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A question often asked here in the stores is "How do I decide what kind of light to use?" And, with over a dozen styles and multiple brands to choose from, it can be confusing and a little overwhelming to decide on the light bulb brand and style that works best for you. This article will hopefully help you learn what the characteristics of each bulb are, and from there make an educated decision on which bulb would work best for you in your situation.
Please note, that none of these bulbs provide any UVB. This article is strictly intended to cover the various types and styles of heating bulbs commonly available to the reptile keeper, and is not meant to be an all-inclusive source of information about the bulbs. For further details about the light bulbs made by each manufacturer, please contact the manufacturer of the light bulb directly. In addition, while these bulbs provide heat, many species that require basking bulbs also require UVB, which again, these bulbs do not produce. Please do your research to determine if additional lighting may be needed for the species you are keeping.
First, I'll cover the basic bulb types. Incandescent bulbs are the simplest type, and most produce a white type of light in addition to heat. With these bulbs, the shape of the light bulb can help determine the size and shape of the hot spot created by the bulb. "Basking" style bulbs are shaped differently than "daylight" bulbs - the goal of a basking bulb is to create one significantly hotter area, while heating the rest of the cage almost as a side effect of the hot basking area. "Daylight" style bulbs are designed to emit light, and to provide generalized additional heating. Daylight style bulbs work best as daylight heating for animals that do not need significantly elevated basking temperatures, such as most snakes or geckos.
Below is a ZooMed Daylight Blue bulb:
Below is an ExoTerra Neodymium Sun Glo bulb:
An important difference between ZooMed and Exoterra brand bulbs is one you can see just by looking at them - the ZooMed bulbs feature colored glass, which affects the hue of the light emitted. Exoterra glass is dipped into a special coating to make the light a specific color or hue.
This is a cage with a ZooMed daylight blue bulb illuminating it:
And this is with an ExoTerra Sun Glo bulb on it:
Here you can see the difference in the color light being emitted from the two brands of regular incandescent bulbs. On the left is the ZooMed bulb, on the right, ExoTerra. Both bulbs emit heat and white light, the difference is a subtle one in the color of light that your animals are displayed under.
ZooMed Basking Bulbs emit a very yellowish hued light, but are one of the most preferred methods for heating animals that have requirements for high basking temperatures. Exoterra brand basking bulbs look very similar, but are made with two beam widths: wide beam and narrow beam. The ExoTerra bulbs also feature frosted glass, which can help reflect light downward, creating a bright beam. However, there are minor differences in construction that are worth considering. ZooMed basking bulbs, rather than relying on frosted glass to effect color and beam direction, use a specially patented "double reflector" that intensifies the light and heat downward. The ExoTerra bulbs, while providing somewhat more flexibility and choice in light and heat direction, rely more on bulb shape and the glass frosting to direct light and heat. This means that there may be more variance from bulb to bulb with the ExoTerra brand than with ZooMed, but again, you also have more flexibility in exactly what kind of basking spot you wish to create. Basking bulbs work best for animals that actually bask under the light, such as bearded dragons, monitor lizards, uromastyx, and other diurnal lizards. In addition, lower wattages will still provide some heat, but can be used to create pointed beams of light to illuminate specific perches, which works well for arboreal reptiles, such as green tree pythons.
This is a ZooMed Basking Bulb:
And this is another variation of the ExoTerra Sun Glo bulb, this one labelled as a plain basking bulb:
These are examples of plain basking bulbs. If you look, you can see that the ZooMed brand bulb is primarily clear glass, with a reflective coating on the bottom half of the bulb. The shape of the bulb is also different, but only slightly so. The ZooMed bulb has a bell-like shape, with a relatively flat bottom to the bulb, that contributes to its ability to direct the heat in a narrower area. This illustrates how bulb shape can affect the way the hot spot is directed, and how narrow of an area is heated up. Interestingly, between these two bulbs you can still see a difference in the color hue of the light emitted - presumably due to the specific kind of coating on the ExoTerra bulb. The difference in heat is that the ZooMed bulb will create a hotter, smaller basking area, and the ExoTerra bulb, while still creating a hot basking area, will result in a broader basking area that is not as hot as the basking spot created by the ZooMed bulb.
This tank has a ZooMed Basking Bulb illuminating it:
This one the ExoTerra bulb:
So now, you can see the difference between the color light emitted by each bulb. Again, the light emitted by the ExoTerra bulb has a somewhat skewed color due to the coating over it. The ZooMed basking bulb has a yellowish hue, but it is lacking the orange/red undertones that the ExoTerra bulb emits. Again, it is up to you to decide which is best suited for your needs.
In addition to a "wide beam" basking bulb, ExoTerra also makes a bulb that has a tighter beam of light to create a smaller, higher temperature basking area. Notice the similarities to the ZooMed bulb pictured above. The shape of the bell of the bulb, for example, as well as the way the bulb's sides are coated. The bell of the ExoTerra bulb, when you look closely, is actually curved slightly more than the ZooMed bulb, which helps to narrow the focus of the bulb on a smaller area.
This is what a tank looks like when illuminated with this style of bulb:
When in use, the two brands are nearly identical. Check out the picture of the ZooMed bulb again. You may notice that the ZooMed bulb is not emitting quite as bright of light as the tight beam ExoTerra bulb; it is not producing as narrow of a basking area as the ExoTerra bulb. The ZooMed bulb is a happy medium between the two ExoTerra basking bulbs, and may be considered the middle bulb on the spectrum of how intense the light and heat emitted from these style of bulbs.
In addition to basic incandescent bulbs, there are also Halogen and splash-proof options. Halogen lights produce more heat than incandescents, and the shape of the bulb directs heat downward in a cone shape. Halogen lights also last longer on average than an incandescent bulb, IF and only IF they are not moved around or jostled too much. If you will be frequently moving your light fixture, especially with the light on, a halogen light may not be a suitable option for you. However, with that being said, Halogen lights are essentially all the best parts of incandescent lights, but without the shorter bulb lifespan, and usually with a hotter basking temperature at a lower wattage.
To quote the ExoTerra website discussing the difference between a halogen lightbulb and a normal incandescent bulb: "Halogen bulbs are essentially an advanced variation of incandescent bulb technology. One of the major factors that shorten an incandescent bulb's lifespan is the evaporation of the tungsten within the bulb. By adding a trace amount of a halogen gas (methyl bromide) inside the bulb, a chemical reaction removes the tungsten from the wall of the glass and deposits it back on the filament, extending the life of the bulb."
Because of the higher cost of making the bulb, halogen bulbs also cost somewhat more than their incandescent counterparts. However, the color of the light emitted is whiter than traditional incandescent bulbs, and the bulbs do last noticeably longer. An interesting observation is that between ZooMed and ExoTerra, the shapes of the bulbs are nearly identical.
This is the ZooMed bulb:
And this is the ExoTerra bulb:
You'll notice that the bulbs do indeed look nearly identical. If you examine them closely, there are very, very minor differences in stem and bell shape, and if you look inside the bulbs, there are also minor differences in the way the innards are constructed. After experimenting with the bulbs somewhat, there is an almost negligible difference between the heat and quality of light emitted by either bulbs. However, the ZooMed bulbs do have a reputation for lasting longer, and are slightly more durable when it comes to jostling and movement.
Because both bulbs are so similar, here is one picture to demonstrate what they look like when in use:
In addition to day lights, of which there are plenty, there are also numerous night time bulbs that you can use to heat up or light your cage at night in a way that does not disturb your pets' sleep at night. Something to consider when choosing a specific type or brand of bulb is your ultimate goal when using the bulb. Do you just want to illuminate the cage at night so that you can view your animals during their most active time? Or do you want to keep their cage warm, at higher temperatures suited for certain tropical or desert dwelling species?
These are two of the styles of night time bulbs that can be used to gently increase temperatures within your cages at night. Below is a ZooMed Nightlight Red, suitable for gentle heating of the cage, such as when you only need to raise temperatures a few degrees, or light up a nocturnal animal.
ExoTerra makes a similarly shaped bulb, but it comes in a different color, a bluish purple sort of light. This light is more similar to moonlight, and can be less disruptive for more sensitive species. There is data that suggests reptiles can still see red light, although because it is not the full spectrum of light seen during daylight hours, it does not disrupt sleep patterns the same way a white light would.
In addition, Fluker's makes a night time bulb that is a similar blue-purple hue, but the way the bulb is designed it emits almost no visible light whatsoever. It does emit a gentle glow, making it perfect for viewing extremely shy and sensitive species, and works perfect for bedrooms if you don't want a bright red light disrupting your own sleep at night!
If you compare the three bulbs, you'll notice differences in the thickness of the glass, as well as thickness of the coating on the glass. The ZooMed bulb is actually made with red glass, while the ExoTerra bulb is made from blue glass. The Fluker's bulb appears to be thicker glass, and looks as though it's been dipped in a color coating to change the hue of the light.
The ZooMed bulb, when placed over a tank, emits a nice, red light. It is the warmest of the three night time lights, and if heating is your goal this is the style bulb to use.
The ExoTerra bulb emits a blue light that is visible even during daylight hours. While warm, it is not as warm as the ZooMed light, but does emit a lot of purple-hued light. For a larger cage you are trying to illuminate for night time viewing, this bulb would work well.
The bulb with the dimmest light is the Fluker's bulb, and it also emits the least heat for similar wattage compared to the other two brands. If you are trying to light up a cage without increasing temperatures, such as for animals that need a distinct night time drop in temperature.
The bulb emits so little visible light that it doesn't even look on! During daylight hours, it's so dim that you can't see it. However, at night there is a mild glow.
Another type of bulb that is used at night is the Infrared type of bulbs; these are somewhat mislabeled, as all bulbs that emit heat emit "infrared" light. Infrared simply means light that is on the red end of the spectrum, but is a wavelength we can't see and is what creates heat. We feel infrared light as heat, as do our animals. Infrared bulbs technically include ceramic heat emitters as well, but for the sake of this article we're just going to consider the light bulbs.
Fortunately, the light emitted looks the exact same between bulbs, there are only minor differences in construction and quality of glass used. The ZooMed infrared light is made with the same general construction as their basking bulbs, but with red glass instead of clear glass. The ExoTerra bulbs appear to have somewhat thicker red glass, and are dipped in a thicker red coating to direct the light and heat downwards.
ZooMed infrared bulbs are essentially the red version of their basking bulbs, although the bulb is shaped to create a broader basking area than the regular basking bulbs do. They work best for animals that truly need nighttime heat to be more significantly elevated over room temperatures. At a lower wattage, you can increase the heat in the area directly under the bulb by a significant amount. In addition to night time heat, these bulbs can also be used to bolster daytime cage temperatures during colder times of year, or for animals that need significantly hotter cage temperatures than can be achieved with just one heat bulb.
The ExoTerra bulb is shaped extremely similar to the ZooMed bulb, and creates heat in much the same way. The two bulbs in fact look nearly identical, although the ZooMed bulbs are somewhat thicker and can last longer than the ExoTerra bulbs do. The ExoTerra bulbs are made with red glass, and the bell shape of the bulb directs heat nicely down into the cage.
When it comes to the color and brightness of the light illuminating the cage, the bulbs are identical. They are much brighter than other night time glow type lights, and if you are a light sleeper or find the red light to disturb your sleep, these are not bulbs you will want on cages you keep in your bedroom. However, they do work well for significant heat increases.
The last aspect of bulbs to consider when making your purchase is the location where they are manufactured. The more precisely a bulb is manufactured, the more consistent the heat and light emitted from those bulbs becomes. For example, if a bulb is made sloppily, and the person dipping the bulb in the coating tilts the bulb just a little bit, resulting in slightly thicker coating on one side of the bulb... The color of light coming from the bulb may be ever so slightly different, or the heat emitted might be just ever so slightly lopsided. Now, to us, it's not likely to be enough to be noticeable, but to animals whose entire existence is often focused around heat and light, and can perceive light in ways we can't, it can be a big deal. The hottest part under the basking light may shift ever so slightly between bulbs, meaning that your animal's preferred basking area no longer heats in quite the same way. Bulbs manufactured in Europe are known for having higher quality than those manufactured elsewhere, in that each and every bulb will heat up and emit the exact same light as the bulb before it. Bulbs manufactured elsewhere, such as in China, may not be held to the same high standards and some variance from bulb to bulb is to be expected.
When it comes to generalized daylight bulbs, this may be a very minor point, but for basking bulbs and animals more sensitive to lighting (such as chameleons), it can be enough to stress out the animal somewhat if their basking spot is moving or if they can't reach the same temperatures they did before. Check the bottom of the box to see where the bulb was manufactured, and that can sometimes explain the difference in price between bulbs. Bulbs that say "Made in EU" or something along those lines are those made in the European Union, and can generally be counted on to be higher quality than those from China.
Hopefully this break down of the various light bulb shapes and styles has helped you to determine a type that will work best for you.