A wavemaker might not be the first thing on your mind when starting a new aquarium, but water flow is one of the most important aspects of a successful ecosystem.
There are a few things to consider when buying a wavemaker, like power, pattern, and of course, price. Too strong of a wavemaker can make swimming difficult for fish and even tear at the flesh of corals and plants while not enough flow can cause algae and dead zones.
Keep reading to find out everything you need to know about wavemakers, how to find the right one for your tank, and the best available options in your price range for your freshwater or saltwater tank!
What is an aquarium wavemaker?
A wavemaker is also usually referred to as a powerhead, though the two are slightly different.
A wavemaker does what it sounds like it would do and attempts to recreate the motion of waves or water flow in an aquarium setting. This is done by a motorized propeller that creates an ebb and flow of water in the tank, moving a much broader and less focused wave.
In comparison, powerheads move concentrated water in one direction and are best used in pairs where each is creating turbulence against the other.
Both wavemakers and powerheads look pretty similar to each other, but the desired result in the aquarium is quite different. Wavemakers are good for creating back and forth movement while powerheads can be used to reach stagnant areas of the tank and to help move water past equipment, like a heater or a UV sterilizer.
Should you use a wavemaker in a freshwater aquarium?
While a wavemaker isn’t usually necessary in a freshwater aquarium, there are many benefits that come with using one.
In most cases, wavemakers and powerheads are commonly used in saltwater setups because those fish are used to swimming against such currents and the corals need ample flow to be carried debris and nutrients for food.
However, in a freshwater setup, many of the fish are that much smaller and come from stagnant or near stand-still water conditions. Too much flow can make it difficult for your fish to swim and can even start to injure live plants.
If you do have a densely planted tank though, you might need that flow to keep dead zones from happening in your aquarium where detritus piles up.
If you’re experiencing dead zones in your aquarium, then you will need to position the wavemaker such that it isn’t overly affecting fish, but still creating water movement through the areas needed; keep in mind that some freshwater fish love swimming against the current as well!
What are the benefits of using a wavemaker?
The main benefits of using a wavemaker or powerhead are creating circulation in the tank, introducing new oxygen and facilitating gas exchange, and simulating a natural environment for fish, invertebrates, plants, and corals.
While your filter might have a high return rate that looks like it reaches all corners of the tank, the flow tends to be unidirectional and concentrated. A powerhead or wavemaker can help break up this uniform flow, preventing dead zones and introducing circulation to untouched areas of the aquarium.
Wavemakers and powerheads can also help facilitate gas exchange. One way of doing this is by pointing the equipment to the surface of the water, however, this can cause an increase in evaporation rates. If the gas exchange is being facilitated otherwise, then circulation equipment will help move those gases throughout the tank.
Lastly, extra water flow will make your aquatic life feel more at home, provide additional nutrient intake and output, and help prevent algae from growing. Always make sure to understand the flow needed by your fish, plants, and corals in order to give them the best chances at thriving in your home aquarium system.
How to choose a wavemaker for your freshwater or saltwater aquarium
Many wavemakers are rated with how gallons per hour (GPH) they turnover. Keep in mind that total GPH also includes filtration and any other equipment that is circulating the water.
In general, freshwater aquariums need a 5-10X turnover rate, with more heavily planted tanks needing the higher end of that range.
The turnover rate for saltwater aquariums is a little more complex and each hobbyist has a different success story. In general, a 5-10X turnover rate is also ideal for most saltwater fish tanks that only have fish in them or that have soft corals and/or large polyp stony corals.
On the other hand, more advanced tanks that have small polyp stony corals, like Acropora, need anywhere up to 50X turnover. Of course, each tank is different and the flow needed will largely be determined by the layout, the equipment being used, and overall maintenance.
What is the difference between an expensive wavemaker and an inexpensive one?
There are a few main differences between expensive wavemakers and inexpensive ones, though they might not be apparent to beginner hobbyists.
First, you want to consider the quality of the design and the materials used. Most average and above average-quality pumps will use magnet mounts and should have some physical weight to them.
If your wavemaker or powerhead feels cheap, it probably is; budget might even reflect in the length of the power cable, which can surprisingly become frustrating over time.
Also, consider that pumps made from high-quality materials also usually come with a prefilter foam and/or separate controller interface. While more premium powerheads and wavemakers might not have these accessories, it’s typically a good sign if they come with them.
Next, you will want to consider the spread of flow and water flow settings available. Though some lower-quality pumps might have a strong water flow, this does not necessarily mean that they are good pumps. What you actually want in your tank are natural water currents that gently collide to create random movement.
A good powerhead or wavemaker should have different settings for water flow intensity, frequency, and even an on/off button. The flow should not be overly concentrated, but the motor should be able to give more if needed; the pump should constantly be able to meet the gallons per hour it is programmed to do.
Last, and probably one of the biggest differences between expensive and inexpensive pumps, is reliability. It’s no secret that most aquarium equipment has problems with reliability, but shopping for a slightly more expensive and known-brand product can help decrease the odds of a malfunction.
You do not need to get top-of-the-line products to ensure reliability. You can easily find an aquarium powerhead for your saltwater or freshwater tank at a reasonable price. The best way to do this is by reading reviews and knowing exactly what would fit your tank best.
Best wavemakers for your freshwater or saltwater aquarium
Shopping for wavemakers can be hard and things can get expensive fast. Luckily today, there are more options than ever to help you make the right choice for your aquarium without spending a fortune.
We have compiled a list of the most popular and reliable wavemakers based on customer reviews, hobbyist experiences, customizability, and price.
VORTECH® PROPELLER PUMP – MP10wQD, MP40wQD, MP60wQD
Some of the most popular and most expensive wavemakers currently available are from the MP series by EcoTech VorTech. These models have everything you could hope for in a water circulator for your aquarium but come with a hefty price tag.
EcoTech offers three different flow rates: MP10wQD Flow (2,500 GPH), MP40wQD Flow (5,000 GPH), and MP60wQD Flow (9,000 GPH).
They can be programmed to Lagoon Mode, Reef Crest Mode, Gyre Mode, Short Pulse Mode, Tidal Swell Mode, or Nutrient Transport Mode and can change functions for Feed Mode, Night Mode, and Wave Auto-Tune.
These aquarium wavemakers are compact and seamless with a magnetic suction, leaving no cords in the tank. They create a wide flow that is easily customized for the specific tank, eliminating dead zones, especially in larger aquariums.
While these pumps are the industry standard right now, they are very expensive and most hobbyists can find a cheaper alternative that might be slightly less reliable.
The only main problem aquarium keepers have with EcoTech VorTech propeller pumps is that the magnetic mount is prone to cracking and letting water in, leading to rust. However, with proper maintenance and choosing from the latest models, this problem has nearly become obsolete.
What we like:
- Top-of-the-line quality, design, and reliability
- Several flow rates and modes for complete control over aquarium settings
- Sleek and compact design with minimal cordage
What could be better:
- The magnetic mount has a tendency to crack in earlier models with poor maintenance
- One of the most expensive powerhead products on the market
Current USA eFlux Accessory Wave Pump | Ultra Quiet, Compact Size, Compatible with Loop | for Marine & Freshwater Aquariums
- EASY TO ADD- Add an eFlux accessory wave pump to any Orbit IC LED light* or eFlux Wave Pump Kit and your ready to control and synchronize.
- ADJUSTABLE DIRECTION- The adjustable swivel bracket provides directional water flow precisely where you need it most.
The Current USA eFlux Accessory Wave Pump is a very popular choice for hobbyists who already use Current USA products, like their line of aquarium lights.
These wave pumps come in three options rated for 660 GPH, 1050 GPH, and 2100 GPH and can be programmed for several settings: Wave Pulse, Surge Flow, Steady Stream, and Feed Mode; these settings can later be customized for flow intensity (0-100%) and Surge/Pulse frequency with the Current LOOP system.
These pumps are designed with a magnetic bracket for a secure and minimal attachment to the side of the aquarium. Inside the aquarium, they come with a foam prefilter to avoid injury to fish and invertebrates and are mounted on a swivel bracket to be positioned for the best flow for the aquarium.
While the overall design of Current USA eFlux Wave Pumps is sleek, the power supply is very bulky which can be difficult to fit onto extension cords. Many hobbyists have found the pump to be noisy, despite the silicon padding between the motor and the side of the aquarium, and underpowered for the turnover rate they are rated for.
While Current’s customer service is usually easily reached and accomodating, these pumps do tend to die within the first year of use, and even quicker if not cleaned and maintained. Hobbyists can run into problems controlling the equipment if their LOOP controller experiences problems as well.
What we like:
- Three turnover options with further customizable flow and modes
- Compatible with Current LOOP products for easy and universal controlling
- Compact design with foam prefilter
What could be better:
- Unreliable in the longterm
- Complaints of excessive noise, being underpowered, and large power supply
- Can be difficult to control if LOOP system fails
Jebao OW Wave Maker Flow Pump with Controller for Marine Reef Aquarium
Most hobbyists have found that the Jebao OW Wave Maker Flow Pump is one of the best wavemakers for your money, even though it is slightly outdated. At the same time, there is a high chance that this product will fail on you.
There is a love/hate relationship with Jebao in the aquarium industry, as some hobbyists have great success with these products while others have problem after problem. If you’re willing to take the chance, then you will have three models to choose from OW-10 (132-1056 GPH), OW-40 (317-3962 GPH), and OW-50 (449-5283 GPH).
These pumps have eight different modes, a wired controller, and a magnet mount. They are usually very quiet and compact in size. Many hobbyists find that these wavemakers are more powerful than what they are rated even at their lowest settings, which can cause some issues with livestock.
On average, these pumps last 2-3 years, however, many aquarium keepers have complaints of this product lasting less than 6 months and becoming a fire hazard. One of the best ways to avoid this is by regularly cleaning your Jebao wavemaker and making sure wires are fully out of reach from the saltwater.
Otherwise, some hobbyists use this product for years on end without any problems at all.
What we like:
- Comparable product to more top-of-the-line wavemakers for half the price
- Many GPH options with several modes and intensities for the right settings for your aquarium
- Easy to pair with other Jebao products
- Compact, silent design
What could be better:
- Prone to breaking after a couple of months
- Instructions very difficult to read, making the pump hard to program
- Needs to be cleaned regularly to maintain proper functionality
- Sometimes too powerful for the rated GPH
IceCap Powerhead 2K Gyre Pond Pump, Cross Flow Submersible Water Pump for Aquariums
If you’ve been in the aquarium hobby the last couple of years, you may have noticed an increase in the popularity of gyre powerhead systems. The IceCap Powerhead 2K Gyre Pond Pump is a few years older than previous models, but it tends to have fewer issues.
The IceCap Powerhead 2K Gyre has a 739-2,000 GPH water flow rate and can be matched with the 1K, 3K, or 4K models. It is designed with two dual heads for a broader flow and more customizable circulation of water. It is mounted on waterproof magnets and can be placed horizontally or vertically.
While gyres are becoming popular pumps for aquariums, there are still a lot of issues with them and a risk for tight budgets. The main problem with these designs is that they need to be cleaned regularly to ensure that flow doesn’t slow; most hobbyists report having to clean their gyres once every month, which is considerably more than premium powerheads.
With the IceCap Powerhead 2K Gyre and IceCap Powerhead 4K Gyre specifically, many hobbyists have also had difficulty setting up the WIFI and using the mobile application as a wireless controller. In order to work best, it is usually recommended to run two in the tank.
What we like:
- Ideal design for creating random and natural water movement in the aquarium when used with another gyre
- Large range of achievable water circulation
- Mobile application for easy adjusting
What could be better:
- Usually required to buy two systems which can get very expensive very quickly
- Needs to be regularly cleaned in order to operate correctly
- Mobile application likely to fail
Hydor Koralia Nano Aquarium Circulation Pump, 240, 425, 565 GPH
- In a world where nano tanks rule, Hydor introduced a more powerful nano pump added to the Koralia Nano line, with the Koralia Nano 565, 565 gallon per hour flow rate.
- Patented Magnet-Suction cup support for free positioning in aquariums. Works on glass and acrylic
- Made in Italy
Koralia is one of the most known brands for powerheads and wavemakers. Their Hydor Koralia Nano Aquarium Circulation Pump is popular with nano aquarium keepers, though it won’t give that wave effect you might be looking for with competitor products.
The Hydor Koralia Nano comes in 240 GPH, 425 GPH, and 565 GPH power options. It has a compact design with a magnet and swivel mechanism for security and positioning. However, in order to control the flow and mode, you will need to purchase the Hydor Smart Wave controller.
Hobbyists have found Hydor Koralia Nano Pumps to be underpowered for what they’re rated, with a highly concentrated flow that doesn’t simulate natural waves well. The magnet is very strong, which can make cleaning and moving the powerhead difficult, and put the tank at risk for cracking if not careful.
Though this product seems to be reliable for the most part, many hobbyists have also found that it starts to make noise after some time.
What we like:
- Trusted aquarium brand with several turnover options for nano aquariums
- Secure magnet and easy swivel mechanism for ideal placement
- Low energy consumption
What could be better:
- Concentrated flow that needs extra equipment for customizability
- Overly strong magnet
- Prone to creating vibrating noises over time
There are tons of options when it comes to powerheads and wavemakers. First, you will want to determine if a more concentrated flow from a powerhead or a broader wavemaker with different wave patterns would suit your aquarium setup best.
Then, you will need to find one at an affordable price that is rated for the amount of turnover your system needs; keep in mind that it might be necessary to order two or more in order to get the ideal water flow in your aquarium.
To keep your equipment running its best, regularly disassemble and clean your wavemakers and powerheads and ensure they are operating correctly.
If you have any questions about wavemakers or powerheads, other aquarium equipment, or have had experience with any of the products we have listed, don’t hesitate to leave a comment below!