Knowledgebase > Water Movement in Aquariums: An Overview of Powerheads (Updated 8/25/10) by Keith MacNeil, MarineDepot Reef Squad
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Q10734 - INFO: Water Movement in Aquariums: An Overview of Powerheads (Updated 8/25/10) 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?

A 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 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" 5 W
MP 600 160 gph 3.5" x 2" x 3" 7.5 W
MP 900 230 gph 3.5" x 2" x 3.25" 8.5 W
MP 1200 295 gph 3.5" x 2" x 3.25" 20 W
Hydor Koralia Powerheads 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.

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 D) 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 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 (D) 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 Vortec Powerheads

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.

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 D) 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 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 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 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.

POWERHEAD ALTERNATIVE

Tunze Wavebox 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.
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Approved Comments...
My koralia powerhead has started leaking voltage into my tank and has zapped me repeatedly! Approved: 10/13/2013
Despite all reviews, there were a few missing details. I used Koralias for years, but they have a nasty habit of leaking voltage and eventually every single powerhead started doing so.. giving a nasty zap when I touched aquarium water! Koralia says they have fixed this problem, but I still had it happen on a "new" model. In addition, running them on a wavemaker is more that clattering. They tend to start running backwards (sucking not blowing) and have sucked fish in.. and ultimately snap propellers or the plastic cage right off the unit. On the plus side, the magnets are great, and I have epoxied them to other powerheads. I would love to go with Tunze or the most popular Eco Techs, but only the MP40 is rated for glass thickness above 3/8" Who can afford $450 per powerhead? Get real! Approved: 3/4/2011
Hi good article for a newbie like me but would have liked to see some noise specs for them- my biggest mistake so far is underestimating the noise these things create - horrendous results so far with apparently good gear (Tunze, Ehiem, Resun). Have somehow got noisy versions of everything to date (compared to the shop ones anyhow) which nearly made me turn to a fresh water tank. Settled on a voyager which is very quiet but many $ later. Cheers Approved: 9/27/2010
It would have been helpful that Marine Depot would have had this on the main page of every product section though.I have been having a problem with cyano, on my 75gal, and it wasnt until I increased the flow, by purchasing a Koralia evo 1040 that I began to notice a more cleaner sandbed. However, more flow is not the final answer it is more of a flow patern and careful placement of the powerheads that helped me control the cyano. I placed the 1040 right in front of the tank which flows in front of the rock; the other K2 is set towards the bottom, on opposite side, pointing up; and the Seio is at the top breaking the suface of the water which I believe helps to oxygenate the water. The return points towards the overflow I dont know why but it just does. Approved: 9/3/2010
It reinforced what I already do and know has a positive effect on my 75 Gallon Reef which because of the water movement has coral both SPS & LPS t5hat are blossoming like it is "Spring on the Reef". In addition to the return on my Mega Flow Reef using a Supreme 9 from my refugium, I have 2 Koralia 1440s running on individual timers on either side of the reef in the back corners, and an older Eco Tech MP10W from my previous Nano Reef on the back of the reef more than 80 % up from the bottom and my Coral and Fish just love the wave action on all of these pumps. My 8 Green Chromis have doubled in size in just 3 months. "Look out Jaws here we come". This article not only gives you the basics but the reasons why and how to create good water flow. It is a great resource for those looking to increase the growth and movement in their reefs but do not have help from local marine bio;ogists. The folks at MD are certainly top notch. Thanks again and keep the info flowing; no pun intended. Approved: 9/2/2010
This article is well revised and the information is backed with FACTS. I have a 75 gallon reef tank and i have a rio 17hf return pump (1090gph) and 2 koralia 2 powerheads (400gph) and my tank has done excellent. Ihave read many different articles and magazines including Reef life, Tropical fish, and many articles online and for a breakdown this is by far the most informative. I spend 8 months making sure the products i purchased for my tank were going to perform and allow me to keep what i wanted and they most certainly have. I highly recommend reading this article and taking the information and reviewing it because when you understand what your buying, how it works and performs you will have the knowlege and piece of mind to keep a reef tank and over time make it one of steller magnitude. I wish everyone success and remember turn loss and discuragment into knowledge because anything is possible!!! Thanks, Ryan Approved: 9/1/2010
This article read like a product data book. The information basically supports the idea that there are a lot of choices. However, the hobbyist is no closer to power head selection that prior to reading this article. Most novice aquarists to the hobby require guidelines for SPS, LPS, Inverts, Fish species along with the pumps and water flow to maximize animal growth and health. Then, you can cover pump specification to achieve the flow. Approved: 8/31/2010
Istarted out like it was going to tell you the best way to set up your water flow but then just tells you the different brands. Approved: 8/31/2010
I have a 150 coral and fish tank with 2 Koralia 4 powerheads. This article doesnt tell me anything about my setup. The article suggeste 10-20 times my 150 gallon. 10- to 20 what? How does this relate to Koralia 4? It would appear Im WAY below what is ideal, but my corals seem to be getting blown almost too hard already. EDITORS NOTE: As per the article...10 to 20 times the tanks volume (1500-3000 gph for a 150 gallon tank). But different corals like different flow rates and these are just guidelines that you can go up or down from depending on what is in the tank. Approved: 8/30/2010
I like that there are pictures to go along with the information provided. Its easier for me since I am a visual person. Too confusing trying to remember everything in each category. This was simply the best article Ive located and I will print it for my future references. Thanks for making it easy, Laurie in Florida Approved: 8/29/2010
(I had my first salt tank in 1964, well before live coral keeping was possible.)No mention was made of vortech wetside longevity. Mine lasted a little over a year and then jammed. Perhaps it has since been reengineered, but replacement is not cheap. I am seriously considering changing over to a Tunze in the hope it will stand the test of time. Approved: 8/29/2010
I liked the article and the way the information is presented. Having several tanks, my primary concern is finding ways to maximize the health of the livestock for the lowest possible electrical costs. One idea missing from the article is the use of a return manifold and a powerful return pump to create multiple points of flow into the tank. I use the Danner 4000gph return pump (purchased through Marine Depot) to send water from the sump to a 6 x 3/4 outlet manifold that creates terrific water flow in the display. I supplement this with one stream and one hydor and a gravity return from my fuge that gives more than 20x tank flow per hour with good results. I would use the Vortech MP40W if I could afford a pair, but the current setup works well for the initial investment and ongoing costs. Approved: 8/29/2010
great info. covered all basis. pros and cons for products was cool! Approved: 8/29/2010
Very informative Approved: 8/15/2010
I like a defined answers to what others are suggesting. Approved: 8/2/2010
informative Approved: 9/14/2009
Great Info! Ive only been a SW aquarist for one year and Im still in awe of how many facets there are to this hobby. I appreciate all of the information that can be provided. Approved: 9/13/2009
I likes the candid content of pros and cons/ Approved: 9/12/2009
This article was concise and informative for the beginning marine reefer like me. There are so many important decisions when starting up a tank whether new to the hobby or transferring from fresh to salt. In todays economy money and wise decision making is a must (plus I dont like fish with sad faces!). Presently our tank has a powerhead and a koralia, but this article gave me more info for future purposes. Thanks for doing the legwork for me! Approved: 9/12/2009
75 gallon + 30 gallon sump. My primary sump return is at tank left and is estimated at 500 gpm after 3 1/2 foot rise w.l. to w.l. I have added a Fluval 304 feeding a SCWD which returns its alternating flows vertically about 1/4 inch ABOVE tank water line, thus creating bubbly (aerated?)currents extending down 12- 15 inches. The SCWD returns are about 15 inches apart, and no apparent "splashing". Fluval adds chemical, bio and mechanical filtration for good measure. Approved: 9/12/2009
Great! Very easy to understudy Approved: 9/12/2009
Outstanding article. Some of your pros & cons are my exact experiences in trying different types over the past few years. A very honest and factual article. Thnk you. Approved: 9/12/2009
I love my Vortech MP 20. Check out the water movement created by it! http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rOtTx50qP6E I bought my Vortech right here on Marine Depot. Approved: 9/12/2009
Because i am currently in the market for a power head and this will help me with my decision Jim Approved: 9/12/2009
This was an excellent article. I would have given it a 10 if there had been price points for each product. Other then that it was very informative. Approved: 9/12/2009
very informitive easy to read and understand Approved: 9/11/2009
I read the article but still dont know why I need wave action. I have a constant stream flow and everyonev is doing good. I will ask my fish what they think. Approved: 9/11/2009
Its great to see reviews like this. Thank you for your research and information. Approved: 9/11/2009
I Didnt see any mention of a Squid on here. On my 90 gallon I have a 1000 Gph pump as the main return from my sump with the Switching Current Water Director plumbed in line. This along with a 800 Gph pump valved down slightly as a secondary sump return and a couple of strategically placed Koralia 3s in the tank. I have had this SPS dominated setup running for a year and a half now with no issues. The Squid produces a very nice alternating current throughout the entire tank and it only cost $40. Sure, I would love to have a nice digital wave maker to ooh and aww at, but for those of use that make less than $100k/year, the Squid is the best! Editor's Note: See last line of Wavemaker section for mention of the SCWD. Approved: 9/11/2009
Great article but there are no cons with the vortech gen2 pumps. Directions state use the cable tie mount to secure the dry side to the tank so it will not fall if disconnected. Approved: 9/11/2009
After reading this article, I made a decision to go with the Vortech since it offers the best variable flow for the money. But a great comparison of products available for the modern reefer. Approved: 9/29/2008
Very good information, I used a powersweep, but know switch to Koralia.. Good flow, not stream to damage your corals or a sand strom over your tank Approved: 9/25/2008
Great head-to-head lineup of the latest powerheads on the market Approved: 9/23/2008
I have five Koralia power heads in my 75 gal reef tank. Four of the five are on a Red Sea wavemaker and they work well. The fifth one is a nano reef and it is on a timer operating during the photoperiod of the tank. It, too, works very well. Editors note by Marine Depot:While some have had sucess, many unfortunately find their Koralia pumps break when used on a wavemaker and this isn't covered under their warranty. Approved: 9/22/2008
Comprehensive, up-to date info Approved: 9/20/2008
What is Pricy? an ~price would make this articule excellent! Approved: 9/20/2008
good range of products compared - essentially a snapshot of the market and saves time in searching. reasonably unbiased comments (slight bias toward Vortech? or perhaps i was looking for it. Approved: 9/20/2008
Article Details
Created on 9/18/2008.
Last Modified on 8/26/2010.
Last Modified by Dot Yuson.
Article has been viewed 28784 times.
Rated 8 out of 10 based on 97 votes.
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