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101 Posts
Discussion Starter · #1 · (Edited)
I appreciated the recent threads on LED lighting by Kevin Jones, Maichel, and others. My thread is a bit different in tone and is meant as a log of my experience with enough detail to help other folks who might be in the same boat as I was. It should be very apparent to the reader that I am no expert in any of the things that I am about to write about :p

BACKGROUND: I was pretty tired of replacing the bulbs in my planted tank setup. I also suspected that my lights were not the best option for growing plants. I also didn't like the environmental implications of having to throw out fluorescent bulbs every year(ish). I looked into other lighting options and liked the idea of LEDs since the technology had finally seemed to progress to the point where it was (somewhat!) affordable and effective in a planted tank context. With the help of a friend savvy with electronics and some fantastic advice from the owner of my LFS, I made the leap.

MY SETUP BEFORE THE LEDs: I have a 90 gallon tank (48 x 18 x 25). It had 4 x 55watt CFLs with Mirro reflectors and 2 x 54watt t-5s with reflectors (not as good as the Mirros). I typically ran GE 9325s in the CFLs and 6700K bulbs in the t-5s. Total replacement costs for the bulbs was around $120 with shipping if I got them all online. The total wattage of this setup was almost 330 watts. I also run pressurized CO2 on a pH controller. My success with growing plants in the past has been ok, but I felt I could do better. I have never been able to grow foreground plants effectively, other than B. japonica. I am, however, an excellent algae farmer. I fertilize with a modified PPS system.

WHAT I BOUGHT: LED solutions straight out of the box seem to be prohibitively expensive, even if appropriate setups are available. I am not sure that I could have purchased an off-the-shelf solution that does what my current setup does. If I could have, I think it would have been much more expensive. My LFS owner suggested a DIY Rapid LED ( setup with 36 Cree XP-G R5s with dimmable drivers. At the time, this DIY kit was $315, but has now dropped to $280. It included 36 Cool White XP-G Crees, 3 Mean Well ELN-60-48P dimmable drivers (see comments on this below), 36 optics (I chose 40 and 65 degree, again see below for discussion), some thermal epoxy, wire nuts, cords for the drivers, and pre-cut wire (useless for me). I also had to buy some aluminum u-shaped channel rod stock, fluorescent bulb protector tubing, and miscellaneous mounting hardware at a big box hardware store. I also purchased 3 small cooling fans and an AC adapter to run them (~$25, but they were used). I would have had to buy a soldering iron, multi-meter, solder, extra wire, and some miscellaneous parts, had my friend not been willing to lend/give that stuff to me. The total on that would have been about $60 or a lot more depending on the quality of the items you purchase. Finally, I had to purchase another AC adapter due to the fact that the drivers were dimmable. I bought these drivers because I thought that someday, I might buy the controller that would simulate a daylight cycle ( I didn't want to spend the $60 right away, though, so I didn't buy it. It turns out that dimmable drivers require a reference current of some sort or they will not work. You can either hook the controller up or buy another AC adapter and hook it into the appropriate wires on the drivers. I chose the latter path and the adpater was only about $10.

THERE ARE MANY LEVELS OF DIY: This project was the most rigorous of any that I have engaged in for my aquarium hobby. This is primarily because I am a total rookie when it comes to electronics. I would not have been able to complete this project without some help from my friends. First, I had to learn how to solder. The best thing my friend gave me was a piece of copper-plated board to practice on. He showed me how to "tin" the wires first before I join them (just melt some solder onto them individually). With some practice, and using the tricks he showed me, I was able to become almost-competent at soldering. As far as I know, all of my solder joints are ok, because the lights will not work if even one solder joint is bad :wink:

THE NITTY GRITTY: * I am sorry that I didn't take pictures of the process on the way - I just didn't think of it. I can include pictures later, though, of how it turned out. * Honestly, the toughest part of the construction project was to get the wire lengths right. I kept having to add little pieces of wire into gaps because I didn't make the wires long enough to begin with. I am not the sharpest knife in the drawer. There are three Mean Well drivers and 36 Crees. So, I made three rows of lights with 12 Crees each. I cut the aluminum u-shaped channel to be the right length (about 42 inches, in my case, to cover the about 47 inches of water length and a little dead space at the sides). I then soldered the Crees together in a line, as per the manufacturer's instructions. It was pretty easy conceptually - plus to plus, minus to minus. There are three terminals of each (plus and minus) on each Cree, so if I had messed any up, I could have fallen back to a different terminal. I basically soldered two lines of 6 Crees and left the last wire out for calibration (see below). The wires between the Crees were pretty short - around 3 inches or so. I then soldered longer wires to the plus end of one 6-Cree-string and to the minus end of the other.

I connected the wires to the right places on the drivers (careful!! You can burn your Crees out if you do it wrong!) and then I followed the directions for setting the drivers to my desired amperage. There are instructions that come with the kit for how to do this - FOLLOW THEM CAREFULLY. The Crees are capable of running at 1.3 amps. This would lower their lifespan, though, and increase their operating temperature which makes cooling more difficult. I set mine to 750 milliamps on the advice of the owner of the LFS. If I thought I needed it (which I do not!), I could always increase the amperage on the drivers later. The procedure was fairly easy with the multi-meter I borrowed from my friend. There is a little screw inside the driver case that you can adjust to 750 milliamps (or whatever you decide to use). Just watch the readout on the multi-meter. The contacts for the multi-meter go across the gap that I left between the two lines of 6 Crees. Once you have the drivers set correctly, you can solder in the final wire between the two lines of Crees and you will have your circuit.

Next, the Crees need to be mounted to the aluminum channels. I used the thermal epoxy that came with the kit to mount the Crees. You don't need very much of the stuff at all. I applied it with a razor blade. I did clean the aluminum and the backs of the Crees with rubbing alcohol and tried not to touch either of those surfaces with my fingers after that. The epoxy was very strong and dried to where I didn't have to worry about moving the Crees by accident in less than 30 minutes. I let them dry overnight before I messed with them anymore.

The optics came next. Without optics, the Crees have almost 180 degrees of scatter. I decided that I would leave the back row of Crees without optics so that they would have good coverage and overlap between the different LEDs. The middle row, I used 60 degree and the front row I used 40 degree optics. The reasoning I used was that I wanted to concentrate more light down onto the foreground, a little less onto the mid-ground and I didn't care as much about the background. I can always change them later if I am not happy, but this setup seems to be working well. One thing I wish I had done better was to glue the optics on with epoxy or super glue. I didn't want them permanent, but I wanted them to stay on, so I used regular Elmer's glue. A few of the optics have come off and I haven't bothered to put them back on because I didn't do a good job planning my wiring (see discussion on the clear tube protectors below).

I did this for two more circuits of 12 Crees then I was ready to mount them in my hood. The great thing about the DIY setup was that I could adjust the lengths of the Crees. I was able to make the lengths correct so that I could mount the aluminum to the part of my canopy that lifts on a hinge. This was a real problem before with any t-5 bulb solution I looked at because they were just slightly too long to clear the sides of the canopy. DIY means I can correct this problem.

Once I finished mounting the Crees, I was ready to mount, wire, and secure them into the canopy. I decided to solder all of my connection and shrink-wrap them rather than use wire nuts. I was not unhappy with this decision; especially for the places where I had 4 wires coming together (the AC adapter for the reference voltage had a single wire from each of the three drivers coming to a single power wire). This would have been very difficult to wire nut together. Solder and shrink wrap was the way to go. Next, I blundered in how I routed the wire. If you do this, be sure to run both wires out the same side of the aluminum channel. I had the plus coming out one end and the minus out the other. It works just fine, but it makes things awkward when I put the protective tubing over top of each of the three linear setups. I basically soldered the wire after the tubing was in place. This means that I have to unsolder and solder if I need to get the tubing off and monkey with the Crees. Why would I need to do that? Well, remember how I said some of the optics had come off? Well, that's just one example of how it would be handy to remove the protective tubing easily. It's not a deal breaker, but I have three optics just sitting at the bottom of the protective tubing. I don't care so much, unless the optics are directly in the path of one of the Crees, but if the tubing were easier to remove, I would probably have fixed all that by now.

In terms of actually mounting the hardware into the canopy, I used some plastic spacers for the aluminum channel. That worked pretty well, but again must be undone on one side if you want to get the tubing off. I don't see a way to avoid this without splitting the tubing along its length. I don't want to do this because it would not be quite as protective it I was to do this. I mounted the drivers inside the canopy because I didn't think of mounting them outside. So far, I am handling the heat well and I am hoping that the fans are moving the air well enough that the high humidity is less of a problem. Someday, however, I may have to move them outside the canopy. I also spent quite a bit of time securing bundles of wires to the top of the inside of the canopy to avoid wire drooping into the water (this is important, I am told). Eventually, I wrangled all of the wires.

Once I got things set up, I let them run for a while and then felt the aluminum channel that was supposed to be dissipating the heat. It was almost too hot to touch. The aluminum channel that I had chosen was only about 1/32" thick, so there was not too much mass to the heat sink. I thought that they were too hot. I went back to my friend's electronics store and bought 3 fans and an AC adapter to run them. I mounted them fairly snug against one end of each of the protective tubes so that they blow air straight down the channel. My canopy already has two 60mm fans (one incurrent and one out current) so I have a total of 5 fans on the tank. My wife says it's pretty loud, but it is also doing the cooling job, so I am ok with it.

THE TOTALS: I think I spent around $420 on this project. I think I probably had about 20 hours or so in the job, too. The great thing was that I learned a huge amount on this project. I knew next to nothing about electronics and I know enough to be dangerous now.

WAS IT WORTH IT?: For some of the reasons that I undertook this project success will not be evident for years. However, in the short term, I am very happy with the results. Here are the reasons that I undertook the project:

· Expense - I figure I will be able to pay for this project in lack of rebulbing in between 2 and 3 years. I am less clear from an electricity standpoint, but it is unquestionably a good move on that front, as well. I started with nearly 330 watts, and ended up with around 100 watts. I am still convinced, too, that I could not have bought a better lighting system for my needs at almost any price. Anything close would probably have been much, much more than the $420 I spent. I won't know for 10 years how good a deal these lights are, but if they are still going in 3 years, I will have more than recovered my cost. At the temperature I am running these lights, I anticipate at least 7, if not 10 or more years of service out of them with relatively limited spectrum shift.

· Aesthetics - It looks fantastic in my tank. I was worried about this because I only used Cool White Crees (not a mixture as they are usually sold). I think the fish look better now. Also, I now have the elusive SHIMMER EFFECT! It looks so cool! The amount of shimmer is controlled by the amount of surface disturbance. I found a happy medium in this category since I think I could be losing CO2 if I disturb the surface too much. The tank looks excellent, to my eye.

· Growing Plants - So far, this has been a very pleasant surprise. It will take me years to explore this aspect, but I am very pleased so far. This was the biggest unknown to me going into this project. I looked at numerous spectral signature diagrams and they seemed like things would work theoretically, but I couldn't be sure until I saw the results. So far, I have noticed the following:
o Nodal spacing on whorls of stem plants (especially L. aromatic) has decreased
o Blyxa japonica has developed patterns in the leaves that I wasn't seeing before
o Bacopa (sp?) will now leaf out close to the bottom of the tank
o I am seeing red in R. macrandra and L. aromatica at more than half the tank depth (it wouldn't do that until it was within three inches of the top, before)
o General plant health appears much better - Temple is not losing lower leaves like before
o Algae is minimized, at least on the front glass (probably due to optics adjusting the incident angle of the light)
o Pearling has increased
I still have some experimentation to do with foreground plants I couldn't grow before, etc. but I am impressed with the evidence so far.

CONCLUSION: This was a fun little project and I am really pleased with how it turned out. I will try to remember to post new information as it comes to light. I am also happy to answer questions, though you can tell from the quality of the discussion above that my own understanding on some of the aspects of this project is limited at best. I hope my write-up can stimulate further discussion and maybe encourage others to make the leap to LEDs.

36 Posts
Long reed but this sounds great! I'm running this exact setup but with 24 leds.

I found the cool whites to be a little too yellow for my tastes so I added a row of 8 blue leds ran at 350ma to add a little more crispness to my tank, they also double as moonlights.

Lets see some pics!

101 Posts
Discussion Starter · #3 ·
Here are a few pics. The first is a general one of the tank. I am not a very good photographer, either ;-) I think there is still a tint of algae bloom in the tank, but you get the general drift. Notice the shadow of the plastic tank brace. I don't have any idea how I would get rid of this (raise the lights up higher?) but after a while I don't even notice it.

The second picture shows how I mounted the LEDs. It is far less elegant than the way Iwannagofast mounted his, but I had the luxury of being able to hide my work inside the cabinet :) You can't see really well in the pic, but the first two rows of LEDs are in the part of the canopy that comes up on a hinge. The bottom row in the pic is mounted to the part of the canopy that doesn't go up on the hinge.

The third pic shows some Bacopa. I think you can see that the most recent 4 or so whorls of leaves are much larger and healthier than the previous ones. This reflects the change from my old lights to the new ones. Again, this is about 12 inches deep in the water column where I was having trouble growing the Bacopa at all before. Now, it seems to be thriving. Finally, you can see some of the algae that I am always dealing with. Anybody have any ideas what the stuff on the wide Crypts is? I have always had problems with that stuff. I don't bother cleaning the glass on the back or the side of the tank. Thanks for any algae advice folks would be willing to offer :)


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