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Edna Stewart

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After more than 50 hours of research and interviews with five experts—including one who designed plant lighting for Antarctica and the moon—I can say that the Hydrofarm Commercial T2FT Tube Fixture is economical, is low-maintenance, runs cool in small spaces, and provides bright light for stout plants. It’s the one we would buy if we were starting seeds indoors.

For growing greens

Go with a setup like this if you plan on growing leafy greens like lettuce, kale, spinach, and herbs indoors.

Lettuce farmers and those who grow other greens are a special case. Growing a plant to maturity indoors requires far more photons than sprouting a seedling. If you’re thinking of attempting indoor lettuce, kale, spinach, herbs, or other leafy things, you need stronger stuff than a T5, which simply won’t give you enough photons in a day. Go directly to a setup with two Fluence RAY22 lights, and don’t look back.  If you’re on a budget, and junglelike growth is not a priority, Hydrofarm’s Fluorescent Grow Light Fixture will get the job done. But because they only go up to a DLI of (or if you run them at least 2hours a day) your seedlings will be a bit anemic, and will grow up to about ½-inch high at most.

How we picked and tested Flaws but not dealbreakers

As mentioned earlier, the Hydrofarm Commercial Twill not bring your tabletop greens to their full potential. If you keep this light on 2hours a day, you’ll still only get a DLI of 9—considerably below the DLI of 1that greenhouse growers consider necessary for producing lettuce, herbs, spinach, and other greens. If you’re hankering for leafy greens, read on to see our choice for lettuce farmers below.

The Sun Blaze is a good runner-up if our main pick is unavailable. It’s essentially the same light, but there’s less information on its long-term performance.

The Sun Blaze F24T5-HO Fluorescent Grow Light Fixture is more or less an exact replica of the Hydrofarm Commercial T5, but there’s slightly less information available about its long-term performance. If our pick is sold out, or if you can get the Sun Blaze for cheaper, it’s a good bet.

The competition

The lamps higher than 200 watts were obviously overkill. They’re designed to light a 3’ by 3’ area, produce a DLI of in three hours, and need to be suspended at least 2inches over seedlings according to this Sunlight Supply Information Sheet. I eliminated the (now unavailable) G8LED 240 Watt LED Grow Light, the Horizon Grow Light Kit, and the ViaVolt 250 Watt HPS Grow Light Fixture. That left three low-wattage HPS fixtures: Horizon Grow Light Kit (now unavailable), Hydrofarm SBM150S, and the Sun System 150 Watt HPS Reflector, Ballast and Bulb.

Some Tfluorescent fixtures are a little different from our main picks, but they aren’t any better. The 2-foot Flora Hydroponics Fluorescent Grow Light System has the same features as the Lights of America Tfixture, but comes with bulbs that have a light temperature of 5000 K, not 41000 K like Lights of America, which means that light will look slightly bluer. If that matters to you, go ahead and spend a bit more on this light, but don’t expect your plants to notice the difference. If you still haven’t spent enough money on Tbulbs, you could choose to buy “full spectrum” T1grow bulbs, which will fit into the same fixture, such as the Agrosun T1or an Agrobrite 24-inch 20-watt T1bulb. I’m sure they’re charming, but they’ll only get you to a maximum DLI of if you leave a two-bulb fixture on for 2hours a day less than a foot away from little leaves. That’s enough light to raise ferns, African violets, and orchids, but seedlings of other species won’t live up to their full potential. On bing. If you have a little more to spend on bulbs and a fixture, you should just give up lattes for the week, save up, and buy the Hydrofarm Commercial T5 instead.

Pull Quote

For incandescent, fluorescent, HPS, and MH lights, if you make a fixture that can withstand more current, you get a brighter light when you put more energy into the system. In LEDs, though, there seems to be a limit to how much light you can get out of a system. After a certain point, the excited electrons start running into each other and producing more heat instead of light, as Popular Science explains.

There’s plenty of research into making better LEDs (especially as the cannabis industry takes root), but for now, the options for the consumer aren’t very powerful. Instead of making LEDs higher watt, you have to add more of them to get more light to your plants, which costs more and takes up more space. Giacomelli tries to cluster LEDs together to look like an HPS light.

The light plants need

Grow lights exist to get photons to plants. Unfortunately, it’s extremely hard to tell if a grow light will do that from the information retailers list on their web sites. Listings commonly say something like “Lumen output rated up to 8000” or “6400 K bulb” or “280 Watts Super Bright Output.” None of these statements really tell you what to know: How many photons will get to your plants’ leaves.

As you may remember from high school physics, light is a type of electromagnetic radiation that acts as both a wave and a particle. Light comes in different wavelengths, and the wavelengths that humans can see (called the visible spectrum) roughly measure between 400 and 700 nanometers. Make the wavelengths shorter—say, 350 nanometers—and you’ll get ultraviolet radiation, which humans can’t see, but is visible to bees, birds, fish, some amphibians, reptiles, and cats. Make the wavelengths slightly longer (700 nm-mm) and you’ll get infrared radiation. Some snakes, insects, and bats seem to be able to perceive infrared radiation, but not with their eyes—they have special heat-sensing organs.