The Best Grow Lights For Indoor Plants & Small Spaces

by | May 6, 2020 | Hydroponics

When getting started with indoor gardening, whether beginning with seeds, starter plants or even scraps, one of the most important considerations you’ll have to make is the kind of lighting that will be needed. Depending on your grow space, what you plan on working with and when you get started, odds are that you’re going to need a grow light to either replace or supplement the sun at some point. This article will cover what you need to know about the different types of grow lights and their properties including things like spectrum and a few of the other considerations in order to help you decide which product is right for you.

Products Covered In This Article:

Types Of Grow Lights & Light Bulbs

Like all home gardening equipment, grow lights vary greatly in quality, features, and price point. You’ll want to make sure you get the right type for your grow project. Before buying, refer to the light types below.

Incandescent Bulbs

Incandescent lights are lit by heating up a metal filament until it grows so hot that it glows. These bulbs may be used to grow your plants, but it would be a horrendously inefficient way of doing so and has a chance of burning them. Incandescent bulbs aren’t very energy efficient. According to several sources including this one from Penn State, about 90% of the energy used by incandescent bulbs is given off in the form of heat instead of visible light. There are more efficient incandescent options, but none of them are efficient enough to make this a viable option. Finally, incandescent bulbs don’t tend to have a long lifespan, and it will be further shortened by the fact that plants need lots of light, so avoid these.

Fluorescent Lights

In fluorescent lights, the visible light is formed through an interaction between electric current, mercury and phosphor in a glass tube. This is about 85% efficient from an energy to light conversion standpoint. They still give off heat, but not nearly as much. The downside to these for plant growth is that they don’t tend to be very bright. They’re also bigger and more bulky, but since they are cheaper than some other alternatives, they can be good for seedlings and starter plants. If a plant is a flowering one, you probably want to avoid using fluorescent lights.

High Intensity Discharge (HID)

These lights work by sending an electrical charge through an ionized gas and between two electrodes. The initial arc heats a plasma which dramatically increases the light output. Because of the mechanics of the reaction, these don’t last as long if they are constantly being turned on and off, but because plants need lots of light, that shouldn’t be too much of an issue. They are used for this type of application because once they are on, they are highly efficient.

Two types of HID that are commonly used are metal halide (MH) and high-pressure sodium (HPS). Although metal halide bulbs aren’t as efficient as some others, they’re still very efficient and the metal halide in them means that they give off a cold white light with lots of blue that can be very helpful for seedlings, young plants and plants that are in a resting stage. We’ll get more into wavelengths shortly.

HPS bulbs use sodium in order to act as a medium through which white is filtered to create different colors. It tends to be yellow when the device is fully warmed up after 5 or 10 minutes. Depending on what else is in the light, manufacturers can counterbalance this to create different color combinations. The real advantage of these lights is that they can last up to 24,000 hours before they lose their usefulness as grow lights.

LED Grow Lights

From a power efficiency standpoint, LEDs can be best. LEDs have a semiconductor in them that lights up when current is passed through it. Because they run cooler, these are more efficient by orders of magnitude than more traditional incandescent lighting, so it’s picked up widespread use not only in home lighting systems but also when it comes to plant growth. The average LED can last 25,000 hours. They also give off very little heat, which can help keep your plants from burning under close exposure. Finally, many LEDs are color adjustable, meaning you don’t have to swap them out depending on where your plant is at in its growth cycle. The only real downside here is that they tend to have a higher upfront cost compared with investment in other lights.

Full Spectrum, Balanced Spectrum And Adjustable Spectrum

When you’re looking at grow lights for your indoor gardening set up, you’ll see these spectrum features in the specs for particular systems. The key thing to understand here is the wavelengths you’re looking for. This determines how much photosynthetically active radiation (PAR) your plant is getting. If you take a second to remember your high school physics (I know it’s a painful memory for some of us), you’ll recall that the wavelength of light determines its color.

Before we get into the visible spectrum, plants also benefit from some ultraviolet light that humans can’t even see. Ultraviolet light in the range of around 315 – 400 nanometers (nm) can be used to encourage pigmentation, a thickening of leaves and to discourage harm from insects.

For most growers, the colors of most interest are the blue spectrum, between 440 – 470 nm, and the red spectrum, either between 640 – 660 nm or 740 nm, depending on what you’re trying to achieve. Blue light encourages growth of vegetation and greenery on your plant, while red encourages fruiting and flowering in addition to the absorption of chlorophyll. The deeper red at the higher wavelength can be used to supercharge photosynthesis.

When you look at grow lights, a key spec for you will be what part of the spectrum they cover. One option would be to get a full or balanced spectrum grow light, which is meant to mimic the spectrum of the sun. This could be best for beginners and generalist plant growers who want to do planting without having to worry about the type of light that’s best at any given time. Balanced light also allows for some photorespiration. While this isn’t the most efficient thing to happen in the plant cycle, it does occur in nature. Allowing the plant to struggle somewhat can allow it to produce a higher yield and be healthier in the future. Think of it like exercise or inflation. Too much can be a bad thing, but in the right amount, there are beneficial effects.

If you want to take the next step and encourage thicker leaves and pigmentation in younger plants and flowering and seed germination when the time comes, you might experiment specifically with blue and red light. You can either get lights specifically for these purposes or some that are sold with adjustable spectrums which you can tinker with based on your plant and your specific goals.

There are a couple other key things to look at including lumens, which are a measure of brightness, which affect how much light your plant can absorb and the amount of PAR your plant is getting. PAR is a function not only of the color of the light, but also the distance between the light and the plant. The further you move the light from the plant, the lower the PAR value will be. Finally, consider the power requirements of your lights. After all, you’re the one paying for the electricity.

The Best Grow Lights For Indoor Plants

Before we get into this, I want to note we won’t be listing specific prices because they change often. However, I will try to give you ranges or approximations.

GE Lighting 30-Watt Full Spectrum LED Grow Light

I like the GE products because to the naked human eye, it looks like white light. This means you can display your plants and grow them while also having it look like a more natural light in your home. There are packages for seeds and greens as well as fruits and flowers. Think of that blue and red discussion from earlier. This comes in around $50, although for some reason the 4-foot version is less expensive than the 2-foot one at the moment.

GE Lighting BR30 Full Spectrum LED Grow Light Bulb For Indoor Plants

This is a single-bulb version of the system above if you don’t want to rack mount your lights. You can get these for under $10. Again, they come in both a seed and greens as well as a flower and fruit version.

VOGEK Grow Light, 144 LED Plant Growing Light With, Adjustable Gooseneck & Desk Clip On

This product has a gooseneck, allowing you to get just the right angle. It’s designed to be clipped on a desk. There are three heads and five brightness settings. Finally, it has an automatic timer. This comes in around $50.

LED Grow Lights, Full Spectrum Panel Grow Lamp With IR & UV LED Plant Lights For Indoor Plants

It looks a little disco, but these are cheap and get the job done. This mix of red and blue lights will keep your plants growing and happy for about $30. As mentioned above, the downside with this type of light is that it doesn’t mimic the natural light of the sun, but depending on your goals with your plants, you may not care. This particular panel doesn’t allow for adjustment for different purposes, but if you’re looking to cover a wider area more cost-effectively, this may be right for you.

BLOOMSPECT Upgraded 1000W LED Grow Lights With Veg & RED & Bloom

Continuing in the vein of products that look like they’ve been transplanted from a dance hall, there’s this grow light from BLOOMSPECT. The total power output of this rig is 1,000 W, so this would significantly upgrade your indoor gardening operation. Additionally, there are adjustable modes for vegetation, flowering and a red channel to kickstart photosynthesis.

VIPARSPECTRA UL Certified 1200W LED Grow Light, With Veg And Bloom Switches

This best is our final entry in a series of products that make you ask whether they are grow lights or devices on an alien spaceship. This one is our most expensive entry at just under $400, but for that you get 1,200 W of LED light plant growth. The growing area is more than 20 square feet at the manufacturer’s recommended height for vegetation modes and 9.5 square feet for plants getting ready to flower.

Ideal Plants For Indoor Gardening

Depending on what you’d like to grow, there are a number of great plant growth starting points for your project. Herbs, fruiting, and flowering plants can be ideal ways to get growing!

Herbs

Herbs are one of the easiest things to grow indoors. You can use water or another growth environment that doesn’t include soil and just make sure they have plenty of light to get started. Herbs as varied as basil, thyme and mint do well indoors at room temperature.

Fruits And Vegetables

Everything from garlic and tomatoes to watermelons and cantaloupe can be grown indoors, presuming you have access to the right amounts of sun or other artificial light and can control the temperature. It takes some care, but this can be done.

Flowers

You can start everything from geraniums to marigolds to petunias and a great many others from seeds indoors. Most work at room temperature and you can get them going using natural or grow lights.

Do you have thoughts on the ideal grow light? Leave them for us in the comments below.

By Kevin Graham

By Kevin Graham

Kevin Graham is a gardening enthusiast. Construction of a trellis might be ambitious, but he wants to figure out how to grow a watermelon in his home. When not thinking about bringing plants to life through soil and fertilizer, Kevin is interested in other life-giving forces. Specifically, the Force. What’s your Midi-chlorian count?

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My husband and I are attempting to turn our tiny city condo into an urban gardening oasis. Join us on our journey toward sustainable living and making the most of our space.

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