What Is an Aquarium Powerhead? Do I Need One for My Fish Tank?

I enjoy pet fish and have kept a variety of smaller and larger species. I am particularly fond of cichlids.

A powerhead is a device that looks like a little internal filter but has no filter material in it, and initially you might think, 'What use is this puny device to me?' and discard it in disgust. But wait! A powerhead is actually quite useful in some tanks; in others, it is almost essential.

What Does the Powerhead Do?

Let me set the scene for you: a four-foot tank, running an external filter. It's winter, so the ambient room temperature hovers around 18 degrees—or even lower sometimes. Far too cold for tropical fish. You have three heaters in the tank, but it never seems to get warmer than 22–23 degrees, no matter how high the heaters are set. What's wrong?

I'll tell you what's wrong: Regardless of how large your canister filter is, the flow is unlikely to create significant current in the tank. Water moves sluggishly, so your heaters heat the water immediately around them, then switch off, creating a pool of warmth in one area of the tank and leaving the rest of it frigid.

The Powerhead Keeps Water Moving

A powerhead will create a nice underwater current, keeping the water moving around your tank and causing your heaters to actually heat all the water. Not only that, but the current will give your fish something to swim against, which is appreciated by active river fish that otherwise will spend their lives wondering how they ended up in a small glass pond.

Of course, some fish don't like a great deal of current, but most fish robust enough to live in a large tank environment appreciate some current to frolic and play in. More importantly, the flow of water means that your water maintains a homogeneous temperature throughout the tank without developing weird cold and hot spots that will confuse the fish and potentially make them ill.

When Don't I Need a Powerhead?

  • You don't need a powerhead if your tank is already using an internal filter with sufficient flow (you'll know if the flow is sufficient by placing a thermometer at the end of the tank away from the heater and seeing if it is at the same temperature as the water nearer the heater).
  • You don't need a powerhead if your tank is under two feet. Probably.
  • You don't need a powerhead if your external filter provides strong enough outflow to create a substantial current. I use the Eheim series of canister filters, which work well in most respects but which have a rather gentle flow that creates very little current at all.

Jaikishan on July 31, 2016:

Does Powerhead works beneath the water only. Or can I use them outside of water. Actually I want to Make a DIY Mini Canister Filter with the help of it.

Bill on March 08, 2013:

Thanks for the info, but you really didn't say what it is - just what it isn't & what it might be used for.

Is it a water pump, air pump, or what?

maddy on May 21, 2012:

this is very informative i was looking into it while starting my mudskipper 's tank water flowing properly. thanks

alex.chen on December 09, 2010:

Thanks for the info. I was looking at buying some powerheads for my aquarium to mimic the movement of a stream, but I'm still unclear on how to do it. Nice hub!


The Eheim has a single inlet pipe which can catch small fish and suck them in. It requires a pre-filter mesh or foam to avoid this problem but can still trap smaller fish against the pre-filter.

The undergravel filter has its intake under the gravel, which is totally fish-safe. It can actually be beneficial to the fish during spawning, as it pulls the eggs into the top layer of gravel away from the adults, allowing for better survival of young. It is also safe for all small fish and invertebrates too.

Have I convinced you yet that there is room for undergravel filters in the hobby? Another consideration could be that you combine the two types to obtain the best possible results. A undergravel filter in conjunction with a smaller power filter works very well and other uses for the UGF are coming out now too. There is the idea that by using it backwards, that is to push the water down the riser and out through the gravel, it creates excellent circulation. It doesn’t work as a filter any more, just creates undercurrents that some fish enjoy, as well as lifting debris from the bottom for the power filter to catch. Using it this way apparently reduces tank maintenance, but I have not tried it yet, so its only supposition in my view. The theory is sound though, so it could work.

Whatever you decide to use for your aquarium, enjoy the hobby, appreciate your pets and be prepared to experiment. Nothing is cast in stone with this hobby, and everyone is open to new ideas and methods.

You're also welcome to visit following articles

Document last modified: 2014-11-13 11:35:56 , © 2005 - 2021 Aqua-Fish.Net, property of Jan Hvizdak

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Novice Aquarist FAQ

What is the best aquarium size for a beginner?

This may surprise you, but for a beginner, the larger the tank the better .

You ought to try getting the largest aquarium you can fit into your space and budget. You should get a least a 20-gallon tank, but if you can afford it aim for a 55+ tank.

  • The bigger a tank is, the more stable it is — and you need stability if you want your fish to actually live. Aside from feeding mistakes, the most common fish killer is water condition fluctuations. When the temperature or other water conditions change quickly, it’s bad for the fish. And with a bigger tank, changes come in more slowly.
  • You get a better education with a larger tank , since you get a larger space you can fill with a variety of fish species living together.
  • It’s also less work and less money spent in the long run. Larger tanks are easier to maintain, and you’ll lose fewer fish as well.

How many fish should I begin with?

If you’re a beginner, you only need 1.

That’s right. You ought to start with just one fish species. In fact, you better start with just one fish to be on the safe side. It’s a matter of training yourself for your responsibilities . By limiting yourself to just a single fish, you limit the risk if you make a mistake, such as forgetting to feed the fish or neglecting to clean the water.

Of course later on, you’ll be tempted to add more fish.

For freshwater tanks , the basic rule of thumb (though there are exceptions) for the maximum number of fish is 1 inch of fish for every gallon of water . That’s for a rectangular aquarium. If the shape of the aquarium is irregular, then it’s 1 inch of fish (you measure without including the tail) for every square foot of the aquarium’s surface area.

For a new tank, start with 25% capacity at the most. Then wait 3 weeks to add more, but limit your additions to doubling your present number of fish. You ought to stop at 90% capacity, since you have to allow for fish growth.

For a saltwater tank , the rule of thumb is 3 inches of fish for every square foot of the surface area . Start with 25% capacity, and then wait 6 weeks to test the water for nitrite and ammonia. If both tests read zero, then you can add up to 50% of the fish in the tank. So if you already have 6 inches of fish, you can add up to 3 inches more.

What are the best fish for beginners?

Well, I’ll start my answer by telling you what NOT to get: goldfish!

That’s right, the prototypical starter fish is hardly the best fish a beginner can start with. Consider the fact that goldfish can live up to 20 years, which should give you an idea that those few weeks of life it experiences in a beginner’s aquarium is actually not such a good long life at all.

So what kind of fish should you get if you’re a beginner? Let’s first take a look at the factors that matter the most. They should be inexpensive . They should be very hardy, so that they can survive your mistakes. They should be active and colorful to keep your interest, but they shouldn’t be too aggressive with other fish.

With these standards, let’s take a look at your options:

  • Platy . They can get along with other species, as long as they can’t be eaten by those other fish. They’re very colorful, so you won’t get bored with them. They can even five birth to live young, which can be exciting. Just make sure to separate the young from the parents, who will eat their young. But if you find that exciting, too, that’s your call.
  • Cherry barbs . You can also get rosy barbs and golden barbs. These look nice, they’re affordable, and they’re also very hardy. They can tolerate various water conditions, and they don’t seem to get sick. What’s more, they’re not livebearers like the platy, which may need more work than a beginner can handle when they want to save the young.
  • Endler's guppy. While guppies in general are very colorful, you need to get one from a very reputable seller so that they don’t die within a few weeks. The Endler’s guppy is hardier, and they’re also fun to watch. Just get an all-male group, unless you want to deal with lots of generations of young.
  • White cloud mountain minnow. ​It’s got beautiful colors, they’re active in a group, and they can tolerate a lot. Just get at least 6, but more is better. The ideal place for these fellas include a large pen space in the middle because they love to swim, but with some hiding places in the rocks.
  • ​Cory catfish. There are lots of types here to choose from, but I’d suggest the pygmy corydoras. They’re cute and active, so they’re very fun to watch. You should get them in a group of at least 8, so they’re not shy and scared.
  • Molly. These are related to platies, and they like freshwater with slightly saline conditions. So you’re going to need aquarium salt.

How often should I feed my fish?

Beginners are afraid to forget to feed their fish. As a result, overfeeding the fish has become the most common cause of death for aquarium fish. Putting too much food will clog the filter of the aquarium, and the excess food can break down into toxins that harm the fish.

The right feeding frequency will ultimately depend on the type of fish you get. But usually, fish can do okay with just a single feeding a day . Some fish owners feed their fish twice, and that’s okay too.

The exceptions are herbivore fish which should have live plants inside the aquarium for them to graze on. If that’s not available, then you’ll need to feed them several small feedings a day.

And for very young fish, more frequent feedings are needed too.

But the more important factor here is how much food you should offer . And the general rule is that the amount that the fish can eat completely within 5 minutes. If you’re not sure, then underfeed . You can always feed them a little bit more later. If you offer food the fish refuse to eat anymore, then you’ll need to remove them from the aquarium before they break down.

What is the best location for a fish aquarium in your house?

Let’s get one thing straight. When we talk about “best location”, we’re not talking about what’s best for you. It’s not about the location that gives you the best view of your fish. This is a secondary consideration.

What we need to discuss is what’s best for the fish . That means the location should be good for the health and well-being of the fish, good for the overall setting of the aquarium, easy enough for you to do your aquarium maintenance, and safe overall for the house you live in.

With these factors in mind, here are some tips on finding the best location for the fish (and for you too):

  • Keep it away from direct or strong sunlight. Sunlight causes algae infestations that lead to green water. And it can also cause rapid temperature fluctuations that harm the fish.
  • ​Keep it away from vents, radiators and air conditioners. Again, these can cause water temperature changes.
  • Keep it away from doors. ​The impact of a door opening and closing can really stress fish, as the force travels through the wall and the floor to the fish.
  • Avoid areas with heavy foot traffic. ​Fish can be stressed by lots of large moving objects around them. It feels like something bigger than them is about to gobble them up.
  • ​Keep it away from noise. Again, the fish find noise stressful, so stay away from speakers and the piano, and especially the drum set. In fact, nix the drum set altogether or at least put it in another wing of the house.
  • ​Keep it where you can see it. At the same time, it shouldn’t be in a place you’ll rarely visit. You won’t be able to notice problems right away if that’s the case.
  • Put the aquarium on a desk or a stand. It has to be stable enough to bear the weight. Don’t put the aquarium on the floor directly, where there’s a greater chance of the aquarium being kicked into pieces.
  • Place it near an electrical outlet. ​You’ll need to power some of your equipment. Just don’t have the outlet too near or directly under the aquarium, so you don’t get a short circuit in case of a spill.
  • It should be near a water source. ​Or else you’ll have trouble changing the water.
  • Have enough space around the aquarium. Cramped spaces may discourage you from doing proper maintenance.

How often should I change the water?

The short answer to this question is once a week , especially if your aquarium is heavily stocked. The longest period of time you can go without changing is two weeks, but don’t do this too often. And when we mean “change the water”, we mean change 10 to 20 percent of the water.

Water changes are essential for fish. After all, they can’t go outside to poop. Weekly changes are ideal so they’re not swimming in muck.

Just imagine if you’re the fish…

I already have a tank. What kind of equipment should I use?

Here are some types of equipment you shouldn’t be without :

  • Filters. There are several types of aquarium filters. Some are biological, which are absolutely necessary. Mechanical filters can keep the water clear, while chemical filtration can remove toxins.
  • Heaters and chillers. These are the devices you need to get the temperature that’s ideal for your fish.
  • Air pump. These may be needed to power some filters. They can also keep water from turning stagnant, or to power some ornaments like spinning wheels.

Other types of equipment you need to consider including are lighting fixtures, gravel vacuum, sump, and various aquarium decorations. We have plenty of information on this website that will help you become familiarized with different aquarium devices.

Fish keeping is a fulfilling and exciting hobby.

Some people like myself consider it a passion.

I hope that through my website I can help make your own experience as rewarding as mine.

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!

Aquarium Air Pumps

(The First Tank Guide)

Support and Share the First Tank Guide:

What Is an Air Pump?

OK, this one's relatively simple. An air pump is a device used to move air, possibly under pressure. Typical aquarium air pumps move air by using an electromagnet to rapidly vibrate a rubber diaphragm. Unfortunately, this has the side effect of creating noise as well as moving air.

Do I Need an Air Pump for My Fish Tank?

Why would you want an air pump for your aquarium? Well, there are many uses of an air pump.

  • Some action ornaments are moved by air passing through them, turning valves, spinning wheels, lifting things, or whatever.
  • Some people like to have air stones in the tank which just bubble or give off a fine mist of air.
  • Some filters, such as corner filters and under gravel filters are (or can be) driven by air and would require an air pump. Some of these can also be driven by water pumps.
  • Some underwater habitats for semi-aquatic animals, such as Newts, Crabs, Mudskippers, and some Frogs or Shrimp, also require an air pump to keep fresh air circulating into the enclosure so that these animals do not crawl out into an unaerated environment.
  • Air pumps can also be used to create a current in the water, to prevent parts of the tank from becoming stagnant.
  • Air pumps are required for some types of protein skimmers to operate in marine tanks.

Are Air Pumps Necessary for an Aquarium?

That depends on what you mean. If you have a filter that is run by an air pump, then the air pump is necessary, as without it the filter will not operate and you are not going to be gaining benefit from having that filter on your fish tank.

If you have an action ornament that is run by an air pump, and you wish to have it operating as designed, then, again, the air pump is necessary.

If you wish to have an air stone giving off a cascade of bubbles as a decoration in your tank, than, again, the air pump to run this air stone is arguably necessary.

One of the most common misconceptions in the aquarium hobby, possibly second only to "fish will not outgrow their aquarium", is that you need an air pump and air stones to provide sufficient oxygenation to that tank to keep the fish healthy, and that the air pump provides oxygen to the water. In fact, the air pump is not necessary to keeping fish, except as noted above. An air pump will not directly put oxygen into the water, what it will do is two things:

  1. Increase surface area
  2. Improve circulation

Gas exchange - where the water dissolves oxygen and other gases from the air and releases excess carbon dioxide and other gases to the air - occurs over any and all surface area where the water has contact with air. By increasing the surface area of the water, each bubble gives the water further opportunity to release carbon dioxide and take up oxygen. However, this improvement from an air pump is shadowed by the improvement in circulation that the air pump can effect. The improved circulation will move highly oxygenated water from the surface lower in the tank allowing water with more carbon dioxide and less oxygen to the surface of the tank where id can release its carbon dioxide and take up oxygen. Of course, if you already have a good filter that is providing sufficient water circulation, then the benefit you will receive from an air pump is minimal.

Choosing the Right Air Pump

There is no hard and fast rule for choosing an air pump. Some air pumps are rated for different sizes of tanks, but these ratings are, actually, nearly irrelevant to choosing the correct air pump.

If you are using the air pump only to operate an under gravel filter, and your tank is a standard size, then the tank size ratings on an air pump are probably relevant. However, if you are doing anything else with the air pump, or if your tank is not a standard size, then the tank size ratings for an air pump are highly irrelevant.

Here are some guidelines to have in mind when you are choosing an air pump for your aquarium:

  • The more things you are running from your air pump, the larger air pump you will need, and conversely, the fewer things you are running from your air pump, the smaller air pump you will need.
  • If you tank is more than 18-20" (46-51cm) tall, you will need to get a special deep water air pump designed to push air that far below the water surface.
  • The more resistance the things you are pushing air through have to the air, the larger an air pump you will need. (Larger air stones will provide more resistance than smaller air stones, and any air stone will provide more resistance than no air stone. Also, some kinds of air stones will provide even more resistance than others of the same size.)

When choosing an air pump, pick one a little larger than you initially think you will need. This larger air pump will help you by compensating for underestimating when choosing the air pump or by providing a little room for expansion if you decide you want that later.

Watch the video: Powerheads! - Lets Talk Aquarium Circulation u0026 Flow. How to Bring New Life to Your Plants u0026 Fish. (July 2021).