Using Powerheads For Water Circulation In Saltwater Aquariums

Benefits of Using Powerheads

saltwater aquarium

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Powerheads are electrical units with motors that are sealed to allow them to be submerged. They can be used for purposes such as driving an under gravel filter. The larger high-performance units similar to the Rio 2100 or 2500 can be used for pumping water through a wet/dry trickle filter or running a venturi type protein skimmer. For basic aquarium water circulation, powerheads can easily be hung or mounted on the back or side walls of an aquarium. They are economical, fairly inexpensive, and can be beneficial to the health of your aquarium in many ways.

The Benefits of Using Powerheads

  • Powerheads provide important water circulation and oxygenation in the aquarium, far more efficiently than the bubbles from air stones do.
  • The more your tank water is circulated and filtered, the better the water quality is in the aquarium.
  • They help to keep detritus and other tank matter from settling on the bottom of the tank. Powerhead circulation permits the majority of these particulates to be circulated or suspended, allowing them to be filtered out by a mechanical filter.
  • They aid in the health of the tank inhabitants. Water moving over the animals helps to carry oxygen to them, brings food to stationary animals, and stimulates animal activity. Many corals and anemones do not do well in high current areas, while others thrive on good strong current. Position them appropriately in your tank.
  • The water movement and current provided by powerheads are a source of exercise for fish.
  • Powerheads can help deter the growth of algae, as some types grow better in calmer, less turbulent water.
  • Don't go with an off the wall brand name. Choose ones made by respected manufacturers, such as Hagen (Aquaclear), Marineland (Penguin), Aquarium Systems (Maxi-Jet) and Rio (read product reviews & compare prices), that are time-tested, reliable, and most likely won't burn out in a short period of time. These units may cost a little more than the bargain brands, but worth the investment.
  • Choose a powerhead that is properly epoxy sealed and moisture proof to ensure no electrical leakage into the aquarium.
  • Be sure the powerhead you choose is saltwater safe!
  • Pick a powerhead that can be taken apart and put back together easily. The unwanted matter at times can enter the impeller area and needs to be removed. Look for ease of cleaning to prevent restricted water flow, which in turn can lead to the unit burning out prematurely from overheating.
  • Choose a powerhead that you can order and replace the parts on. Periodically parts may need to be replaced after prolonged use of the unit. Once again, pick a powerhead that can be taken apart and put back together easily.
  • Be sure the powerhead has a strainer or screen of some type that covers the water intake hole to prevent unwary tank inhabitants from getting sucked into it. Check the size grid of the holes on the strainer and choose the larger sized one. Ones that are too small can slow the water intake. This can be further complicated by tank matter clinging to the strainer. This clogs the unit creating even more restricted water flow, and overheats it prematurely decreasing the life of the unit. Overheating units can also add an extra unwanted heat source in the aquarium.
  • Some powerheads have switches for adjusting the water rate up, down, or in a reverse flow. If you want less current in a particular area of your aquarium, you can opt to turn down the water flow automatically.
  • A directional water flow diffuser attachment is useful. This allows you to direct the water flow where you want it to go.

Flow Rates

  • You want to aim at turning over the tank water at least 6-10 times per hour. Many aquarists feel that you cannot have too much water movement, and now days striving for a 15-20 times per hour ratio is not unheard of. We feel this is not necessary for a fish-only tank but is beneficial for a reef tank. You want to give the tank sufficient water movement and circulation, but not so much that the fish can't move against the currents, or the other tank inhabitants are getting battered by it.

Powerhead Positioning

  • For small aquariums under 20 gallons, you can use one larger sized powerhead. Better yet, use two smaller ones at opposite ends of the aquarium.
  • For medium and large sized aquariums you can use two, three, or more units at various and opposing positions around the aquarium.
  • For the extra large, show-sized aquariums, you can use as many as you feel it takes to get the water circulation you need.

Many aquarists choose to use wavemakers accompanied by controlling devices to regulate the timing of the powerheads. Setting the powerheads to turn off and on at different times and intervals help to create wave motion, as well as circulate the water. Oscillating units, such as Seaswirl by Ocean Currents, create random water currents by continually rotating powerheads, and can be attached to a powerhead you may already have.


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  1. Aquarium Water Quality: Dissolved Oxygen. Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services