How to choose an Aquarium Powerhead: Tank Placement

How to Choose an Aquarium Powerhead: Tank Placement

Selecting the correct amount of powerheads and placing them in the proper position is more crucial than the type of powerhead you choose. Proper powerhead placement will ensure consistent water movement throughout all parts of the aquarium and help create a healthy and thriving underwater ecosystem.

How Many Powerheads Do I Need

Deciding how many wave pumps you need for your system can be difficult. The following considerations will help determine how many pumps you should purchase.

Aquarium Powerhead Type

Each type of powerhead has a unique flow pattern that will play a role in determining how to position a particular pump along with how many you need. It is also important to keep in mind that many of these pumps are controllable, allowing you to customize their flow patterns further.

  • Standard Propeller Pump: Produces a concentrated flow pattern that works well for targeting dead spots. Two or more of these pumps can create the proper flow for small to medium-sized aquariums.
  • Wide-Angle Propeller Pump: Produces a wider, more gentle flow pattern than its narrow-angled cousin. These pumps are great for targeting large areas of corals and for creating randomized flow throughout the aquarium.
  • Gyre Pump: Produces a wide and gentle laminar flow that spreads a sheet of water across an aquarium. Flow is similar to a wave created by an artificial wave pool. It does a great job of creating surface agitation when placed towards the top of an aquarium.
Types of Powerheads & Their Flow
Types of Powerheads & Their Flow

Tank Size

The larger the tank, the more flow you’ll need.


Each coral variety will have different flow requirements. Generally, SPS corals require the most flow while soft corals demand the least. Placing a powerhead in front or behind the aquascape will minimize the loss of flow versus pumps aimed directly into the rockwork.

Soft Coral AquariumMixed Reef AquariumSPS Dominant Aquarium
8-10x Aquarium Volume Turnover Including Flow from the  Return Pump12-20x Aquarium Volume Turnover Including Flow from the  Return Pump20-50x Aquarium Volume Turnover Including Flow from the  Return Pump
Flow Requirements for Aquarium Types

Dead Spots

A dead spot refers to an area that doesn’t receive adequate water flow. That’s where Detritus (waste) can quickly build up and cause a nutrient explosion if not addressed.

So how many pumps do you need? There is not a one size fits all solution; however, the guidelines in the chart below should provide ideal recommendations for most folks.

Powerhead Sizing Chart

Aquarium Size/ Pump TypeStandard Propeller PumpWide-Angle Propeller PumpGyre Pump
20 Gallons1-2 Small Output1 Small Output1 Small Output
40 Gallons2-3 Medium Output2 Small Output1-2 Small Output
75 Gallons3 Medium Output2 Medium Output2 Medium Output
120 Gallons3-4 Large Output2-3 Medium Output or 2 Large Output2-3 Medium Output or 2 Large Output
180 Gallons4-6 Large Output3-4 Medium Output or 2 Large Output3-4 Medium Output or 2 Large Output
Aquarium Powerhead Sizing Chart

General Powerhead Placement

While it is crucial to put your powerhead in a place where it is most effective, we also don’t want the pumps to become an eyesore. When determining proper powerhead placement, consider the following three factors.

Side Wall vs. Back Wall: Powerhead Placement

Most hobbyists place their powerheads on the sidewalls of the tank, in some circumstances, it may be advantageous to place the powerheads on the back wall of the tank.

General Recommendations

  • For tanks less than 36” long: Place one powerhead on the sidewall of the aquarium where flow is least obstructed. For example, if you have a lot of live rock on the left side of the tank, place the powerhead on the right-hand side of the tank. Add additional powerheads, as needed, for targeting dead spots.
  • In tanks 36” long or more: Powerhead placement on each of the sidewalls of the aquarium. Add additional powerheads, as needed, for targeting dead spots.
  • For tanks 24” wide or more: If the aquascape is in the middle of the tank as opposed to up against the back wall, place one powerhead on the back wall for every 24” of tank length. Add additional powerheads, as needed, for targeting dead spots.
Powerhead side-wall & back-wall placement
Powerhead side-wall & back-wall placement

Mounting Height: Powerhead Placement

When it comes to how high or low to place the pump in the tank, you will want to consider where your flow dead spots are and where your corals lack ideal flow. Placing one powerhead in the lower part of your tank behind your rock work and placing one higher up on the opposite sidewall will help remove waste and detritus and create the water movement necessary for coral health.

General Recommendations

  • 1 Pump: Place the powerhead at a height approximately ⅓ of the way down from the water surface.
  • 2+ Pumps: For powerheads on opposite sidewalls, mount them at offset heights with one pump in the upper third of the tank and the other pump in the lower third of the tank.
  • Tanks with Sand Bed: For tanks with a sand bed, keep the wave pumps high enough in the water column to prevent disturbing the sand bed.
  • Barebottom Aquariums: The lack of a sand bed allows for positioning the powerheads significantly lower in the water column.
  • Gyre-style pumps should be mounted just below the water’s surface to create ideal surface agitation.
Powerhead Mounting Height
Powerhead Mounting Height

Powerhead Placement: Flow Direction

The flow for a wide-angle propeller pump and a gyre pump are generally fixed straight-forward; however, most standard propeller pumps can pivot from left to right and up and down. In most cases, pointing the pump into an open tank area is the best option. However, if you have a particular spot in the tank with little to no flow, pointing the pump directly into that area can be beneficial. Just be careful not to point the flow directly at any corals, as doing so can stress, damage, and even kill the coral. For bare-bottom tanks, point the pump directly at the bottom of the tank to keep detritus from settling.

General Recommendations

  • For most standard tanks, direct the flow parallel to the back or front of the tank.
  • Eradicate dead spots by aiming the pump directly at them.
  • If a pump produces too much flow, direct the flow towards a wall or corner of the tank.
  • Never point a pump with a narrow-angled flow pattern directly at a coral.

Final Thoughts on Powerhead Placement

Now that you have selected the type and amount of pumps you need and determined the proper powerhead placement, you should be capable of providing your system with the flow it needs. Not only will your corals benefit, but you should see an improvement in overall appearance over time.

If you run into any additional questions or need a powerhead recommendation, please contact our support team.

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