As the technology matures, led grow lights are becoming more accepted in indoor gardening and hydroponics. What started out as a niche market with its own brand of cult-following, solid state now has a proven track record of success for growing anything from wheat grass to cannabis and lettuce to strawberries. The market continues to grow as a few leading LED grow light suppliers push the technology with new research and exciting developments, shaking off the once common (and sometimes legitimate) view that manufacturers were out just to make a buck on unproven, poorly executed fad gadgets.
Here are my predictions of where I think the technology is going in 2013.
2013 - LED Grow Lights Come Of Age
After the expected growing pains of a new technology, growing with LEDs is becoming more mainstream - being looked at now as not only an energy saving alternative to high wattage HID lights, but as a means to grow more (fill in the blank) in a smaller space. Because these lights emit very specific wavelengths along the electromagnetic spectrum, plants absorb the light more readily versus HID lights and are able to convert it via photosynthesis into energy for vigorous vegetative growth followed by prolific flowering and fruiting.
In this article, you will not find any mention of specific brand names nor will there be any direct comparisons. If that is what you are looking for - check out these LED Reviews. What I will do is talk about common features and benefits of LED grow lights in general while pointing to what new developments I think will advance the technology and help you grow bigger, better plants.
Growing With LEDs - A Paradigm Shift
For over 40 years, indoor growers were faced with just a couple of choices when deciding on grow lighting - high pressure sodium, metal halide, and more recently, compact fluorescent. In every instance, the idea is the same; to try to replicate sunlight for your indoor plants. Plants need sunlight for photosynthesis which turns it into energy for vegetative growth and flowering.
As you know, sunlight is white light, which is to say that it contains light wavelengths from the entire visible light spectrum (red, orange, yellow, green, blue, violet) along with invisible forms of light radiation such as UV, gamma, and infrared. Traditional grow lights attempt to imitate this light and do so to limited success - limited only because these lights are inherently inefficient. While individual types of plants all have different lighting requirements (orchids have different light needs than cannabis), most plants flourish with only a limited range of light - reds and blues. This is because various processes and chemicals involved in photosynthesis respond most readily (and sometimes exclusively) to these bands of light. Unfortunately, only about 15 percent of light emitted by HID/CFL bulbs is available in the bands of light needed for photosynthesis. In contrast, 90-99 percent of the light emitted by LED grow lights is immediately usable in plants for photosynthesis.
Because of this fact, it is necessary that traditional growing methods, light cycles, heating & cooling, nutrient and water requirements all need to be altered. I am not talking about massive, drastic changes but just subtle tweaks to nutrient levels, altering lighting cycles by a couple hours, adjusting the growing environment, positioning the lights at appropriate levels above the canopy, etc.
We may also need to change the duration of growing cycles - vegetative and flowering. Seeds packets usually contain growing instructions either for outdoor or indoor growing. This is very common with cannabis seeds because the various strains all have very particular requirements to get the most yield from your plants. Currently, all instructions given assume you are using HID lighting which we now know is an entirely different critter when compared to growing with LEDs. When we understand that LED grow lights offer 6-8 times more light in the correct wavelengths for growth, it becomes clear that we must change our tactics in order to be successful. It is not necessarily more complex or technical to grow with LED lights, it is just different than using HID or CFL bulbs.
Although it is a work in progress, check out my Cannabis Grower's Guide To LED Grow Lights for more in depth information.
Wavelengths And Spectrum - Is More, Better?
LED grow lights started with very simple designs, covering only one red band and one blue band (wavelengths) of light. While it is a fact that red light is beneficial for flowering and blue light is necessary for vegetative growth, early examples were underpowered and did not emit enough light in the correct spectra to get the most from the technology. After a couple of years of research and development, manufacturers found that plants needed light from more than just 2 bands of light. More bands of light were needed to match where photosynthesis in plants peaks in efficiency.
Over the last couple of years, we have seen LED grow lights mature from just red and blue to tri-band, quad-band, all the way up to 6 and even 11-band grow lights. Some companies are even offering full-spectrum and white light LED grow lights. From my experience and from research I have read, all that is needed for plants are 2 red light bands, 2 blue bands, and infrared to push flowering and resin production.
To put it simply - full-spectrum (white) LED grow lights could be a step backward towards HID grow lighting. Any LED grow light relying heavily on white light or full-spectrum diodes are inefficient because they eliminate the idea of peak targeting, and moves the technology backwards. Remember that HID lights are at best 15% efficient because most of the light emitted is not in a usable band or is lost to heat - this is the same type of light emitted by white and full-spectrum LEDs. I think a limited amount of white light has its place in an LED array, however, it has to be in the right ratio to benefit your plant instead of just wasting energy.
Why would LED companies try to mimic this type of grow light if it is less efficient? The answer is simple - most of them are just too lazy to do the research. They are trying to make up for it by throwing crap against a wall to see how much will stick. In addition, we live in a society that more is better so it is incredibly easy to market and hype up claims of a "New MEGA-Band Grow Light" and people will eat it up under the assumption that more is better. Instead of just falling for it, ask for proof of their claims or at least be sure they offer a return guarantee.
Micro-Grows And Commercial Cannabis Grows
Are LED Grow Lights Ready For Primetime?
So far, the general discourse on a majority of forums is that LED grow lights can work well for micro-grows such as Sea Of Green (SOG) and Screen Of Green (SCROG) methods were the focus is on a short vegetative growth followed by an extended flowering stage. The end result is a short plant with a single, large cola and few leaves or branches. I have had reports of this method capable of producing in excess of 2 grams per watt using this LED grow light which is phenomenal growth for indoor plants. The forums maintain, however, that LED grow lights are not ready for commercial growth - that they are not capable of growing large, bushy trees for the medical marijuana industry because they lack the penetrating power of HID lighting.
It is my prediction that the belief that LED grow lights cannot grow on a commercial level will be disproved in a big way. Just check out the results of a commercial hydroponic tomato growing operation in New Hampshire using LED grow lights. The article points out that Hobbit Hill Farm has been able to save 50% on electricity by using LED grow lights for their commercial tomato grow. At over $1000 per month on electricity using HID lights, the switch to LED enables the farm to save over $500 per month. Hobbit Hill Farm was also able to get a grant from the USDA and the local electric company, NHEC, which covered 53 percent of the almost $24,000 upgrade cost. This means that the farm will be able to break even on the upgrade cost in just 2 seasons, based only on electricity savings and not taking into account increased production from using LEDs (thus increased income). With money savings and results like this, it is hard to imagine why growers would continue to use inefficient HID technology.
Wattage And Effective Grow Area
In the coming years, I think that LED grow light manufacturers will stray away from the often seen claims that a 90W LED is comparable to a 400W HPS, a 350W LED can produce similar to a 1000W HID, and similar claims. Likewise, manufacturers need to revise their stated grow space coverage area and further explain what exactly can be grown by a 90W LED in a 4x4 growing space: what breed of plant, strain of cannabis, quantity of plants, overall height of plants, vegetative or flowering stages, and other details that are of utmost importance to indoor growers. We as potential clients need to be able to compare apples to apples.
To put things into perspective, I recommend a grow space of no more than 2' x 2' for a 90W LED grow light for vegetative or flowering stages for cannabis. In terms of space coverage, I would equate this to a 250W HID light which represents a 60% savings in power consumption. Now if you were growing lettuce, I would increase the light coverage to 4' x 4' for the same 90W light as the requirements of lettuce is much lower than that of cannabis. In addition, there is no flowering requirement in lettuce . . . only vegetative growth. This is why it is important for manufacturers to fully disclose what the technical specifications of their lights actually mean. Likewise, it is equally important for potential buyers to do their homework to fully understand what and why they are buying a particular light.
Some Closing Thoughts
Please don't hesitate to ask questions to whatever LED grow light supplier you are interested in, leave comment below or contact me for help if you like. If they don't take the time to answer your concerns fully, then move on. Some out there are just trying to make a quick buck and love it when people are too lazy to ask for clarification.
While I am sure there will be several new fly-by-night LED grow light companies that come out in 2013, I feel the number of true industry leaders will consolidate by the end of the year. What I am saying is that by year's end, there will be fewer (yet stronger) legit LED grow light providers than there are now. This is why it is incredibly important to be vigilant in your choice to be sure you get what you pay for.