About a decade ago there were whisperings of a development that would change the world of hydroponics forever. Interest surrounding LEDs – or Light Emitting Diodes – reached an all time high when scientists at NASA started using this new technology, investigating its impact upon plant growth in outer space. For indoor gardeners far and wide, everything seemed to suggest that the lights had the potential to produce great plants whilst simultaneously reducing electricity costs and improving overall efficiency.
Like many members of the indoor growing community, I too got caught up in the excitement. Who wouldn’t welcome a choice of spectrum specific lights costing just a fraction of the price to run compared against existing models? Of course the prices for these LED light systems were initially extortionate, but as is the case with all new technology, the anticipation was for them to soon become affordable to the masses.
Now almost ten years later, you can buy a ‘decent’ LED light system for only £90.
So I bought one.
It claims to be able to outperform a 400 Watt light system, a bold statement that I wanted to put to the test. As I prepared to examine how the LED light performs against other rival products, I thought I’d do a little research beforehand.
After all these years of development and hyperbole you’d expect there to be plenty of proof that LED lights outperform HID’s. Well I looked, and I looked again. NASA did tests, that’s true. However the main result available on their website is taken from a study into LED lights and the healing of human skin cells. The primary experiment in terms of plant growth dealt with raising seeds up to a size of 10mm. There was a picture of a potato plant under LEDs and lots of information about tests planned seven years ago, but no actual results.
I have emailed NASA to see if they could help shed any light on the matter, and will let you know if anything happens. So it was back to the drawing board. Let me tell you, finding legitimate research is difficult! The majority of the articles out there are by LED manufacturers and therefore tend to be a little biased, again providing no actual evidence. Now I am certainly no expert when it comes to internet research, but I can usually find what I want without putting in the hours that I have spent this time round. The truth was proving difficult to find. An example of the extent of the unreliability of information taken from the web was a site saying that LED lights provide both the red light needed for vegetative growth and the blue light for the flowering/fruiting phase. If something so simple in terms of plant requirements is clearly wrong, how then can we be expected to believe anything else they write?
Finally I stumbled across something, a grow diary with LED lights! Not quite the £90 set up I had, more a laboratory-based grow with a $1,200 LED setup. How exciting! So I started reading. Unfortunately within the first few lines the company stated that despite all the claims they had never previously been able to achieve full sized tomatoes with any LED light. That might explain all the broken links where research was promised, and the lack of legitimate studies. If after all these years a laboratory research centre had failed to grow full sized tomatoes, then how can the LED lights out perform HID’s?
Therein lies the biggest problem with the LED lighting industry, it has perhaps been blighted by unrealistic claims. Some of those relating to the 90 Watt system I bought were as follows:
- Powerful 90W LED grow light can replace standard 300-600W HPS grow light
- High efficiency, save 85% power consumption
- The G3 LED UFO GROW LIGHT is manufactured using long life LED lights. These lights have a rated life of over 100,000 hours (there are 8,760 hours in a year)
- The G3 LEDs are nearly 100% efficient at plant growth! This is 10 times the efficiency of a Sodium or Halide light!
- Uses only 90 watts but has the output equal to a 400 watt High Pressure Sodium System!
- 80,000 hour life expectancy
- Consuming only 90 watts of power and producing virtually no heat, the G3 LED GROW LIGHT boasts light intensity and growth rates exceeding that of a 400W HPS.
Let’s leave it there, you get the picture. Apart from the conflicting life expectancy of the unit, every bullet point can arguably be contested. In all reality when I bought the light, it was not to outperform a 400 Watt system. Instead I bought this light simply because at £90 it was in the price range of a standard HPS system.
You may think my exploration of the world of LED lights has got off on the wrong foot somewhat, with the initial focus of this article being to identify a large amount of mis-information and general lack of legitimate studies. Nevertheless my aim and intention is to provide a balanced, unbiased series of articles examining whether LED lights actually work in an indoor garden environment. I must admit that I am a little annoyed at the pages and pages of claims that can’t be backed up. In my opinion the truth about LEDs is still largely unknown. That’s why rather than continue to look at the results of other tests, it may be better to simply begin my own.
To try to get a true representation of the current capabilities of LED lights I intend to conduct a series of tests, starting with the most basic and working up to more in depth. It would be churlish of me to put the light side-by-side with a 400 Watt alternative, realise the performance is not similar and dismiss the product out of hand. Of course comparison grows will give us a greater indication of the level of performance, but I want to go further than that. The main emphasis here involves establishing whether they work when it comes to plant growth. If and when that is settled we can look at how they compare against other lights.
What we’ve learnt so far…
In the first test the 90watt UFO grow light – a widely available LED unit – did manage to maintain several different types of store bought plant over a two-week period of the vegetative stage.
However the similarly efficient 125watt blue Eco-Light that the UFO was pitted against outperformed it for 2 of the 3 plants tested, with the judgement being based on final size and colour.
From our experience the 125watt blue Eco-Light would have helped raise even better cuttings/seedlings and plants at the very beginning of the life cycle (and the red one works well as a supplementary flowering light), but did that mean the same for the LED unit? We needed to find out…
Check out the links below to view our series of tests:
Click here to see how three store bought plants fare under an LED light compared against a 125 Watt CFL.
Click here to see the sort of success that can be expected when attempting to root cuttings under an LED light.
Click here to see whether or not the established clones from test 2 could be grown through the vegetative stage under a large LED light.
Click here to see how much difference a high-end LED light makes to the plant-growing process when compared against the previous UFO model and a competing 600 Watt HID unit!