There are so many advantages to building your own LED grow light, from savings to customization to output. Making your own light is a lot of fun and if you put money towards creating your own light rather than buying a premade unit off of Amazon or eBay, you’ll end up with a final product that’s FAR more powerful and efficient.
Since I first wrote this article, it’s gotten much, much easier to build your own lights. The part that proved most difficult in the early days was finding a heat sink for your DIY COB grow light, but now there are all sorts of heat sinks available that come pre-drilled for a variety of popular COBs, so I think it’s worth revisiting this and giving it a little revamp. We’ll start with examining how to build your light the easy way, then have a look at the original, more involved option, where you’re drilling your own heat sink.
METHOD 1: THE EASY WAY
Let’s use a common build for this tutorial: 4x 36 volt COBs on a Mean Well HLG-185H-C1400. This setup works out to be about 50 watts per COB, 200W total. A light like this will cover a space of about 2.5’x2.5′ for flowering plants and will cover up to 3’x3′ for vegetative growth or leafy greens. Everything but the driver in this tutorial was provided to me by the good people at Horticulture Lighting Group so a special thanks to them for helping out the DIY community and be sure to check out their kick-ass Quantum Boards!
Of course, you can always pick and choose your own components to build your system, and if you decide to switch it up, be sure to read our post on Selecting COB LEDs and Matching Drivers and then check out our constant current driver selection tool to easily design your system using the current most popular COBs and Mean Well HLG series drivers.
My parts list for this build is as follows:
- 4x Citizen CLU048-1212 Gen. 6 COBs
- 4x IDEAL 50-2204-CT COB Holders
- 4x 120mm Pin-Fin Heat Sinks (these are good for up to 60 watts – if you drive your COBs harder, you’ll need bigger heat sinks)
- 8x M3 Screws to fasten COB holders to heat sink (these came with the heat sinks)
- 1x Mean Well HLG-185H-C1400B LED Driver
- 1x Thermaltake Thermal Grease – TG4
- 2x Wago 2 Conductor Connectors
- 1x 100K Ohm Potentiometer
- 1x LLT-L20 Waterproof Power Connector with Power Cord
- A Few Chunks of Red and Black 18 Gauge Wire
Here’s what I needed for tools for this build:
- Wire Strippers
- Soldering iron (I’ve used this butane model for years and love it)
- Old Plastic Card to Spread Thermal Grease
1. Installing the COBs in COB Holders
The first step is an easy one. Take your COB and fit it into one of your COB holders. There’s generally a springy little tab that you’ll need to depress, and a couple corners you’ll need to fit your COB into. The back of the holder will likely have a plus symbol to indicate which side you need to match with the positive side of the COB. The front of the COB will have this same symbol – just make sure to match them up.
2. Apply Thermal Compound to the Back of the COB
There are a few different ways to do this. You can use thermal compound, which is the way I always do it, or you can purchase handy little thermal pads that are sized for your particular COB – though these may be more expensive. If you go the thermal compound route, put a pea-sized amount of it on the back of the COB and spread it out with an old plastic card:
3. Fasten the COB & Holder to the Heat Sink
If you’ve purchased the right heat sinks for your particular model of COB, they will have come with pre-drilled holes that match the mounting points of your holders. When you line the holder up, make sure that not only do the screw holes line up to fasten it down, but the screw holes for attaching an optional reflector also line up:
4. Terminate Your LED Driver AC Connection
If you’re unfamiliar with working with electricity, consider enlisting some help on the driver terminations – otherwise, do this at your own risk. Make sure everything is unplugged until you’re 100% complete and certain everything is wired correctly.
I really like the connector I used to terminate for this example because it’s waterproof and provides excellent stress relief for the cable (if the wire gets tugged on, it won’t rip it out of the connector). You can use a connector like I did, or a number of others like a NEMA 5-15P or IEC-style power connectors.
Consult your driver’s manual for information on wiring the AC connection. Some may have information printed on the case of the driver – mine tells me that the brown wire is my line (hot), the blue wire is neutral, and the green wire is ground. Make sure you screw the connections down very tightly no matter which style connector you use, and be sure there aren’t any stray strands of copper that manage to poke out. I terminated my driver into one side of the connector, then attached my power cord to the other side of the connector. I matched the black of the power cord to the brown of the driver, the white of the power cord to the blue of the driver (neutral), and the green of the power cord to the green of the driver (ground). Make sure you’ve properly identified the colors of your specific power cord – they may not be the same as mine.
For more info on terminating a standard power plug instead, read this instructional post.
5. Terminate Your LED Driver DC Connection
The same safety rules apply for the DC side of the driver as the AC side. Get help if you’re not comfortable with this and be sure to double-check all the connections, then only power it on when you’re positive everything is done correctly.
The DC side is much easier than the AC side. Most people use Wago connectors for the DC side, and they’re a breeze. Just strip back the driver output wires a little and then snap them into 2 separate Wagos. When you’re ready to connect all your COBs, the positive side of the COB run will be connected into these the positive Wago and the negative side of the COB run will go to the negative Wago (we’re using a series connection in this build).
5. Terminate Your Dimming Potentiometer (“B” Style Drivers Only)
If you buy a Mean Well driver that ends with a “B” (e.g. an HLG-185-C1400B), you’ll need to terminate an external potentiometer on it in order to dim the light. If you get the “A” version of the same driver, it will come with a built-in screw terminal that can be used to dim the driver. Here’s how to terminate an external potentiometer on a B type driver:
5. Build a Frame
This video covers the frame build process from start to finish for these 4 Citizen COBs.
6. Connect the COBs to the Driver
09/06/17: Coming soon… hang tight! For now, check out this post on wiring in series and parallel.
METHOD 2: THE HARD WAY
If you don’t go with a pre-drilled heat sink, you can make your own out of a CPU cooler. Here’s how.
My parts list for this build is as follows:
- 1x Bridgelux Vero 18 (BXRC-50E4001-C-74) with Wire Harness
- 1x Mean Well LPC-60-1400 LED Driver
- 1x ARCTIC Alpine 64 Pro Rev. 2 CPU Cooler. If you go with a bigger COB, make sure your CPU cooler has enough surface area on its face to mount the COB.
- 1x Thermaltake Thermal Grease – TG4
- 1x 10 Pack of Ideal 30-1034J In-Sure Push-In Wire Connectors (I would highly recommend using these Wago connectors instead, as they are even nicer to work with. You can get them in 2, 3, or 5 wire configurations)
- 1x 12V 300mA Power Supply for the CPU Fan
- 1x Cheap Extension Cord (not shown)
I was able to complete this build using the following tools:
- Cordless Drill with Drill Bits (I ended up using a 3/32 bit which didn’t prove big enough, so I went up to a 7/64 drill bit for my #6 screws)
- Digital Multimeter
- Wire Strippers
- #6 x 3/8 Screws with a Matching #1 Screwdriver
- Grinding Bit
- Plastic Card to Spread Thermal Grease
There are 3 main steps to assembly: Attaching the COB to the Heat Sink, Wiring the LED Driver, and Wiring the Fan.
1. Attaching the COB to the Heat Sink
Of the 3 steps, this step will require the most patience. I have found in the past that if I rushed the drilling of the holes or even screwing in the screws, I ran into big problems. If you break off a drill bit or over-tighten a screw and break the head off of it, you’re going to have a very bad time. It takes a long time to fix screw-ups like that (you’ll need to drill new 2 new holes, plus try to flatten out all the crap that’s now broken off in the heat sink), and it’s so much easier in the long run to take the few extra minutes to do it properly the first time!
Now, first thing’s first. The CPU coolers I ordered to use as heat sinks came with a patch of thermal grease installed. You could get away with reusing this, but I decided to wipe mine off in order to get a cleaner application. I used a paper towel to get rid of the stock grease.
Once the grease was gone, I mocked up the COB on the heat sink where I wanted it, and marked the screw holes with a Sharpie.
In order to make things easier, I detached the fan from the heatsink. This allowed me to lay it flat for drilling.
I highly recommend using safety glasses when drilling into metal. I’ve gotten little flecks of metal in my eyes both at work and at home when drilling metal, and it’s absolutely brutal to have to get them removed after they have literally rusted into your eye. My boss gave me these particular glasses as a joke, since they’ve got this goofy yellow color to them. Safety first, right?
Drill out your 2 holes as precisely as you possibly can. If you have access to a drill press for this part, use it! In the past, I have drilled the holes out, then tapped them and used a machine screw to fasten the COB into place. Today, I decided just to drill the holes out so they were close to the size of the screw, then use self-tapping screws to anchor the COBs. Tapping can be a pain in the ass, as it’s easy to break the tap off in the hole.
If you have any burrs around the holes you drilled, be sure to grind them off. Otherwise, the COB may not sit flat. The holes I drilled were pretty clean, so I had hardly any grinding to do at all.
Apply the thermal paste to the back of the COB. You really don’t need much for this part – ideally, you have just enough to cover the COB in a very thin layer.
Use a plastic card to spread the paste and smooth it out.
The screws I had were pretty much the perfect length. If the screw is long enough to get down into the fins of the heat sink, it can go off in weird directions once it hits the fins and becomes more prone to snapping. #6 Screws are definitely overkill for this application, but they fit in the COB holes and I had them handy, so I made use of them.
Before you put the COB in place, do a test fit of the screws. Screw them both into the holes and make sure they go in properly. This will also tap the holes, making it easier to put the screw in once the COB is ready.
Place the COB and line up the holes. This is where all that precision and patience pays off!
Screw the COB down, alternating between screws for even pressure.
2. Wiring the LED Driver
Wiring up the LED driver to the COB is pretty simple – it’s even easier if you can do it without having to solder. If you end up using Veros like I did, make sure to order a Pico-EZmate wire harness for each COB. If you’re using a Cree COB, see if you can get it with a solderless holder like these.
The first step to wiring the COB to the driver is to hook up the COB. In my case, all I had to do was plug the harness into the COB.
Now, connect the other end of the wire harness to the driver using the push-in connectors. Again, I’d recommend using the Wago connectors from the first build rather than the yellow connectors I used on this build. While these connectors do the trick, they’re harder to use and very difficult to get the cable out of when you’re done.
Place the wire next to the connector to figure out how much you need to strip off. Be sure to read the instructions the connectors come with.
Push the stripped cables all the way into the connectors. You’ll need one for each polarity.
Time to hook up the LED driver. First, I did the AC side. The hot wire goes into one connector, and the neutral goes into another.
In order to plug the whole assembly into the wall, you’ll need to either sacrifice an existing power cable or make one using an AC plug end. I chose to use a cheap extension cord and cut the end off. If you’re reusing a cable, make sure to check the specs to see how much power it’s rated for. This cable was rated to handle over 1,600 watts.
Do NOT plug this cable in until you’re 100% done with the project and have checked everything. Be very careful when working with anything that involves connecting to mains electricity like this!
Cut the end off the cable and use the continuity function of a multimeter to determine which conductor is hot, and which is neutral. On a 2-prong plug, the smaller prong will be the hot wire and the larger prong will be the neutral. Identify each conductor. If you’re using a cable with a 3-prong connector, you’ll have a 3rd conductor, which is ground. Plug the hot side of the cable into the connector containing the hot conductor for the LED driver input. Plug the neutral into the connector with the LED driver neutral. Take the time to ensure that the cables are seated properly and will not pull out. Make sure no stray wires are poking through anywhere. Do not plug into the wall until the project is 100% complete and checked.
Now, hook up the DC side. Plug the positive side of the driver output into the same connector that you plugged the positive side of the COB into. Repeat for the negative side.
That’s it for wiring up the LED driver. Only one connection remains.
3. Wiring the Fan
When wiring up your CPU fan, you’ll need to know which of the wires on the fan are +12V and ground. In my case, the red wire is +12V and the black wire is ground, which is fairly common.
Cut the connector off and strip back your wires.
Since I’m too lazy to solder and heat shrink these splices and they are too small to fit in the push-in connectors, I used little crimp connectors.
If your power supply has a barrel connector on the end of it, cut it off. You will need to use a multimeter to identify which conductor is +12V and which is ground (just touch one lead of your meter to each conductor when the power supply is plugged in, and see what it reads. If it reads +12V, then the conductor you have your positive probe touching is the positive conductor. If it reads -12V, then the conductor you have your negative probe touching is the positive conductor).
Double check your power supply to make sure it produces enough current to run the fan. The specs for my fan state that it only draws 160mA. My wall wart produces up to 350mA, so I’m good to go.
Connect the positive lead from your power supply to the positive lead of the fan, and do the same for the negatives. Crimp the splice caps.
The Finished Product
Now that I’ve got 2 of these suckers finished, I just need to figure out where I’m going to mount them and start growing. The CPU coolers do a great job of dissipating heat and keep the COBs nice and cool. Without the fan running, the heat sink gets very hot, very quickly.
I’ve used this grow light to grow a Moruga Scorpion pepper from seed all the way to fruiting, and it’s done a fantastic job:
If you end up building your own LED grow light, leave a comment below with how it went and what (if anything) you did differently.