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,
“WELL, YOU COULD HAVE BUILT A DIY FIXTURE FOR WAY LESS!!!”
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
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.