The Hidden Costs of DIY LED Projects That You Aren’t Thinking Of

mrsaltwatertankBy mrsaltwatertank 9 years ago14 Comments

flickerLED - 07
photo credit: oskay

Without a doubt, whenever anyone asks a question or posts a comment about LED set-up, there are always droves of people who line up shouting,


To that, I say,


“No you can’t.”

I’m not here to disprove the fact that DIY (Do It Yourself) LED fixtures cost less in actual dollars spent. Yes, you can spend far less by building yourself an LED set-up.

Where DIY costs you is in areas that you aren’t looking.

Area #1: Time is Money

Time is money - 0125201017702

Any productivity book will tell you to find out what your time is worth per hour, then delegate those tasks that don’t pay that amount to someone else.

If you make $50/hr, and you can pay someone $12/hr to make copies for you, you’re nuts if you stop making $50/hr to go do a $12/hr job.

The same concept applies with DIY LED set-ups.


Let’s use an Ecoxotic stunner strip as an example.

Total cost of a stunner strip: $49.

Estimated cost to build a DIY version: $35.

Money saved: $14.

But what about the time you spent building the fixture? Let’s say you are really good and it only took you an hour to build it.

If you make more than $14/hr, you’d be far better off buying the stunner strip and going back to making money. Unless, of course, you don’t care about making money.

Certainly if you are wanting to make a large, high-powered fixture, the savings will tip more in the DIY direction.

But that’s leaving out the rest of the picture:


Area #2: For Sale: My DIY Project!

There is a reason people remodel, repaint and refurnish homes when they buy them. What one person likes, the next person hates.

The same holds true with DIY LED projects. What you want for your tank is different than what someone else wants for theirs.

If you are hoping that your kick-butt DIY fixture is going to resale for a pretty penny one day, think again. One man’s treasure is another man’s trash.

Besides, they can build it cheaper themselves, right?

Area #3: 1-800-NO-RESPONSE


When you buy something from a company and it breaks, that company is on the hook to help you solve the problem. Hence the reason for customer support lines and warranty programs. You gave that company your money for their product, and they are on the  hook to support you…quickly.


When you build a DIY fixture and something breaks, you are on your own. Yes, you can throw up a post on your favorite saltwater tank forum, but NO ONE is on the hook to help you. You might get a response in 5 minutes, or 5 days. Are you really willing to sit around and wait for a response?

Even then, how do you know their response is the right one for your situation?

You’re likely going to get several horribly wrong suggestions that might screw up your fixture further.

In the meantime, try not to stress about your corals that aren’t getting any light for possibly days on end.

Also, when you go the DIY route, if the fixture breaks, YOU have to fix it. Things always break at the worst time, so let me know how that goes, explaining to your wife why you have to cancel the dinner date you’d had scheduled for a month. Or that you missed your kid’s soccer game because you had to fix a light on your tank.

For DIY, finding the answer and implementing the fix is all on you.

Don’t forget about point #1 above, by the way.

Area #4: Clean and Manufactured v. Handmade


I’ve seen some pretty good-looking DIY fixtures out there. And I’ve seen way more horrible ones that look like a train wreck of twisted wires, electrical tape and messy soldering.

Take the less-than-stellar workmanship and add in the fact that these fixtures sit in a very hostile environment of heat, moisture and salt, and you’ve got the perfect mixture for problems.

Electrical shorts, corroded wires, LEDs that crap out because they got wet, you name it, it’s just a matter of time.

The other side of the table is manufactured LED lights, which the companies have often gone to great lengths to ensure  are well made and safe.

Why do they do that?

To reduce the risk of lawsuits from injury. The last thing any company wants is to get slapped with a lawsuit because they did a bad job building something.

Some companies even make their LED set-ups waterproof, so if you accidentally splash saltwater on them or drop them in your tank, no big deal.

The same level of safety and workmanship doesn’t exist in a DIY set-up.

Do you leave more dollars in your pocket when you DIY an LED set-up? Most likely, but the hidden costs far outweigh the dollars saved.

Note: I am not flaming DIY projects. I am pointing out the hidden costs that people often overlook when diving into a DIY project. If you enjoy DIY projects and aren’t concerned about the costs, go for it and more power to you.

About the Author: Mark Callahan, known as Mr. Saltwater Tank, runs a website, and hosts his own weekly show on YouTube, Mr. Saltwater Tank TV. Mark takes the confusion out of starting and maintaining a saltwater aquarium by helping tank owners identify and apply their tank personality.


  DIY, Equipment


  (2 articles)


    Avatar photodude says:

    Good article… but I have to disagree on several points.. er.. all of them to be exact..
    Point 1 – Time is money..
    This point is totally irrelevant when you start talking about a HOBBY project. This will only hold true if you are taking off work to work on a DIY project.. and if you are doing that then your priorities are messed up. If you can tell me that any time you spend doing anything with your aquarium you are wasting time equivalent to what you make at work.. well, its just a stupid comparison.
    Point 2 – For Sale
    Why on earth would I want to sale my DIY project? If I created it, I know that it will not be worth what commercial items resale for…. and if I’m selling it because of an up/downgrade.. then I think I would just modify the DIY project to meet my needs instead of trying to sell what I made and then build something else.. That is a waist of time and not smart.
    Point 3 – 1-800-NORESPONSE
    ok.. I don’t think you thought this through before you started writing on this topic.. If I built the thing.. I think I would know how to repair it.. I would not need to call anyone at that point.. so this point is totally and utterly irrelevant.
    Point 4 – Clean and man vs hand made…
    Honestly.. who cares what it looks like if it is under a hood or cannot be seen? If I wanted it to look nice, I would make it nice.. Who are you to judge what my DIY project looks like in my home on my tank? see where I’m going with this?

    Avatar doctorthompson says:

    Another thing to consider is the lenses in front of the LEDs for any sort of serious depth penetration (off the top of my head, without lenses I’d say you probably won’t have useful PAR beyond, say, 18″ with typical 5W LEDs).

    Avatar DennisW says:

    Was this artical really written by Mark? It sounds more like a pitch for the light fixture companies. Mark Mark Mark……

    Avatar Byron says:

    I agree with the first reply from photodude. Mark, I like your website and Mr Saltwater tank TV. You’ve helped me a lot in understanding my tank personality, but I must say that I disagree with you on this one. Anyone who’s followed you knows that you’re not a fan of much DIY stuff when it comes to saltwater aquariums. Everyone in this hobby wants their tank to be great. DIY is a way for many to have great tanks without spending all their money to have a great tank. There is also a therapeutic effect when you make/fabricate your own stuff for your tank and it works well, even if you can afford to buy a manufactured product equivalent. Being able to buy everything you need for your tank doesn’t always cut it for everyone.

    Avatar bangotwins says:

    Mark, I’ve learned a lot from your website; However, I think that the website is turning too much into a marketing machine. I know it’s hard to pass up big money from manufactures and sponsers but you are loosing credibility. If it’s not your thing it’s OK. You’ve always said that you don’t like it but there many of us that actually enjoy it. Some do it for the savings and others just like to be creative. This article you wrote about DIY leds is a joke. Everything that you mentioned is not true as well stated by phoodude in #1 comment. You even managed to plug one of your sponsors while trying to make a point. I like you and your website. I also don’t mind you promoting or reviewing new products because I too buy new things but when you purposely attack DIY, that is wrong. You can promote it without saying DIY sucks, because it doesn’t.

    mrsaltwatertank mrsaltwatertank says:

    The point of this post wasn’t to bash DIY projects. I clearly laid this out with the note at the bottom of the post which was clearly overlooked by the people leaving comments.

    I have nothing against DIY LED projects and I’m clearly not saying they “suck” as that word doesn’t appear anywhere in the post.

    What I’m pointing to in the post is the costs of doing a DIY project that most people don’t think of. Until the whole picture is considered, including the pieces that aren’t apparent (the point of the post), then a true apples to apples decision can’t be made.

    This is why people research anything. You want to get the whole picture before you make a decision. Would you go buy a house just b/c I was cheap and therefore you could perceivably save money?

    Hopefully not.

    You’d want to check out the neighborhood for crime rates, get the house inspected by a reputable inspector and check out other homes in the area. Those pieces of information aren’t apparent just by looking at the house. And until you have that data, then you can’t make an educated decision.

    I’m showing people the parts of the DIY picture that they most don’t consider before jumping in thinking they are going to come out way ahead in the end just because it is a DIY project.

    Avatar bizzarro says:

    You assume companies offering these products will be around for a while. Most if not all LED fixtures are sold by smaller companies that have a potential to fold at anytime aka PFO.

    Avatar lfsmarineguy says:

    PFO wasn’t a small company they were crippled by litigation over patents and it cost them millions to defend before they had to fold.

    I can understand the points made in the article except the “what is your time worth” point. On the commercial side, than yes you might consider the time we spend even with our own tanks as potentially profitable, but to the rest of the hobby, that time is “hobby” time and it’s time they were going to spend on their tanks anyway so in actuality the effect is the opposite. They are saving money to some degree depending on the build, level of skill, and forethought. Although there is one more area you failed to touch on and that is the satisfaction of doing something yourself. Personally, I’ve considered building one myself but at the speed at which new advancements have been popping up recently, I doubt I could build anything that would be up to date enough for my liking.

    Avatar rookie07 says:

    To Photodude’s comment “If I built the thing.. I think I would know how to repair it”- you would be suprised as to how many people are cluless and have little to no understanding of how the LED’s work, and they are just following directions when building. Thus, many will would not be able to properly asses and repair a damaged LED unit… seems like every day I see a post on where a LED build/repair needs help b/c the builder does not fully understand what they are building.

    I agree with all that LFSMarineGuy wrote, with one addition. No one ever commented on #4 “The other side of the table is manufactured LED lights, which the companies have often gone to great lengths to ensure are well made and safe”-which is a huge issue…Durability is a major factor that most people ignore, especially when the Unit in questions is built by someone with little to no understanding of the actual system and process, which makes the unit prone to such issues, which is often directly related to my point above.

    Avatar bizzarro says:

    My point is that if PFO a large company produced a unreliable product in their Solaris product it doesn’t bold well for these smaller companies that have controller issues and other things that hobbyist over look because of replacements by their CS however I’d look at it another way that their products are not thoroughly tested and marketed too quickly. If it’s not Marineland, Current USA, or Coralife or any other mfg that is capable of mass producing these products I don’t see how even going with them is saving you money. There’s probably a reason why Marineland LEDs are disappointing because of warranty issues.

    What you really pay for is a nicer premade fixture…and just hope the reliability is there.

    Michael Rice Michael Rice says:

    Both sides of this argument have some very valid points, and that’s what makes it such a fun topic. I personal side with Mark on this one after watching endless threads of disastrous DIY LED group buys and people begging for help with broken DIYs. LEDs are so new that even some big companies don’t know how to build them well, so I’m sure not going to try. The hidden costs for the average person are probably more like: order DIY kit, break DIY kit, order second kit, break that one and finally order a manufactured light.

    Like Mark said though, if you have the skills and want to DIY your own fixture, more power to you. For the AVERAGE person though, I think you better get a good warrantee.

    Avatar rookie07 says:

    Bizzarro: “My point is that if PFO a large company produced a unreliable product in their Solaris product it doesn’t bold well for these smaller companies that have controller issues and other things that hobbyist over look because of replacements by their CS however I’d look at it another way that their products are not thoroughly tested and marketed too quickly. ”

    So, B/c 1 large company failed (had quality issues and ran into a Patent lawsuit) you are suggesting that it is impossible for any small company to succeed in producing a quality LED unit? That is just flawed logic. Also, know one ever said that every LED company makes a great product…but there certainly are companies that make a quality product. Lastly, I am not even going to comment on the contradiction in this line. “If it’s not Marineland, Current USA, or Coralife or any other mfg that is capable of mass producing these products I don’t see how even going with them is saving you money. There’s probably a reason why Marineland LEDs are disappointing because of warranty issues.”

    Paul B Paul B says:

    I do agree that there are hidden costs with DIY. I just built my DIY LED system and there were fans, heat sink and some wire but overall I saved probably 50% of the costs but more important, and one of the reasons I built it was that this was for my “hobby” and building things is part of my hobby. I realize you are just talking about hidden costs but you did bring up “sloppy” work and what happens if it breaks.
    I myself don’t do sloppy work and if it breaks, I built it so I can fix it.
    But another point is that even if it costs me twice as much to make it myself, I will still make it myself. I just like, and trust my work better.
    As for how much I make an hour vs someone making it, I don’t think that has any bearing on this. But, what do I know?
    Have a great day

    Avatar xaos3 says:

    Is this really a six-year old post?
    Sorry, I can’t help myself. Area #1 as provided in your post assumes that the value of a person’s time is fixed at their productive market value in $ and that any return less than that value for any moment is a loss. It isn’t.

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