How to Position Circulation Pumps and Wave Makers in your Aquarium?

Water movement plays a key role in maintaining fish health in freshwater and marine aquariums. Good water movement is also essential for aquatic plants, corals and even live rock! There are many benefits to increasing water movement in your aquarium with circulation pumps and wavemakers.

We’ll explain the benefits of water movement and how to best position pumps and wavemakers in freshwater and marine aquariums.

Positioning powerheads in freshwater aquariums

If you have a freshwater aquarium with ornaments and plastic plants your main goal is to keep the water moving enough to prevent the accumulation of debris in the corners of the tank, behind ornaments and other decorations.

Dirty aquariums have more disease issues than clean aquariums. If you are using a hang-on-the-back filter, it will be positioned on one side of the back of the aquarium. Water flow will be limited to one side of the tank.

Improve the water circulation by adding a powerhead. Position the powerhead so it pumps water from the back of the tank and hits the front glass. This will complement the water flow pattern of the filter. This technique flushes every corner of the tank with water and helps keep the aquarium clean.

The AquaClear Powerhead 20 is easily positioned in the aquarium and has an adjustable flow rate. The venturi system can also be used to aerate the water.

The planted tank setup​

A freshwater planted aquarium has a different water flow requirement.

Aquatic plants thrive when they are surrounded by a gentle water flow. Aquatic plants absorb carbon dioxide and nutrients through leaves and stems. When there is insufficient water movement across the leaf surface, a stagnant layer forms.

This means your plants are not efficiently adsorbing carbon dioxide and nutrients or releasing oxygen into the water. Plant growth will become stunted and algae can take over the plants.

Aquatic plants don’t need strong water flow or waves moving back and forth. Position a basic power head so your plants are gently washed in the current but not bent over due to extreme water movement.

Avoid causing a lot of turbulence at the water surface. This will drive off carbon dioxide and reduce plant growth. Consider positioning the water pumps a little lower in the aquarium to avoid loss of CO2.

The Hydor Centrifugal All Purpose Pump comes in several flow rates and is designed to create gentle water flow throughout the aquarium. The suction cup mounting system makes it easy to position the pump anywhere in the tank.

Water movement in a fish-only marine aquarium

A saltwater aquarium containing only fish will benefit from improved water flow within the tank. Fish-only aquariums decorated with synthetic resin corals and other items that block water flow and allow debris to pile up behind them.

Adding a powerhead or circulation pump will keep debris suspended so it can be captured by the aquarium filter. Like a freshwater aquarium, all you want to do is keep the corners and back side of the aquarium flushed and clean.

If you have positioned the outflow of a canister filter on one side of the tank, aim the circulation pump toward the other side. Take a look where debris tends to accumulate in the tank. Adjust the position of the water pump so it forces water into that area.

If you have a large aquarium you may need two smaller pumps instead of a single large water pump. The SunSun JVP-202 Dual Wavemaker Pump has twin water pumps with rotatable nozzles. This allows you to direct water flow in two directions while only mounting a single pump on the glass.

Using circulation pumps and wave makers in a reef aquarium

A reef aquarium containing live rock, corals, and other invertebrates requires specialized water movement. The porous surface of live rock is home to millions of bacteria responsible for breaking down ammonia, nitrite, and nitrate.

Water carrying these pollutants must come in contact with the bacteria colonies on the rock and be broken down. Water movement brings these dissolved pollutants to the rock so the bacteria can do their job.

Corals and other filter-feeding invertebrates can’t move around the tank in search of food. Water movement brings natural plankton and prepared foods to the invertebrates.

Water movement in the reef is essential for flushing waste products away from coral polyps and keeping them free of solid debris. Natural sediments can accumulate on live rock, smothering the beneficial bacteria.

In nature, the reef is subjected to tides and waves that keep the intricate reef structure clean, well-fed and healthy. Fortunately, reef-keepers have purpose-built reef circulation pumps and wavemakers designed just for this purpose.

Circulation pumps will bath a specific target area with a high volume of water. It’s more about volume than sheer force. These point-and-shoot water pumps should be sized to the job.

If you’re pointing it directly at an SPS colony you probably don’t need the largest model pump to get the job done.

Aim the circulation pump so it covers the desired area without blasting the coral off the live rock. Better yet, use a wavemaker to create pulse water surges instead of constant flow.

The Maxspect Gyre XF-230 is a programmable wave maker system. The Gyre pump creates a unique wide horizontal flow pattern the washes the reef with water.

If using a single wave maker just position it to push water where it is needed. If you’re using multiple pumps to create opposing surges, position the water pumps so the surges complement each other.

The wireless Ecotech Marine Quiet Drive circulation pump gives you controllable water flow anywhere in the tank. The pump motor sits outside the tank and is coupled to the pump magnetically through the glass.

This has the benefit of keeping the motor heat out of the aquarium water. You’ll have to experiment with pump positions, duration, and other settings until you get the effect you need.

Final thoughts

Increasing water movement in your aquarium will result in many benefits. Your aquarium will be cleaner and healthier. The fish and invertebrates will enjoy the water movement and behave like they would in nature.

Water movement also helps with gas exchange at the water surface and is especially beneficial in fish only aquariums. Your aquarium filter will work more efficiently and keep your aquarium cleaner and healthier!

If you are interested in learning more, don't miss my selection of high-quality wave makers reviewed! Let me know what you think in the comments below!