LED vs Fluorescent Grow Lights: What Should You Use?

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By Alex Harris

As the indoor gardening community continues to blossom and technology improves, the debate about which lighting to use continues. Which grow lights are best? More specifically, what should you use when it comes to LED vs fluorescent grow lights?

Below, I’m going to help you make an informed decision for your growing operation. We detail the basics of fluorescent lights, LED lights, and conclude with final thoughts to answer this question.

LED vs Fluorescent Grow Lights: Our Verdict

There are many things to consider when choosing between LED vs fluorescent grow lights. We hope we’ve given you a lot to think about. Remember these points:

  • Consider the scale of your operation. If you have just a single basil plant you’d like to supplement at nighttime with artificial light, you shouldn’t buy an entire LED system right away. Instead, fluorescent light is probably your friend.
  • Consider your budget. If you have plenty of money to put down or are hoping for a big return, LED bulbs are the better scalable option.

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What is Fluorescent Lighting?

When we discuss fluorescents for grow lights, we’re generally talking about the long tube fixtures you are probably familiar with. These lighting fixtures, notably the T5, are highly effective for grow lighting.

what is fluorescent lighting

The T in T5 grow lights refers to the shape of the LED lamp. These grow lights contrast with compact fluorescent lamps (CFLs), which are now the mainstay of household lighting. CFLs screw into the traditional sockets used for home lighting with incandescent bulbs, while T-shaped lamps require a long, tube-shaped socket.

While CFLs are used for growing plants indoors, we’ll mostly talk about the T-type lamps in this article. Specifically, we’ll talk about the T5, which is the most efficient CFL for growing. Further on, we will go a bit into CFLs for indoor growing operations.

Did you know: Fluorescent lighting is more than six times more efficient than traditional incandescent lighting!

We won’t go much into the magic of CFLs here. Essentially, this type of lighting at its basic level consists of a long tube filled with a small amount of mercury. When electricity is sent lengthwise along the tube, this mercury heats up. That reaction allows a phosphor coating on the tube to emit light.

Special Case: Compact Lamps For Plant Growth

Some amateur indoor horticulturalists claim success with compact lamps. These bulbs, which screw into traditional lightbulb sockets, actually burn with less heat than T-shape lamps.

cfl grow light dual spectrum

However, their intensity is lower, which means you need multiple bulbs.

This may be a good idea if you want to grow a single indoor plant at home or will only use artificial lighting sparingly.

However, the hassle and expense of multiple bulbs, along with an efficiency that won’t match a simple LED fixture, CFL bulbs likely aren’t even on the table for anyone considering even a middling grow operation.

Fluorescent Grow Lights: Pros and Cons

Fluorescent lighting is a popular choice for indoor horticulturalists, especially when the growing operation is on a small scale.

fluorescent grow lights pros and cons

The appeal of these lights is easy to see. It has low upfront costs and a cooler light spectrum that is excellent for plants during the germination and seedling stages.

However, while fluorescents offer short-term cost reduction, the long-term benefits are hindered by bulb lifespans that remain significantly shorter than their LED counterparts. Concerns regarding energy efficiency and environmental impact are detailed below.

Fluorescent Grow Lights Pros

CFL is one of the most popular kinds of lighting for small-scale, amateur indoor horticulture operations.

Why is it so popular amongst the amateur hydroponics crowd? Well, the most significant draw of CFL must be the price. 

The mass production of these lights coincided nicely with the blossoming of the indoor gardening industry. You can find effective CFLs for reasonable prices, especially when held up against traditional grow lights such as high-pressure sodium vapor lamps (HPS lights), HID light, the incandescent light bulb, or even a modern LED tube light.

Furthermore, though the light intensity is low, CFLs are useful in a wide range of indoor horticultural activities. Fluorescent lighting has a cooler temperature (blues and whites) that is excellent for small plants or plants in the early stages of growth.

CFL’s use is naturally confined to a smaller scale and is the ideal lighting in small propagation areas (although as LED technology is continuously perfected, perhaps not for long).

Fluorescent Grow Lights Cons

As we mention above, fluorescent lights burn with low intensity.

Along with their lower intensity burn, this artificial light will burn a bit hotter than LED bulbs, which produce virtually no heat at all when equipped with a heat sink. Thus, with CFL, you have a lower intensity bulb that needs to be kept further away from your plants.

What does this mean for your indoor grow room? It means that your lighting simply doesn’t have the strength to bring forth large-scale harvests.

Though fluorescent bulbs are more efficient than other types, their lighting is not as efficient as LEDs. The upfront cost for the equipment is low, but energy bills will be higher.

Finally, fluorescent grow lights have a much shorter lifespan than LED lights–almost 10 times shorter.

LED Grow Lights: Pros and Cons

Though light-emitting diodes, or LED, grow lights were looked down upon by the indoor gardening community for many years, LED technology has steadily improved since its inception in 1962.

led grow lights pros and cons

Now, it surpasses even the HID grow light HPS (remember: high-pressure sodium, historically the favorite for indoor horticultural).

There is a lot to love about LED. The full-spectrum light means one light fixture can be used from germination to elongation and from maturation to harvest.

They have a lifespan that far outstrips any other types of lights with a highly efficient, almost heatless burn. It is easy to see why horticulturalists choose LEDs for growing operations.

Most LED grow lights feature cooling systems that allow the LED bulb to produce virtually no heat. Mounted to a heat sink, you can move your LED very close to your plants, allowing the plants to absorb more of the light emitted by the LEDs.

LED Grow Light Pros

LED grow lights are lights with the full spectrum of ultraviolet radiation. For the layman, LED lights produce the kinds of light that plants of all levels of maturity need to grow.

In addition, LED lights have an incredibly long lifespan. While a fluorescent bulb may last you 10,000 hours, an LED light will last you as many as 100,000 hours! Yes, that’s right. Five zeros. That’s almost 12 years of continual use.

Finally, these lights are highly efficient. Long-term use of LEDs is likely to save the indoor gardener on costs when energy bills are added to the net profit.

LED Grow Light Cons

The only criticism of an LED grow light is the upfront cost. While LED grow lights can be bought very cheaply, a solid LED system can add up on your credit card bill.

Depending on the size and longevity of your grow operation, buying nice LEDs outright may be overkill. Scale also needs to be considered. For a very small-scale home operation, full-spectrum, highly customizable LED lights are simply too much hay for one horse, as the saying goes.

Further reading: Can You Leave Grow Lights On 24 Hours A Day?