11 Core Guidelines To Know Before Buying Grow Lights

Grow lights are available in an incredibly wide amount of prices, sizes, and styles.

11 Core guidelines to know before buying grow lights for urban farming

For a complete guide to the different types of grow lights and a discussion of their strengths and weaknesses, check out this article.

For someone just starting out with grow lights, navigating the process to buy the correct light is not always a simple task.

Before you make a purchase decision, you may want to consider these guidelines to consider before buying grow lights: 

Skip to: 
1. Distance Between Grow Lights and Plants (Space Available)
2. Heat and Grow Lights
3. Know The Key Grow Light Specs: Lumens, Lux, PAR, and Watts
4. Budget
5. Vendor Quality
6. Common Grow Light Accessories
7. Know the Unit Economics (cost to light per unit area)
8. Scalability
9. Safety
10. Purpose
11. Miscellaneous Helpful Notes on Grow Lights

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1. Distance Between Grow Lights and Plants (Space Available) 

 You may be wondering: 

How far should my plants be from grow lights? 
What height should my LED grow lights be? 

The truth is that it depends.

There are many factors, the first of which is the amount of space you have available.

Lighting Distance Varies Depending on Grow Light Type, Which Change Space Requirements Source

 If you don't have the space to operate a certain type of grow light, you won't be able to use it.

The reality is that different grow light types will require different amounts of spacing in between the bulbs and fixture and the plants.

If your plants are too close to the lighting, they will at the very least have lower yield and your plants may even be burned.

Different sources will give slightly different advice when it comes to how far grow lights should from plants. For example, lampsplus.com suggests: 

"Incandescent light bulbs should be at least 24 inches over your plants. Fluorescents and LEDs have a lower heat signature, so they can be placed 12 and 6 inches over plants respectively"

Lighting Distance Visualization Source

 When space is efficiently used with grow lights, vertical farming stacks can also be feasible by creating multiple layers of plant beds and grow lights.

To get an approximate idea of the space you will need vertically, see the tables below for LED (light emitting diode) and HPS (high pressure sodium) lighting.

At the end of the day, the spacing necessary will have a lot to do with the strength of the light - the stronger the light, the more space needed is a fair rule of thumb for urban farming beginners who don't want to over-complicate planning.

LED approximate lighting distances. Source
HPS / MH approximate lighting distances. Source

What does this involve? 

Once you have a general idea of what type AND strength of lights you are interested in buying, you can now use a grow light distance chart to optimize your grow light spacing even further.

Grow light distance charts can also be referred to as PAR vs distance charts (see example below).

Sample PAR vs Distance Chart for fluorescent grow lights Source

Although it is beyond the scope of this article, once you know your grow light type and desired grow light spacing, you can increase your yield by changing grow light spacing at different stages of plant growth.

Grow light distance may vary depending on plant maturity for growers who want to maximize yield Source

For commercial growers trying to perfectly optimize yield, there is even grow light planning software that helps optimize layout of a grow room.

Professionals Use Grow Light Layout Planning Software To Maximize Yield Source

By now you should have a better idea of what grow light may be best for your needs, given the amount of space you have available.

With that, let's move onto guideline #2: heat emitted by grow lights, and how this affects your buying decision.

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2. Heat Generated By Grow Lights

Heat Output Can Vary Significantly Between Different Grow Lights Source

You may have wondered before: 

How much heat do grow lights generate? 
Do LED grow lights give off heat? 
Which grow lights have low heat? 
How do BTUs compare for different grow lights? 

To answer these questions, let's start with the basics: 

All lights generate heat.

Why?

As outlined in this Quora post, "Do all sources of Light Produce Heat?"

- There are 3 types of radiation or "light"

(1) infrared
(2) visible
(3) ultra-violet (UV) 

- What most people describe as "heat" is actually infrared  "non-visible" light
- The process of converting electrical energy into light generates both "visible" and "non-visible" infrared light (heat) 

Infrared, Visible, and Ultraviolet Regions of Electromagnetic Spectrum Source

So, what is this important? 

Simply because: the efficiency of a grow light to convert electrical energy into visible light results in less heat produced from the light.

Why is less heat good for a grow light?

There are at least 2 major reasons: 

1) Excess heat can burn plants and otherwise reduce yield.

2) Excess heat means less visible light output which your plants can use for every $ spent.

Now, how do different grow light heat outputs compare? 

How different grow lights compare across several areas, including power draw and efficiency Source

Heat From Fluorescent Grow Lights: 
CFL, T5, and T8 will typically have modest power draws and efficiency. Will generate more heat than an LED but less than HID lights.

Heat From HID (High Pressure Sodium / Metal Halide):
Will generate significant heat, may need to use with fans or other tools for ventilation. To get the power benefits of HID lights while reducing the heat creation, ceramic metal halide (CMH) grow lights offer less heat output but are more expensive than HPS or MH.

Heat From LEDs (Light Emitting Diodes):
Minimal heat, high efficiency. Heat output decreases typically as price & quality increases.

Quantifying Heat Generation:  How do BTUs compare for different grow lights? 

BTU's also known as British Thermal Units, is a thermal metric to help measure temperature in your growing space.

Example BTU Calculator Source

In recent years, BTU calculators (example above) have been popular tools used to make sure that the heat generated by your grow light does not cause your room to overheat.

With LED grow lights, heat generated will be less significant, however for HID grow lights, here are example values for BTUs generated for different strengths of grow light: 

250 W HID = 855 BTUs
400 W HID = 1368 BTUs
600 W HID = 2052 BTUs
1000 W HID = 3420 BTUs
1500 W HID = 5130 BTUs

Why are these numbers important? 

Knowing the exact quantity of heat generated by your grow light system will help you determine what type (if any) of heat reducing tools you need.

These may include tools like fans or pumps (image below).

Note: 

BTU Calculations are meant to be general guides. Factors such as insulation, ambient temperature outside, and ceiling height can affect the thermodynamics of any given indoor growing space.

In many cases, you will not know the best way to address over-heating from grow lights until you do some experimentation.

Example of fan use in an indoor growing environment Source

By now, you should have an understanding of how both...

(1) Spacing / space available, and
(2) heat generation

affect your decision when deciding to purchase a grow light.

Next, you will learn about key grow light technical specifications to look out for when looking at different types of grow lights.

Ready? Let's go! 

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3. What is your target grow light intensity, color, and day-length / rated life? 

Grow lights have 3 primary attributes you should consider:

1. Color
2. Lumens, Lux, and PAR Metrics
3. Day Length / Rated-Life

You will learn about each in depth below: 

LED Grow Light Color (Also Known as Spectrum or PAR Coverage) 

Spectrum Comparisons of LED (Top) vs (Below) Leading High Pressure Sodium and Metal Halide Light Sources Source

Refresher:

Typically what humans refer to as "light" is actually only the visible area of the light spectrum (~400 - 750 nanometers).

This visible light spectra range covers most of the range of wavelengths needed to grow plants, known as the PAR or photosynthetically active radiation.

Photosynthetically Active Radiation Source

Certain color spectra within the PAR are better for growing plants than others.

"Red" and "Blue" light spectra are ideal for plant growth, with red being associated more with the flowering stage of plant growth and blue with the vegetative stage. color is measured by wavelength (in nanometers).

Plant Stages of Growth Source

One of the biggest advantages of LED lighting is that it has highly customizable wavelength capabilities without changing fixtures.

This results in the ability to custom-tailor the light regiment for a plant in order to create optimal qualities like flavor, texture, or even plant color.

Wavelength based on growth stage Source

Therefore, when evaluating an LED grow-light (or any grow light) for use, (as far as color spectrum goes) you should look for a grow light which offers: 

1. the complete PAR spectrum (400 nm - 700 nm), with an emphasis on the red and blue wavelength ranges.

2. Wavelength coverage in areas of the spectra that help you reach your growing goals (depending on your growing goals, you may want to focus on different wavelengths) 

Using Wavelength To Grow For Specific Plant Qualities Source

As seen above, each wavelength of light promotes specific effects on plant growth.

Within plant categories, these guidelines may change. For one example, see the wavelength / plant growth effect chart for basil below: 

Using Wavelength To Grow For Specific Plant Qualities Source

Next, we will cover: 

a) Lumens, Lux, PAR, and Watts Metrics
b) Day-length / Rated-life.

Lumens, Lux, and PAR Metrics

Bulb Type vs Brightness in Lumens Source
What are lumens? Why are lumens important? 

Lumens are defined as,  "a unit of measure describing the total quantity of light from the visible spectrum that is emitted from a source of light (in all directions)".

Lumens are important because they determine the maximum amount of light your plants can absorb. Without enough brightness (lumens), you will not be able to grow your plants as effectively as you like (if at all).

Lumen outputs for different types of grow lights Source
What is lux? Why is lux important? 

Lux is simply lumens per meter squared. It is important because the amount of light which reaches your plant canopy is a more useful metric to know than the amount of light which your grow light emits.

Visualizing 1 Lumen Source

Keep in mind however, that lux is a measure of light visible to humans, NOT plants. In order to get a better concept of light visible to plants, you must use PAR measurement instead of lux.

How is PAR Quantified? Why is this metric important? 

PAR photon irradiance (often abbreviated as just PAR) is a metric which gives allows the best understanding of the light which your plants are getting from your grow light.

The recommended units of measurement for PAR, µmol m-2s-1.

The most accurate instrument for measuring a light’s output is a spectroradiometer.

Spectroradiometer Example Source

Knowing spectroradiometer patterns will help you make a decision between different grow lights.

What you want to avoid, is irregular patterns of PAR photon irradiance (Fixture 3, below).

Grow Light Fixture Uniformity and Efficiency Source
What are watts? Why are watts important? 

A  watt is defined as a unit that shows the rate at which electrical power is used by the grow light.

Watts are important because grow light manufacturers will commonly display Wattage in their product specs as a proxy for the power capability of the light.

Keep in mind that with led grow lights, efficiency goes down as watts increase.

The light strength of an LED grow light is not a direct function of Wattage.

It is influenced by the quality of components and design feature, including the particular LED chip used, chip density, optics used, heat sink, and the driver.

Parts of an led light chip become less efficient with higher wattage due to heat Source

In reality, most LED grow lights are less efficient as wattage goes up.

Why? 

Higher temperatures in the semiconductor circuit board containing the LEDs cause significant decrease in LED efficiency.

Despite this fact, the lumens per watt in an LED, regardless of the wattage, will still be higher than many other types of light bulbs (see image below).

Lightbulb Efficiency Comparison Chart Source

Day Length / Rated Life

‍A last important spec to consider is rated life of your lighting and how that coincides with not only your budget but your "day-length", or how long you are using your grow lights on a day to day basis.

While some types of grow lights have rated lifetimes of over 10 years, warranties on lights often will fall into the 3-5 year range. The durability of your light will be determined primarily by how you use it.

‍A last important spec to consider is rated life of your lighting and how that coincides with not only your budget but your "day-length", or how long you are using your grow lights on a day to day basis.

While some types of grow lights have rated lifetimes of over 10 years, warranties on lights often will fall into the 3-5 year range. The durability of your light will be determined primarily by how you use it.

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4. Budget

example cost breakdown for different TX fluorescent lighting. source

One of the most important metrics to consider when buying your first grow light is the price of the grow light.

The good news for grow lights is this: there are a lot of options at all price points.

$: CFL bulbs: can be found on amazon for less than 10 USD

$$: T5, T8, T12 fluorescent: good value for less than 100 USD. A 4 tube T5 grow light system can generate multiple hundreds of dollars worth of produce in a year (1-2 year pay back period with all other costs factored in besides lighting).

$$$: LED and High Pressure Sodium (small sizes): most LED solutions will be on the pricier side relative to fluorescent, if you are going to spend on LED's, your best option is to invest in a light from a well established LED vendor (full explanation in the next section "Vendor Quality") 

$$$$: Most heavy duty commercial style systems will involve high pressure sodium/metal halide (collectively referred to as HID or high intensity discharge)and high priced options are increasingly now appearing for LED systems. These systems will range in the thousands of dollars+ (USD) and will often be part of larger systems involving grow tents, grow "boxes", air filters, fans, controlled environment features, etc.

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5. Vendor Quality

There are over 57,000 results on Amazon.com for the search term "grow lights". This vast array of options is not equal as far as quality goes.

For grow lights, ratings and reviews on sites like Amazon, Alibaba, or even niche sites for grow lights may not guarantee you are receiving the product quality you paid for.

How so? 

With grow lights, the technical specs in reality often are not as advertised, even for a brand new product.

In this case study from Albopepper.com the true wattage of brand new LED grow lights varied wildly (one light had 34.2% lower wattage than advertised).

When you are paying for grow lights, a lot of what you are paying for is wattage, so this is a serious risk to consider when buying grow lights. This sort of issue could cost you hundreds if not thousands of dollars, and, most importantly, time, if undetected.

Solution: trusted brands like Lumigrow may have more expensive products but also have a long track record of shipping consistently performing products. International products from countries like China should be reviewed thoroughly.

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6. Common Grow Light Accessories

Often times a grow light will be the only part of the "package" or "kit" you are purchasing. Here are other potential additions besides the grow light that you should know about: 

ballast/fixture: grow light systems require an electrical component called a ballast to regulate the power supply in the grow light. if you are buying just a bulb, of course you will also need a ballast. this is a necessary component for lights. ballasts can be purchased independently from grow lights but grow lights can also have the ballasts incorporated into unit. 

grow tents: grow tents are another feature mainly seen with more expensive systems. Tip: It's worth noting that many of the benefits of a grow tent that help create a more controlled growing environment can be replicated cheaply DIY (not all the benefits).

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7. Know the unit economics

Awareness of the cost per unit area required to light your crops is a good way to compare different grow lights and prices.

Examples for comparison:

- an 89$ T5 fluorescent 2 foot 4-tube system costs approximately $0.29 per sq inch of coverage (~304 sq inch coverage).

- 35$ LED light with $0.24 per sq inch of coverage

- $36 LED light with $0.25 per sq inch of coverage

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8. Scalability

If you're planning on starting with a small growing operation but think you may eventually work up to selling your crop to restaurants, you need to keep in mind the scalability of the grow lights you are purchasing.

For example, fluorescent grow lights like T5, T8, and even T12 have been demonstrated to perform well in stacked arrangements.

Other questions to consider: 

How will the power requirements of your grow lights change at scale? 
How will the unit economic cost change?
Will I be able to effectively grow at scale with this type of grow light only? 

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9. Safety

As detailed in 7 tips for vertical farming beginners, not all grow lights have the same safety risks.

Two key areas to evaluate with grow light safety are 1) how fragile the light is, and 2) the materials that are present in the light itself.

In both of these categories, LEDs have a clear advantage. For household growing projects where pets or children may be disturbing the lights, LEDs are much less likely to break when knocked down or jostled, due to the small size of the diodes and the way they are situated in the fixture.

Other lighting systems like fluorescent tubes and HPS lighting can be very fragile and will shatter or even explode if they are knocked over with enough force.

Additionally, mercury is present in fluorescent lighting while it is not present in the majority of available LED systems, if there is a broken bulb this is another safety hazard to consider, especially with children, pets, or any type of foot traffic in your growing area.

One extra consideration: HPS, Metal Halide, and even Fluorescent bulbs give off a significant amount of heat. If you are not sure you have the proper counteractive measures to mitigate this heat, not only will your plants suffer, but you may be creating a fire hazard.

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10. Purpose

Take a moment to re-focus on the purpose of your grow light plans and needs now that you have read most of this article.

For a new comer, it can be tempting to buy a more complex system then necessary. One of the misconceptions about grow lighting is how little you really need to get a basic start.

Starting with a modest light set up, and making sure you have all other non-lighting aspects covered is one of the safest approaches.

With that in mind, here are some other articles to help you cheaply and quickly get started: 

> Beginner urban farming tips from Replantable, the hottest urban farming project on Kickstarter

> 3 Urban farming tools for less than 100$ beginners should know about

> Vertical farming beginner tips with Eric Amyot, CEO of modularfarms.co

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11. Miscellaneous Helpful Notes on grow lights

here are a couple more tips for you, if you're still looking for more information. we will update this list and add on tips in the future: 

- fundamentally, all grow lights are replicating the sun. however grow lights are not as powerful as the sun, plan to run grow lights for 12-18 hours per day. Timers can help you manage this cycle.

- Fluorescent lights will not typically have color temperature / Kelvin rating listed on packaging in normal stores, instead they will be more loosely categorized into categories like "warm glow", "soft white", "bright white", "daylight" and "cool white" that each correspond to ratings

- When looking for fixtures / ballasts look for ones that have reflectors. Reflectors will help you significantly increase the efficiency of your lights. As an example, fluorescent lights emit light in all directions with equal intensity. Without a reflector, up to half of your light will not be shining where it needs to shine: on your crops.

- more on cost guidelines:

- Roughly 2/3 of the your grow light expense should be the fixture/ballast and 1/3 of the expense should be the bulbs. other one time costs may involved for things like mounting.

- A reasonable payback period for a non-commercial grow lighting system should be around 1-3 years.

- For more information about commercial grow lights, check out companies like Valoya.

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