Bright Beginnings: A Simple and Effective DIY Grow Light Setup

Lighting is an integral part of any hydroponic system, but unfortunately it can be one of the most confusing for people just starting out. When planning your hydroponic garden one of the decisions you need to make is if you are going to use natural or artificial lighting. There are pros and cons to each that I will discuss below. The great thing about a hydroponic garden is the flexibility it provides. You can always start with natural light and then down the road, you can easily transition to artificial lighting if you find that it would suit your needs better. Don’t feel like you are locked into your decision and if you are just starting out and don’t want to spend the money on artificial lights using natural lighting is a great option! 

Natural Vs. Artificial

When I refer to natural lighting I am simply referring to light that comes from the sun. If you choose to go with natural lighting for your hydroponic garden you will need to put it in a location that receives as much daylight as possible. If this is inside your house a south facing window would be ideal. The main benefit of going with natural lighting over artificial lighting is the cost. Natural light is free! There is no upfront cost to purchase lights and no ongoing electricity cost of running them. If you are just getting started with hydroponics and want to keep your overall system cost low, natural lighting would be my recommendation. You can always add artificial lighting later if the limitations of natural light become too cumbersome.

On the other hand artificial lighting has a higher cost, but allows much more flexibility in your hydroponic setup. Artificial lighting allows you to put your hydroponic garden basically anywhere. I personally have mine setup in my garage and this allows me to grow throughout winter as the temps in the garage never get close to freezing. It also allows for your plants to have light for longer periods of time compared to natural light. This is especially true in the winter when the days are very short. This allows for a much faster growth rate of your plants.

Are purpose built grow lights necessary? 

If you choose to go with artificial lighting, the choices available might seem overwhelming. You can scroll through Amazon and other online retailers and see thousands of listings for different types of purpose built grow lights. These range in price from hundreds to thousands of dollars, and they all seem to make wild claims about how that specific light will increase your yield by xx percent. The truth is that for the most commonly grown hydroponic plants (lettuce, herbs and other vegetative plants) purpose built grow lights are not necessary! I have been using three of the 4ft LED shop lights from Harbor Freight for my hydroponic lighting and they have worked great. When I purchased these from Harbor Freight they were $20 apiece. I mainly grow lettuce in my 5 gallon aeroponic buckets and I have found that 3 of the 4 ft shop lights are sufficient for growing 2 to 3 of the 5 gallon aeroponic buckets of lettuce at the same time. However, even though purpose built grow lights are not necessary to grow plants hydroponically they can offer many benefits over shop lights, and as you gain more experience with hydroponics they may be worth looking into.

Purpose built grow lights are especially beneficial if you want to grow flowering plants such as tomatoes and other vegetables. This is because flowering plants are more sensitive to the type of light that they are being exposed to, and to successfully flower and produce fruit you have to expose them to the correct wavelengths of light. These specific wavelengths are not always emitted from normal LED lights or are emitted in very low quantities. These plants can benefit greatly from these purpose built grow lights. Overall, flowering plants can be very successful in a hydroponics system, but they are more difficult to cultivate compared to strictly vegetative plants such as lettuce. I would recommend someone just getting into hydroponics to start with vegetative plants first. If you are interested in more detailed information on grow lights please check out this post. In the section below I am going to show you how to build a simple grow light setup that works great for hydroponic gardens.

Simple grow light setup.

I have found that the following grow light setup is one of the simplest yet most flexible setups available. To build this you will need the following:

Wire Shelving Rack

Wire Shelving Rack: Home Depot

-These metal shelves are great because they allow you to easily adjust the height of the shelves to allow for different arrangements and it is incredibly easy to hang the lights from the shelves using the adjustable hangers shown below. You do not have to purchase the exact shelf in the link above. The reason I purchased one this tall was that it allows me to place my aeroponic buckets of lettuce on the bottom and place my seed starting trays on the top shelves. Home Depot or Lowes have many different sizes of these shelves available, so you can pick one that fits your space and budget. 

Light Timer

Light Timer: Home Depot

-For grow lights you are probably going to want to invest in some kind of timer. Any timer found at a hardware store will probably work just fine for your lights. You probably have one laying around your house for Christmas lights or lamps. Some of the simpler mechanical based ones can be frustrating to set, but they work just fine. The one linked above is what I use and it is easy to set up and works great.

Power Strip

-Any power strip will work. This is just to provide outlets for all of your lights and have them all be controlled by the timer.

4ft LED Shop Lights

Single 4ft LED Shop Light: Harbor Freight

-These LED shop lights from Harbor Freight have worked great for me for both starting seeds and growing vegetative plants such as lettuce hydroponically. The wire shelf linked above has a shelf depth of 18” and I have found that you need around 200 watts (on 120v mains) worth of these LED shop lights for good growing conditions. The larger light pictured on the left draws about 106 watts while the smaller light pictured on the right draws around 53 watts. For each shelf that you want to grow on you will need either x2 of the larger lights or x4 of the smaller lights or a combination of the two. Just aim to provide 200 watts of LED lights per shelf that you intend to grow on. If you are wanting to grow flowering plants such as tomatoes and peppers it might be better for you to invest in a purpose built grow light, but this does depend on the plant and its specific light requirements. For more in depth information on grow lights you can check out this post that goes on a deep dive into the science behind grow lights and what specific plants need to thrive.

Adjustable Hangers

Adjustable Hangers: Amazon

-Although not strictly necessary these will make your life so much easier. They make it extremely quick and easy to adjust the heights of your lights. This allows you to move your lights as your plants grow to maintain the optimal distance. 

There are many different ways to set this up, but to give you a general idea of heights you can reference the below picture. As a general rule I would give at least 16” of height for any seed starting shelves and 36” of height for any shelf that you want to put a 5 gallon aeroponic bucket of lettuce under. In the setup below my first shelf is roughly 40” off the ground and I have a storage shelf in the middle and then 19” of height for my seed starting shelf. This setup allows for roughly three buckets of aeroponic lettuce and leaves plenty of room on the top shelves for starting seeds. For more information on seed starting check this post. 

After assembling the shelf and hanging your lights the only thing left is to plug all of your lights into the power strip, then plug the power strip into the timer and finally, plug the timer into a wall outlet. Follow the instructions for the timer to set it to turn on/off based on the light requirements of the plants that you are growing. Now just sit back and watch your plants grow! 

Final Setup

Reflective material & grow tents

To further increase this setup’s effectiveness and efficiency, you can surround the shelving with a reflective material. This can be accomplished in a few different ways: buying cheap emergency blankets from Amazon and wrapping them around the entire setup. This is probably the cheapest way to accomplish this, but these blankets can make it hard to access your plants and are not very durable. You can also order rolls of mylar on Amazon which is the same material as the emergency blankets if you have a larger setup you need to cover.

The next approach you could take is by using some kind of reflective paneling. This is going to be more expensive than simply using the emergency blankets, but will be much more durable. With this approach, it is also much easier to construct a door or panel to give you easy access to your plants. Good reflective paneling can sometimes be found at home depot, but I have had trouble finding it in the past. What I have done before is glue the emergency blankets to either pieces of cardboard or to foam board insulation panels such as this: Reflective Foam Board Insulation: Home Depot

Another option is to purchase a grow tent with a reflective interior lining and then place the shelving unit with the lights inside the grow tent. This will be the most expensive, which is why if you are just starting I recommend you try the mylar paneling instead. Depending on the grow tent you purchase it may come with an internal frame from which you can hang the LED lights. If that is the case you do not need to purchase the shelving unit which would save some money. Overall I recommend starting with the basic setup and only adding reflective material if you are not getting the results you want. I do not personally put any reflective material around my hydroponic setup, simply because I have not found it necessary. I can grow everything I want without it and it is just not worth the extra bulk and expense for me to implement it.

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