Nanobox Hybrid Review and PAR Analysis

Introduction

As mentioned in my previous post outlining my new reef tank build, the light was one of the things I stressed out over the most.  At the most basic level I knew I wanted to keep SPS primarily, and that I also wanted a hybrid LED/T-5 fixture.  I also knew I would be using a canopy above the tank so whatever light I chose would need to fit inside the canopy, which forced me to exclude most 36″ length fixtures as I did not want to have to squeeze something under the canopy and have it barely fit.  Coming back into the hobby after over 5 years of not keeping up with the latest technologies forced me to do a lot of research about LED technology because when I was last involved in the hobby LED fixtures were not commonly being used.  After a lot of internal debate I settled on the Nano Box Reef Hybrid.  If I removed the desire for T-5’s the landscape of what I had to choose from would have been much different, for better or worse I am still not sure.  My main reason for adding the T-5’s was due to reading a lot of people having trouble with LED going back to T-5 and/or MH lighting as well as wanting the T-5 supplement to fill in some of the shadows that LED point light sources are known to create.  Mostly I wanted to have a safety net and a best of both worlds setup.

Light Overview

The Nano Box Hybrid fixture is a relatively new offering in the Nano Box lineup and one of his first fixtures that really starts to move away from being designed around pico/nano reef aquariums and more toward mid-sized aquariums.  It can be configured with either 2 or 4 24-watt T-5 bulbs and 2 or 4 Nano Box v3 LED cluster arrays with 2-4 channels of dimming plus an optional dedicated moonlight LED/channel.  All units come by default with a hanging kit and the Bluefish Mini wireless LED controller.  You can also custom order from a huge variety of colors at no extra charge.  Each light is 100% hand-made and designed in North Carolina, USA and the LED clusters themselves are also a custom design using only the top quality bins of LED’s.

The configuration of my specific unit is as follows:

  • 4x T-5 Bulbs
  • 4x Nano Box v3 LED Clusters
  • 3 Channel Dimming (mixed blues, mixed neutrals, dedicated moonlight)
  • Bluefish Mini Wireless Module
  • Custom gun-metal / Black color configuration

I was unaware of the 4 channel + moonlight option when I ordered mine so I got the default 2-channel and added the moonlight option.

The price as configured for my unit (4×4, 2-channel dimming + dedicated moonlight) was $1285 + shipping.  The lead time for the build was about 6 weeks.

First Impressions

As previously mentioned I have been out of the hobby for a while and I have never owned an LED light, so keep that in mind during the course of this review as I have no basis to compare this fixture to others.  With that said, there is a lot of great stuff going on with this unit.  First of all, the build quality is top-notch.  You can clearly tell it is 100% hand-made but not in a bad way.  There is an extraordinary attention to detail and the quality is very impressive.  The output of the light when you first turn it on is literally blinding and the appearance of the output spectrum under a balanced setting of dimming is quite pleasing to the eye.  Some of the downsides I noticed right away are few, but important.  On the T-5 side, the ballasts are not ideal, they are instant-on workhorse ballasts as opposed to a programmed start ballast which will negatively impact bulb-life.  Also, while there are individual reflectors for the bulbs the reflector is just the rough milled aluminum of the fixture chassis as opposed to the polished shiny bent reflectors most high-end T-5 fixtures use.  On the configuration/power side of things the fixture requires 4 power outlets to run.  One for the T-5 bulbs (all 4 are either on or off, via the plug, no switch), a power plug for the fans that cool the fixture which need to be run on a timer, a plug for the Bluefish controller, and a plug for the LED’s themselves.  The number of plugs and timers needed I was a bit annoyed about but that was my fault due to incorrect assumptions.  The fan plug is especially annoying due to having to run it on a timer and making sure that you have the fan schedule line up with the light schedule manually.

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Nanobox Hybrid 4×4 Top
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Nanobox Hybrid 4×4 Bottom
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The light above my tank

A couple changes I would love to see happen to make this light truly own the top spot for aquarium lights would be:

  • Better T-5 Ballasts
  • True Individual T-5 bulb reflectors
  • Integration of T-5 timer into controller
  • Integration of fan power into controller (automatically on/off based on LED power state)
  • Integration of the Bluefish controller and power into the main power supply box for the unit
  • Option for Apex integration instead of Bluefish

Despite the above, which is arguably a bit nit-picky, the light is quite impressive and I am very happy with it so far.

I am an Apex user so the lack of easy Apex integration is disappointing, however, the Bluefish Mini has all the features you can want from an LED controller including:

  • WiFi Control with iOS and Android Apps
  • Lunar Cycle Simulation
  • Weather Effects including Clouds/Storms/Lightning
  • Simulated Location
  • 6 channels of independent control
  • Sunrise/Sunset sync with location
  • Manual control or natural bell curve output

I highly recommend anyone considering owning, or who already owns a reef aquarium automate as much as possible.  The Apex is hands-down the best unit out there for this purpose.

Detailed Specifications

  • T-5 Ballast: Fulham Workhorse
  • T-5 Reflectors: None dedicated, chassis is a shiny CNC machined aluminum but is not polished
  • LED Driver: Meanwell LDD-H (PWM), 700mA Driver
  • LED Optics: None
  • Dimensions: 24″ x 10″ x 1″
  • Protection: Ultra-clear acrylic panel covering all LED and T-5 Bulbs
  • Cooling: 2x Fans
  • Power: 1x Plug for T-5, 1x AC Adapter for LED, 1x AC Adapter for Fans, 1x USB for Bluefish
  • Apex Integration: None, although using a Steve’s LED 0-10v to PWM controller and the Apex VDM module you could make it work.

Nano Box v3 LED Array Specifications

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Nano Box v3 Array
  • Totals:
    • 13 LED’s
    • Approx. Total Output @ 700mA – 28w

For my unit, which has 4 of these arrays in it, the total power output is across 52 LED’s and about 112w.  You can buy the arrays individually for a DIY setup and run them at 1A instead of 700mA for about 38w of output per array but apparently this configuration is very difficult to keep cool.

My unit, being only 2-channel combines the above channels as follows:

  • My Channel 1 (Blues)
    • Above Channel 2 + 4
  • My Channel 2 (Whites / UV)
    • Above Channel 1 + 3

PAR Output

Now for the most important part of the post!  The PAR readings.  For those who do not know what PAR is, when referenced in the context of reef aquaria means Photosynthetically Active Radiation.  This is basically the measure of a lights output with respect to how much of that light can actually be used in photosynthesis and is the primary measurement aquarium keepers use to gauge light output.

During this analysis I am using the Apex PMK for my PAR readings.

Disclaimer: Despite having a BS in Computer and Electrical engineering, I am not a scientist.  Take these measurements with a grain of salt and while they are probably fairly accurate please do not make any decisions about the light you buy or where you place your corals based on any of the conclusions I have drawn here.

Important Note: Many PAR meters do not measure LED accurately and are generally off by about 10%.  I am not sure where the Apex PMK falls in this area but it is a relatively safe bet that it also reads a bit low.  I have spoken with Dave and he plans to get a LiCor PAR meter and at some point will let me borrow it so that I can perform another analysis.

Testing Setup:

  • Fixture mounted 4.5″ above the water surface inside a wooden canopy
  • Light is centered on both axis (front to back and left to right)
  • 36″ x 20″ x 23″ custom 70g aquarium
  • 2x ATI Coral Plus and 2x ATI Blue Plus T-5 Bulbs, 3 months old
  • 4x Nano Box v3 LED Arrays @ 700mA
  • Freshly cleaned acrylic panel which protects the electronics from salt water
  • Water depth from surface to sand bed 20″
  • Neptune Systems Apex PMK PAR meter calibrated to 0 PAR in complete darkness
  • Circulation Pump Off (Creates massive surface turbulence)
  • Return Pump On (Creates almost no surface turbulence)
  • Water is very clear.  I run GFO/GAC and do carbon dosing.
  • To get a PAR measurement I placed the sensor in a particular location and let the reading stabilize for about 30 seconds, if the sensor would not stay put without being held I held the wire with my hand/arm as far away from the sensor as I could have it as to not interfere with the reading

Testing Locations:

See the below image for the areas of my tank I tested.  I broke the tank up into some separate regions which are color/letter coded.

  • A, light green – Just above water line
  • B, dark green – Just below water surface
  • T, yellow – Top of rockscape
  • M, Blue – Middle level of rockscape
  • L, Pink – Low level of rockscape
  • S, Red – Sand Bed
  • I, Orange – Indirect light only, sides of tank/sides of rocks
tank-summary
PAR Reading Areas

Testing Configurations:

In the below summary “Blue” LED refers to my channel 1 (blue, royal blue) and the “White” LED refers to my channel 2 (lime, white, uv)

  • Full Tank Test (All Locations Tested)
    • T-5 Only
    • 100% Blue / 100% White LED Only
    • T-5 + 100% Blue /100% White
    • T-5 + 100% Blue / 80% White with Gyre Circulation On (real world test of my final config)
  • Single Spot Test (Position S3 Only)
    • T-5 Only
    • 100% Blue / 100% White LED Only
    • 100% Blue LED Only
    • 100% White LED Only
    • 50% Blue / 50% White LED Only
    • T-5 + 100% Blue / 100% White LED
    • T-5 + 100% Blue LED
    • T-5 + 100% White LED
    • T-5 + 50% Blue / 50% White LED

Output Summaries:

The summary of the single spot test (position S3) is detailed in the below table:

par-summary
PAR Summary Position S3

The summary of the detailed readings is in the image below, please click to view in full resolution:

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PAR Output Details

The Average PAR Reading for each tank “region” based on the full output (T-5 + 100% LED):

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PAR Averages (100% Output)

PAR Output Observations

While none of the conclusions I am about to make are scientific, I did make some observations I found quite interesting.

  • 100% output on channel 1 vs 100% output on channel 2 of the LED arrays is exactly the same, every time.
    • I found this really neat especially since the two channels are made up of entirely different types of LED’s but the numbers were absolutely identical every time.
  • LED PAR output drops off as water gets deeper very quickly.
    • The PAR reading from just above the water line vs just below it illustrates this pretty well, the LED only PAR readings at depth also illustrate this.
  • T-5 PAR output was far less than I expected.
    • Given the visual impact on brightness the T-5’s have I expected a lot more par from them.  I am not sure if this is just the nature of T-5, the lack of high end dedicated reflectors, ballasts, bulb configuration or what.
  • T-5 PAR output starts out lower but drops off as the water gets deeper much less sharply.
    • It seems like the water has much less impact on the PAR readings of T-5 than LED.  Full 100% LED output has huge output (more than 5x of T-5) near the surface but at the sand bed the T-5 output is slightly greater than the LED output.
  • Heavy turbulence at the water surface does not impact the PAR reading as much as I expected.
    • On the 100/80 test (real world) my Gyre (XF-150) was running at 55% on a fast pulse, the water surface was extremely turbulent but it did not negatively impact the PAR readings as much as I had expected.

Overall Conclusion

First and foremost, I was quite surprised with the output of the light; it was much less than I thought.  This is most likely due to me simply having very unrealistic expectations surrounding output, especially given that the top of my highest rocks are still over 6″ below the surface.  That is also not to say I don’t think this light is amazing or that I think another fixture would outperform it, but more along the lines of that I thought I was running a risk of providing too much light to my tank when I had it set up on a 60/30 output setup just based on how it looked visually.  I honestly expected the PAR readings at 100% full output and T-5’s on to be in the 700-800 range at the top of my rocks when in reality it was barely 400.  For this reason I highly recommend anyone serious about keeping coral borrow a PAR meter and take some readings.  Another thing I was surprised about was given how close my fixture is to the water, how dramatic the falloff was.  Even reading PAR 100% above the water, 1-2″ of distance from the fixture would result in a 25-30% reduction in PAR.  I had been considering raising the fixture up to about 8″ from the water surface but I think I will leave it where it is.  I see a lot of people with their LED fixtures 12-24″ above the water line and I would be really curious to see just how dramatically this distance from the water reduces the PAR available to the corals under the water.

The final setup I have running is:

  • Light 4.5″ Above Water
  • Photo Period is from 08:00 – 21:00 with the peak matching up with the T-5’s being on.
  • T-5 On from 11:00 – 16:00 (5 hours)
  • Moonlight channel set to 85% brightness @ full moon, following lunar cycle for brightness only
  • Cloud / Location Simulation Enabled
  • Storm / Lightning Simulation Disabled

As for the light itself, I love it and I am very happy with it – if it grows corals as good as I hope it does it will be the last light I ever need for this tank.  As my tank matures and I can see how my coral growth is I will constantly re-asses my lighting but for now I am 100% satisfied.  My plan right now is to keep in touch with Dave of Nano Box and upgrade my light within his product line as he releases new products.  If I ever do need to upgrade my light due to coral growth issues I will probably have him do a custom retrofit job.

Knowing what I know now I might have had Dave retrofit an ATI T-5 fixture with LED’s for me instead of going with the Hybrid.  I would have bought the ATI SunPower 8x39w fixture for <$500 and had Dave remove two of the bulbs and put 6 Nano Box v3 Arrays in their place.  This would have left me with 6x39w T-5 + 6x LED Arrays, ATI quality reflectors and ballasts and probably would have cost about the same amount.  The only reason I may have made this change would have been to get a bit more bang for my buck and allow me a little bit more customization as to exactly how I had everything configured.  Even in hindsight I would still definitely stick with the Nano Box product line and a hybrid T-5/LED setup.

As a final summary:

Pros:

  • Hand Crafted in the USA
  • Supports a fellow reefer, a small business, and one mans dream
  • Build quality is outstanding
  • Light output spectrum looks gorgeous
  • PAR output is respectable and on the same level as the competition
  • Dave is a great guy and great to work with, customer service is excellent
  • Constantly upgrade-able over time, Dave will swap in new versions of his Arrays for the cost of the array with no additional charge for labor
  • Given that it is a small one man business Dave can be extremely agile keeping up with the latest technology in the hobbyist space much more easily than a large company could

Cons:

  • Design is not backed by a big R&D department/budget that other manufacturers might have at their disposal, but this might actually be a good thing
  • Design feels like it isn’t fully refined, this is especially evident on how everything is controller/powered – See my update below
  • No Apex integration but the Bluefish app. has all the features you need but leaves a lot to be desired in terms of polish and updates
  • Somewhat expensive, relatively speaking but taking into consideration it is not a mass-produced unit and is completely hand-made the price is quite reasonable

Update 1:

I showed this review to Dave Fason of Nano Box and he offered the following feedback:

  • The new design of his power supply which is coming out soon will consolidate fan power and control as well as Bluefish power into the main power supply consolidating 4 plugs down to just 2 (Main power, T-5 Power) or on his non Hybrid units, just 1 plug.
  • The Ballasts may get changed to programmed start if he can find ballasts he likes but he stands behind his current ballast selection and states that he has been using it successfully for many years.  He does not believe there should be any concerns with his ballast choice.  Bulb life may be a bit shorter but output should not be affected.
  • He is working on a reflector for the T-5 bulbs.  He will be sending me a sample of the material for testing and expects the new reflector to increase T-5 output by approximately 50%
  • The lack of lens/optics over the LED was a conscious choice and one that he 100% stands behind.  In his opinion most LED’s with optics have a much more focused beam which increases PAR numbers in a narrow area but also creates hot spots and shadows.  In his opinion going without dedicate optics gives the light a more natural spread, less shadows and more natural blending.  He feels that optics would be good for use on very deep tanks but would require more LED clusters to get adequate coverage across the entire tank and his units are not designed around this application.

Update 2:

I asked around in some communities and I visited some tanks that have gorgeous SPS in them to see what some others were running, PAR wise.  Most of the tanks I visited were running Radions or Kessils with LED only and I was really surprised at what I found.  Despite seeing recommendations online for Acropora and other SPS needing PAR levels in the 400+ range, with some species reportedly tolerating 600-1000 PAR I found that some of the healthiest tanks I saw were only peaking at about 250 PAR in the highest areas in their tanks.  I am not sure if this is due to PAR meters reading LED incorrectly, the nature of how spotty the LED output can be, or something else, but I am finding that less is more in a lot of ways when it comes to LED and it is much easier to correct a problem of too little light than it is with too much light, especially once a coral starts to bleach out due to getting blasted with too much light.  For this reason I have lowered the output of my light a good bit and while it has only been a few days, my tank is looking better than ever right now.

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