How to Pick the Right Aquarium Powerhead for Your Saltwater or Reef Tank. | BRStv Buying Guide
- TunzeTurbelle Nanostream 6055 Controllable (250-1450 GPH) - Tunze$199.99
Earn 199 Reward Points$199.99
- MaxspectGyre XF330 Pump Kit with Controller (2350 GPH) - Maxspect$314.99
Earn 314 Reward Points$314.99
- IceCap4K Gyre Flow Pump with Dual Pump WiFi Controller (4000 GPH) - IceCap$199.99
Earn 199 Reward Points$249.99
- EcoTech MarineVorTech MP60QD - Mobius Ready QuietDrive Propeller Pump - EcoTech Marine$769.99
Earn 769 Reward Points$769.99
While science is still identifying all of the various ways water flow impacts a wild coral reef specifically, there are certainly a few key reasons we focus heavily on proper water flow in a captive reef tank. 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.
Types Of Powerheads Based On Flow Pattern
Powerheads come in all shapes and sizes and each of them can provide a unique type and amount of flow. You can separate them into three groups based on fluid dynamics or the type of flow they produce in your tank.
Laminar flow can also be referred to as gyre flow. These pumps spread a sheet of water right across your display tank often creating a circular type flow pattern. This thin sheet of flow can come across your corals vertically or horizontally depending on how you position the pump. The gyre-style pumps simulate currents that are similar to what you would find in the ocean. Since these pumps blow waves in “sheets” they will go across your tank on one side and return down the other side forming a circle.
Some great uses for laminar flow include providing water movement on the surface of your aquarium, sending flow to remove detritus that builds up behind your aquascape, and providing flow above your corals on shallow tanks. Gyre pumps are also known for their slim form factor that allows them to be mounted high in your system, close to the surface without drawing a vortex, and keeping the power cord out of plain view.
Wide-angle but low-velocity flow refers to a wide amount of flow being dispersed from the pump, but the strength of the flow is minimal so it will not travel as far. This flow is very gentle. While pumps creating this flow may have a high gallons-per-hour rating, they are spreading it across a wide area which makes the flow more diffused and better for reef tank applications because it will not be as harsh or damaging to coral tissue. There are a couple of different ways to tell whether or not a powerhead is a wide flow or not. Some pumps will have wide flow labeled right on the box like the Tunze Turbelle NanoStream 6095. For others, you will want to look at the nozzle on them and make sure they are open and that there isn’t any sort of piping or coning that points the flow in a particular direction. The angle size for powerheads also presents as a spectrum. For example, the Ecotech Vortech pumps fall right in between a wide-angle and a narrow-angle powerhead.
If you don’t have a long 4, 6, or 8-foot aquarium, there is no need to have a powerful beam of water to get all the way across your system. Also, corals in general prefer a softer and more diffused flow rather than being blasted by a strong current. Wide-angle flow pumps are also great for those of us with Euphyllia centric aquariums who desire to see that gentle movement among the coral polyps but cannot risk damaging that coral tissue with a strong, direct current.
This is a thin and narrow amount of flow that shoots the water across your tank at a high speed and, therefore, travels farther. Pumps that create this generally have a cone or piping that narrows the angle and creates a higher velocity flow. In most cases, you will see powerheads that deploy this style of flow on opposite ends of the aquarium aimed at each other to create turbulence. Pumps that create this type of flow can even be mounted on the back of the aquarium and aimed at the sides which is something we suggest with the Neptune WAV pumps.
These pumps tend to work very well for those high-flow requiring SPS dominant tanks where two of them can be aimed at each other to create the turbulence that SPS love. Additionally, for those with bare bottom tanks, these pumps work perfectly in order to keep detritus from settling on the bottom of your aquarium or behind your rockwork.
Other Things To Consider When Choosing A Powerhead
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. Since you cannot speed them up or slow them down, it is difficult to fine-tune AC-powered pumps for your particular tank so choosing the right model is important. Using a classic ON/OFF timer is an effective approach for fixed-speed pumps that helps create alternating or varied flow patterns. 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. These pumps are definitely cheaper than their controllable DC-powered cousins, but they are known for their durability.
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.
As with any kind of consumer technology, as it develops the user gets more options. All adjustable speed pumps give you the basic on/off and speed control, from there, it gets much more advanced. Many of them 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 overheat protections and 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. These pumps have varying degrees of flexibility. Puck-shaped powerheads like the ones from AI & Reef Octopus can be pivoted slightly on their mounts. Similarly, the Neptune WAV powerheads can be adjusted with their built-in rocking feature. For a bit more customizability the Sicce XStream pivots on a ball swivel and can accommodate most angles you need. The undisputed king of flexible powerheads is the Tunze Turbelle NanoStream. Both the pump magnet and the pump head itself can pivot to achieve your desired angle. These pumps are great for targeting dead spots within your system and ultimately negotiate how effective the pump can be in your particular tank.
Cordless powerheads refer specifically to the Ecotech Vortech line of pumps that will not have any power cords inside of the aquarium display that takes away from its appearance. These are currently the only pumps that have this detail and it is strictly aesthetic, there is still a power cord on the outside of the tank. That being said, it also makes it super easy to perform maintenance since you can simply swap on a new wet side and you are good to go.
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
Ecotech Marine Battery Backup
- 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
IceCap Battery Backup v3.
- 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
Tunze Safety Connector
- Compatible with Tunze pumps
- Requires the separate purchase of a battery of your choice.
- Can select the battery size to suit your needs
The effort and ease of maintenance are details that should definitely be considered when it comes to selecting the proper powerhead. There are powerheads that 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. Maintenance is crucial to the performance of your pump as it can put out less than half of what it is rated for if it is obstructed by algae or build-up.
We have found that Gyre pumps tend to require the most maintenance due to their plethora of parts that can become caked in algae. The Ecotech Vortech’s are definitely the easiest to perform maintenance on as the wetside is the only part that will need to be cleaned, but does need to be performed often for optimal performance. Thankfully you can buy additional wet-side assemblies to swap with while you place the dirty ones in citric acid for cleaning. DC pumps in general are more sensitive than AC pumps, this translates directly to the frequency of necessary cleaning. DC pumps will likely not maintain performance as it becomes dirty while AC pumps may power through. At the end of the day, regardless of pump type, neglecting pump maintenance will shorten the lifespan of your pump.
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.
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.