Water Movement in Aquariums: An Overview of Powerheads by Keith MacNeil, MarineDepot Reef Squad

After lighting, the second most discussed topic in the reef aquarium hobby is how to provide adequate water movement in the tank environment. There is so much information available online and in books that figuring out which powerhead and controller to use may seem overwhelming. 

This article should be helpful for reef aquarium hobbyists of all levels of experience, from beginners to experts, and will provide an overview of the most popular types of powerheads currently on the market.

Rather than make specific recommendations, we'll discuss the pros & cons of each product line, compare specifications and list powerhead alternatives that also create water movement within the aquarium.

But before we get our feet wet, you may want a refresher on why water movement is so important. The New Marine Aquarium author Mike Paletta explains why Producing Water Movement is so essential in a reef tank. His article discusses different types of water flow and makes some recommendations for reef aquariums. Paletta proposes a minimum flow rate of 5-10 times the tank's volume. While this is certainly acceptable for a fish-only (FO) system, most reefers shoot for 10-20 times the tank's volume (even higher in some cases). 

Whether you opt for 10x the tank's volume or 50x, just be sure the flow rate you choose does not harm your aquarium inhabitants.

What is a powerhead?

powerhead is a submersible water pump designed to create water movement within an aquarium. While powerheads can technically be used for other purposes—as a return pump from a sump/filter system or a feed pump for a reactor—we will focus on their role as water movers within the aquarium.

There are many factors to consider when purchasing a powerhead/controller system for your aquarium. Initial cost, long-term cost (power consumption, replacement parts, etc.), durability and physical size should all be taken into consideration. Fortunately there has never been a better time for purchasing a powerhead. Technological advancements coupled with a deeper understanding of what types of flow marine animals need to thrive have created an influx of efficient, affordable and controllable powerheads.

Without further ado, let's dive into and explore the most popular powerheads available today.

Aquarium System Maxi-Jet Powerheads

These pumps have long been a staple of the aquarium hobby. They are dependable pumps with a reasonable price tag.

Pros: Inexpensive, low wattage consumption, small in size (perfect for nano tanks), you can mod them for increased flow, they work well on wavemakers (such as the Red Sea Wavemaster Pro or JBJ Ocean Pulse) and can connect to the Hydor Flo Deflector for random flow.

Cons: The suction cups are known for giving way fairly quickly (replacements are available; Algae Free also makes an alternative magnetic holder) and their flow is not easily redirected so you may need several to achieve desirable water movement throughout your aquarium. 

Model # Flow Rate Dimensions (L x W x H) Power Usage
MP 400 106 gph 3.5" x 2" x 3" 5W
MP 600 160 gph 3.5" x 2" x 3" 7.5W
MP 900 230 gph 3.5" x 2" x 3.25" 8.5W
MP 1200 295 gph 3.5" x 2" x 3.25" 20W

Hydor Koralia Powerheads

When Hydor introduced this line of powerheads they took off due to their affordability and effectiveness. Hydor continues to expand the top selling Koralia line, offering the Evolution (750, 1050, 1400), Nano along with 9 controllable models (proprietary controller required; two models to choose from) and the larger, energy-efficient Magnum series.

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Pros: Compact size compared to output, reasonably priced (especially the non-controllable units), energy efficient, includes magnetic mountings (no suction cups to deal with).

Cons: While the Evolution is safe to use with on/off type controllers according to the manufacturer, they do sometimes have a chattering noise upon start up; controllable units are only controllable with proprietary controller.

Model # Flow Rate Dimensions (L x W x H) Power Usage
Nano 240 240 gph 2.5" x 2.25" diameter 3.5 W
Nano 425 425 gph 3" x 2.25" diameter 4.5 W
Evo 750 750 gph --- 4 W
Evo 1050 1050 gph --- 5 W
Evo 1400 1200 gph --- 6 W
5 1650 gph --- 8 W
6 2200 gph --- 10 W
7 2800 gph --- 12 W
8 3250 gph --- 19 W
Nano Controllable 100-260 gph 2.5" x 2.25" diameter .6-3.8 W
1 Controllable 180-450 gph 3" x 2.25" diameter .6-3.9 W
2 Controllable 260-680 gph 4" x 3" diameter 1.6-9.2 W
3 Controllable 370-950 gph 4" x 3" diameter 1.6-10 W
4 Controllable 550-1400gph 4.5" x 3.5" diameter 2.3-13.7 W
5 Controllable 600-1900gph --- 2-8 W
6 Controllable 800-2400gph --- 4-10 W
7 Controllable 900-3100gph --- 5-19 W
8 Controllable 1100-3500gph --- 6-22 W

Tunze Turbelle Stream Powerheads

Tunze is credited for starting the "stream" craze for wide outlet high-flow pumps. Their Stream line of pumps set new standards other brands had to catch up to in terms of product quality, water flow and energy efficiency. To stay ahead of the competition, Tunze improved the Stream line by introducing the Stream 2 and Nano Streams for hobbyists running smaller tanks.

Pros: High flow, high quality construction and energy-efficient. The updated design is also more compact than older models.

Cons: Do not work well with on/off-style wavemakers (both controllable and non-controllable units). Controllable units can only be controlled by Tunze controllers or Neptune Systems AquaController with AquaSurf), prices vary (from $70-840), older models are bulky. 

Model # Flow Rate Dimensions (L x W x H) Power Usage
6025 660 gph 2.7" diameter 6 W
6045 1189 gph 2.7" diameter 7 W
6065 1717 gph 3.5" diameter 12 W
6085 2113 gph 3.5" diameter 14 W
6125 3170 gph 3.5" diameter 24 W
6055 Controllable 264-1453 gph 2.7" diameter 4-18 W
6105 Controllable 792-3434 gph 3.5" diameter 45 W max
6205 Controllable 1320-5811 gph 3.5" diameter 55 W max
6305 Controllable 2377-7925gph 3.5" diameter 64 W max

EcoTech Marine Vortech Powerheads

EcoTech's VorTech is a one-of-a-kind powerhead that creates a tremendous amount of flow. But what really sets these pumps apart is that only part of the powerhead is actually submerged inside the aquarium. A magnetic couple clamps the assembly against your tank and transmits motion through your aquarium glass. The motor (and any heat produced) is on the outside of the tank while the propeller part— called the wet side —is submerged in the tank. VorTech pumps use a driver box with configurable wave action settings. If two or more MP40W pumps are used together they can wirelessly sync to create perfect wave/flow control. Midway through 2009 EcoTech introduced a nano size pump, the MP10, that has already become one of the year's hottest sellers.

EcoTech released mid 2010 a new, updated version of their wireless wave driver called the EcoSmart Driver.  This new driver makes setting the wave action choice even more simple while also giving more choices and a better wireless range for communication between units.

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Pros: Huge amount of adjustable flow, includes driver box with wave control, battery back-up is available to protect your tank in the event of a power outage, no heat added to aquarium water by the motor, energy-efficient and the wet side is non-obtrusive in the tank.

Cons: Pricey, dry side can be knocked off the outside (beware of small children!)

Model # Flow Rate Dimensions (L x W x H) Power Usage
MP10W 200-1575 gph 1.5" x 2.5" (Dry Side)/2" x 2.5" (Wet Side) 8-18 W
MP40W 1000-3200 gph 3" x 2.25" (each side) 9-28 W

Danner Mag-Drive Pumps/Powerheads

Danner's Mag-Drive line is another series that has been around for quite some time. The larger sizes are generally too bulky for use within an aquarium but the smaller ones work well as return pumps, circulation pumps or even small statuary water features.

Pros: Inexpensive, lots of different sizes to choose from, low wattage, longevity.

Cons: Large sizes are bulky, do not work well with wavemakers. 

Model # Flow Rate Dimensions (L x W x H) Power Usage
Mini 65 gph 2.5" x 1.8" x 2.8" 5 W
1 80 gph 2.9" x 2.2" x 2.7" 6 W
1.5 140 gph 2.9" x 2.2" x 2.7" 9 W
1.9 190 gph 3.5" x 2.2" x 3.2" 19 W
2 250 gph 5.0" x 3.8" x 4.2" 24 W
3 350 gph 5.0" x 3.8" x 4.2" 35 W
5 500 gph 5.0" x 3.8" x 4.2" 45 W
7 700 gph 5.0" x 3.8" x 4.2" 70 W

TAAM Seio Powerheads

TAAM developed the Seio series to accommodate both a high and gentle flow rate. Since their introduction they have quickly become one of the more popular powerhead lines.

Pros: Multiple mounting options/configurations to maximize flow, low energy consumption, P530 and 1000 include magnetic mounts.

Cons: Somewhat bulky (especially for smaller tanks), does not work well with wavemakers, mounting brackets/suction cups are somewhat limiting (but they do have a magnetic holder available).

Model # Flow Rate Dimensions (L x W x H) Power Usage
M620 620 gph 5.5" x 2.165" x 2.6" 8 W
M820 820 gph 6" x 2.375" x 2.875" 18 W
M1100 1100 gph 6.6" x 2.56" x 3.23" 21 W
M1500 1500 gph 7.3" x 2.8" x 3.5" 34 W
M2600 2600 gph 8.27" x 3.15" x 4.13" 55 W
P530 530 gph 3.2" x 1.9" x 2.3" 7.5 W
P1000 1000 gph 3.2" x 1.9" x 2.3" 7.5 W

Zoo Med Powersweep Powerheads

The outlet nozzle on the Zoo Med Powersweep series "sweeps" from left to right. Water turns gears inside the pump to power this unique side-to-side action for more random flow within the aquarium.

Pros: "Built-in" wavemaker, energy efficient, swivel mounting allows for better directional control of the output.

Cons: Regular cleaning needed to keep them functioning properly, larger units are bulky, not good for use with other wavemaker devices (on/off type).

Model # Flow Rate Dimensions (L x W x H) Power Usage
212 125 gph 4.5" x 1.75" x 4.5" 12.5 W
214 160 gph 4.5" x 1.75" x 4.5" 11 W
226 190 gph 5" x 2.25" x 4.5" 17 W
270 270 gph 5" x 2.25" x 4.5" 23 W

So there you have it: a synopsis of today's most popular powerheads. But wait! What if you don't want a powerhead in your aquarium? Are there other ways to create water movement inside a fish tank? There certainly are. Below you'll find two pretty cool alternatives.

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Powerhead Alternative

Tunze Wavebox

Tunze refers to their Wavebox as a "wave generator" and that is precisely what it does in a tank. You can literally watch the surface of the water in your tank sway back and forth. This wave action creates flow throughout the entire tank.

Pros: Very natural wave action created within the tank, additional powerheads are usually not needed, easy to install (especially if the magnet holders are purchased), very energy efficient.

Cons: A little pricey, a Wavebox extension is needed for large tanks, too bulky for small tanks (but a nano sized Wavebox is now available). 

What is a wavemaker?

Wavemakers create a random, wave-like flow pattern within the aquarium. The means of creating this random flow varies from wavemaker to wavemaker. Some control the flow of powerheads by increasing and decreasing their output. Others work by turning on and off powerheads. A third type rotates the water flowing through your powerhead (or return sump pump).

Two examples of wavemakers that function by increasing and decreasing powerhead flow are Koralia wavemakers and Tunze wavemakers. These wavemakers only work with corresponding brand pumps (controllable Koralia pumps and controllable Tunze pumps, respectively). These wavemakers have many different settings and the increase/decrease of flow is gentle enough not to create too much wear and tear on the pumps.

Red Sea's Wavemaster Pro and the JBJ Ocean Pulse Wavemaker are two examples of wavemakers that turn powerheads on and off to create more lifelike flow. The chief advantage of these wavemakers is that they are inexpensive. Unfortunately, not all pumps are made to be shut on and off all day long. There seems to be a consensus among hobbyists that standard Maxi-Jet Powerheads work best with this type of wavemaker and the new Koralia Evolution pumps are suppose to work as well according to the manufacturer. Other powerheads "chatter" upon startup and eventually seize or the impeller breaks.  

Rotating the water flow from your return pump is another way to randomize flow into your aquarium without adding another powerhead. Two popular ways to do this are by adding a Sea Swirl to your setup. Just attach to the rim of your tank, route your return pump through and they'll rotate the outlet flow throughout your aquarium. The SCWD (pronounced "Squid") splits the return line in two and alternates the flow between the two returns, an inexpensive alternative to the higher priced wavemakers on the market today. 

Does your aquarium have adequate water flow?

Creating water movement in a reef aquarium can be accomplished in a number of ways using a number of different products. Just make sure the product or products you choose are the best choice for your wet pets. Matching the proper powerhead system to your aquarium will breathe new life into the tank and all of its inhabitants. So take your time, read product reviews and, if you have any questions, let us know. If you already have a system in place that works well, tell us about it below.