The truth is, a strong aquarium light is one of the most important pieces of equipment for planted tanks.
Plants use photosynthesis to make food from light.
If the light is too weak or if the plant is not receiving its ideal color of light, it will not thrive.
So, picking the right aquarium light is often the difference between plants that rarely create new leaves, barely growing, and plants that explode with growth.
Once you dial in the right lighting, plant growth will only be limited by the amount of nutrients available, which can be supplied with liquid fertilizer and/or planted tank substrate.
The problem for most of us is that “plant lights” are super expensive.
And many plant lights are meant for huge aquariums.
So, I’ve put together a list of cheap (or within the realm of reasonable), effective nano tank lights for plants.
Based on my own experience, these lights are excellent choices for a low to medium light tanks ranging from 3-20 gallons.
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Top Picks for the Best LED Aquarium Lights (for Cheap)
Quick Review of the Best Cheap Aquarium Lights
First of all, “cheap” is a relative term and when looking at aquarium lights.
My definition of a “cheap” aquarium light is a light that grows common aquarium plants and can sustain an aquascape but doesn’t cost more than all the other equipment I own combined.
The Hygger light specs:
30 LEDS: 24 white and 6 blue;
9000-11000K color temperature;
This light is also available in a 45 LED bulb configuration.
Strong LED lights that project concentrated light directly below the bulbs
Easily Clips on to a tank.
Flexible goose neck.
Minimal heat (feels warm, not hot).
Feels a little flimsy.
Neck is short (longer neck would be more helpful).
Covers limited surface area.
Is the Hygger the best cheap plant light?
The Hygger LED light surprised me for a couple of reasons.
First, the Hygger light is very bright, at least when used above a 5-7 gallon planted tank.
The Hygger LED bulbs are clustered into a fairly small rectangular area, providing intense light directly below the Hygger.
This is great aquarium plants that love stronger light.
The downside is that you may need more than one Hygger to cover the surface area of a tank larger than 7 gallons.
The second thing that surprised me is it’s still working after about a year.
Initially, I thought the Hygger might last three months, but mine has lasted for almost a year, and that’s with daily use (8 hours a day on a timer).
For larger and longer tanks, the Hygger may not be ideal, but for cube shaped tanks or planted nano tanks this light works amazingly well.
Also, it has great Amazon reviews, which you can check out here.
This little LED aquarium light is a gem for nano tanks, especially tanks ranging from 2.5-3 gallons.
The Finnex Stingray Clip light is a 4-watt light and does not provide particularly bright light, so avoid using it on deeper tanks.
But, I can confirm it grows Anubias plants 12 inches below the water’s surface.
For small shrimp tanks and betta fish tanks, this LED light is excellent for growing low light plants, like Java Ferns, moss balls, and other almost un-killable aquarium plants.
The Finnex clip light specs:
12 Daylight (7000K) LED bulbs;
3 Actinic Blue LED bulbs; and
3 Red LED bulbs.
The Finnex Stingray Clip light is not an intense light, but it does provide an affordable plant light and replacement for aquarium kit lights.
Small, slim, and lightweight;
Sleek, nice design;
Ideal color spectrum with extra red and blue LEDs;
Grows low light plants.
Lacks brightness/intensity for deeper tanks;
Not suitable for light hungry aquarium plants;
The NiCrew light works well for small, planted tanks and is strong enough to grow Java Ferns, Anubias, and other plants that thrive in betta fish tanks.
I keep mine on an 8 hour timer and its holding up well after about 5 months.
This Nicrew Aquarium light is a 13-watt LED that is bright and seems more intense (more light reaches the substrate) than my Finnex Stingray Clip light.
Both lights are similar in price.
But, the Finnex Clip light has a gooseneck and attaches to the side of an aquarium using a clamping system.
In contrast, the Nicrew light uses metal brackets/legs, which sit on the edge of the aquarium glass.
These brackets/metal legs adjust by a simple sliding motion, allowing them to fit aquariums between 12 and 18 inches long.
This allows for quick and easy removal of the light for tank maintenance but, a potential design flaw is that the legs can completely slide out, especially when you are re-installing the light after a water change.
While I have not dropped the light into my tank, the rather loose metal legs make it far too easy to do so when adjusting the light.
My Nicrew light also gets very warm to the touch.
Overall, I like the Nicrew light’s intensity for the price, but it does feel a little less durable than the Finnex Clip light.
Strong light for the price;
Low profile (allowing it to be installed in tight spaces);
Grows low to medium light plants.
Loose fitting metal legs that slide;
Light becomes hot to the touch;
The Woterzi Clip-on light is ideal for 10 gallon tanks growing low light plants.
While I expected the Woterzi light to function like the super bright Hygger light, the light emitted by the Woterzi is more like the brightness released by the Finnex Clip light; a little on the dim side.
The Woterzi light contains a similar number of LEDs to the Hygger light, but the Woterzi LED bulbs are farther apart from each other and therefore look dimmer than the Hygger bulbs, which are clustered together.
This doesn’t mean that less light is produced, it simply means that the Woterzi’s output is more diffused than the Hygger’s light.
But, the Woterzi light does provide decent light over a larger surface area than the Hygger light.
If you are trying to grow carpeting plants, and other light hungry aquarium plants, stick with the Hygger.
If you want an all around, decent light that will grow low light plants, the Woterzi works like a charm.
Woterzi light specs for 14”-22” Model:
7000K-8000K color temperature;
30 white LEDs;
6 blue LEDS;
Day and night modes;
Large number of LEDs for the price.
Easy to attach to side of tank.
Available in 10-18 inch; 14-22 inch; and 21-29 inch lengths.
Not ideal for cube shaped tanks due to length.
Light is diffused rather than concentrated.
Light could potentially fall into water if bumped with significant force.
The Fluval Plant light is last on my list because this aquarium light is not really “cheap” or affordable.
But, for those with some dough to spend on plant lights, this light is pretty cool.
First, I know this light grows carpeting plants.
I know this because I managed to dry start Monte Carlo (Micranthemum) with the Fluval Plant light in a 17 gallon tank.
Once the tank was up and running the Fluval Plant continued to grow the Monte Carlo without CO2.
Yes, it grew super slowly without CO2 but it did grow, which is how I know this light is quite strong.
The Fluval Plant Spectrum Light specs for 24’-34’ Model:
6500K color temperature;
IP67 water proof rating;
Programmable 24 hour cycle with Fluval’s SmartApp for iOS and android via Bluetooth.
Slim profile, elegant design;
Expandable, low profile legs;
Specifically designed to grow plants;
Ideal for aquascapes;
Provides wide light coverage (120 degrees) while maintaining decent intensity;
Also great at growing terrestrial houseplants;
Available in 24 inch to 34 inch; 36 inch to 48 inch; and 48 inch to 60 inch lengths.
Runs very warm/hot;
Not ideal for cube tanks due to length.
Are LED Aquarium Lights Best for Plants?
Generally, LED lights (light emitting diodes) are the “best” from an energy efficiency standpoint, but not always from a price standpoint.
But, as LED technology advances and demand increases, LEDs become both more efficient and more affordable.
When I started my first planted tanks, T5 grow lights were the go-to light for growing aquarium plants.
But now, I actually prefer LED lights for growing aquarium plants.
Modern LEDs are just easy and they work.
Why LED lights?
According to energy.gov, LED lights differ from other lighting sources, like incandescent lights and compact florescent lights (CFL), in three key ways:
1) LED bulbs are small, and different colors of LED lights can be positioned next to each other to create a powerful white light;
2) LEDs emit light in a specific direction, with much less light dispersion than other lighting sources.
This means that more light will reach the aquarium plants directly below the fixture and the need for reflectors to redirect light is greatly reduced.
3) LED lights release much less heat.
While incandescent lights and compact florescent lights release most of their energy in the form of heat, LEDs stay relatively cool and use energy much more efficiently.
My Thoughts on LEDs vs T5 Lights
Both lighting sources will grow plants, but I find myself more impressed with LED aquarium lights.
The lights mentioned in this article are all LEDs and they are extremely affordable for how much light they provide.
If you already have a T5 setup for your aquarium plants, there is no reason to abandon it completely, but I would start adding some LED aquarium lights to your collection and see if you like them more than your trusty T5s.
The cheapest aquarium lights you can get are the ones the come with an aquarium kit or combo.
Generally, these kit lights are weak and only excel at growing algae.
Kit lights typically deliver dispersed light that appeals to our eyes rather than the concentrated light (think LED) that plants prefer.
So, if you are hoping to grow plants in a betta tank, a 10 gallon, or any other aquarium, investing some money in a decent plant light is key.
The lights mentioned above make the list because they provide strong, and efficient lights that grow plants (I’ve tested all of them) at a fraction of what some name brands charge.
Are they going to last as long as name brands? It’s too early to tell, but mine are still going strong.
Check back for more updates in the coming months, pros and cons will be updated as I continue to experiment with how well these LEDs grow aquarium plants.
Stay zen aquarists.