The term "powerhead" and "wavemaker" is sometimes used interchangeably and the difference can be a little confusing. They are both water pumps, but there is a difference between the two which can be clearly defined by the pump design and intended purpose.


We described the use of powerheads in an aquarium in an earlier BRStv episode where our host, Thomas, described what a powerhead does for your aquarium.  In short, powerheads are small, centrifugal water pumps used for a variety of different applications in and around your tank. Most often transferring water from one place to the next and powering filtration equipment. By design, a powerhead does not lend itself to being an efficient tool for creating internal flow as a wavemaker does. 

Types of pumps


Wavemakers, sometimes called wave pumps or propeller pumps, are used to create "waves" or generate internal flow inside your display aquarium. They will create wide, gentle flow patterns versus the very focused flow of a powerhead. These flow patterns are safer and much more efficient for creating current throughout the entire volume of water inside your display. Wavemakers are not designed to transfer water, rather agitate and create a current in the water already inside the tank.

Wavemakers are extremely valuable in saltwater and reef aquariums because this internal flow plays a vital role in the health of the ecosystem.

  • Stirs up waste and detritus for removal via filtration
  • Ensures efficient gas exchange and breaking the surface tension
  • Delivers food and nutrients to fish and corals
  • Washes away toxins or waste chemicals excreted by corals
  • Can be used to efficiently mix saltwater too

Modern wavemakers are designed with external propellers and open outlets instead of internal impellers with a closed volute like you see on a typical powerhead type water pump. Modern wavemakers are often controllable too giving the user control over the pump speed and the ability to create varied flow patterns and waves. The advanced technology means wavemakers are typically more expensive than a powerhead and also must be maintained carefully for long-lasting operation. 

Term Confusion

The term "powerhead" can be a little confusing. It is often used as a blanket term by hobbyists and may describe both small utility pumps and wavemakers depending on the circumstance. This is where the confusion often comes up. By making a clear distinction based on the pump design and intended purpose, it becomes easier to define. 

To further the complexity, old-school hobbyists might say a "powerhead" is any pump used for internal flow and everything else is simply a water pump. Before the advent of propeller style pumps, the term "wavemaker" was only used to define very specific devices that allowed for the creation of standing waves like the Tunze Wavebox or a pump timer that allowed you to switch multiple AC pumps on/off every few seconds and create "pulsing" flow patterns in the tank. As technology advanced and DC controllable propeller pumps became mainstream, the uses of the various pump terms have evolved within the hobby as well.