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Lighting System Overview

Updated on November 8, 2014
High Pressure Sodium Light
High Pressure Sodium Light | Source

Well, I finally had to move my plants inside for the winter. That means it is time to take out supplemental lighting. This is about the most important indoor gardening decision you will make. There are a multitude of different types available. If you are in the planning and choosing stage you will need to first consider your plant’s requirements. Most houseplants have been chosen because they grow relatively well in lower light levels. Lighting choices will depend then on how much you will need to supplement natural sunlight.

Hydroponic gardening is a huge fashionable indoor trend. These gardeners have to have the best light they can for superior plants. Fortunately for us, we can utilize their research and hard work to find the perfect light for our own need. That is why I recommend a visit to a retail store near you when thinking about some of these light systems. You can buy them online for about the same or maybe a bit less. You just can’t duplicate seeing some of these in person. I could talk lumens until my voice gets hoarse and your eyes glaze over. One side by side glance of these lights in action is proof in action. You will know immediately what you need for your plants.

T5 Fluorescent

My absolute favorite supplemental lighting is the recently popularized T5 fluorescent bulb. These are skinny bulbs that use less electricity yet produce more useful light. Most of us are familiar with sitting under normal fluorescent bulbs at work. These are known as T12 bulbs. They are quite a bit larger than these new bulbs and use more electricity. Why I like these is because they:

  • Use less electricity
  • Produce superior light for young seedlings (my personal criteria)
  • Do not produce heat (safer around young curious children)
  • Are least damaging to your wallet

These are so popular you will have notions to install some in locations you may never have considered. The small ones can be used as closet lighting. I have seen them used as “emotion” lighting when installed above or below kitchen cabinets.

The only thing you may wish to consider is that these bulbs need their own fixture. They will not work in the regular fluorescent fixture you are used to using. Most fixtures are made to fit either the T8 (midsize) or regular T12, the T5s are too small for these to work. These bulbs are 5/8 inch in diameter. That is about as big as my little finger. It is about the size of a woman’s index finger. The ballast required to ignite the bulb is different as well.

Metal Halide bulb.
Metal Halide bulb. | Source

High Intensity

This continues to be the standard by which all other lights are judged. This type of lighting is preferred by indoor gardeners. These are high wattage bulbs that take special ballasts to power them. They come in two flavors: grow and bloom. Grow or metal halide bulbs have light that contains more ultraviolet end of the spectrum. This light quality promotes rapid vegetative growth. The bloom bulbs are High Pressure Sodium. They have light that is more in the infrared end of the spectrum. This type of light promotes bloom and fruit production.

Growers who like this lighting switch out the bulbs from grow to bloom when the time is right in a plant’s growth cycle. It isn’t that hard to tell when a plant is ready to bloom. The plant will often begin making bloom while a grow light is still in the reflector. That is a sign you should switch bulbs. Most growers just know to switch when their plants get to a point where the growth begins slowing. These bulbs produce enough light even for tomatoes to produce.

There are a couple of reasons I don’t like these systems. My opinion is economically based. The light produced is really quite good in fact the best you can purchase. Because of the amount of time you will need to leave them running, you will notice an increase in your electric bill. Electronic ballasts have brought down some energy usage.

They are not called High Intensity lights for nothing. They give a great deal of light. That means they also throw off quite a bit of heat. This can be a problem if the heat is not ventilated away for the lights. Some systems or growing locations may require special ventilation.

These bulbs have a shelf life of roughly a year. You might be able to stretch a bulb past this a bit. The problem is that the quality of the light is greatly reduced after about this time. These are moderately expensive to replace. Still, the light produced by these high intensity lights is preferred by most indoor gardeners.

Single spectrum LED
Single spectrum LED | Source

LED Lighting

This is an exciting new lighting source being developed as we speak. There is the promise of less electric consumption. They are said to use or will use less electricity than fluorescents. There is the ability to select just the right bulb to yield optimal quality plant light. These systems have a “pink” light. This is the optimal frequency for plant growth. It is the wavelength that is most efficient for photosynthesis. Research for improvement is most eagerly anticipated by growers. If you can control the wavelengths of light you can more closely control the growth cycle of your plants. Some good growers can grow multiple seasons of vegetables per year and want to grow more if they can. They can do this if they can more exactly control light quality.

Now before you run out and buy one of these systems you should keep in mind that this is still a relatively new area of development. These systems are moderately expensive. True the bulbs last a considerable time. The disappointing attribute is the light intensity level. The light level is too low for large plant needs. They are very good for seed and young plant growth. I think with a fair amount of natural light these would make good supplemental illumination.

Plasma light.  The small dot in the center is the pressurized capsules of sodium gas.
Plasma light. The small dot in the center is the pressurized capsules of sodium gas. | Source


These are the newest of the newest bulbs on the market. I suspect that like the LED systems, the plasma light systems should begin to come down soon (once the bugs have been worked out). Light is produced without filaments. High pressure capsules containing sodium gas are caused to give off light. These lights promise lower electricity use than high intensity bulbs. They will be higher intensity than fluorescent or LED. In fact, my eye did not notice much difference in intensity when compared side by side. Plasma lights produce less heat than high intensity. They are not cool like LED or fluorescent and will burn you if you are not careful.

I have one great rave for these lights. I never saw vegetative growth with more zest and vigor. The big disappointment is that the blooming/fruiting stage falls flat. You will get fruit. A good high intensity sodium bulb will out produce hands down. You see there is only one light wave profile for this bulb. The claim is that it is a natural daylight quality light. Clearly there is not enough of the red end of the spectrum. I have high hopes this will be fixed in the next few years. My guess is that a two bulb system will be developed just as in the high intensity bulb system. Or perhaps different elements will be combined with the sodium gas so that more wavelengths are produced.

Now, can you just hop on down to Menards or Lowes to see some of these lighting systems? No. You will be able to find some of these lights. You will be hard pressed to find a 1000 watt high pressure sodium bulb. You should be able to find a decent T5 fluorescent. That has been about all I have ever found. I would use this as a reason to stop in at that hydroponic store you has always been interested in visiting. Extra light in the winter will be a boost to your psychological well being as well. Think of this as preventative medicine. Investing in a light meter may help you know how much additional light is necessary for you plants to be happy. This could help you figure out which type of light to buy.

When I had my house built 5 years ago, I had it oriented to face south in the winter. The vast majority of my windows face south. I use very little supplemental lighting until it is “seed planting” season. I do use lighting. I just don’t use as much as I once did. I can now use energy saving lights instead of the high pressure sodium lights. At the moment I use T5 bulbs. This produces a cool light. I can station the light so it is just a few inches from the seedlings. I get great growth even with my cool room temperatures.


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    • hostaguy profile imageAUTHOR

      frank nyikos 

      4 years ago from 8374 E State Rd 45 Unionville IN 47468

      Thanks. I hope to get either some daylily or hosta seed or both planted in the near future to show off my T5 bulb set up.

    • Perspycacious profile image

      Demas W Jasper 

      4 years ago from Today's America and The World Beyond

      Informative, thanks!


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