When it comes to lighting your reef, there are plenty of options on the market right now that will, if applied correctly, grow thriving colonies of even the most light-hungry coral species. Given this, the last few years have seen the focus of reef lighting technology shift away from a straight ‘life support’ role, with more aesthetic considerations and attributes (control, spectral range/blending, light spread, energy efficiency and fixture design), being given an increasing importance. Although LED technology has become the norm, the use of T5 tubes has not diminished to the same extent as metal halides, as one may have expected. Rather T5s have continued to be used to grow corals while side-stepping some of the problems encountered by LED users. Enter the Philips Coralcare which is an interesting option that straddles the boundary between LEDs and T5s and offers something that no other fixture has… so far.
Our coralcares arrived each in an individual, large cardboard box which contained sturdy internal supports to protect the fixtures during shipping. Also in the box, we received hanging kits, instructions and a power adapter to convert the fitted Euro 2 pin plug into a UK 3 pin (although take note that Philips have confirmed that you won’t invalidate the 2yr warranty by snipping the 2 pin off and attaching a 3 pin UK plug). Removing these fixtures from the box, the first impression is the ‘tank-like’ build and considerable 10kg weight per unit and yes, these units are a completely different proposition to something like a Radion or Hydra. The design is, let’s say ‘industrial’, and isn’t anywhere near as low profile as market-leading LED fixtures, however there’s a part of me that likes the ‘utilitarian’ look. There’s no doubt that this is the Coralcare’s ‘Achilles Heel’ though and if you can’t embrace it or work around it (as I will be), then the fixture maybe isn’t for you. Before you discount it completely based on design aesthetics though, as something a silver lining, the design does remove the need for both active cooling fans and bulky, hot power bricks so you won’t have the potential for fan or power supply failures there, and there’s no fan noise to contend with (although the units do ‘tick’ occasionally as they warm up or cool down). You certainly will need a sturdy mounting point though. The 2 hanging wires per fixture provided seem up to the job of holding these in place but this won’t help if you have a paper-thin ceiling or stud wall. Instructions are simple and clear and you’ll probably only need to look at them once or twice. Each coralcare measures 45x35x13cm.
Moving onto the primary function of the light, this unit features a matrix of 104 high quality Philips Lumiled LEDs in a 13 x 8 array which is spread out over nearly the full footprint of the unit. Specific bulb colours are: 40 x Luxeon TX 6500K/70, 32 x Luxeon T Royal Blue, 16 x Luxeon UV 420nm, 8 x Luxeon Rebel Cyan, 8 x Luxeon Rebel Phosphor Converted Amber. This mix produces a suitable spectral profile and wide light spread without the typical central hotspot seen with some other LED units. It’s a subjective observation of course but, having had both kinds of light over my tanks over the years, I’d say that the illumination provided does visually occupy something of a mid-ground between LEDs and T5s, and it looks pleasing (to my eye at least). As said, the light is far more evenly distributed than many LED units, but there is still a small amount of shimmer, particularly if you have strong surface agitation (something usually missing with T5s). Using a Seneye Reef as a PAR meter confirms this observation and, in line with observation made by other reviewers, the distribution of light is remarkably even across a 30” footprint. This is no doubt in large part attributable to perhaps the most interesting and unique part of this fixture, the frosted glass diffusion plate that both protects the unit from splashes and produces the blended, homogenous light mix. As well as levelling the intensity of this spread by limiting the harsher glitter lines, the diffuser also produces much more consistent spectral blending across the footprint which only increases with depth. In terms of intensity, again using the Seneye to measure, the unit produced PAR readings of mid 400s centrally 6” under the water surface, around 300 at 12” and just over 200 at 18”. Overall it is very powerful and broadly comparable to a T5 unit of 8x 24watt tubes plus reflectors. So why not just buy one of those instead? Well, the Coralcare certainly is more expensive but consider that you won’t have to buy the T5 tubes or have any of the associated drop in tube efficiency, regular sourcing or replacement. The power consumption is actually very similar at 190watts max but the Coralcare certainly doesn’t seem to run as hot as a bank of T5s. The fixture itself barely even gets warm and more than a few inches under the plate hardly any radiated heat can be felt. I would be surprised if these lights had any significant effect on water heating.
In terms of controllability, the Coralcare controller is an optional extra which can run up to 4 lights. This small and rather unremarkable black box requires a small amount of wiring to attach and then needs to be connected to a Windows laptop or computer to set the programme (IOS not supported?), before being attached permanently via USB plug adapter (provided) to a power socket. If you don’t have a laptop consider that you may need a USB extender cable if your computer isn’t near the controller. The Graphic Interface itself is pretty basic compared to offerings from other companies and there’s no control over individual LED channels, instead just a warm or cool sliding scale that can be assigned to up to 20 different points during the timeline. The ramping is smooth between these points. Although basic, this does prevent an inappropriate spectrum being chosen and there’s no uncertainty over what percentage you should have red, green or UV LEDs set to (as with other units). In practice, this makes it very easy to set-up in a typical blue dawn, white daylight, blue dusk scheme which is probably what 99% of us are really looking for. There are a couple of useful functions too: Demo mode quickly previews the entire light programme so you can see what you’ve set, and task light enables for a set intensity to be selected by the press of a button (useful for perhaps dimming the light for an hour or so when adding new livestock). Take note that there no apps or remote control here, but the unit can be plugged into an Apex or Profilux and technically a smart plug could be used to turn the unit off remotely. My only bugbear is having to connect the controller to a computer every time you want to change the schedule (for example when acclimating new corals), but attaching the USB cable isn’t too tricky, for me anyway.
To conclude this initial review, the Coralcare certainly is a unique light and it has to be said that it has its strengths and weaknesses. If it was all about producing light to grow corals, then this fixture would get a solid 10/10 but given advances in recent years, a fixture can’t be judged solely on this anymore. The Coralcare does let itself down on weight and bulky appearance, and limited controllability will be seen as a weakness by some. Personally, I feel the options it lacks here are somewhat gimmicky anyway so this wasn’t an issue for me. In other areas, the fixture not only matches the current crop of LEDs and T5s but also offers slight advantages. It’s a tough choice at the end of the day but if you can hang them safely and either hide them, or learn to love them, Coralcares appear more than capable of repaying the favour by bathing your reef in an attractive, uniform blanket of light that will not only maximise coral growth but will also do so simply, reliably, quietly and without intervention for years.