The Science of LED Grow Lights for Your Indoor Garden

Introduction:

Indoor Gardening isn’t exactly a new thing, but LED’s are changing the way we light our indoor gardens.  LED lights are more efficient than traditional fluorescent and incandescent lights.  That’s because LED lights convert nearly all of their energy (95%) into light, while other lights turn a significant amount of energy into heat.  But, there’s another very important reason that LED’s are more efficient when it comes to growing plants.  With LED lights, we have the rather unique ability to customize the type of light that is emitted, and that means we’re not wasting energy to create light that doesn’t help our plants grow.  At the end of this article, you’ll understand the science behind why grow lights come in many different colors, as well as why some LED grow lights cost so much more than others. 

Plants Only Use the Visible Light Spectrum for Photosynthesis

It’s important to know that plants only use visible light (the colors of light that we see every day) for photosynthesis. However, as the chart below demonstrates, the complete spectrum of light is far greater than just the visible light spectrum.  On the outer edge of the visible light spectrum is Ultraviolet (UV) light and Infrared Radiation (IR).  UV light is the invisible light emitted by the sun and other sources that will cause sunburns when we don’t wear sunblock.  IR light can only be seen with special equipment, like night-vision goggles.  Even further out from the visible light spectrum are light waves that we don’t traditionally think of as light.  These include X rays, Microwaves and even Radio Waves.

Light Spectrum

One of the most important things to understand is that scientists have demonstrated over and over again that plants only absorb visible light for photosynthesis.  Plants do react to other forms of light like UV, but that reaction is typically negative.  I’m told that marijuana growers actually use UV light to induce the production of psychoactive chemicals like THC, which seem to be produced in part as a defense mechanism against the damaging effects of UV light to the plant.

What is PAR?

PAR stands for “photosynthetically available radiation.”  PAR is made up only of visible light, because this is the only light that plants use for photosynthesis.

For decades, many indoor growers have used Lumens to measure a grow light’s efficacy, but the industry is getting smarter and turning to PAR.  Lumens are used to measure the brightness of a lamp to the human eye.  But plants and people see light differently.  Humans see yellow and green more brightly than other colors.  Therefore, yellow and green lamps may have higher Lumen values than red and blue lights that put out just as much actual light, and which plants are likely to respond better to.

PAR measures all light from the visible light spectrum equally, and does not measure light outside of the visible light spectrum, which does not help the plant photosynthesis.  So, for plants, the PAR value of a light is currently the best basic measurement of a grow light’s brightness.  Accurate PAR meters are quite expensive and generally cost $500 or more.  Inaccurate PAR meters can be purchased for much less, but there’s really no point to owning an inaccurate PAR meter. 

The best way to get PAR values for your grow lights, assuming you don’t want to purchase your own PAR meter, is to check with your reputable grow light manufacturer or provider for the PAR rating of their lights. 

How Much PAR do My Plants Need to Grow?

The amount of PAR your plants require depends on what you are growing, as well as how far away from your plants the light is.  Generally speaking, leafy greens like lettuce only need a PAR value of ~200, whereas tomatoes and other plants that flower and produce fruit require 400-500 or more PAR.  Unless you place your grow light right on top of your produce, you will need an even higher PAR rating from your grow light, to take into account the distance between your plant and the light source.

In the example below, you can see a very powerful grow light that puts out nearly 1,900 PAR (measured in umol) 8 inches from the source.  Very few lights put out this much PAR, and they are typically quite expensive.  This light will emit 1,900 umol every second.  But at 23 inches from the source, the strength of the light is reduced to 890 umol.  The PAR value is reduced further and further as you get further from the light source.  When we get to 6 feet away from the light source, our PAR value is down to ~100umol, which means we would have trouble growing even lettuce well.  So, always make sure you understand not just the PAR emitted from the light, but that every 8 inches or so away from your light, the PAR value will be reduced by ½ or more.

PAR Rating Reduces Further From Light Source

There are many inexpensive grow lights on the market that make big claims, but they will ultimately leave their owners disappointed.  This issue is especially rampant on the internet.  Remember to check the PAR value of any light you purchase.  Also, remember to take into account how far your light will be from your plant to ensure there is enough photosynthetically available radiation (PAR) for your plant to flourish.

  • Leafy Greens require 200 PAR for proper growth
  • Tomatoes, cucumbers and other flowering/fruiting vegetables require 400-500 PAR
  • Fruiting Trees should be given 600 PAR or more

What is the Temperature of Light I Should Use?

Interestingly, ‘Kelvin temperature’ is the metric used to describe the visual color that a light emits.  As you can see in the chart below, ‘warmer’ light temperatures that have a red color have a lower Kelvin rating.  On the other end of the spectrum are ‘cooler’ temperature lights which have a blue color and higher Kelvin rating.

Kelvin Temperature Scale

Different temperatures of light have different impacts on plants.  Generally, higher temperatures (blue) light encourages photosynthesis which leads to bushy plants that don’t feel inclined to elongate and reach for more light.  This is great if you want to grow in a compact space.  Lower temperature (red) light reduces photosynthesis and signals to plants that that it’s time to flower and produce fruit.  Plants put under a red light will also be more inclined to stretch and grow taller, as opposed to growing bushier and more compact.

IGWorks focusses on providing full spectrum lights with a natural color temperature of between 4500K-6500K as these are most pleasing to the eye.  They also allow plants to grow bushy and compact, without hindering the ability of plants to flower and fruit. 

What Color of Light Should I Use?

LED lights can come in almost any color.  Plants respond most to red and blue light.  Interestingly, plants generally respond less well to green light.  In fact, the reason that plants appear to be green is that they tend to reflect green light, while they absorb other parts of the light spectrum more readily.  This is why a large scale or industrial grower of plants will often use a combination of red and blue lights to photosynthesize their plants.  They don’t want to waste electricity producing green and even yellow light, which plants use less effectively. 

Red/Blue Grow Light

However, for those of us growing produce in our living spaces, it’s probably worth the extra pennies it costs to produce a nice full-spectrum color that will be more natural and pleasing to the eyes.  Full-spectrum grow lights will often come with a chart, which shows the distribution of blue, green, yellow and red light that is emitted.  See the example below.

Full-Spectrum Grow Light Chart

Conclusion:

We hope this article has provided you with a thorough background on indoor grow lights, and what to look for when you decide to purchase them.  Remember to make sure that your grow light has the appropriate PAR rating for the particular plant you’re growing.  Additionally, if you’re growing in a part of the home used for leisure and recreation, make sure you get a grow light with a color you’re going to enjoy, which is generally between 4500 – 6500 Kelvin.

For more helpful tips on indoor gardening, look no further…


Share this post


Leave a comment

1 comment

  • I love this post! I have an engineering background and I love seeing science mixing with indoor growing. This was an excellent read and I know I will return for articles of similar content!

    • Sara Frost