A review of the AI Sol LED White lighting solution, the AI Controller, and the stock hanging kit.
When setting up a new reef tank, I sought an LED lighting solution that would meet a few criteria:
1. Provide enough intensity to light a coral reef tank that could house just about any coral able to be kept in captivity
2. Have a look that would be suitable for the fixture to be exposed since it would hang in our family room
3. Be highly adjustable and configurable, and have a driver that would allow for incremental changes in the intensity settings.
What I landed on were the Aqua Illuminations SOL modular LED units.
Each pod contains Cree XP-G 5 Watt LEDs. Each pod contains 16 white (6500K) and 8 blue (470nm) LEDs, with a mixture of 40 and 70 degree optics.
At full intensity, each pod pulls approximately 75 Watts.
Each pod contains a power port and 2 RS-232 data ports
Each pod measures approximately 12X5X2 inches, and weighs approximately 4 pounds
Each pod contains a cooling fan with integrated circuitry to control when and how long it runs
The installation is a breeze if you use the AI stock hanging kit. The kit uses metal aircraft cable as hangers, and installs in about 10-15 minutes with a tape measure, t-square, and drill. All the required hardware is included to make an attractive installation of the product. The cable can be cut to length, or as I have done, coiled up and stored on top of the fixture so that adjustments to height can be made at any time. The installation seems very solid, and I like the fact that the majority of the kit is made of metal. Once assembled, it feels solid enough for peace of mind. The pods slide onto the rails of the hanging kit, and can be moved horizontally to provide optimal placement over the tank.
General recommendations for these pods seem to be that you need 1 pod for each 24″ of tank. That seems about right to me, as my tank is 36″ wide, and 1 pod would probably be stretching it for providing adequate coverage from end to end.
SETTING UP THE FIXTURE, & THE AI CONTROLLER:
I elected to use the AI controller with this setup. The controller as pictured above, is compact, but the LCD screen is easy to read. Setup can be a bit difficult, as the firmware is not the most user friendly system, but it does not take too long to learn.
Hardware connection is a breeze. Each pod requires a DC power connection, and the pods can be wired in series with the controller using the data ports on the rear of each pod.
The AI controller allows the user to set up to 14 independent timers, and the white and blue LEDs can each be controlled and set independently with each of the timers. Each timer can also be set to have up to a 3 hour ramp period, which allows for very gradual increase and decrease of intensity, effectively simulating the natural photoperiod found in nature.
The controller can be used in automatic mode with the timers the user sets up, or be switched to manual mode, which allows real time setting up intensity of all arrays of LEDs.
The controller also has a great moonlight feature with follows the real world lunar cycles based on the date and time set in the controller. It has been very accurate for me so far, and works well with a blue intensity setting of 4%.
There is also a what I would consider gimmicky thunderstorm setting within the controller. It allows you to set the probability of a thunderstorm occurring, or it allows you to start a thunderstorm on command. While the effect is interesting, it is not something I would set to occur on its own. It essentially picks a random duration for the storm, gradually dims the fixture to simulate cloud cover rolling in, and sets off a series of flashes to simulate lighting. The intensity and duration are randomized from 5 to 30 minutes.
One nice function of the controller is the fact that AI offers firmware upgrades from time to time which improve upon the functionality of the controller firmware.
The controller unit itself is made of plastic, feels a bit flimsy. The operation of the single knob can be a bit frustrating from time to time, as you have to turn it several notches at times to get the setting to switch. A user can switch the sensitivity of the knob in the menu settings, but I found that setting each click to a change can also be frustrating, as the knob offers little resistance so it can be hard to land on the setting you are looking for. Again with time you get used to its operation, but I found it to be a bit disappointing during my initial impressions.
Another nice feature is built in battery back up. The controller will store timer settings for several days before the memory is cleared if power is lost. This is convenient as it does take some time and planning to setup your desired photoperiod and it would be frustrating if the memory cleared during a power hiccup or the like.
It is also worth mentioning that the AI Sols can also be used and controlled with other systems, including Digital Aquatics, Neptune, and GHL controllers.
First off a word of caution if you put this fixture on your tank: You will most likely need a much lower intensity setting than you might think. The combination of 5W Cree LEDs and the installed optics mean this fixture packs a major punch. I rented a PAR meter from a LFS this morning, and at 100% intensity I was getting 400+ ?Mol at the sandbed in a 21″ deep tank. What I should have done was rent a PAR meter the first day I installed the fixture, and I suggest you try to do this if you plan on buying this fixture. If you cannot find a LFS to rent you one, you can rent them online. Because of the optics, corals receive far more PAR than you might think. I nuked the tank the first week I ran the lights with coral at about a 60% white/70% blue intensity setting. It was enough to kill a hammer on the sandbed, and cripple a frogspawn for several weeks. Since then, I have been running at 20% White 30% blue at peak intensity (PAR readings ranged from 160-210 ?Mol at the sandbed) and all coral, including softies, zoas, LPS, and SPS are showing signs of good health. I will eventually bump up the intensities slowly over several weeks/months, but I cannot imagine ever having to run this unit over a 21″ deep tank at more than 50% intensity.
I have the fixture mounted at 14″ above the surface of the water. This leaves lots of room for tank maintenance, and also effectively spreads the light from side to side on my 36″ tank (as you can tell from the pics, I am running 2 pods). At this height, I get great coverage, and no honeycomb effect whatsoever, which is often a worry when using optics on LEDs. I do not notice any spot lighting at all. The mix of 40 and 70 degree optics provide a very even spread. The shimmer is also amazing when compared to T5HO or other florescent lighting solutions. Even with moonlighting on, a shimmer effect is very evident. I am running the white version of the AI sols, and am very happy with the color temperatures I can achieve. The ability to independently control the intensities of each color provide for a lot of choices when it comes to how the tank looks. If you like a bluer looking tank, you can also look at the AI SOL Blue, which contain both Blue Cree and Royal Blue Cree LEDs, in addition to the 6500K white LEDs.
This fixture has definitely met with my expectations. While there are certainly cheaper LED solutions out there, I think the AI Sol is a good buy that fits the bill for a very customizable and programmable fixture that is commercially available and ready to use. There are more expensive fixtures that have more functionality, but a lot of it is gimmicky and just not needed. You could get the same functionality out of a DIY build, but it requires some skill and some time investment. It has met all the initial criteria I had when I started looking for a fixture, and I would recommend it to anyone looking for a commercially available plug and play LED lighting system. Just make sure you acclimate appropriately so you can avoid cooking your LPS as I did!
Filed under Articles, General Articles, Saltwater
Tagged Aqua Illumination SOL, LED, lighting, saltwater aquarium, controller, cree.