How to Choose an Aquarium Powerhead

how to choose an aquarium powerhead

Having the proper water flow within the main body of a reef aquarium is critical to creating a thriving underwater ecosystem. Choosing the right aquarium powerhead size and the correct quantity for your tank is essential for proper water movement.

What is a Powerhead?

A powerhead is a water pump that lives inside the main body of an aquarium and is designed to create water flow and water circulation.

Why is Flow Important?

Flow is one of the most crucial elements to creating a healthy ecosystem for all of your livestock to thrive. Here are the primary reasons why water movement is so important within reef aquariums.

  1. Prevents waste from building up in the system, improving water quality and limiting the proliferation of nuisance algae.
  2. Brings food to corals and other tank inhabitants and helps them remove their waste.
  3. Increases oxygen levels.
  4. Similuates a more natural environment for corals and other tank inhabitants.
LPS corals are very reliant on flow

Why do I Need Powerheads in Addition to a Return Pump

While your return pump is the heartbeat of your aquarium, its primary responsibility is to turn over the water inside. The return pump is the heart of your aquarium filtration system and is responsible for turning over the water at the proper rate to maximize filtration and promote gas exchange. Return pumps generally return water to one spot resulting in dead spots in other tank areas and increasing the flow rate of the return pump will not typically resolve these dead spots. An aquarium powerhead or wave pump improves the overall water flow and minimizes dead spots. In combination with the return pump, a powerhead(s) helps remove detritus, ensures corals receive the proper flow, and improves the efficiency of the filtration system.

Simplicity Aquatics DC Return Pump Line
Simplicity Aquatics DC Return Pump Line

Types of Powerheads

Powerheads are available in numerous styles, sizes, shapes, and price points. Most fall into one of the following three categories.

  1. Standard Propeller Design: 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.

Common Examples: Hydor Koralia, Tunze Turbelle, and Current USA E-Flux.

  1. Wide-Angle Propeller Design: 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.

Common Examples: Ecotech Vortech and AquaIllumination (AI) Nero

  1. Gyre Style Design: 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.

Common Examples: IceCap Gyre, Maxpect Gyre, and Red Sea Reefwave.

Types of Powerheads
Images courtesy of Ecotech Marine, Aquaillumination, and IceCap.

Powerhead Style Comparison Chart

FactorsStandard Propeller-StyleWide-Angle Propeller-StyleGyre-StyleExplanation
Type of FlowConcentrated & DirectWide-Spread Blanketing FlowLaminar/ Sheet Style of FlowEach model produces a unique style of flow.
Flow VelocityMedium to High VelocityLow to Medium VelocityMedium to High VelocityPumps with a smaller output tend to produce a more concentrated flow.
Flow SpreadConcentratedWide-SpanningWide-SpanningPumps with a wider face tend to create a more spread-out wave pattern.
ControllabilityDepends on Manufacturer & ModelMost Models Offer Advanced ControlMost Models Offer Advanced ControlEach style of pump offers models with varying levels of control.
Type of PowerCan be AC or DC Depending on ModelTend to be DC PoweredTend to be DC PoweredDC-powered pumps tend to offer more control.
Mounting OptionsMost Models can Pivot SlightlyMost Models can Pivot SlightlyCan be Mounted Vertically and HorizontallyPropeller and puck-style pumps can often pivot. Gyre pumps can be mounted vertically or horizontally.
Appearance in DisplayVaries by ModelMinimal Appearance Minimal AppearanceThis is more about personal preference than anything else.
Powerhead style comparison chart

Finding the Proper Turnover Rate

When selecting the proper aquarium powerhead size, there are a few main factors to consider.

  1. Size of the Aquarium: This is not just about the volume of the aquarium but also the dimensions. If your system is longer than 36 inches, you will most likely need more than one powerhead to address any dead spots and provide ideal flow for your corals.
  2. Flow from Return Pump: Pre-existing flow from your return pump or other sources will also play a role in determining how much flow you will need from your powerhead. If your tank is relatively small and already getting a significant turnover from your return pump, you may just need a single powerhead to target dead spots or some corals.
  3. Type of Corals
    1. Soft Coral Tank Only: Water flow should not exceed 10x the tank volume.
    2. Mixed Reef Tank: Target a total turnover rate between 12 and 20x the tank volume.
    3. SPS Reef Tank: Target a turnover rate of anywhere from 20-50x the tank volume.


Powerheads come in many different price ranges, depending on the size and the features. For example, powerheads with full control are typically more expensive than pumps with no control. On the more economical end, it’s possible to get the flow you’ll need; however, don’t expect advanced control or a lot of other features. You can expect more control for the higher-end models, such as creating a schedule with different flow modes throughout the day.


Stick around for part two of how to choose an aquarium powerhead to learn more about how many pumps you’ll need and where to place them. If you have any additional questions or are seeking a powerhead recommendation, please contact our support team.