One of the most dramatic characteristics of a coral reef is the constant water movement caused by wave motion and tides. Coral reefs depend on water circulation to flood the reef with food, nutrients and oxygenated water while flushing away waste products.
Our reef aquariums require water pumps to provide water circulation and move water through the filtration system.
Freshwater aquariums also need water movement to keep the aquarium oxygenated and push aquarium water through the filtration system. Some freshwater fish really enjoy swimming against flowing water. Aquatic plants need to have water flow across leaves and stems.
This brings nutrients and carbon dioxide to the leaves and washes away debris from the plant surface.
There are many kinds of aquarium water pumps. Not all water pumps are designed to perform the same job.
A high-pressure, single-speed pump designed may not be the best choice to run a protein skimmer. Some water pumps are not designed to create a lot of pressure to push water through a filtration system. Some pump models are intended for reef aquariums as part of an automated aquarium system complete with remote control capabilities.
This review will help you understand which water pump best suits your aquarium.
Water pump basics
Pumps designed for water filtration are engineered to push water uphill. The water pump’s flow rate is often rated at various head heights. Think of head as the height you need to pump water up and into your aquarium. As the head height increases, the flow rate and pump pressure decreases. If the pump is too small for the head, flow rate will be very low or even non-existent.
When selecting a water pump, it is important to know how high you need to pump the water, if the application requires higher pressure and what kind of flow rate you want at that head height.
Reef aquariums use return pumps to pump water from the sump back into the tank. If your pumping water through a pressurized filtration system you’ll have to select a water pump with a higher pump capacity to maintain the flow rate you’re looking for in your aquarium.
In general, it is advisable to select a pump that is slightly more powerful than your bare minimum needs. Why? Every pipe elbow or bend in a hose will slightly reduce the flow rate. You may later decide to run a media reactor by tapping into your pump return line.
If you want to know more about sizing your pump have a look at this interesting article from DaniReef.
AC vs DC water pumps
Traditional water pumps use AC current motors to spin the impeller at a constant rate. The pump motor is coupled to the impeller by a spinning magnet. These are known as AC mag-drive pumps. All you do is plug them in and they pump water. AC mag-drive pumps have no built-in speed control. Water flow is reduced by installing valves that either restrict the water flow or divert some of the water back into a sump. Many consider this a waste of energy since the pump consumes more energy than is needed.
A newer innovation are DC water pumps. Using low-voltage direct current, DC water pumps use less electricity than AC-powered water pumps. The pump output can be precisely controlled with a wired or wireless controller. DC pumps run cooler, adding less heat to the aquarium water. The low-voltage is safer around water too!
Internal vs External Water Pumps
Some water pumps are designed to be installed outside (externally) of the aquarium. The pump may be plumbed into a sump, filtration system or directly into the aquarium.
Internal or submersible water pumps are made to be submerged under water. These pumps are placed inside sumps. These are easy to install because no complicated plumbing is required. Just drop the pump into the water and connect a return hose to the filter or aquarium.
Since all pumps require periodic cleaning of the impeller to remove slime and debris, submersible pumps are easier to maintain. The pump can be removed from the aquarium with minimal worry about spilled water or water draining back into the sump.
Some aquarium water pumps can be submerged or mounted externally, so don’t get confused when comparing pump specifications.
Aquarium Return Pump Reviews
Current’s eFlux DC Flow Pumps are fully controllable with a wired control module or LOOP network system.
LOOP is Current’s expandable aquarium automation system linking lighting and water flow into one interface.
The perfect solution for an efficient, powerful yet quiet aquarium return pump.
eFlux DC Flow Pumps work seamlessly with Orbit IC LED lights and other eFlux pumps as part of a LOOP network. The eFlux Flow Pump has a feedback system that alerts you to a jam or malfunction.
The EFlux series of water pumps can be used externally or submerged. It has a 10-minute feeding mode, making feeding fish and corals easy. Three pump models are available with flow rates from 1050 to 3170 GPH.
The pump runs quietly and consumes very little electrical power.
- Sealed DC motor.
- Magnetic drive design.
- Quiet operation.
- Up to 65% in energy savings.
- Safe, low voltage 24V DC.
- LOOP compatible.
- Soft start gently ramps pump to speed.
- IC electronic detection protects pump if no water is present.
The Fluval Sea Sump Pump is aimed at marine aquarists with a sump filtration system.
The pump body includes a stabilizing base that prevents the pump from wandering around the sump.
Note that the Sea Pump series can also be plumbed directly to the sump for external use.
While the pump looks like a traditional powerhead, it contains updated technology.
Old fashioned pumps can spin in either direction when they start, causing noise and wear. Ordinary powerheads often “chatter” when switched on and off as a wave-maker.
Fluval’s “SmartPump” technology includes directional start-up, eliminating the chatter and stalled impeller problems. A thermal switch protects the motor from overheating if run dry.
The impeller and bearing are made from alumina ceramic to prevents calcium build-up, common in saltwater applications. The idea is to reduce maintenance and have a longer operating life.
The Sea Pump range has three models with a flow rate from 950 – 3434 GPH.
- Input/Output Diameter: 1".
- Barbed Connection: 1".
- Flow Rate: 1822GPH.
- Power Consumption: 88W.
- Flow Rate at 4.5 feet: 1275 GPH.
- Thread Sizes: 1" NPT.
- Max. Head Pressure: 11.8 feet.
- Dimensions: 4.5"L x 7.5"W x 7.5"H.
The DCP 4000 is a controllable DC water pump.
The wired controller features 10 pre-programmed speed settings.
There is also a feed delay button that shuts the flow rate down so you can feed corals.
The motor slowly speeds up for a “soft start.”
The water pump can be run submerged or externally. The DCP 4000 comes with a series of hose barbs to make connecting everything up easy.
The impeller rides on a ceramic shaft for smooth, quiet operation. The maximum flow rate is 1,056 GPH but that is at zero head height. The flow rate vs head height curve is not available.
The pump senses when the water level is too low and will shut down the motor as a safety feature. The electronics also sense if the impeller is blocked, shutting down the pump.
- Max Flow: 1,056 GPH.
- Max Head: 13 FT.
- Dimensions: 6" W x 3" L x 4" H.
- Hose barbs: ¾” to 1 ½”.
Little Giant is known for building basic “workhorse” water pumps for ponds, aquariums and industrial applications.
The 4-MDQX-SC is designed to be used externally on freshwater and saltwater aquariums.
The water pump is AC-powered with no speed control, soft start or feeding mode. The pumps in this series features a leakproof, seal-less magnetic drive and a relatively quiet operation.
The MDQX series is intended for free-flow setups, with very little back pressure. This means the pumps are good for circulation, not for pumping water through a filtration system with media. The motor is thermally protected and comes with a 6' power cord.
- Flow: 1325 GPH @ 1'.
- Max Head: 17'.
- Watts: 145 W.
- Dimensions: 5.5" W x 5.3" H x 11” L.
- Intake: 1" FNPT.
- Discharge: 1/2" MNPT with barbs for 1-1/4" I.D. tubing.
Iwaki is a Japanese water pump company known for making reliable, high-quality water pumps.
The MD40 RLXT is popular with freshwater and marine aquarists.
The MD designations means the electric pump motor is made in Japan.
The RLXT designation means the pump is designed for low pressure applications.
The MD40 RLXT is perfect for moving water through a sump or wet/dry return pump. The Iwaki design uses a unique double bearing system with a liquid cooling circuit that continually floods the front and rear radial bearings. This feature contributes to a longer bearing life. Special fluoropolymer bearings minimize mechanical failures typical of low-priced magnetic drive pumps.
Iwaki’s high purity silica carbide radial bearings are extremely durable and resistant to saltwater attack. PTFE front thrust surfaces and coupled with a large rear thrust surface prevents gas entrapment and cavitation that can reduce efficiency and cause micro-bubbles in the water.
The electric motor uses dynamically balanced barium ferrite drive magnets that provide high torque and quiet, vibration-free running. The MD40 RXLT has a real-world flow rate of 1200 GPH at four feet of head.
The pump cannot be remotely controlled or used with a wired or wireless automation system. Iwaki pumps do not have a water level sensor so care must be taken not to let the pump run dry. This pump does not include a power plug. You will have to install it yourself.
- Inlet /Outlet1"/1" MPT.
- Flow Rate @ 4` Head: 1200 GPH.
- Max Head: 15.4 ft.
Pan World water pumps are designed and built by a former chief engineer from Iwaki-Japan, makers of high-quality water pumps for aquariums and industry.
The company was founded in Tokyo in 1986. The Pan World pumps were introduced to the US in 2002.
Pan World takes the same reliable Iwaki engineering know-how and incorporates the same technology into the Pan World magnetic water pumps, but at a more economical price point.
The 150PS is designed for external use, plumbed through a filter sump or external filtration system. The speed is non-adjustable. The maximum flow rate is 1100 gph at zero head, but real-life flow rates are approximately 600 gph at 10 feet of head. The pump is comparable to the popular Iwaki 55RLT.
The pump is designed to run quietly with no vibration. The impeller cover can be removed for easy cleaning. The pump, unlike the Iwaki range, comes pre-wired and ready to use. The 150PS is compatible with fresh and salt water.
- Max Flow: 1100 GPH.
- Max Head: 28ft.
- Power: 180W.
- Fittings (Inlet/Outlet): 1" MPT / 1" MPT.
- Dimensions (L x W x H): 12" x 5" x 6.5".
- 1-year warranty.
The Reeflo Dart/Snapper hybrid aquarium pump is intended for reef tanks and freshwater aquariums that require powerful water pumps for water movement and filtration.
The external pump is installed on a sump or plumbed directly into a filtration system.
This pump is made in the USA and features a high-quality Baldor pump for cool, energy efficient operation.
The Dart/Snapper pump is not controllable but comes with two different impellers, each with a different flow rate capacity. The Dart impeller makes 3600 GPH. The Snapper impeller makes 2600 GPH. This allows you to select the flow rate and pressure needed for your aquarium.
Reeflo pumps are often installed on commercial systems because the pumps are durable and energy-efficient. The hybrid pump consumes only 105 watts. Used strictly for water circulation, the pump uses only 90 watts.
Powerful pumps are usually noisy but the Reeflo is very quiet. The Dart/Snapper Hybrid is larger than most at 11-inches long. But if you have the space, these pumps are highly rated by professionals and hobbyists alike. The 12-foot power cord is a welcome addition.
The ReeFlo Dart/Snapper is rated for tanks between 50 and 500-gallons. The Dart/Snapper has a 3-year warranty.
- Max Flow: Dart 3600 GPH, Snapper 2600 GPH.
- Max Head: 12 Ft.
- Inlet: 2 FNPT”.
- Output: 1½” FNPT.
- Dimensions: 11" L x 6.6" W x 7" T.
The Reef Octopus VarioS-6 water pump may be small in size but it is packed with high-end features.
It can be run externally or submerged.
This DC-controllable water pump allows you to control the speed of the impeller, which regulates the water flow rate.
The Reef Octopus VarioS-6 Controllable Water Pump has five water flow presets indicated by LED lights.
The DC-powered pump also has two special “Feed/Service” preset that shuts down the pump for 15 or 60 minutes, then automatically starts up again. The soft start feature slowly increases pump RPM to provide a natural, stress-free water flow.
The pump motor has a two-year warranty. The VarioS-6 is a cool, quiet pump popular with reef aquarists. Safety float switch protects the pump from running dry and burning out the motor. The Vario-S series is compatible with third-party controllers.
- Max Flow: 1720 GPH.
- Max Head: 16 FT.
- Dimensions: 3.9" W x 6.25" L x 5.5" H.
- Input: 1.25" Male Union Thread.
- Output: 32mm/1.25" (barb/pvc coupling).
- Wattage: 70W.
- Voltage: 36V DC.
- Cable Length: 6 FT.
- Pump Warranty: 2 Years. Rotor Warranty: 1 year.
Return Pump Recommendations
By now you’ve seen that there are several key features with which you can compare water pumps. These include:
- Power: AC or DC,
- Pump speed and Flow control (DC only),
- Flow rate,
- Single speed pump (AC power),
- Energy consumption (DC is more efficient),
- Water level sensor to prevent pump running dry,
- Feeding mode that temporarily reduces flow (DC only),
- Submersible vs. external-only installation,
- Wired vs. wireless control,
- Automation and programming compatible.
All of these factors should be considered when shopping for a return flow water pump.
Basic saltwater fish and freshwater aquariums don’t always benefit from the super-accurate speed control, wave programming and feeding modes of the DC water pumps.
A planted aquarium is the exception where water movement could be adjusted for plant density, leaf size and height.
Reef aquarists, with the desire for ultimate control of water flow patterns and aquarium automation are prime candidates for DC return pumps.
The Hagen Fluval SP4 Sea series is a compact, simple water pump that is at home in saltwater and freshwater sump systems. If you have a sump and need an economical water pump, take a close look at the Sea Pump line.
For larger freshwater and marine tanks that simply need to pump a lot of water, the Pan World 150PS is a nice balance of power, quality and price. If you you’re willing to spend more and want the Japanese-made motor, go for the Iwaki MD40RLXT or similar MD series of low-pressure return pumps.
For the ultimate in flow control, any of the DC return pumps will work in a reef or planted aquarium. When making a selection, consider which brand offers integration into an aquarium automation system.
The Reef Octopus VarioS-6 is compatible with third-party controllers. Current’s eFlux DC Flow Pumps can link up to the LOOP control system, which integrates Current LED fixtures into one App-controlled command center.
If your goal is to build an automated lighting, dosing and water flow system it is helpful to select one brand of equipment so it all speaks the same language and communicates properly, or is known to be compatible with other controllers and automation systems.
For reef aquariums the trend is defiantly toward DC pumps and automation. But if all you want is flow control and a feeding mode, consider the Jecod/Jebao DCP 4000. It has these features plus a low-water sensor that will protect the pump.