Different types of return pumps

There are many types of water pumps used in aquariums and especially for reef tanks. Today you’ll find a range of specialty pumps ranging from small wave-making pumps designed for nano-reefs all the way up to massive flow pumps for large tanks. But there’s more to a pump than size. Not all water pumps are designed to do the same job. Sure, they all move water, but modern aquarium pumps have become more specialized…and as we’ll see that’s a good thing for all aquarists.

In the past aquarists had limited choices when it came to water pumps.
Many were basic small industrial water pumps modified for aquarium use. They were noisy, consumed a lot of energy and over-sized for many aquariums. All that’s changed now that manufacturers are designing purpose-built water pumps specifically for aquarium use.

Basic Water Pumps

Starting off with basic water pumps, the powerhead is based on the same motor which can be found in a hang on back power filter. The motor is encased in epoxy to make it waterproof. Powerheads can be attached to the tank, plugged in and will provide a fixed water flow in the tank. Similar pumps can be found inside many AIO filter systems and auto top off systems. Other uses include mixing a new batch of saltwater for water changes, or feeding a chiller, carbon/GFO/biopellet media reactor and more - it's an all purpose pump.

Basic pump of just a motor and fixed speed

Return Pumps

Return pumps are designed to move a large volume of water through the filter sump and back to the tank. There are two styles of return pumps: single speed and controllable pumps.

The output of single-speed pumps is rated in gallons per hours, based on lift height. The flow rate can only be reduced with a valve on the output side. These simple return pumps are non-submersible and plumbed directly into the sump.

DC Controllable water pump for larger water volumes
Reef Octopus Varios Return Pump

DC return pumps use direct current motors which are energy-efficient, more compact and the output is electronically controlled by varying the speed of the motor. For example, Reef Octopus Varios pumps can be manually dialed back or you can use the pre-programmed flow modes for feeding and wave-making. There are many DC return pumps to choose from, featuring wireless control, adjustable flow rates and integration into smart aquarium controllers. Another benefit of DC pumps is that they are submersible. Just place it inside the sump, no drilling needed! But if you want to run them externally, DC pumps are quiet and vibration-free!


The last category is the wave-maker or circulation pump. Reef aquariums and their inhabitants depend on water movement to thrive. Most aquariums have at least one “dead spot” where the water just doesn’t seem to flow well. It may be near a coral or behind live rock. Cranking up the return pump is not the answer. You need targeted water flow. The Hydor Koralia Evolution series is perfect for nano reef tanks because it’s small and can be mounted anywhere. Just point it where you need water movement.

Wave maker pump that can be programmed to simulate types of ocean current

If you want high-volume flow and programmable wave patterns, look for advanced wave-maker types of water pumps like the Ecotech Marine Vortech Powerhead. It mounts magnetically on the glass and comes with programmed flow modes like lagoon, tidal swell and feeding.

Be sure to take a look at the gyre pumps. These specialty in-tank flow pumps are designed to keep all the water in the aquarium flowing in a recirculating pattern, even behind live rock. Gyre pumps like the Icecap 2K gyre pump mounts anywhere in the aquarium and is controlled wirelessly using the app on your smart device or with a third-party controller like the Hydros Wave Engine.

Final Thoughts

Never underestimate the importance of thorough water flow throughout your aquarium. Corals and other marine life rely on moving water for feeding, waste removal and gas exchange. Achieving optimal water movement in your tank has never been easier with the wide variety of water pumps available today.