LED light emitting diode lighting for reptiles, amphibians, fish, turtles, snakes, lizards, invertebrates, terrariums, aquariums, vivariums, tanks setups enclosures

Creating a DIY LED lighting system

This is something I've been playing around with lately, and thought I'd put together an in-depth guide to help others make sense of available LED lighting, wiring and fitting.

***First things first, I'm not an electrician, and only just about qualified to re-wire a plug. Whilst this should give you some hope if you've never attempted anything like this before, please seek the advice of a qualified electrician if attempting this yourself, or leaving this electrical system running unsupervised.***

What is LED lighting, and what are the benefits?

LED (Light Emitting Diode) technology is something that is becoming more and more popular in aquarium and exotic pet enclosure design. They have a number of advantages, although they can only realistically be used for viewing light (not basking or UVB lighting):

  • Low power consumption, making them cheap to run
  • Low heat, so unlikely to affect ambient enclosure temperatures
  • Can be found in waterproof, flexible strips
  • Available in many different colours, for different effects
  • Easy to resize and install
  • Thin profile makes them easy to fit flush to walls and cielings of enclosures
  • In this project, I am using LED lighting to light up small micro-enclosures along the front of my Honduran Wood Turtle vivarium. The idea behind these micro-enclosures is to make us of some small recesses in the front of the vivarium, making them into tiny niché habitats for forest-floor invertebrates, such as tropical woodlice, or maybe even small lizards such as Mourning Geckos (Lepidodactylus lugubris). Any lighting is purely for display, and due to the damp habitat and small size, needs to be waterproof and low-heat.

    LED strips are available in various forms, but I highly recommend the waterproof strips imported from China, for their low cost, and to prevent any accidental electrocution of your animals on exposed wiring. They are usually available in strips 24-48cm in length, and can be found commonly on eBay. For this project, I chose white 48cm strips, which I was able to cut to size to 42-45cm.

    led, light emitting diode, lighting aquarium vivarium, cut down, resized, trimmed, snipped

    Fitting the LED strips

    The bulbs in each strip are encased in silicone to make them waterproof, and although a strip may have 48 bulbs or more in it, the bulbs are wired together in groups of 3. If you want to shorten your LED strip to smaller length (as I did, from 48cm to 42cm) then you must cut out 3 bulbs at a time, starting at the end furthest from the wire lead. This is done very simply using a sharp knife or strong scissors (watch those fingers!), to cut through the copper strip which the bulbs are soldered to. I place a dab of glue from a hot glue gun over the cut end afterwards to ensure no copper is exposed through the silicone.

    Once the LEDs are cut to size, they need to be fitted into position. To make this animal safe, it is best to use an aquarium-safe silicone. In my design (non-aquatic), I actually used household extra-strength glue (similar to superglue), but sealed the LED strip afterwards with an animal-safe Yacht varnish (Polyurethane based), as I was applying the varnish to the rest of the micro-enclosures anyway, and it made sense to seal both in at the same time.

    Wiring and connecting the strips

    With the LED strips firmly in place, I began to wire the lights up. LEDs use a lower level of power than is provided by the household mains, so you will need a transformer, to convert your household electric supply to 12V (2A) DC (these are standard LED ratings, double-check this with the specifications of the LEDs you buy, incase they are different). I highly recommend buying the transformer from the suppliers of the LED strips to make sure you get the right thing. Transformers are relatively common, and you may find one spare around the house from an old electrical appliance, such as a mobile phone charger, digibox or otherwise, but you must make sure it has exactly the correct current/voltage, or it may damage the bulbs, or worse, pose a fire hazard.

    To connect the LED wiring to the transformer, I used thin wiring sold for speaker cables, although ask someone with electrical knowledge to help you choose the right type for your project. Essentially, I stripped the end of the wire from the transformer to reveal the live and neutral wires, and spliced these together with the live and neutral wires from a length of speaker-cable using a connector strip (rated for 3 Amps). It is good practice to wrap these connector strips and any bare wire with insulation tape to prevent accidental shocking or short-circuiting. I connected my LED strips in a parallel circuit to the transformer.

    And the final result:

    led, light emitting diode, lighting aquarium vivarium, system, wired up, waterproofed

    If you have any further questions LEDs, lighting or anything else on the site, please email me at info@insectivore.co.uk

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