Subpar Quality Grow Light shining on plants.

Your LED Grow Lights Aren’t Cutting It

Signs that you bought the wrong ones
Reading Time: 9 - 12 minutes (2683 words)

Introduction to LED Grow Lights

When diving into the realm of indoor gardening and hydroponics, the importance of selecting the appropriate LED grow lights cannot be overstated. These lights are not mere accessories; they're the very lifeline of your plants in an environment where natural sunlight might be scarce or altogether absent. Let's unpack the significance.

Why the Right Grow Lights are Important

First and foremost, plants rely on light for photosynthesis, a process where they convert light energy into chemical energy to fuel their growth. The quality and type of light they receive directly influence their health, growth rate, and yield. Unlike natural sunlight, which offers a full spectrum of light, LED grow lights can be designed to emit specific wavelengths that match the most photosynthetically active regions of the light spectrum. This means that with the right LED setup, indoor growers can potentially optimize the growth conditions for their plants, be it leafy greens, blooming flowers, or fruit-bearing varieties.

Moreover, in hydroponic systems, where plants are grown without soil and rely heavily on the controlled environment for nourishment, the role of LED grow lights becomes even more paramount. The absence of natural variables, like changing seasons or fluctuating weather conditions, makes the controlled light source the primary driver of the plant's life cycle.

The Pitfalls of Making a Wrong Choice for your Grow Lights

Choosing the right LED grow lights is also an economical decision. Proper lights can reduce energy consumption, decrease the need for constant monitoring, and lead to less overall stress for the grower. On the contrary, a mismatched lighting system might not only hamper plant growth but can also lead to increased electricity bills and reduced lifespan of the light fixtures.

Because many people underestimate the importance of lighting, many assuming that because a light is popular or recommended on some Facebook Group, or because the grow light packaging states that it is "full spectrum" and suitable for all plants, that this indicates some level of quality or competency. It doesn't, and those are two reasons many people make bad buying decisions when it comes to buying grow lights for use inside their homes, or for their greenhouse.

Selecting the correct LED grow lights provides your plants with the best possible chance to thrive. It's a decision that relies heavily on light science, ensuring that your indoor garden or hydroponic setup is both efficient and bountiful. When buying effective Grown Lights, knowledge is power, and making an informed choice can make all the difference.

Lack of Understanding about Plant Light Requirements

The Importance of Photosynthetically Active Radiation (PAR)

Plants don't perceive light the way humans do. For them, it's all about the Photosynthetically Active Radiation (PAR) – the range of light wavelengths that plants use for photosynthesis. Spanning from 400 to 700 nanometers, PAR encompasses the blue, green, and red parts of the light spectrum. But here's the crux: Not all wavelengths within this range are used by plants in equal measure. Some are more crucial than others for specific growth stages and processes. By understanding PAR and the specific needs of their plants, unlikely gardeners can ensure they're providing the optimal light for each phase of the plant's life cycle.

Misconception: Brightness to the Human Eye ≠ Effectiveness for Plants

A common pitfall for many indoor gardeners is equating the brightness of a light, as perceived by the human eye, with its effectiveness for plants. Humans are said to mostly perceive the green spectrum, which is why lights rich in green wavelengths appear brighter to us. However, plants primarily utilize the blue and red parts of the spectrum for vegetative growth and flowering, respectively. Therefore, a light that appears super bright might not necessarily be the best for a plant's actual needs.

The human eye perceives light using photoreceptor cells in the retina, of which there are two main types: rods and cones. Cones are responsible for our color vision and function best in well-lit situations. There are three types of cone cells, each sensitive to a different part of the visible spectrum:

  1. S-cones are sensitive to short wavelengths and thus perceive blue light.
  2. M-cones are sensitive to medium wavelengths, corresponding to the green part of the spectrum.
  3. L-cones are sensitive to longer wavelengths, making them responsive to red light.

It's not that humans "mostly perceive the green spectrum"; rather, our M-cones are sensitive to the green part of the spectrum. When combined with the input from the L-cones and S-cones, this allows us to see a wide range of colours, from violet to red.

The misconception might stem from the fact that, under daylight conditions, the peak sensitivity of our eyes does indeed lie in the green part of the spectrum. This is due to both the distribution of the cones in our eyes and the typical ambient light conditions on Earth.

But I digress.

Different Light Spectra for Various Growth Stages

Just as a child's nutritional needs differ from those of an adult, plants also have varying light requirements throughout their lifecycle. During the vegetative stage, they benefit from higher blue wavelengths (around 400-500 nm) which promote leafy growth and strong stems. As they transition to the flowering and fruiting stages, the emphasis shifts towards the red spectrum (around 600-700 nm), which encourages budding, flowering, and fruit production. By not adjusting the light spectrum according to the plant's growth stage, growers may inadvertently hinder their plants' potential and overall yield.

Early Seed Stages (Germination)

At the very onset of a plant's life, during germination, light plays a surprisingly nuanced role. While some seeds require absolute darkness to germinate, others benefit from exposure to light. Once the seed has sprouted, however, light becomes indispensable. The spectrum most beneficial at this juncture leans towards the blue range (around 400-500 nm). This is because blue light encourages strong root development and robust early growth, setting the foundation for a healthy plant. Moreover, exposure to the right kind of light at this stage can speed up the germination process, ensuring that the sprouting seeds break ground promptly and energetically.

Initial Seedling Stages

As the germinated seeds transform into young seedlings, their light requirements evolve. Now, they need a more balanced mix of blue and red light. The blue spectrum remains critical for promoting vegetative growth, ensuring that the seedlings develop thick stems and vibrant leaves. At the same time, introducing a touch of red light (around 600-700 nm) ensures that the young plants don't grow too leggy, striking a balance between vertical growth and bushiness. Proper lighting during this phase is critical, as it sets the stage for the plant's overall health and productivity in later stages.

Vegetative Growth

Once past the initial seedling stage, plants enter a rapid growth phase. Here, the blue spectrum remains dominant. It promotes leafy growth, stem thickness, and overall vigor. Think of this as the "adolescent" phase of the plant, where it's putting on size and structure, preparing for the eventual bloom.

Flowering and Fruiting Stages

As plants transition to the flowering and fruiting stages, their lighting needs shift dramatically. Now, the red spectrum takes precedence. This part of the spectrum encourages budding, flowering, and fruit production. It's akin to the plants reaching their "maturity," where they reproduce and yield the flowers or fruits that growers eagerly anticipate.

Falling for Grow Light Marketing Gimmicks

How to Navigate the Maze of LED Grow Light Claims

These days, where every product comes packaged with glossy marketing and bold claims, LED grow lights are no exception. The science of light is complex, lighting terms are misused, old lighting standards are mistaken, Influences with little to no understanding are paid to promote inferior products, and the volume of misdirection and consumer confusion is rewarded.

Navigating this maze can be challenging, even for the seasoned grower. But with a discerning eye and an informed approach, you can sidestep the pitfalls and make choices that truly benefit you and your plants. Let's break down some of the most common marketing gimmicks in the world of LED grow lights and how to see through them.

The Allure of "Full Spectrum" Grow Light Claims

One of the most prevalent buzzwords you'll encounter is "full spectrum." At face value, this term suggests that the light covers all the wavelengths that plants need. But here's the catch: while full spectrum lights do provide a wide range of wavelengths, not all of these wavelengths are equally beneficial or necessary for plants. Some "full spectrum" lights may emphasize parts of the spectrum that aren't as crucial for plant growth, while neglecting the more vital wavelengths. The key is to understand the specific needs of your plants and to ensure the light genuinely covers those critical spectra.

Amazon Grow Light Listing Showcasing use of "Full Spectrum" text highlighted.

Exaggerated Specification and Descriptions of Grow Lights

Another area rife with inflated and often misleading, interpretive, or largely irrelevant data revolves around the specifications, colour temperature, wattage, general description and lifespan of LED grow lights. Many of these metrics such as Lumens and Lux, measure the brightness of light as perceived by the human eye, and don't necessarily translate to effectiveness for plants. Wattage, too, can be misleading. Some manufacturers tout the "equivalent wattage" of their LEDs, others make direct references to older Fluorescent technology like T5 and T* which no longer mean anything for the LED grow light market. The actual power consumed and the light output stated may be vastly different, or misleading. Some sets of lights will use combined light output, but focus imagery on a single light. As for lifespan claims, always take them with a grain of salt and cross-reference with independent reviews and user feedback some list 10,000 hrs, others list 50,000 hrs, and one vendor actually lists 90,00 hrs.

Beyond these fairly basic technical claims are how the grow lights are described. Marketers have a lot of leeway when when it comes to crafting product descriptions. The use of highly subjective words like "Super Bright", "High PPFD", "Sun Like", "High Quality", "Cost Effective", "Durable", "Professional Quality", "Greenhouse Approved", "Mimics Natural Sunlight", "High Efficiency", "Low Heat", "Heavy Duty", etc. etc. etc. All these need to be assumed to be complete and total BS.

Amazon listing for Barrina Grow Lights

Focusing on Grow Light Visual Appeal

Some LED grow lights are designed to appeal to the human eye, emitting a pleasant, often purple, glow (Blurple or Pinkish light). While these lights might make your indoor garden look high-tech and feel somehow more beneficial, they aren't always the best for plant growth. Plants' light needs don't always align with what looks bright or colourful to us. It's essential to prioritize the plants' requirements over aesthetic appeal.

Other, somewhat bougie grow light manufacturers, simply charge more for fancy fixtures and low quality light and intensity assuming the market will believe their claims of better quality and

Soltech Grow Light Options
Light Spec Sheet from Soltech Rise & Shine Growlight bundle.

Lack of Independent Grow Light Testing and Verification

Always be wary of brands that make bold claims without the backing of independent testing or verification. Trustworthy manufacturers will often provide detailed PAR charts, light distribution maps, third-party certifications, or studies to substantiate their claims. As a consumer, it's your right (and in your best interest) to demand this level of transparency.

PAR Light Spectrum Graph for Plant Grow Light with descriptions of wavelenghts

Neglecting to Consider the Coverage Area and Light Intensity

The following image shows a data sheet from Mars Hydro that not only shows a complete light falloff map for their product in a 2'x4' area, but it also lists the height above the canopy, as well as the level of dimming for those measurements.

Mars Hydro TSL 2000 light map with dimming and height data.

Skimping on Quality to Save Money

The Hidden Costs of Cutting Corners in LED Grow Lights

In the world of indoor gardening and hydroponics, LED grow lights play a pivotal role. As with many products, there's a vast range of options varying in price and quality. While the allure of saving money upfront can be tempting, it's crucial to recognize the hidden costs and potential drawbacks of skimping on quality. Let's dive a bit deeper into why investing in quality is a decision your plants—and your wallet—will thank you for in the long run.

The Pitfalls of Going for the Cheapest Options

It's an age-old adage that "you get what you pay for," and in the realm of LED grow lights, this often rings true. Cheaper lights might seem like a bargain initially, but they frequently come with hidden costs. Whether it's the need for more frequent replacements, increased electricity consumption, or subpar plant growth, the savings can quickly evaporate, replaced by regret and additional expenses.

The Shortcomings of Low-Quality LEDs

  • Shorter Lifespan: High-quality LED lights are designed for longevity, often lasting several years with consistent output. On the other hand, low-quality options might burn out or degrade much faster, requiring replacements at regular intervals. Over time, the costs of frequent replacements can surpass the initial investment in a premium light.
  • Inconsistent Light Output: Uniform light distribution is crucial for even plant growth. Low-quality LEDs can produce patchy or inconsistent light patterns, leading to uneven growth, with some plants flourishing while others struggle.
  • Potential Safety Risks: Beyond just plant health, there are genuine concerns about safety with substandard LED lights. They might be more prone to electrical malfunctions, overheating, or even fire hazards. Entrusting your indoor garden to such lights isn't just a risk to your plants but potentially to your property and safety.

LED Grow Lights as a Worthwhile Investment

When you step back and view LED grow lights not as a mere purchase but as an investment, the perspective shifts. Quality lights can:

  • Boost Plant Yield and Quality: A superior LED light can lead to better photosynthesis, healthier plants, and ultimately, a more abundant harvest, which this unlikely gardener is always shooting for. Whether you're growing ornamental plants, herbs, or vegetables, the quality of the produce is often directly proportional to the quality of the light.
  • Lead to Savings in the Long Run: While the initial outlay for a high-quality LED grow light might be higher, the long-term savings in electricity bills, reduced replacement costs, and enhanced yields can make it a more economical choice over time.
  • Peace of Mind: Knowing that you've equipped your indoor garden or greenhouse with the best means less stress, fewer disruptions, and the joy of watching your plants thrive.

LED Grow Light Recap

1. Recap of Main Points Discussed:

We've journeyed through the somewhat confusing landscape of LED grow lights, and why what you might have, or were considering purchasing, might not be the right fit for your indoor plant needs. Several pivotal takeaways have emerged. Let's take a moment to revisit and encapsulate these insights..

  • Knowledge is Power: From understanding the nuances of Photosynthetically Active Radiation (PAR) to recognizing the different light spectra required at various growth stages, being informed is key. Take the time to understand the basics of light science and technology.
  • Beware of Marketing Bullshit: Not all that glitters is gold—or in this case, beneficial for plants. It's essential to discern between genuine quality and mere marketing hype ( I should know, since I've got 30 years of marketing experience, some of it helping industry sell you the stuff I now discuss.
  • Quality Over Quick Savings: While immediate cost savings can be enticing, the true value lies in long-term benefits. Investing in a quality LED grow light translates to healthier plants, increased yields, and eventual savings.

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