Color Temperature: Does it matter for a planted tank?

Discussion in 'Lighting' started by mathas, May 14, 2009.

  1. mathas

    mathasWell Known MemberMember

    In general, there seems to be a lot of confusion about what exactly color temperature is and whether or not it's of significance to a planted tank, so I decided to create a thread to share information and debate.

    I've seen a lot of posts across various forums where people extol the virtues of a bulb's color temperature rating with regards to photosynthetic suitability. I've seen people claim that “kelvins” are equally as important as “watts” (watts don't tell the entire story either, though that's an entirely separate topic). I've seen people ask what color temperature the bulbs being used are when someone else reports a plant problem, as if color temperature were a factor. I've also seen people say that others might see better results if they purchased a 6700K bulb, but I've never seen any of these people say exactly why they feel color temperature is so important.

    Keep in mind that I am not a physicist or lighting science expert, I've done no experimentation on my own, and I don't guarantee the accuracy of any information in this thread. This information is presented as I understand it, not as gospel.

    So with that in mind, I'll attempt to answer a few basic questions and share my opinion on the importance of color temperature ratings on bulb.

    What do plants require?

    Plants require (among other factors that are beyond the scope of this topic) light energy for photosynthesis. The light is absorbed by chlorophyll molecules, with chlorophyll a absorbing most strongly around 430nm and 660nm, a chlorophyll b absorbing most strongly around 450nm and 640nm. This likely varies by species, but as a general range that's about right.

    Those wavelengths indicate (among other things) what color humans perceive the light to be:

    Red: 625 - 740
    Orange: 590 - 625
    Yellow: 565 - 590
    Green: 520 - 565
    Cyan: 500 - 520
    Blue: 435 - 500
    Violet: 380 - 435

    So in general, most plants require more intense lighting at the 430-450nm (low blue) and 640-660nm (low/middle red) ranges than elsewhere on the spectrum. Keep this in mind, we'll come back to this topic.

    What do we mean by “color temperature”?

    In order to answer this question, we need to have a common understanding of a few key terms.

    Kelvin – A kelvin (K) is a unit used to measure temperature. The Kelvin scale is a thermodynamic temperature scale where absolute zero, the theoretical absence of all thermal energy, is zero (0 K). Note that kelvins are not technically referred to as degrees, so the correct written representation would be 5000K instead of 5000°K. (I make this mistake often)

    Black-body radiator - A black-body radiator is a theoretical object that absorbs all electromagnetic radiation that falls on it, but radiates varying wavelengths of light dependent upon the thermal temperature of the radiator. As the temperature of the black-body radiator increases, the color of light emitted follows the Planckian locus illustrated here.​

    Given those definitions, color temperature indicates what temperature, measured in kelvins, a black-body radiator would need to be heated to in order to radiate a given color of light.

    What does that mean for aquarium hobbyists? Rather than attempt to paraphrase an already excellent article, I'll quote Dr. Sanjay Joshi:

    One of the key phrases in this quote is “if we were to compare the lamp's color to a black-body at 20000K, it would appear the same to a human observer.” The correlated color temperature ratings on bulbs are strongly dependent upon human perception, not true spectral equality.

    Dr. Joshi goes on to say:

    One thing many bulb manufacturers provide is something called a spectral power distribution graph, such as this example from GE's website:


    The SPD graph gives you a good idea of what wavelengths the bulb emits and in what relative intensities. This is helpful if you know the wavelengths needed for photosynthesis, as discussed earlier.

    While I don't pretend to understand the math behind calculating correlated color temperatures, I do know that mathematics often allows more than one set of variables to produce the same result (2 + 3 and 4 + 1 both produce the same result, despite being unique sets of inputs), meaning it's possible to have two bulbs with the same color temperature rating that have vastly different SPD graphs (one example can be seen here).

    This phenomenon of two bulbs looking the same to humans but actually emitting different wavelengths of light is called metamerism. The fundamental reason for metamerism, as Dr. Joshi discussed in his article, is that color is a sensation rather than a property of an object. Human eyes can register the same sensation from an almost infinite variety of combinations of different light wavelengths.

    Metamerism is the number one reason why I personally place virtually no importance on color temperature ratings as an indicator of photosynthetic suitability. If two bulbs can have the same correlated color temperature value but emit different spectral ouputs, how can you tell from the CCT value alone which is better for plants? In short, you can't. The only way I know of to be sure which bulb produces more photosynthetically active radiation (PAR) is to use a PAR meter.

    In fact, a poster at by the name of i4x4nMore did a limited test with a PAR meter, and actually saw slightly better results with a 3200K bulb than a 5500K bulb, despite the common “get a full-spectrum bulb for plants” mantra. Admittedly the test was limited and the differences small, but if the conventional wisdom were correct, he should have seen results in favor of the 5500K bulb, not against it. His tests (and a plethora of other interesting information) can be found .

    In summary, I find color temperature ratings helpful to determine how the tank will look to human observers, but I prefer to rely on other factors (SPD graph, power, reflector, distance from water, depth of tank, etc.) for judging the benefit to my plants.

    For those interested in further reading, here's where I obtained the vast majority of information in this post:
    Last edited: May 14, 2009
  2. Shawnie

    ShawnieFishlore LegendMember

    great post mathas...although Im totally lost, and dont have a clue about any of it, I wanted to say thanks for taking the time to post it and I think it should be stickied so it can be a reference for others interested in planted tanks!
  3. Butterfly

    ButterflyModeratorModerator Member

    I agree and think it should be submitted as an article for the magazine.
  4. OP

    mathasWell Known MemberMember

    I thought about, but I wanted to see if anyone who frequents the forum knows something I don't.

    If no one adds anything in the next few days I'll probably send it to Mike as a submission, but I wanted to make sure there was an opportunity for back-and-forth debate and/or questions first, and I wanted to make sure that anyone searching for a word contained here saw this post as part of the result set... I'm not sure magazine articles are retrieved by the forum search function, but I know posts are ;)
  5. tototime

    tototimeValued MemberMember

    Interesting. In fact, I do not believe that color temperature is a good indicator of power. We must remember that black body radiation, when posed as a theoretical problem, produced a result of infinity. Thus, this brought about quantum mechanical insights such as Einstein's famous photoelectric effect, and Bohrs quantum model. Furthermore, Einstein's photoelectric effect also states that the particles that emit certain colors (photons) do not contain heat energy. Rather, they emit raidation due to their superposition of being both energy (wave like properties) and particles (Electro-magnetic Properties). This radiation (if I'm not mistaken, for I am a quantum electrodymanics major not a bio major) does not, and will not, affect the photosynthesis of a plant.
  6. Nate McFin

    Nate McFinWell Known MemberMember

    Nice post Mathas, Thanks for taking the time to write it.
    Last edited: Jun 1, 2009