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If you’re getting into indoor gardening for the first time, you may be somewhat intimidated by all the components of your potential new hobby. Even those with experience in outdoor gardening may be a little lost, as something as simple as making sure your plants get enough light becomes complicated by the fact that there’s no sun to work with. Though there are countless models of grow lights out there, virtually every model can be sorted into distinct categories. Through studying these categories, even a complete amateur can quickly become familiar with the benefits and drawbacks of each type of grow light and use that knowledge to make an informed decision on the type of light that will best suit their indoor gardening.  

Fluorescent

Fluorescent grow lights are, of course, not unique to indoor gardening. These bulbs are widely available as single tubes, panel arrays, or strips that can be arranged into daisy chains. That wide availability drives down cost - the fluorescent variety is typically the most economical of grow lights - and allows for a wide variety of differing models. The light that fluorescent bulbs emit, for example, can range from cool (a bluish light best suited to seedlings and cuttings) to warm (a pinkish light usually used to promote flowering) to full-spectrum (a light similar to daylight). Though full-spectrum bulbs are the most expensive of the three, they’re preferred by some growers due to the fact that their light most closely resembles sunshine and doesn’t alter plant color.  

Bulbs can also come in spectral distributions geared towards specific uses. Those labeled “grow,” for example, are typically used for propagation, growth or overwintering (that is, making up for the light that is typically lacking in the winter months). Those labeled “bloom” are best used for side-lighting or as lighting for larger plants. No matter which bulb you choose, be sure to pick one that complements your fixture; a high output (HO) fixture will only work with HO bulbs, and, likewise, a very high output (VHO) fixture can only take VHO bulbs. Keep in mind also that less light is available to plants beneath the ends of the tubes compared to those beneath the center, making the three inches near either end the perfect place beneath which to place plants with lesser light needs.

High Intensity Discharge (HID)

HID grow lights have become the most common type of indoor grow light thanks to their extreme efficiency and ability to produce intense light. As with fluorescent lights, HID bulbs come in multiple varieties designed to give growers flexibility in the kind of light to which their vegetation is exposed. Metal Halide (MH) lamps produce a cool, blue light that promotes growth; some MH models also give off ultraviolet (UV) light that fights pests and mold and encourages the production of essential oil. High Pressure Sodium (HPS) lamps, on the other hand, give off a yellow or orange light that simulates the sunshine of the fall season and promotes flowering and fruiting in plants exposed to it. Growers typically make use of these varieties as a pair, exposing their vegetation to MH lamps as cutting or seedlings through veg and then moving them beneath HPS lamps once those plants are ready to bloom or bear fruit.

As with fluorescent lights, the fixture must match the bulb. You may, however, decide to invest in a conversion bulb, which allows you to use an MH bulb in an HPS fixture and vice versa (to a lesser extent). This may very well be the setup you decide to go with when you start out, as many amateur growers aren’t initially ready to invest in more than one fixture.

Plasma

Plasma grow lights are a fairly new and expensive newcomer to the world of indoor grow lighting. Though their cost may not make them the most attractive option for the first-time indoor gardener, their long-term benefits and energy efficiency have many growers raving about their impressive capabilities. That’s because plasma lights offer a near-full spectrum of light while consuming less energy, providing better light penetration and lasting longer than their competition. Depending on your electricity costs, these bulbs may very well pay for themselves in their lifespan; even if they don’t, you still got superior lighting for your vegetation.

There are downsides, however. In addition to the high cost, plasma bulbs produce significant heat and cannot be directly cooled like HID fixtures, which means that their usage can raise the temperature within your grow room. This issue is usually addressed by proper cooling and airflow but may not be so easily remedied by growers who only have a small space in which to work. There’s also the fact that the newness of the technology means that trusted vendors have yet to establish themselves; many producers of plasma lights are using their own information to describe their products as opposed to that collected by unbiased third-party sources. Plasma lighting, in short, can be a very wise investment to make - but only if you have the funds and knowledge to make it wise.

Light Emitting Diode (LED)

LED grow lights have enjoyed a rapid growth in popularity as of late, so much so that they may now be just as prominent in our world as fluorescent lights. This is thanks in part to the development of high-efficiency and high-power LED bulbs, the kind that are put to use in indoor grow lights. That technology has led to something of a revolution in the world of hydroponics, as many growers are altering their lighting setups to include LED bulbs or even rebuilding those setups from the ground up to base them wholly around LED lighting. It’s not difficult to see why; LED bulbs offer a full spectrum of light (to most accurately replicate the shining of the sun) and do so with remarkable, environmentally-friendly energy efficiency. What’s more, LED lights put out comparatively little heat or wavelengths that can be harmful to your plants.

As with plasma bulbs, the main downside here is cost. Though costs are always falling thanks to the growing acceptance of these bulbs and the rapid growth in their technology, their price still represents an investment that might be too great for the amateur grower to bear. There’s also the fact that LED fixtures generally provide less little lighting cover than their HID brethren, which may force you to purchase more fixtures than you had planned. LED lights are also particularly sensitive to high temperatures, which makes proper temperature management a necessity.

Choosing Grow Lights for Your System

The world of indoor gardening is an exciting and growing industry. Once you get past the initial confusion, you’ll find that the wide variety of products and models available make indoor growing accessible to everybody no matter their budget or the scope of their hobby or business. If you still have questions about the types of grow lights - or about any other element of hydroponics - please feel free to contact one of our friendly customer service representatives.