How to Pick the Right Aquarium Powerhead for Your Saltwater or Reef Tank. | BRStv Buying Guide
While science is still studying all of the various ways ocean currents impact a wild coral reef, there are a few definitive reasons we put a heavy focus on internal flow inside our tanks. Your return pump and powerheads provide the gas exchange needed for oxygenation that will allow for life to thrive. Water flow also helps deliver essential food and nutrients to your aquarium pets as well as supports the proper metabolization and export of those nutrients from your aquarium. Whether you have a 3-gallon pico tank or a 300-gallon mixed reef, creating the proper flow is crucial to your ultimate success within this hobby.
Powerheads come in all shapes and sizes with a variety of strengths and features. We like to group them based on fluid dynamics or the flow pattern they produce in your tank because this will be one of the most important deciding factors when shopping for pumps and deciding where to place them.
Laminar flow is a unidirectional flow that travels relatively long distances in the tank. The best example is the "Gyre Style" pumps that push a flat sheet of water, often creating a circular flow pattern. The flow travels across the surface or side panels of your tank then deflects back on the opposite side creating that circular current.
- Best choice for placement closer to the water's surface to increase surface agitation.
- Creates flow across the top of your aquascape in the upper water column.
- When mounted vertically, it can be a great solution for stirring up detritus behind your aquascape.
- The flat sheet of water travels long distances and will effectively create circular currents.
Wide-angle, low-velocity flow refers to pumps that push a wide, conical flow pattern. This flow is more turbulent and is used to move larger areas but not travel long distances. Since the flow is diffused or spread out over a larger area, it doesn't create harsh streams of high-velocity flow that can be damaging to coral tissue making them especially effective for reef aquariums. Most powerhead manufacturers will indicate just how wide the flow pattern is and there is certainly a spectrum. Some powerheads provide nozzle accessories that allow you to change the flow patterns from wider to narrower. Tunze powerheads do an excellent job of creating this wide-angle flow.
- Ideal for mounting in the lower thirds of the aquarium.
- Creates gentle flow that is ideal for soft corals and LPS.
- Moves wide areas or large volumes of water at lower velocity.
- The narrower the angle of the flow, the farther the flow will travel in your tank.
These pumps create a conical flow pattern that is much narrower and moving at higher speeds. The higher-velocity and tighter flow pattern allow the water to travel long distances in the aquarium. Less turbulent and more laminar; the middle ground. The Neptune Systems WAV is a great example.
- Ideal for mounting in the middle thirds of the water column
- Produces high-velocity flow that travels long distances
- Ideal for SPS aquariums and bare bottom tanks that require strong currents
Features To Consider
Beyond the flow pattern, you will want to consider some of the features you desire. A fixed flow AC-powered pump will be the most affordable but doesn't offer anywhere near the level of convenience and safety features you get with DC-powered controllable pumps.
Fixed speed refers to AC-powered pumps that can simply be plugged in and provide the same, consistent amount of flow. These pumps will have a fixed flow rate that can only be turned on or off. Fixed speed pumps come in a multitude of shapes and sizes and you can find ones that will put out a wide-angle flow pattern and others that create more narrow angles of flow. They are the most affordable option and are known for being the most durable but lack the convenient control and safety features you get with a DC pump.
Adjustable speed refers to DC-powered flow pumps that can be sped up or slowed down electronically resulting in higher or lower water flow. These are the most popular pumps within the reef-keeping hobby because they allow you to provide a more natural and varied flow pattern that is specifically tuned to your particular tank.
In addition to flow control, most DC pumps offer a feed/maintenance mode that will temporarily slow down the pump or turn it off completely for a particular length of time. There are also overheat protections, blockage protections, and even email alarms and alerts to help the user. The most advanced DC controllable pumps give the user pre-programmed flow patterns to choose from that can then be programmed into 24-hour schedules that can be saved and shared. Some like the EcoTech Marine Vortech pumps are controllable wirelessly via an App using Wifi or Bluetooth technology. Others like the Maxspect Gyre’s and select Tunze models have physical control boxes that are hardwired to the pump directly.
This refers to pumps that can be physically aimed or positioned to provide flow to a specific area within your tank. For example, the EcoTech Marine Vortech is not directional and cannot be aimed while the Neptune Systems WAV does offer varying degrees of amiability. The undisputed king of positionable powerheads is the Tunze Turbelle NanoStream.
Ecotech Marine Vortech pumps are the only powerheads that do not require a power cord inside of the aquarium. This not only makes for a much cleaner installation, but it also makes for super easy maintenance
Battery Back-Up Compatibility
In the event of a power outage, the most crucial element to maintain for your reef tank is flow. Gas exchange and the oxygenation of your water are crucial to the health of your reef and going without it for anything more than a couple of hours can be extremely dangerous. Therefore, sourcing a battery backup option for your method of flow is essential.
UPS Battery Backups
- Applies to any and all powerheads
- They only will work for a short period of time regardless of size
- They will turn on immediately following a power outage
- They are inefficient and have to turn AC power into DC power
- Only compatible with Ecotech pumps
- Can provide over 80 hours of power to one of your pumps
- Automatically turns the flow down to a specific set point to save power
- Affordable and compatible with most DC powered pumps
- Can connect two of them together to double the power
- Turns on immediately after a power outage
- Compatible with Tunze pumps
- Requires the separate purchase of a battery of your choice.
- Can select the battery size to suit your needs
Some powerheads require more maintenance than others and simplifying this process as much as possible will go a long way in making sure you actually do it. Oftentimes, the headache of having to untangle cords and remove the entire pump from your tank will prevent you from doing the maintenance in the first place. That said, maintenance is crucial to the performance of your pump; a dirty pump can produce less than half of the advertised flow because of build-up and debris slowing down the impellar. This also puts stress on the motor, ultimately reducing the lifespan of your pump.
- Gyre pumps have a lot of parts and must be taken apart and cleaned often for longevity and performance but also provide very useful flow patterns.
- EcoTech Marine pumps offer additional wetside assemblies for easy swapping and cleaning.
- DC pumps require more frequent cleaning than AC pumps but still require regular cleaning.
How Many Pumps and Where To Place Them?
We cannot give you an exact number but most reef tanks under 100 gallons will operate with two powerheads. It is not uncommon to start with just a single powerhead. As the tank grows and you add more corals, you will add one or two more powerheads within the first 12-24 months to accommodate the flow needs. During this time you will also likely move the pumps around based on your particular needs.
As a general rule, you can size a powerhead based on your tank size and the flow rate of the powerhead. You want to choose pumps that can move 20x-30x total tank volume per hour and having DC control over that pump's speed is exceptionally useful to dial in the flow of the pump. If you decide to use fixed-flow AC-powered pumps, you want to look at pumps that move no more than 10x your total tank volume per hour.
Considering where you place the pump should be a combination of aesthetic preferences along with performance. While you will not want your powerhead to become an eye-soar, it is essential to address dead spots and prevent detritus from building up. Inside a reef tank, the goal is to achieve water movement in 100% of the open tank space. The flow patterns and amiability play a big role in the suitable placement of a particular powerhead. The article below dives into great detail about pump placement and will ultimately help you make the best decision for your tank.
Learn More With BRStv: Where Should I Place My Powerhead?
Both Randy and Ryan opted for the Ecotech Vortech pumps for their cordless design, advanced controllability, and ease of maintenance. The Ecotech Vortech line is also our best-selling powerheads amongst our customers and for good reason.