarium, and that topic is highly subjective. Due to the Inverse Square Law's effect on the light over a distance, illuminance numbers vary considerably depending on the distance from the source and these variances are increased in taller enclosures.
 
We hesitate to post numbers since opinion has a lot to do with the ideal outcome in this case, but a quick test in our offices provided us with the following numbers. (Each metered on different surfaces within our vivariums) At substrate level, our enclosures typically register anywhere between 1500-3400lx. Mid-height, about halfway up the backgrounds, we display a reading of 3500-7400lx. Towards the top of the backgrounds, we meter anywhere from 7500-12000lx. Shaded places under the leaves of plants may have measurable illuminance reduced by half or more, while darkly shadowed areas can measure even lower. Please keep in mind that we care for a variety of different species with different lighting requirements, so there's no need to adhere to these numbers as if they are gospel. Anywhere in the range is entirely acceptable if you are satisfied with the way it looks, and brighter or dimmer environments can prove to be equally successful. In the end, we recommend balancing light & shadows to help create the illusion of depth within an enclosure. An extremely brightly lit vivarium with few shadows may look "flat" to the eye, and it will lack the dramatic effect provided by the contract between light & dark areas. Shadows won't grow plants, but they aren't the enemy, either!
 
A simple analog or digital light meter is a useful tool for spot-measuring illuminance in a live vivarium. Knowing exactly how much light is incident on a surface can help compare your vivarium to others, using an "apples-to-apples" unit of measurement that's commonly used in the hobby. Because the amount of measurable light will differ considerably from the top of an enclosure to its substrate-level, it's important to measure both for an accurate assessment. The numbers posted above were taken using one of our digital meters, for reference.
 

Kelvin (Color Temperature)

Kelvin Simple Definition Kelvin Simulated Example

A rating of how the light source will represent color within the vivarium

Kelvin is the unit of measurement for the overall color temperature of a light source. Unlike the lumen unit of measurement, Kelvin ratings do not add-up. In other words, if you use two 5000K bulbs, the Kelvin rating remains 5000K. Kelvin ratings help us to determine whether or not a light will display colors accurately, according to the human eye. When selecting a vivarium light source, we suggest finding one in the 5000-6700K range, since the natural daylight spectrum is 5500-6500K (depending on viewing standards). Bulbs in the range of 5000K appear warmer to the eye, whereas bulbs rated much above 6700K can look colder. The combination of measured illuminance and color temperature are suitable measurements to help determine which bulbs you'll need to make your vivarium appear beautiful to the eye, as well as give the builder a very generalized idea of whether or not plants will be able to thrive in a vivarium.
 
In practical application, most household bulbs are rated at 2700K-4500K. Light sources in the 2500-3500K range are typically marketed as "soft white", and sources ranging from 3500-4500K are usually considered "cool white". Bulbs in that range would appear very warm to the eye; arguably too red/orange to be used as a realistic source of day light. Vivarium lights sold by reputable vivarium stores range from 5000-6700K (often called "day light"), and produce a realistic spectrum which appears nearly white to the eye. Light sources with color temperatures ranging from 7000K-10,000K are commonly developed for fish tanks, and such high kelvin ratings often provide an undesirable & unnatural "violet/blue" hue when applied to a live vivarium.
 

PAR & Spectral Energy Distribution

Vivarium PAR Light Par Light Examples
Note: The red & blue diodes of the LED units above illustrate what a "high PAR" horticultural fixture may look like, but should also explain why these lighting solutions won't look natural in a live vivarium. (Photos from the NEHERP grow rooms)
Vivarium PAR Light

A measurement of how effective the light will be for plants

PAR (Photosynthetically Active Radiation) values are the most accurate & effective unit of measurement when determining a light source's efficiency regarding growing plants. PAR measures the spectral range of radiation from 400-700 nanometers, which is the same range plants utilize for photosynthesis. This unit of measurement is frequently used in the aquarium hobby, because most underwater plants will require a significantly higher PAR rating than most common vivarium plants will for long term success. As time moves on, more & more light sources are becoming available to the vivarium & herp enthusiast communities which include relevant PAR ratings, but as of late 2016, PAR ratings still aren't as readily available as brightness or color temperature numbers are for many brands. A Digital PAR Meter can be used to determine photosynthetically active radiation levels at different heights within an enclosure.
 
While the general consensus of the horticultural hobby states "Plants can't have too much PAR light", there are definitely some things to consider, when selecting a light source for a live vivarium. First off, the more PAR light a plant will receive, the faster it will synthesize available nutrients & moisture, and the faster the plant will grow. If the levels of available moisture & nutrients aren't high enough to sustain the plant's level of growth, there are a number of issues that may be present themselves which wouldn't occur in a lower-light condition. This consideration doesn't typically apply outside of a closed vivarium environment, since those plants can be fertilized & watered at-will. In the case of a vivarium environment however, we need to rely on the animal's waste to provide the vast majority of nutrition, and on misting to provide moisture. (For the record, adding fertilizer - even natural fertilizer - is not something we recommend) Most lights project at least some heat, and the more heat a plant encounters, the faster it will transpire water through it's leaves. The faster the transpiration, the faster the plant will draw water & nutrients into itself. On one hand, a vivarium overpowered with PAR light may have some undesired effects regarding plants. On the other hand, not providing a strong enough light source will make the plants unable to create oxygen, absorb nutrients from the substrate, and grow to create a beautiful visual effect.
 
Balancing ideal PAR ratings depends on few different factors, and we're hesitant to post specific PAR rating recommendations in our article for a number of reasons. First, there are thousands of different plant species which are commonly used in a live vivarium, and most have different ideal growth conditions. In a vivarium with a PAR-heavy light source, one plant might have explosive growth, another might thrive, and a sensitive plant (and/or one with with limited access to nutrients) might begin to bleach-out or display other problems. Another reason we hesitate to get into specific recommendations is because the inverse square law applies in this case, so PAR values can vary a tremendous amount between the top & bottom of a vivarium. Finally, while one light source may be cool running, another might be incredibly hot while producing the same PAR output, causing two lights of similar PAR outputs to perform differently in terms of plant growth.
 
In short, there's no easy way for us to suggest a strict, recommended range of PAR light because there's just so much to consider. Maybe one day we'll be able to map out our experiences with all of the plants we work with, and break it down by individual species. (Vivarium Lighting 102?) In the end, it's critical to understand that plants inside of a vivarium can survive a huge range of PAR conditions. For example, a Neoregelia is generally considered to be a "high-light plant". Our experience has shown that while these plants will color up & look incredible under PAR values of over 150µMol/S, they'll still grow, and continue to throw offsets in conditions down to 45-70µMol/S. With that in mind, we'll get into a brief, broad definition of different PAR light ranges commonly found in a live vivarium...
 
Rough Examples Of PAR Ratings For Live Vivariums:
 
0-15µMol/S - Shade | 15-30µMol/S - Low/Minimum | 30-75µMol/S - Medium/Average | 75-150µMol/S - Medium/High | 150-250µMol/S - High | 250+µMol/S Extremely High
 
Note: The above data is subjective, and applies to appropriate vivarium conditions only. Please take it with a grain of salt, and keep in mind that the distance from a light source will greatly impact the measurable levels of PAR within the enclosure.
 
Par Light Examples
Note: The red & blue diodes of the LED units above illustrate what a "high PAR" horticultural fixture may look like, but should also explain why these lighting solutions won't look natural in a live vivarium. (Photos from the NEHERP grow rooms)
 
While PAR is the best gauge to determine how effectively a light source will grow plants, it's not a suitable or recommended method to determine whether a light source is overall suitable for a vivarium. By definition, light sources which were designed to specialize in PAR light (horticultural lights & some aquarium lights) have an especially high concentration of intensity on the red & blue ends of the spectrum. The graph at the top of this section is a perfect illustration of how different PAR light is compared to what we see on a daily basis. Selecting a light source which represents natural colors accurately, is critically important to the appearance of a vivarium. Many aquarium light sources with very high PAR ratings have extremely high color temperature ranges, which can cause the vivarium's "nature scene" to look like something found on another planet. If you've seen a vivarium photo posted somewhere which looks it's illuminated by a bright purple/pink glow, you've likely seen an enthusiast who put PAR ratings above the finished look of a vivarium while selecting a light source. Instead, we recommend balancing a nice, natural color temperature, with a sufficiently bright light source, which packs a healthy PAR output. The height of an enclosure plays a huge role in determining appropriate Illuminance and PAR ratings. To explain why, we'll turn to the Inverse Square Law.
 

Inverse Square Law

Inverse Square Law Applied To Vivarium Height

A physical law which describes the behavior of light applied over a distance

The inverse square law can be used to help us understand & predict how light will be affected when projected over a distance. Every time the distance from a light source doubles, the light is distributed over a significantly larger area, and therefore becomes measurably less intense. For that reason, a tall enclosure will require a significantly more powerful light source than a shorter one would, to achieve the same effect.
 
Lets look at a popular model of LED for example, which just so happens to meter at roughly 4850lx from a 12in distance. If we were to take a measurement from double that distance (24in), it's likely to only meter somewhere around 1212lx, because the light emitted from the source will have spread across 4X the area. At 36in away, the light would be spread across 9X the area, and would meter somewhere around 538lx. If we were to meter as far as 48in away, we'd expect to see a dismal reading around 303lx, as light is projected across 1/25'th the original area. As the distance from a light source increases, the amount of measurable light decreases exponentially.
 
Lets look at it in reverse... Say for example that our experience dictates "X" amount of light (Lux/PAR) was necessary to look sufficiently bright & grow "X" type of plants in a 12in tall enclosure. If we were to try and duplicate that performance in a 24in tall enclosure, we'd need to select a 400% brighter light source to produce the same measurable light specs at the bottom!
 
Keep in mind that the measurable Lux & PAR readings on a surface effectively double if a 2'nd light source of identical specs is added, triple with a 3'rd, and so on. The same applies for using a light source which is simply twice or three times as powerful. In our earlier example, we mentioned that a popular LED bulb might meter roughly 1212lx at a 24in distance, so lets say we wanted to get that number higher, and closer to what we'd consider a brightly illuminated enclosure. By adding a 2'nd LED of identical specs, we could expect to see the lx reading double to hit somewhere around 2424lx. In the end, enclosure height is perhaps the most critical factor to keep in mind when determining what light source to select, which is why the inverse square law is so important.
 
 

Ultraviolet / UVB Lighting

UVB Spectrum

A source of energy which assists some animals in naturally synthesizing vitamin D3

Ultraviolet B light is a type of radiation which assists many species in the natural creation of vitamin D3. Vitamin D3 assists in strengthening bones, metabolizing calcium, and helps prevent certain problems associated with keeping reptiles in captivity. Outdoors, UVB light is naturally produced by the sun, so when a diurnal species is introduced to a life in captivity, UVB supplementation may become necessary.
 
In many cases, a species can absorb D3 with a properly supplemented diet, and the expense of UVB light can be avoided. These species include many nocturnal species, but also many diurnal animals which aren't exposed to much direct sunlight in their natural habitats. If a species can't absorb D3 through it's diet, UVB lighting should be provided.
 
There are an impossibly large number of species which do require UVB supplementation... Far too many to fit into our Vivarium Lighting 101 article! Check out Exo Terra & Zoo Med's UVB lighting requirement links, to see if your animal(s) require supplementation. (External links)
 
UVB's light spectrum is 290-320nm, which is below the threshold of what humans can perceive with our eyes. Because plants absorb light energy in the range of 400-700nm (PAR light), UVB lighting is not necessarily beneficial to growing plants inside a vivarium. The myth of, "UVB light is necessary to grow plants" was likely started by businesses selling UVB lighting, which lead to ill-informed hobbyists recommending the same on forums & even at reptile expos. The only time UVB becomes necessary in a live vivarium is if the inhabitant species requires it.
 
Important: UVB does not penetrate glass lids. Always position ultraviolet bulbs over screen portions of an enclosure to ensure UVB can reach your inhabitant!
 

Color Rendering Index & "Full Spectrum" Light

A method of determining how accurately a light source will display an object

Often referred to as "color accuracy", CRI is typically measured from 0-100 percent; indicating how accurate a light source is at displaying colors compared to a reference light source of a similar color temperature. Many manufacturers include CRI rating information with bulbs, making it a fairly usable gauge of how natural things will appear to the human eye, if the correct color temperature is used. Because CRI is completely independent of color temperature (kelvin), it's important to first select a bulb in the appropriate color temperature range before considering CRI. In other words, a 4000K bulb may have an 80+ CRI rating, but would appear too warm, and would not be the correct color spectrum of light for a vivarium. (Between 5000-6500K is ideal, as explained above) The term "full spectrum light" is used often used in marketing terms these days, essentially meaning a bulb emulates natural light. In plain English, that means it's got a "good" color rendering index! If a bulb is labeled as "full spectrum", but doesn't include it's exact CRI, that often indicates the bulb likely has a fairly high (80+) CRI. Anything in the 80+ range is considered to have a good CRI, and bulbs rated 90+ have an excellent CRI.
 

Setting The Light Cycle

A simple task with complex reasoning

The lighting cycle of a live vivarium should help promote a healthy circadian rhythm for all the plants & inhabitants within. In short, circadian rhythm is a biological process formed around our planet's natural 24-hour cycle. A healthy circadian rhythm promotes healthy feeding & behavioral patterns in animals, and more effective photosynthetic & reproductive activity in plants. There are numerous other benefits to a healthy circadian rhythm which are far less obvious, down to a cellular level. Light has a significant effect on the biological clock of plants & animals, so the importance of setting a lighting schedule correctly can't be understated. The goal of any vivarium hobbyist should be to promote a healthy circadian rhythm, with a predictable & natural light cycle.
 
In most situations, we recommend setting the lighting schedule to 12 hours on, and 12 hours off. For most types of lighting, the day/night cycle can be set with a simple outlet timer. A digital model isn't necessarily required for this application, although it's nice not needing to reset timers after a power loss. Higher end lighting options sometimes offer built in ramp timers, or even scheduled daylight & night light events, for which the overall timed schedule should remain the same. During hot summer months, timers can be set to cycle to as little as 10 hours on and 14 hours off to conserve energy & reduce heat. We recommend not changing the cycle too often, as it can stress the enclosure's inhabitants, and can negatively affect the growth pattern in plants.
 
Note: We've heard some hobbyists recommend leaving the plant lights on 24/7 to get the vivarium acclimated. That's definitely not something we'd recommend. In our experience, we once had a greenhouse timer malfunction, and the lights were left on for a few days before we noticed. The reason we noticed was because of the obviously negative effects we saw in the plants. In short, we recommend sticking to what's natural!
 
 

Section 2: Lighting Types

With all the lingo explained, this next section will discuss many of the most common bulb types used in the vivarium hobby. Each option has a few unique good & bad points, which we'll outline in detail. With so many new styles emerging so rapidly, we'll do our best to keep this section of the article as up to date as possible. Before we get into the different lighting types we recommend (and don't recommend), it's important for us to explain something... There are no sales contracts between NEHERP and the different brands of lighting we carry. If we see an awesome new lighting unit, we'll carry it! On the other hand, if we notice a trend that a light isn't performing up to our standards, we'll drop it from our lineup. The point is, our goal is to help facilitate building the best vivariums possible, and we don't have a particular loyalty to any one particular brand. We only carry lighting we can stand behind, and what we truly believe you'll love. Please don't make the mistake of assuming we're only recommending what we stock & sell. In fact, it's the other way around. We'll only stock & sell what we'd recommend!
 

Compact Fluorescent Bulbs

Vivarium CFL Bulb
 
Compact fluorescent (CFL for short) bulbs are available in a very wide range of shapes, sizes, wattages, and color temperatures. Most sizes easily fit into the most inexpensive (and common) light housings. Finding a fixture for this type of bulb is a cinch, as they'll work in a wide variety of common hood types. The main disadvantage to a CFL is heat, so those working with heat-sensitive species should keep this in mind. Most possible heat issues found when using higher wattage bulbs can be controlled by using deeper light fixtures to keep the bulb further from the enclosure. We've also used rubber feet purchased at a hardware store to lift a fixture a little higher from the top while keeping it looking neat. Hanging the lights above the terrarium works great, but admittedly it's at the cost of aesthetics.
 
Compact fluorescent bulbs average roughly 60-70 lumens per watt.*
 
We'd suggest using CFLs when working with non-temperature sensitive species, with vivariums ranging from 8-36" wide. (At 48" wide, tube-style fluorescent fixtures are a better bang for your buck!) A good reflector becomes more important with taller enclosures (20"+), as reflecting a CFL's light downward is critical for these bulbs to perform well. Due to the bulb's very wide omnidirectional lighting pattern, we don't recommend this option for enclosures over 24" tall. Due to the price, long-standing use in the hobby, and compatibility with both Exo Terra & Zoo Med fixtures, we include Plant Growth CFLs and Exo Terra UVB CFLs as options in many of our NEHERP Vivarium Lighting Kits, and complete vivarium kits.
 
CFLs benefit from a fixture that will reflect as much light as possible, while allowing heat to escape the fixture to keep temperatures down within the vivarium. Good fixture choices for screw-in lights include Exo Terra Compact Tops, Zoo Med Terrarium Hoods, Zoo Med Deep Domes, Exo Terra Polished Domes, and standard "clamp lamps". Higher-wattage compact fluorescent bulbs can be too long to sit flush in a standard clamp lamp, so be sure you choose a fixture that's deep enough if you'll be using a 23W+ CFL.
 
CFLs we carry & recommend: Generic Plant Growth CFLs | Horticultural Plant Growth CFLs | Exo Terra Natural Light CFLs | Exo Terra UVB CFLs | Zoo Med UVB CFLs
 
Advantages of CFL Bulbs
The most inexpensive option
Widely available online & in local shops
Available in a wide range of brightness
Available in a wide range of color temperature
Can be used in the least expensive fixtures
Available with or without UVB output
 
Disadvantages of CFL Bulbs
Produces a considerable amount of heat
Not very efficient: Low lumen/watt ratio
Bulbs over 26W won't fit standard housings
Not suitable for enclosures over 24" tall

 
 
 

Fluorescent Tube Bulbs

Vivarium Fluorescent Tube Bulbs There are three types of commonly used tube fluorescent bulbs. In order of most efficient to least efficient: T5HO, T8, and T12. The number following the "T" is a designation of width, by 1/8 inch increments. (T5 = 5 eighths / T8 = 8 eighths / T12 = 12 eighths) These bulbs have some of the widest ranges of availability for sizes and color temperatures. Each bulb type comes in a few different lengths and wattages ranging from 12" all the way up to eight feet for commercial applications. Bulbs of the same length & style are generally the same rated wattage, in the herpetoculture hobby.
 
T5 Specifications | 5/8in Diameter | Hottest Option | Typically Rated ~95-100 Lumens Per Watt *
T8 Specifications | 1in Diameter | Average Heat Output | Typically Rated ~75-80 Lumens Per Watt *
T12 Specifications | 1.5in Diameter | Coolest Option | Typically Rated ~55-60 Lumens Per Watt *
 
Standard "tube" fluorescent bulbs are most commonly used with wide enclosures, when placing many terrariums in a row, or with "rack style" breeding setups. For those situations, fluorescent lighting is often a cost effective long-term solution when an moderate amount of heat isn't a concern. Although each style of these bulbs are available in a wide range of lengths, the 24" and 48" widths of bulbs & fixtures are by far the most common & cost effective. Inefficient T12s are occasionally used (and work fine for shorter enclosures), but have already been phased out by the majority of fixture manufacturers, in favor of more efficient styles. Even T8 lights are beginning to see a decline in availability & popularity, in favor of the highest output and more efficient T5HO option.
 
Any of these bulbs (T12, T8, T5) require more expensive housings than standard screw-in bulbs. While spending more doesn't always guarantee quality or performance, there are certain fixtures to avoid. As much light as possible must be reflected downward into your vivarium for the best results. A white reflector won't reflect as much as a mirror-polished one, and cheap housings with black reflectors should be avoided. Ballast types are another important thing to consider when choosing a fixture for a tube fluorescent. Super inexpensive magnetic ballasts don't last as long, produce more heat, and can create an annoying hum or buzz sound. Electric ballasts last longer, produce less heat, and don't hum (as badly). Most fixtures are labeled with a ballast type, so keep that in mind when choosing which is best for you.
 
Tube Fluorescent Bulbs we carry & recommend: Horticultural Plant Growth T5HOs, JumpStart T5HOs, Zoo Med Reptisun T5HOs and Zoo Med Reptisun T8
 
Advantages of T5HO Bulbs
Decent availability
Most efficient fluorescent bulb
Available in many lengths
Available in many color temperatures
Brightest fluorescent bulb
Excellent choice for breeding racks
Available with or without UVB output
 
Disadvantages of T5HO Bulbs
Most expensive fluorescent bulb
Hottest fluorescent bulb
Sizes other than 24in & 48in are pricey
 
Advantages of T8 Bulbs
Available Everywhere
Available in many color temperatures
Available in many lengths
Excellent choice for shorter breeding racks
Available with or without UVB output
 
Disadvantages of T8 Bulbs
Not very efficient
Bulbs/fixtures other than 24" & 48" are expensive
Bulbs produce an average amount of heat
Sizes other than 24in & 48in are pricey
Not recommended for enclosures over 18" high
 
Advantages of T12 Bulbs
Least expensive tube fluorescent bulb
Available in a wide range of color temperature
Available in many lengths
Available with or without UVB output
 
Disadvantages of T12 Bulbs
Diminishing availability
Least efficient fluorescent tube option
Produces an average amount of heat
Not recommended for enclosures over 14" high
Being phased out by some manufacturers
Large bulb width less convenient to use on racks
 
 

Screw-In Horizontal LEDs

With a high efficiency rating, low heat output, and best price of of any LED we recommend, it's no wonder why screw-in horizontal LEDs are one of the most common solutions for illuminating a vivarium. Advantages over fluorescent bulbs include a lower temperature (actual temperature, not color temperature), significantly better efficiency, and an overall brighter output. Horizontal LEDs allow hobbyists to match light fixture brands with the terrariums they were made for. The most popular examples include the Exo Terra Compact Top & Zoo Med Terrarium Hood, which are both compatible with horizontally mounted LEDs. (Note: When using LEDs in a terrarium fixture, it's often a good practice to remove the metal reflector in the hood to allow heat to escape more effectively. This will extend the life of an LED unit & keep temperatures down within the enclosure!) Higher quality LEDs produce very little heat in comparison to all other lighting types, and are most commonly unidirectional. Since they are available in a wide variety of models, they are well suited for any terrarium ranging from 12" to 24"+ high.
 
Jungle Dawn LED PAR & Lumens

Jungle Dawn LEDs:

9W Jungle Dawn LED | Mixed Color Spectrum | ~800lm | For Enclosures 9-14in Tall
11W Jungle Dawn LED | Mixed Color Spectrum | ~900lm | For Enclosures 14-19in Tall
13W Jungle Dawn LED | Mixed Color Spectrum | ~1000lm | ~49-50µMol/S PAR @ 12in | For Enclosures 19-26in Tall
Availability: Product Page | Vivarium Lighting Kits | Complete Vivarium Kits
PAR figures were taken in-house with basic, digital metering tools.
 
Jungle Dawn is the original screw-in LED bulb brand, which offers a unique combo of two different color temperatures, high quality LED diodes, and are a great value considering their performance. They are our favorite screw-in LED due to the low heat output, low wattage, bright light output, and ideal color temperature. Due to the price, performance, and reliability of these, Jungle Dawn LEDs are the most popular option we include in our NEHERP Vivarium Lighting Kits, and complete vivarium kits. Horizontal Jungle Dawn LEDs are available in 9W, 11W, and 13W models at NEHERP, with the height of the enclosure determining the recommended wattage.
 
When comparing this style of LED to linear fixtures, be sure to consider that the above ratings are per bulb, and most configurations will use more than one. For enclosures which are 12-18in deep (front to back), we recommend 1qty LED unit for enclosures under 12in wide, 2qty for enclosures 18in wide, 3qty for 24in, 4qty for 36in, and 6qty for enclosures 48in wide. If you are comparing manufacturer lm ratings to other lighting solutions, be sure to multiply the quantity of bulbs you'll be using by the lm figures above for a more accurate estimate.
 
 
Value Grow LED PAR & Lumens

Value Grow LEDs:

Value Grow VG10 LED Specifications: | 10W | 6400K | ~900lm | For Enclosures 9-17in Tall
Value Grow VG13 LED Specifications: | 12W | 6400K | ~1000lm | ~49-50µMol/S PAR @ 12in | For Enclosures 18-26in Tall
Availability: Product Page | Vivarium Lighting Kits | Complete Vivarium Kits
PAR figures were taken in-house with basic, digital metering tools.
 
Our Value Grow LEDs are a super-bright, economical alternative vivarium light source. These more generic styled LEDs help to cut costs without cutting corners for vivarium builders who are on a budget. A solid, naturally accurate 6400K color temperature is combined with high output LED diodes to pack a powerful punch. We'd like to thank our NEHERP Insiders for helping us test these low priced alternatives intermittently since 2014, and are glad to say that the most recent version is upwards of twice as powerful as our original prototypes from a few years ago. These are the best priced LED option in our NEHERP Vivarium Lighting Kits, and complete vivarium kits. Horizontal Value Grow LEDs are available in two models at NEHERP, with the height of the enclosure being the determining factor.
 
When comparing this style of LED to linear fixtures, be sure to consider that the above ratings are per bulb, and most configurations will use more than one. For enclosures which are 12-18in deep (front to back), we recommend 1qty LED unit for enclosures under 12in wide, 2qty for enclosures 18in wide, 3qty for 24in, 4qty for 36in, and 6qty for enclosures 48in wide. If you are comparing manufacturer lm ratings to other lighting solutions, be sure to multiply the quantity of bulbs you'll be using by the lm figures above for a more accurate estimate.
 
 
Generic Vivarium LED PAR & Lumens

Generic & Other Screw-In LEDs:

There are many different LED diode & driver combinations which determine how effective an LED will be for the purpose of illuminating a live vivarium. In other words, not all bulbs that look alike perform alike. Manufacturer rated outputs differ considerably between brands, with some generic 12-13W LEDs carrying a 600-700lm rating, compared to Jungle Dawn & Value Grow's 1000lm rating at the same power draw. In a test of PAR & Illuminance from 12in away, we found our Value Grow & Jungle Dawn LEDs considerably outperformed a common SMD5050 powered ("square diode") LED unit of equal wattage. (80% higher illuminance numbers, 110% higher PAR output) These concrete differences are critical to make note of, since a low-powered generic unit may require the use of more bulbs and a higher cost to get the same job done. If you decide to shop elsewhere for one of these LEDs, make sure you compare the manufacturer lumen ratings! Or if you'd like to compare for yourself, check out our PAR & Lux meters.
 
 
Advantages of Screw-In Horizontal LEDs
The most energy-efficient option
Ideal color temperature
Cooler-running option than fluorescent
Can be used in inexpensive terrarium hoods
Excellent light penetration
Extremely long diode life
Different wattages for different heights
 
Disadvantages of Screw-In Horizontal LEDs
Some generic models are weak
Expensive compared to CFL
Available online only
No UVB output

 
 
 
 

Screw-In LED Spotlights

For especially tall enclosures over 26in tall, we recommend the use of LED Spotlights. While the horizontal LEDs described above do a great job for shorter enclosures, they lack the focused optics present on LED Spotlights, which help project light over a further distance. Spotlights are designed to operate within vertically-oriented fixtures, and do best when provided with ample ventilation. Rather than spreading light over a wider area, our LED Spotlights focus all their power into a tight 60º beam for maximum light penetration. Like their horizontal screw-in cousins, LED Spots offer significantly better efficiency ratings, as well as lower heat output than any fluorescent option.
 
Jungle Dawn Spotlight

Jungle Dawn Mega Spotlight:

Specifications: 40W | 670µMol/S PAR @ 11.8in | 6500K | 3500lm+ Rating | 60º Beam
Availability: Product Page | Vivarium Lighting Kits | Complete Vivarium Kits
 
Our highest powered single LED option, the Jungle Dawn Spotlight produces an incredibly bright beam of light. Very high PAR, Lumen, and CRI ratings are paired with a 6500K color temperature to provide a natural looking solution to grow flora in even the tallest enclosures. Jungle Dawn Spotlights have a built-in fan to keep them as cool as possible. At a whopping 40 watts, Jungle Dawn Spotlight are our most powerful single LED bulb. Jungle Dawn Spotlights are also available as an option in our Complete Vivarium Kits & Vivarium Lighting Kits. Because of the incredibly bright light produced by this LED, we recommend Jungle Dawn Spotlights only for enclosures with a height of 28in or taller.
 
When comparing this style of LED to linear fixtures, be sure to consider that the above ratings are per bulb, and some configurations will use more than one. For enclosures which are less than 20in deep (front to back), we recommend 1qty for enclosures 18in wide, 2qty for those 24in wide, 3qty for those 36in wide, and 4qty those 48in wide. If you are comparing manufacturer lm ratings to other lighting solutions, be sure to multiply the quantity of bulbs you'll be using by the lm figures above for a more accurate estimate.
 
Value Grow Spotlight

Value Grow Spotlight:

Specifications: 30W Driver | 36W Chipset | 525µMol/S PAR @ 12in | 6000K | 2700lm+ Rating | 60º Beam
Availability: Product Page | Vivarium Lighting Kits | Complete Vivarium Kits
 
These were originally selected for use in our indoor grow rooms, but their through-the-roof performance & statistics encouraged us to begin offering them on the site. Especially considering the price, our Value Grow Spotlights are guaranteed to quickly become a hit. Value Grow Spotlights are also available as an option in our Complete Vivarium Kits & Vivarium Lighting Kits, as the least expensive option to brightly illuminate tall enclosures.. Because of the focused, high-output light produced by this LED, we suggest this as an option only for enclosures ranging in height from 25in and taller.
 
When comparing this style of LED to linear fixtures, be sure to consider that the above ratings are per bulb, and some configurations will use more than one. For enclosures which are less than 20in deep (front to back), we recommend 1qty for enclosures 18in wide, 3qty for those 24in wide, 4qty for those 36in wide, and 6qty those 48in wide. If you are comparing manufacturer lm ratings to other lighting solutions, be sure to multiply the quantity of bulbs you'll be using by the lm figures above for a more accurate estimate.
 
 
Advantages of LED Spotlights
The most energy-efficient option
Ideal color temperature
Coolest running option available
Can be used in inexpensive wire fixtures
Excellent light penetration
Extremely long diode life
 
Disadvantages of LED Spotlights
Extremely tight beam of light
Available online only
Not suggested for short terrariums
No UVB output

 
 
 

Linear LED Fixtures (Hood & Diode-In One)

With some of the highest efficiency ratings and lowest heat output of any light in the hobby, it's no wonder linear LED fixtures are quickly growing in popularity. LED fixtures are improving every day, and becoming less and less expensive as time goes on. Unfortunately prices are still fairly high compared to screw-in LEDs, but some of the advantages include RGB (full color) control, built-in timers in some models, and a lower overall running temperature. We carry a few types, with a wide range of output, features, and more to consider. Below, we'll offer a brief description of each of the different models we offer at NEHERP in alphabetical order. All of the LED options below average between 80-105+ lumens per watt. (Extremely efficient)
 
Current Satellite LED Plus

Current Satellite LED Plus

Specifications: 13-30W* | 600-2000lm* | 35+µMol/S PAR @ 12in | Adjustable Color | Multiple Sizes Available 18in to 48in Wide
Availability: Current Satellite LED Plus Product Page
The first linear LED unit we carried at NEHERP, and one of the most established in the aquarium/vivarium hobby. Current has a solid warranty, excellent reputation for quality, and bunch of great features which aren't so common for LED units in this price range. Current Satellite Plus LEDs are dimmable, offer full RGB color control through a wireless remote control, customizable settings, storm effects, and more. They aren't a very high output solution, and we recommend them for enclosures up to 16in tall. The test units we purchased when we first considered carrying the brand are still in operation today in our offices, and have been performing solidly for 3+ years.
Specifications marked * are model size dependent
 
Current Satellite LED Plus PRO

Current Satellite LED Plus Pro

Specifications: 20-60W* | 1500-3800lm* | 100+µMol/S PAR @ 12in | Adjustable Color | Multiple Sizes Available 18in to 48in Widee
Availability: Current Satellite LED Plus Pro Product Page
As mentioned in the LED Plus description above, Current is a solid brand. When it comes to the Satellite LED Plus PRO units, we can basically take everything good about the original unit and more than double it. In terms of PAR output, the Pro units are nearly 3 times more effective at growing plants compared to the Current Satellite Plus, and add a very cool ramp timer feature, for a nice gradual sunup & sunset every day. Since it's much more powerful, we're comfortable recommending this unit for enclosures up to 24in tall.
Specifications marked * are model size dependent
 
Jungle Hobbies LED

Jungle Hobbies LED

Specifications: 96-192W* | 7,000-14,000lm* | 400-500µMol/S PAR @ 12in | Adjustable Color | 12.8in and 34.5in Wide Units Available
Availability: Product Pages: Single Unit (12.8in Wide) | Double Unit (34.5in Wide)
This is the best type of LED carried by NEHERP, and in our opinion, the best illumination option for tall vivariums. These advanced LED units perform better than any lighting solution we've ever tested. Beyond sheer power, these LED units also offer the most detailed level of lighting schedule control of any light we're aware of, with 5 programmable cycles to run through each day. In our experience, Neoregelias can change from solid green to fully colored up hues within 3 weeks, and other types of plant growth is absolutely explosive. This is a serious option for serious enthusiasts, as well as commercial institutions like Zoos & Nature Centers. We recommend the Jungle Hobbies Advanced LED unit for enclosures 24-48in tall.
Specifications marked * are model size dependent
 
Zoo Med Reptisun LED

Zoo Med Reptisun LED

Specifications: 5-30W* | No Lumen/PAR Ratings Available | Multiple Sizes Available 7in to 46in Wide
Availability: Zoo Med Reptisun LED Product Page
These Reptisun LEDs are a competitively priced alternative to many other linear LED solutions in this cost range. With slightly focused optics over each white LED diode, it helps project the light further into the enclosure. Added 620nm red diodes & 465nm blue diodes for added PAR light, as well as for a "lunar" feature. They are a fairly low-output option in comparison to the other linear LEDs we carry, but are suitable for enclosures up to 13in tall.
Specifications marked * are model size dependent
 
Zoo Med Reptisun LED UVB

Zoo Med Reptisun LED UVB

Specifications: 20-84W* | No Lumen/PAR Ratings Available | Multiple Sizes Available 14in to 48in Wide
Availability: Zoo Med Reptisun LED UVB Product Page
A significantly higher-output option than the standard Reptisun LED unit, thanks to the added T5HO bulb. An excellent solution for those building taller enclosures, or enclosures for species requiring UVB lighting. The T5HO bulb produces a lot of visible light, however with that benefit also comes considerably more heat. Considering the price includes both white LEDs, plant boosting 620nm & 465nm plant growth LEDs, and an incredibly bright T5HO, these are a great all-around option for many types of vivariums up to 24in tall.
Specifications marked * are model size dependent
 

Other Aquarium LED Fixtures

Please keep in mind that many other linear LED fixtures (which aren't not featured here) are designed for fish aquariums, and may not be suitable for live vivariums. The most common issue is incorrect color temperature, with most aquarium lights offering a 7000K or higher Kelvin rating, and many more are rated 9000K and higher. Lighting in this ultra-high color temperature range might look great for an ocean scene, but often results in a weird blue/purple hue being cast over a live vivarium. One of the primary goals we keep in mind when selecting a light source is accurate color representation, which is why we don't sell (or recommend) using light sources with 7000K or higher color temperature ratings. There are some mega-discount Chinese-made LED units which look OK on paper, but either have rough customer service reviews, or worse, poor reliability ratings. Having said that, we always keep our eyes open for new lighting sources, so if you are a customer of NEHERP & have a suggestion, don't hesitate to email us!
 
Advantages of Linear LED Fixtures
The most energy-efficient option
Ideal (often adjustable) color temperature
The coolest-running lighting solution
Better light penetration than fluorescent
Extremely long diode life
Average-cost units suitable for up to 24in tall vivs
High-cost units suitable for up to 48in tall vivs
 
Disadvantages of Linear LED Fixtures
Highest price per watt/lumen
Pricey to ship
The highest output units are extremely expensive
Some generic brands have short lifespans

 
 
 
 
 

Section 3: Applying The Data

Keeping priorities straight while we select a vivarium light source

We've been building vivariums commercially since 2009, and the below recommendations are the same that we've been following on a daily basis. There are basically three concepts to keep in mind. First, we'll select a light source which will accurately represent color within a vivarium. That means we'll need a light source in the appropriate natural daylight spectrum, between 5000-6700K for best results. Second, we'll need to determine if a light source will appear bright enough to our eyes. For that, we'll keep an eye on illuminance data with a light meter. (Specific #s listed in the lumens section above) Once we've settled on a light source which represents color accurately, and will brightly illuminate the enclosure, we'll focus our attention to PAR ratings to ensure our light source will grow plants adequately. (Somewhat generic PAR #s are listed in the PAR section above) With a little effort balancing color temperature, illuminance numbers, and PAR ratings, the amount of appropriate lighting choices should now be narrowed down considerably. All of the available vivarium lighting options at NEHERP were based on the above information.
 

Keeping an eye on the Inverse Square Law

NEHERP's Vivarium In Museum Of Natural History
One of our custom setups for HMNH
A custom setup for Harvard Museum of Natural History
 

The overall required "power" of a light source is often determined by enclosure height

Below, we'll break down the lighting requirements & recommendations of different enclosure heights by category, using the inverse square law. In each height category, we'll list all of our available vivarium lighting choices which would be appropriate for that specific height.
 
Enclosures Under 18in Tall - Easy
Suitable Choices: Current Satellite LED Plus | Plant Growth CFLs | Jungle Dawn LEDs | Value Grow LEDs | Zoo Med Reptisun LEDs & LED UVBs
We consider enclosures under 18in tall to be "easy" to illuminate, because even inefficient & inexpensive bulbs (T8s, T12s, CFLs) can effectively grow plants at such a small distance. Powerful LEDs may be a bit "much" on shorter (8-12in tall) enclosures, and often times CFLs or Fluorescent tubes make a better choice for this size.
 
Enclosures 18-24in Tall - Average
Suitable Choices: Current Satellite LED Plus Pro | Plant Growth CFLs & T5HOs | Jungle Dawn LEDs | Value Grow LEDs | Zoo Med Reptisun LED UVBs
Enclosures 18-24in tall are considered "average" for difficulty, with LEDs performing best (due to the way they direct light without reflectors), and T5HOs & CFLs being suitable 2'nd choice options. In most cases, we wouldn't recommend T8s or T12s for 18-24in tall enclosures because they aren't as powerful or effective as T5HOs & LEDs are for projecting light over this distance.
 
Enclosures 25-36in Tall - Difficult
Suitable Choices: Jungle Dawn Spotlight LEDs | Jungle Hobbies LEDs | Value Grow Spotlight LEDs
Taller enclosures (25-36in) are considered difficult, and LEDs are almost always the best bet to ensure enough light can penetrate deeply into the enclosure to grow plants at substrate level. The amount of lighting necessary to brightly illuminate a enclosure this tall down to substrate level can be surprising at first, and two of the best budget-friendly options are Jungle Dawn & Value Grow LED Spotlights.
 
Enclosures 36in-48in Tall - Very Difficult
Suitable Choices: Jungle Dawn Spotlight LEDs | Jungle Hobbies LEDs | Value Grow Spotlight LEDs
Enclosures 3-4ft tall are considered extremely difficult to illuminate, and usually require the use of either a series of LED Spotlights, or a mega-powered LED unit like the Jungle Hobbies models. As things approach 48in tall, the light source needs to become exponentially more powerful than something you'd find on a 24-30in tall enclosure. For enclosures of this size, lighting becomes a very significant portion of a vivarium's cost just because it will need to overcome so much distance between the top & bottom of the enclosure.
 
Enclosures Over 48in - Legendarily Difficult
Kudos for considering building such an enormous vivarium, but enclosures of this size often require custom lighting rigs, and/or fully commercial grade lighting. It can be done with a series of smaller LED Spotlight units, but because this size is most commonly found in Zoos & Museums, we recommend emailing us with details of your build. We'll do our absolute best to help.
 

Making The Decision

Choosing between the choices described above is most often a matter of personal preference, regarding a hobbyist's budget & goals. Keep in mind that fluorescent bulbs run hotter than LEDs, if you are working with a temperature-sensitive species. Most of our LED-powered choices were specifically selected for high PAR performance, and will often grow plants most effectively if it's within the budget. After deciding on a type of lighting for your specific enclosure's height category (described above), the only thing left to do will be to determine the appropriate quantity (for screw in bulbs), or length (for linear fixtures) of the lighting solution you plan to use, based on the width of the enclosure.
 

NEHERP-Recommended Vivarium Lighting

What we recommend & suggest for every common enclosure size

With all the above lighting information in mind, we created our interactive Vivarium Lighting Kit menu to help make choosing a light source as easy as possible for common vivarium sizes. The options we recommend are great proven starting points for any hobbyist building just about any type of temperate or tropical vivarium. We included alternative lighting solutions below each of our kits to ensure we're providing as many options in terms of both pricing & features as we possibly can. When you are finished with this article, simply select your enclosure size to view every option we'd consider for your specific vivarium!
 
 

For Inhabitants Requiring UVB Lighting

If the inhabitant(s) you are housing require UVB lighting to synthesize vitamin D, keep the following in mind, while illuminating a vivarium:
 
If Using Tube Fluorescent Lighting:
You can replace one (or more) of the screw-in or fluorescent tube bulbs over your enclosure with a UVB-producing bulb. These are commonly available in T8 and T5HO bulb styles, and in a number of different lengths.
 
If Using Screw-In Horizontal LED Lighting:
One of the LED units can be removed & replaced for a UVB producing CFL of a similar lumen rating. It's important to mention that the remaining LED unit(s) may not last as long, due to the increase in heat they'll experience by being mounted next to a super-hot CFL. Alternatively, a simple dome style fixture with a UVB CFL can be mounted somewhere on top of the enclosure. Adding an extra dome fixture is a more expensive choice at first, but may be cheaper in the long run, considering the longer-life of the LED unit(s).
 
If Using Screw-In LED Spotlights:
Since LED Spotlights are usually used on very tall enclosures, we recommend adding an extra dome style fixture with a UVB CFL of an appropriate rating to provide UVB light to the inhabitants. Very wide enclosures may require more than one UVB source, in this case. Just like visible light, UVB is affected by the Inverse Square Law, so you may need an extra-powerful UVB source for your extra-tall enclosure.
 
If Using Linear LED Lighting:
Depending on your setup & personal preference, we recommend adding either an extra dome style fixture with a UVB CFL, or a linear fluorescent UVB producing tube light above the enclosure. In general, 24in and 48in fluorescent tube fixtures are especially inexpensive, if your setup allows for it. Otherwise, it may be worth including the dome fixture with UVB CFL option. If you haven't purchased a linear LED yet, it might be worth considering the Zoo Med Reptisun LED UVB, considering it's the only linear LED fixture we're aware of which also includes a UVB producing T5HO bulb!
 

Tips, Tricks, and Useful Info

 
• To re-clarify, vivarium plants do not need UVB. The only time UVB lighting is necessary in a vivarium is if you are housing an animal that would benefit from it.
 
• Something that's often overlooked: The vast majority of terrarium plants don't grow in direct sunlight in their natural setting, so you don't need tons of light for them to thrive. Certain plants (most commonly epiphytes, in a tropical vivarium) need a lot of light to produce lots of color as it would in nature. You can do this most efficiently by mounting the plants higher in the terrarium; closer to the light source. (Remember the inverse square law!)
 
• If you are concerned with heat in your vivarium and aren't sure whether to use LEDs or CFLs, test it 1'st! Most CFLs of the same wattage operate at roughly the same physical temperature, so if you have any CFLs lying around your home, you can test them in your vivarium before spending the money plant growth bulbs. If the enclosure gets too hot, you'd better stick with LEDs. If it's cool enough, you can save a little money and stick with CFLs.
 
• "What about metal halide & high pressure sodium bulbs?" Both can produce tremendous amounts of PAR light, but also produce extreme amounts of heat. You might consider a MH or HPS bulb if you are building a massive (walk-in size) vivarium, but otherwise these aren't a good choice for most average sized terrarium builds.
 
• Positioning a fan to blow over the lights can cool even very warm methods of lighting. Keeping air moving over hotter bulbs can go a long way for keeping things cool. Even a small "desktop fan" can drop temperatures in a vivarium significantly. We added 4 recirculation fans in our old (500sq/ft) breeding room that primarily used T8 and CFL lighting, and the average top portion of cage temperatures dropped a whopping 7 degrees! (Measured with an infrared thermometer)
 
• Temperatures can range 5-7+ degrees from top to bottom on taller enclosures! Don't just measure the lowest part, as it'll always be the coolest. Infrared thermometers go a long way when it comes to figuring out the exact temperature between different parts of your vivarium.
 
• Building a rack system & want lighting advice? Email us! We're glad to help zoos, museums, and breeders find application specific lighting solutions.
 
 

Congrats - You've finished Vivarium Lighting 101!

Check out our Vivarium Lighting Kits (and the alternative options beneath each kit) to determine what lighting we'd recommend using on your vivarium!

 
 

Thanks for choosing us as your vivarium info source!

We hope you'll choose us as your vivarium supply source, too! :-)

 
Whether you'll be creating a large commercial exhibit, or simply building a quick & easy live environment for a pet Frog or Gecko, we have all the herp supplies, vivarium plants, and tons of NEHERP brand vivarium specialty supplies you won't find anywhere else. We're a family owned & operated business, and are always happy to help with 1-on-1 support. Vivariums are what we do, so if you have any questions at all, don't hesitate to contact us!
 

The Vivarium Builder

View everything you'll need for your specific vivarium size all on one page!

 

The Online Vivarium Builder
Vivarium Builder

Design your ideal vivarium online from the ground up, and view everything on one page!

Vivarium-Related Kits

 

Vivarium Substrate Base Kits
Base Kits

Packages of substrate, drainage layer media, and a screen separator for all common enclosure sizes.
 

Complete Vivarium Kits
Complete Kits

Complete, configurable "one click" vivarium kits. Available with or without glass enclosures.
 

Vivarium Lighting Kits
Lighting Kits

Lighting for specific enclosure sizes, designed around our proven LED & Fluorescent solutions.
 

Vivarium Plant Packs
Plant Packs

Discounted plant packages designed for specific enclosure sizes and animal species!
 
 

Vivarium-Related Supplies