How to choose powerheads and get flow right the first time. Saltwater Aquarium Flow

Good water flow has a handful of important roles in a reef tank that we already know about and probably a few that are yet unknown to science. Moving water keeps food and waste suspended for filtration to remove, it carries important food and elements to the corals, it transfers fluids within corals’ tissue, it maintains healthy dissolved oxygen levels by exposing water to the surface (surface agitation) and strong currents are a healthy and very natural environment for the fish. The world’s oceans are turbulent, especially in the reef zone, so it only makes sense these animals have evolved to become reliant on flow.

SPS Reef Tank with Tunze Pumps

Installing Powerheads

Adding flow is as simple as throwing a few pumps called powerheads in the tank. Most have a magnetic coupler to secure on the tank’s walls, simply attach the pumps, supply power and your set.

The typical configuration is one on each side of the tank where they intersect and provide turbulent flow patterns throughout the display. There are, however, a ton of options in terms of pump speed, size and flow patterns that makes it easy to get lost.

For the sake of your first tank, don’t get caught up in that because perfection is a journey and the start of that journey is creating a working model to build upon. Simply get acceptable amounts of flow moving inside your tank .

Hydor Koralia pumps in 40 breeder

Pump Types

Just to get a lay of the land, there are AC pumps which run continuously 24/7 at a constant speed. These pumps play nice with wavemakers that can turn AC powerheads on and off at specific intervals to create more varied flow patterns or wave-like movement.

EcoTech Marine VorTech

The most modern powerheads are DC powered pumps that slowly ramp up and down to create varied flow and even give you the ability to change those flow patterns throughout the day.


Specialty DC pumps like the EcoTech Marine VorTechs are a favorite among experts because they are designed to keep the cords out of your tank. Gyre type pumps from Maxspect and Ice Cap are also unique and designed to create strong currents and undertows. Within each of these pump types, you will have different sizes to accommodate smaller or larger tanks.

40 Breeder

With our 40 gallon breeder tank and plans of stocking it with the easy to keep corals discussed in Episode #6, all we need are a couple of AC powered pumps positioned on each end of the tank.

With your first tank, cost is an important factor when choosing equipment and the key is finding that balance of cost vs. reliability. One of the things you will learn throughout this series is almost everything with a plug is a component of life support for the reef tank. With that, reliability is always more important than non-essential features that drive up the costs.

Hydor Koralia 3 Powerhead

All things considered, the Hydor Koralia Third Generation pumps are an excellent first time powerhead. They are inexpensive, reliable and get the job done well. Two of the 1350 Gallon Per Hour (GPH) models specifically are sufficient for the 40 breeder.

The pumps will be placed on the ends, positioned about a third of the way from the front so the flow goes in-front of the rock or aquascape. The third generation pumps include different flow caps to produce different types of flow.

Hydor Koralia Flow Caps

We are using the narrow flow pattern caps which will create more turbulence and help the water to travel further in the tank. With the long shape of this tank, that will be ideal.

From that starting point, you can play with the various flow caps included with the Hydor Koralia to fine tune it. Check out the wavemakers as well to get some varied flow patterns in the tank. This will mimic the natural ocean environment and also create some mesmerizing back and forth movement amongst the corals.

EcoTech Marine VorTech

Red Sea E170

The Red Sea E170 tank is a different shape, more of a cube than a rectangle. In this case, we are going to go with the more expensive EcoTech Marine VorTech MP10 pumps. This is a rare case in which the most expensive option is also the most popular and #1 selling pump on our website which just goes to show how great these pumps are.

MP10 Side View

The MP10 pumps are unique in quite a few ways, most notably, they are the only option that keeps the cords out of the tank by magnetically coupling the motor on the outside. Keeping them clean is as easy as a 30 second swap of the wet side assembly, they connect wirelessly with each other to create varied flow patterns and offer a battery back-up accessory to keep the pumps running in the event of a power outage.

Based on the budget alone, you can probably already tell which option is right for you. Don’t let yourself get too caught up in the great pump debate because both the Koralia and VorTech pumps will produce the desired result of a successful tank.

RedSea E170 Aquarium

Installing the MP10 pumps is going to be similar with one pump on each of the side walls. Wetside on the inside, motor magnetically coupled on the outside. Mount the controller box inside the cabinet away from too much moisture and with a couple of button presses you can link them together and select a flow pattern. Reef Crest is a great option and the most popular choice among VorTech users.

What’s Next?

The tanks now have flow and the next step heating the water because these are tropical animals that require water temperatures of 72-78 degrees F. which is much warmer than our homes. Heaters also happen to be the number one source of aquarium related equipment failures but with a few tips you can easily avoid those mistakes.


Looking for a different topic or have questions? You can binge the entire 5 Minute Saltwater Aquarium Guide playlist right here on our website. We also invite you to join the #askBRStv Facebook Group which is a free resource for you to ask questions, get advice, interact with other hobbyists and get your daily reef aquarium fix.

← Previous Next →