Aquarium Pumps – What To Use & Where

There are so many types of pumps you can use in your aquarium but what kind of pump do you need? Each pump type has been designed for a specific purpose and some are even capable of performing multiple roles. This article is going to break down the types and where its best to use each one.

The Most Common Types of Aquarium Pump are:

  • Submersible Power Heads
  • Wave Makers
  • Internal Water Pumps
  • External Water Pumps
  • Dosing Pumps
  • Air Pumps

By the end of this article you will be familiar with all the types of pump, what each one is used for, how to size one and the best way to mount one so next time your looking for a new aquarium pump you will know exactly what to get!

What Types Of Aquarium Pump Are Available?

Submersible Power Heads

These are by far the most common type of aquarium pump and most commonly known and used by all aquarists, freshwater especially.
MaxiJets are a common term used to describe these, even though MaxiJet is a brand of powerhead from Marineland, it has seemed to encompass all these styles of pump.

The submersible pumps of this type usually come as a Hybrid that can be used in 4 ways:-

  • As a Water Pump to move water to an item of equipment like a media reactor.
  • As an External Water Pump to move water from one container to another
  • As a Fixed Flow powerhead to increase water flow in the aquarium to prevent dead spots
  • As a Fixed Flow powerhead with a venturi to suck in air and blow bubbles and water in the aquarium – Freshwater Use Only

FLOW – You can find this type of pump in a range of flow sizes from tiny 50GPH (Gallons Per Hour)/190LPH (Liters Per Hour) up to around 1200GPH from a slew of manufacturers.

PRICE – They generally range in price depending on the flowrate/size of the pump starting from around $5 from the Chinese manufacturers, up to $35.00 for the Cobalt Brand.

USES – Water Flow in an aquarium, Water supply to equipment, Saltwater mixing, Water transfer.

MORE INFO – You can find more information Here at

Aquarium Wave Makers

Most of these types of pumps will be controlled by some kind of pump controller or aquarium controller to alter the on/off time, the speed/flow of the pump and also linking it to other pumps to work as a team or as individuals.

Within Wave Makers are various types of pump:

  • Fixed Flow
  • DC Controllable Pumps
    • Controllable Powerheads
    • 2 Part Magnetic Pumps
    • Gyre Pumps
    • Waveboxes

Fixed Flow Aquarium Pumps

Usually referred to as circulation pumps, these are pumps are designed to move large amounts of water at a set flow rate. You plug them in, they run, unplug them, they stop.

They are the simplest wavemaker on the market and by purchasing several and pointing them correctly you can create random flow patterns with ease.

The Koralia Range From Hydor
The Turbelle Stream Range From Tunze

To create even more random flow required for corals, many aquarists link these ‘Dumb’ pumps to a simple ‘Flip-Flop’ controller like the one below:

JBJ Ocean Pulse Plus Wave Controller

By using the pump controller above and 2 powerheads or circulation pumps you can set up a wave-making system in your aquarium for under $60 with small MaxiJets or Koralias.

FLOW – You can find this type of pump in a range of flow sizes from tiny 250GPH for nano aquariums up to +3000GPH for large aquariums.

PRICE – They generally range in price depending on the flowrate/size of the pump starting from around $25 for nano-sized pumps up to $170 for the high-flow pumps from Tunze.

USES – Water Circulation, Wave Making, Frag Tanks

BRANDS – Hydor Koralia, JBJ Oceanstream, Tunze Turbelle Stream, Sicce Voyager

MORE INFO – You can find more information Here at

Controllable DC Aquarium Pumps

These form the basis of 95% of the wave-making pump technology. Each pump has a DC electric motor that plugs into a dedicated pump controller or an aquarium controller like the Neptune Apex which then controls the frequency of when the pump is on, the speed at which the pump turns and also links in with other connected pumps to work them as a team or individually.

Within this family of controllable DC pumps are several pump types:

Controllable Powerheads

Controllable powerheads are all DC controlled pumps that can be used individually or linked together to form a team of pumps. They are all controlled by their manufacturer’s pump controller or if able, they can be linked and controlled to an aquarium controller like the Neptune Systems Apex Aquarium Controller.

The controllers will adust the on/off times and flow rates to each pump and can be programmed with different modes to simulate varying current patterns found in the ocean.

A Selection Of Flow Modes

There are many different sizes, style and brands of DC controllable pumps to suit every aquarium and budget. Follow the MORE INFO links to see just how many there are!

2 Part Magnetic Aquarium Pumps

This category of pumps is exclusively owned by the patent-protected EcoTech VorTech range of wavemakers. The pump is in two halves. The motor sits on the outside of the aquarium and the propeller housing sits inside the aquarium.

Ecotech VorTech Range Of Wave Makers

This has two advantages:

  1. No wires are seen inside the aquarium
  2. Heat created by the motor is not transferred into the water.

These pumps are fully controllable by their EcoTech controller and create excellent, strong, random flow patterns necessary for thriving corals.
The MP range is also controllable by Neptune Apex Aquarium Controllers.

FLOW – The VorTech range from EcoTech come in 3 sizes: +1500GPH for MP10, +4500GPH for MP40 & +7500GPH for the MP60.

PRICE – They are expensive pumps but are very good quality. MP10 = $299.99ea, MP40 = $366.50ea, MP60 = $699.99

USES – Water Circulation, Wave Making, Frag Tanks

MORE INFO – You can find more information Here at


Gyres are a very different style of pump and they work in a very different way to the normal propeller style of pump. The gyre moves water in a laminar flow, meaning it moves sheets of water instead of jets of water.

Gyre’s move tremendous amounts of water and the slim design of the pumps help them disappear into the background of an aquarium. Gyres are perfect for large aquariums with a lot of water volume to turnover or peninsular style aquariums where owners do not want to see pumps on any of the 3 viewing sides.

2 gyres mounted vertically on either side of the overflow working on opposite cycles is a typical installation solution.

Gyre Peninsular Mounting Example

Gyres are all DC pumps that come with their own controller or can be linkable to aquarium controllers like the Neptune Apex.

FLOW – You can find this type of pump in a range of flow sizes from 750GPH up to around 5200GPH.

PRICE – They generally range in price depending on if you only require the pump head to attach to your own aquarium controller or a pump and controller kit. From $130.00ea

USES – Water Circulation, Wave Making, Frag Tanks

BRANDS – Maxspect Gyre, Icecap Gyre

MORE INFO – You can find more information Here at

Wave Boxes

A wave box is a superb device for creating a real wave that goes across your aquarium. Tunze Wave Boxes are the hobby standard and are designed to create really good water motion while staying discreetly out of sight.

Tunze Wavebox
Tunze Wavebox

Water fills the box and the pump ejects the water at a predetermined pulse. Using the controller you are able to select the power of the wave and tune the cycle time to create the perfect wave motion in your aquarium.

The wave boxes stick to the back corners/sides of the aquarium using a magnetic mounting system with rubber anti-vibration pads to keep it running silent. They are best used in larger aquariums where moving large volumes of water are required.

FLOW – Wave boxes are sized based on the aquarium rather than flow. Most are sized for 100-370 gallon aquariums.

PRICE – A wave box with pump and included controller are around $300

USES – Water Circulation, Wave Making, Frag Tanks

BRANDS – Tunze

MORE INFO – You can find more information Here at

Internal Aquarium Water Pumps

Also known as submersible pumps these are a pump designed to be constantly submerged to suck in the surrounding water and pump it to the aquarium of a piece of equipment.

Most internal/submersible pumps are used in sump-based aquariums as the return pump to move water back to the aquarium after flowing down to and through the sump.

Eheim Non-Controllable Submersible Pump
Aqua Medic DC Controlled Submersible Pump

Some return pumps like the Eheim range above can be used internally or plumbed to run externally if required. Some pumps are DC controlled so their flow rate can be adjusted to suit the application, but most are just ‘Dumb’ pumps. Plug them in and let them run.

The main characteristic of the internal/submersible pump is that they are designed to pump water up high. The height each pump will pump to will be listed in its specification data along with the flow that pump will deliver at that height. The higher the water has to be pumped, the lower the flow rate will become.

Aquarium Sump with Return
A Typical Sump With Internal Return Pump Setup

The majority of internal/submersible water pumps are designed for pumping to head heights under 10ft high. Usually, these pumps will sit in a sump in the stand under the aquarium. For pumping to greater heights, for instance from a filter room in the basement, a more powerful external water pump may likely be required.

FLOW – From small 50GPH pumps for use in All-In-One Aquariums with no head pressure up to +6000GPH or 45ft head pressure producing Goliaths.

PRICE – Small pumps begin around $10 up to $2600 for the Abyzz A Series pumps

USES – Water Circulation, Water Return, Water Mixing, Water Transfer

MORE INFO – You can find more information Here at

External Aquarium Water Pumps

External pumps are pumps that CANNOT be submerged underwater. They usually consist of an electric motor mounted to a pump housing, although some internal pumps can be plumbed externally and even controlled to help provide the optimum performance.

The internal/external pumps are getting better at their pumping efficiency up to some good head heights and even some of the DC controllable pumps are managing to pump up to 20ft. The pump you chose will all depend on the flow you require at the specific height above the pump.

Reeflo Snapper External Pump

To size an external pump correctly you need to match the flow required at the outlet to the model. Example: If my return pump is 17ft below the top rim of my aquarium and I need 1000gph at the nozzle, using the chart below I would need to purchase a Reeflo Barracuda or Hammerhead.


The external pumps can be more expensive, but if you have a remote filtration room or you need to run water up high, the external pumps will be the most cost-efficient way. If you do not have room to fit an external pump then you may have to look at some of the internal pumps with high head height capabilities.

The Beginners Reef Remote Sump Illustration
My Mockup When I Was Designing My System
My Actual Installation

FLOW – From 200GPH at zero head height up to 8500GPH or 55ft Head Height.

PRICE – From $110 up to $600 for a Dolphin Amp Master

USES – Water Circulation, Remote Filtration Rooms, Water Mixing, Water Transfer

MORE INFO – You can find more information Here at

Aquarium Dosing Pumps

Dosing pumps are a savior when you reach the point of having to add daily liquid supplements to your aquarium because your corals are consuming them faster than you can supply with water changes alone.

Dosing pumps come packaged as a single pump head or up to a 6-head unit. Each pump will move a set amount of fluid per minute and are usually very accurate. That rate can be anywhere from 1ml/minute up to hundreds of ml’s per minute.

BRS Dosing Pump
A Single Head Dosing Pump
Bubble Magnus Dosing Pump
A 3 Head Dosing Pump

Most single head dosing pumps can be controlled in 3 ways:

  • A ‘Dumb’ pump that just turns when power is applied. The way to control them is by using a plug-in digital timer that can be controlled to the minute. If the pump moves 2ml/minute and you need to dose 40ml, the pump will have to be on for 20 minutes.
  • If the pump is part of a manufacturer’s aquarium control series, the pump will need to be plugged into the aquarium controller and controlled by it. Setting up the dosing functions will be part of the software/interface.
  • The pump will have an integrated controller that will have an app/screen to allow you to set up the dosing functions.

Newer single-head and all multi-head dosing pump units will come with an integrated controller within the unit. This controller will look after each pump head and allow you to easily set up dosing amounts, multiple doses per day, pump calibration and possibly even an app-based user interface.

Some manufacturers also make multi-head dosing units with no controller built-in, these ‘Slave’ units can be added to a controlled dosing unit to increase the number of pumps to be controlled. This allows more fluids/supplements to be dosed.

3 Head Master Unit
4 Head Extension Slave Unit

FLOW – Each manufacturer has different pumping rates, and some can even have variable rates. Ranges start from 1.1ml/minute up to 120ml/min

PRICE – A Single head pump can start from around $50 up to $850 for a multi-head unit and controller

USES – Water Changes, Automatic Top-Off, Feeding, Supplemental Dosing

BRANDS – Bubble Magnus, Kamoer, Aqua Medic, Neptune Systems, GHL

MORE INFO – You can find more information Here at

Aquarium Air Pumps

If you are coming from the freshwater world you will know all about Air Pumps. If you are completely new to aquariums an air pump is exactly what it sounds like. It is a pump that delivers air into the water.

A Typical Single Outlet Air Pump

Oxygen in an aquarium is essential for organic life and when the oxygen begins to reduce, you will start to see fatalities. Air pumps in a freshwater aquarium are mainly used to provides decorative bubbles, or make the Pirates Treasure Chest open on a cycle.

In a reef aquarium, air bubbles cannot be tolerated by the livestock. Tiny microbubbles can be ingested by fish and corals and create problems that can lead to death.

For saltwater aquariums air pumps are mainly used during power outages to help maintain oxygen levels and when transporting fish long distances when moving house for instance.

Some air pumps are battery-powered which makes them ideal for car journeys, and a couple even have power monitoring ability so they automatically start up when the power goes out.

An Auto-On Battery Powered Air Pump

FLOW – The smaller air pumps will deliver 50l/hr for use in transport buckets, with bigger units having multiple outlets and up to tens liters per minute.

PRICE – The small units can be had from $5.00 up to $100 for large, multi-outlet high-pressure pumps

USES – Power OUtages, Fish Transportation, Oxygen Enrichment, Quarantine Tanks

BRANDS – Aqueon, Danner, Marina, Coralife, Eheim, ViaAqua

MORE INFO – You can find more information Here at

To Finish

There are many different types of pumps for use in both freshwater and saltwater aquarium systems. Each has a designed purpose and selecting the one that will suit your aquarium, budget and control requirements is an easy process with the vast selection in each type.

For more information on Aquarium Controllers, please Click Here to go to my article on them.

Further Reading

To help with proving even greater detail into some of the pumps mentioned above you may find the following articles helpful:

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Hi, I'm Richard and I have been an avid aquarist for over 30 years with a passion for Saltwater Aquariums. I love to pass on my knowledge to help others get the same amount a pleasure out of this hobby as I do. View my About Me page to find out more about me & my mixed reef aquarium.

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