Loren Lynn   |   November 17, 2021

How Grow Lights Have Grown Up - A Look at the Evolution of Cannabis Lighting Technologies

As the most significant expense in indoor growing, let’s look at how grow lights have evolved over the past few decades.
Loren is a freelance writer and philanthropist based in Minneapolis with a passion for humanity and cannabis access for all.

Thomas Edison and Nikola Tesla were racing to invent the light bulb in the 1800s. These initial findings are what bring us to present-day and indoor grow light technology.

One could argue most grow light technology has stayed relatively the same or only improved slightly for many years. We are in a time of a shift in domination in grow-light technology.

New and experienced growers are leaning towards higher upfront investments in new technology and leaving the past behind. The advancements responsible for this shift have happened in the past 30 years. 

HID Domination

High-Intensity Discharge (HID) grow lights have dominated the indoor grow light industry for nearly 50 years. High-pressure sodium lamps (HPS) were first used as streetlights back in the early 1900s. But, it didn’t take long for scientists and growers alike to recognize the benefits for plant growth, including cannabis.

HPS and other HID lighting have been the workhorse of grow lights for over half a century, giving a close replica of growing outdoors. When first used, HID lights were directly hung from a ceiling. With the advancement in ballast and reflective hoods, HPS lights dominated the grow light industry because of their proven track record in efficiency and growth yields.

Although HPS continues to be a relatively inexpensive choice as far as upfront costs go, there are other things to consider. The long-term cost of using them, the need to exhaust due to the heat they produce, their energy use, and the replacement of bulbs up to twice annually are all things to consider.

Even with all those factors, HID, especially HPS lights, are still widely used in the cannabis industry because of their yield. However, as energy costs rise, the upfront cost is not as significant as the long-term gains. These advancements have been slowly turning the grow light industry in favor of new technology.

LED Lights Mature to Compete

In 1961 the first patent for Light Emitting Diode (LED) was issued. It would take nearly 30 years for this light technology to be studied for growing and another 20 before it came to the market.

First experimented for growing by NASA in the late 1980s, first-generation LED grow-lights were proven to be ineffective when using only red light at first. Eventually, red-blue light would be available; these were nicknamed “Smurf lights” and could not match the intensity of light needed for indoor growing that was available by HID lights.

Even as they evolved and more light spectrums were added to LED grow lights, they continued to be expensive and primarily used in research. It has been studied and verified that LED is far more efficient and better for the environment than HID, but it still couldn’t match what HID had produced for years.

It would be the year 2000 when LED was first used in Japan for commercial growing operations; in the early 2000s, LED lights were still not a mainstream option for most commercial growers. A huge reason for this is cost. It can cost $6 or more per square foot, depending on the LED fixture and compared to HID counterparts.

Although the industry experienced a significant price drop of 90% since 2008 for the cost of a single home use LED light bulb. That price drop shows LED trending towards affordable for all LED markets. 

The Future of LED and Grow Lights

Undeniably, it is an exciting time for new technology in grow lights. The bulky, energy-consuming, waste-producing HID lights will shift into long-lasting, energy-efficient, environmentally conscious, cost-effective lighting solutions for commercial and smaller growers.

LED technology being worked on right now focuses on two categories. LED manufacturers concentrating on horticulture are working on lights for the specific stages of plant growth and keeping the cost of fixtures down. The benefit of this will be more cost-effective solutions and more straightforward implementation from HID lighting.

Another category is specialty LED manufacturers working on one LED fixture to control the lights during each growth stage. This category is the future of grow-light technology. The ability for growers to control the color and intensity of light, day to day or season to season, is changing grow light technology. This technology will take time to advance, and it will soon be as reliable and cost-effective as HID has been. With technology trending in that direction, the future is bright. 

 

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