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Power Head 


Powerhead Impressions

By Steven Pro

Whether you need something to drive the undergravel filter in your freshwater community tank, or something to operate a protein skimmer in your saltwater reef display, you will likely turn to a powerhead to satisfy your needs.  These compact water pumps fulfill a variety of uses in aquarium keeping.  They can be utilized to simulate the flow of tidal currents and waves in an artificial marine environment, or they can reproduce the rippling action of a river or stream in an Amazonian biotope display.  They provide valuable circulation, surface agitation, and oxygenation in any aquatic exhibit.  Without them our aquaria would be lifeless stagnant pools of water.

Here is a brief roundup of the commonly available powerheads found in the aquarium hobby.

 Aquarium Systems Maxi-Jets

The Maxi-Jet powerhead on the left is being used to power a small protein skimmer.  The attachment on the inlet allows air to be drawn in through the impeller, producing very fine bubbles.

I have found these pumps to be some of the quietest and most reliable on the market.  They are fairly small but powerful for their size and they come with a wide variety of accessory parts to fulfill any special attachment needs.  The suction cup option for holding these pumps in place does not work very well.  They tend to lose their hold after awhile, but this problem is not unique to Aquarium Systems pumps, and is true of most pumps (and heaters, but we will have to leave that for another article).  On the positive side, the hang-on attachment for mounting these powerheads to the side of an aquarium makes a secure connection, and is really my preference regardless of brand.  Forget about the suction cups and hook the pump off of the side of the tank, that way it is very unlikely to fall down, start blowing sand or gravel all over, and create a real mess.

 Aquarium Systems Mini-Jets

These tiny pumps are just as reliable and silent as their larger brethren the Maxi-Jets but they come in a miniature package.  They are especially useful for  nano-reef aquariums and other small displays.  In such small displays, these petite pumps can work efficiently yet inconspicuously to provide circulation and oxygenation.

 Hagen Powerheads (201, 301, 402, & 802 models)

Hagen power head employing a bioball as an inlet screen.  This simple, inexpensive method of preventing injury to animals can be used for a variety of powerheads.  On the right, a Hagen powerhead with the "Quick Filter" attachment.

I use more Hagen powerheads than any other brand.  The reason for this is simple. I have found them to be very reliable, reasonably priced, and they also come in a wide variety of sizes to fill almost any need for circulation.  There are two additional reasons why I use a lot of Hagen powerheads, and this is one of the dirty little secrets of the aquarium industry.  I can get them easily through my largest wholesale account where I can get a delivery every week if I have the need.  And, they are fairly inexpensive for me to purchase, so I can give my customers a fair price on a decent product and still make a healthy profit.

I make this point here because after all of my "impressions" columns, some of you may be wondering, "Why doesn’t my local fish store carry that product?"  Well, the answer is business.  Most good businesses want to offer a wide selection, but they also must deliver a competitive price and excellent service and still make a profit.  Therefore, retailers tend to use the products that their wholesaler carries, are always available, return a solid profit, and that are made by companies that provide good support and easy return policies. 

The products that a retailer chooses to carry represents a compromise between all of these factors.  If  "Brand A"  protein skimmer is rated exceptional in performance, but is expensive, consistently backordered, and has a poor customer service record on repairs, not many store will choose to carry it.  If "Brand B" does not perform quite as well, but is affordable, always in stock, is well supported by the manufacturer and can be sold for a respectable profit, many more retailers will choose to carry it. Remember that this is a business, first and foremost.  If your store is run by a hobbyist and carries all of the latest high end equipment and is a hang out for all of the local aquarium Uber-geeks, start looking around for another place to shop because businesses such as this usually won’t be around for very long.

Enough of this Introduction to Economic Theory; let’s get back to talking about fish and fish products!  As I said before, I sell and use more Hagen powerheads that any other brand.  If I am dealing with a freshwater setup, I use Hagen’s.  On the other hand, if this is a saltwater installation, I give a slight edge to Aquarium Systems Maxi-Jets because they use a ceramic impeller shaft which are more durable in salt water than Hagen’s stainless steel ones.  Even though Hagen uses a high quality stainless steel, I have found they can still rust a tiny amount after years of use.  I have yet to have one fail due to rusting, I have never suspected  any livestock losses due to metals poisoning, and the rusting that I have noticed has taken three or more years to develop, but it is still a point to consider when evaluating and purchasing.

 Marineland Penguins

Penguin powerheads are middle-of-the-road performers in my book.  They operate ok, but they seem to "chatter" more than other brands ("Chatter" is the annoying noise caused by impeller vibration) and sometimes fail to function when first turned back on after power interruption (maintenance or outage).  Because of this I rarely use them, but they do have a couple of interesting options that are worth mentioning. 

These pumps can be purchased with a kit to use them in a reverse flow undergravel filter.  In a conventional undergravel filter, water is pulled down through the gravel, under the filter plate, and up the lift tube.  In this mode the beneficial bacteria in the substrate act as a biological filter, while the substrate itself acts as a crude mechanical filter as it traps dirt and debris.  In reverse flow, a pre-filtered powerhead pumps water down the lift tube and under the filter plate where it can radiate up through the gravel bed.  Reverse flow undergravel filters are just as biologically efficient as conventional ones, but some aquarists believe that the substrate is kept cleaner because the flow of water is constantly lifting dirt off of the gravel and up into the water column where it can be removed by other filters. 

While I agree that reverse flow may help keep the gravel somewhat cleaner, I can’t really be bothered with this option.  It does not completely eliminate the need to vacuum the gravel while doing a water change.  Inevitably,  some debris will settle in the gravel and will need to be removed.  Also, the powerhead and its sponge prefilter are also kind of big and ugly, making this kind of setup even more obtrusive than a standard installation.  Lastly, in large aquariums, heavily decorated aquarium or other situations where thoroughly vacuuming all the substrate would be impractical, I normally don’t use an undergravel and instead utilize a wet/dry trickle filter with a very shallow layer of gravel merely for decoration and to cover the bottom pane of glass

The other interesting option with these powerheads is the needle wheel that is included to regulate the injection of air into the water stream coming from the pump.  While this is kind of neat, it is not really that useful or necessary.  I generally forgo the air injection in all marine setups because the bubbles bursting at the surface of the water creates far too much splash and salt spray for my liking.  Also, in marine aquariums oxygenation should be provided by properly-sized efficient protein skimmers, a high volume of water circulation and ample surface agitation.  Powerhead venturis should not be relied upon for gas exchange.

Although I do use the air inlet in freshwater tanks, a high degree of precision in adjusting the intake of air is usually unnecessary.  This feature is a nice touch if not a bit of overkill.  Unfortunately, I don’t see enough use for these options to overwhelm the negatives of noise and start up failures to recommend this brand.


Perfecto is known primarily for the aquariums that they build, but they did have a brief foray into the powerhead market.  This venture was brief for good reason.  The pumps that they marketed were noisier than most and not very reliable.  I routinely had problems with them restarting after being turned off to clean the aquariums they were used in.  This same kind of problem reared its head after power outages.  They did have one interesting feature.  The airline tubing that came with the pump to inject air bubbles into the water stream had a little air filter.  This acted as a muffler of sorts, keeping the noise from the sucking air to a minimum.  It also helped to keep the airline free from obstructions such as dust to reduce maintenance.  The filter was a nice little plus, but it was not enough reason to recommend these pumps. It would be a nice to see this feature incorporated into other more reliable brands.

 Taam’s Rio Powerheads

I am just going to start off and say I am not fond of this brand of pump.  On the plus side they are small, powerful, and inexpensive. On the negative side, my experience has shown these pumps to be unreliable and potentially dangerous.  I have had a number simply fail to operate after just a year or two of service.  Worse yet, I have also received mild shocks from a couple of these pumps.  The potential for electrocution was the final straw.  I systemically went through my customers’ tanks and replaced all the Rio pumps with comparable ones from other manufacturers.  This was both a liability and cost-effectiveness issue.  I can easily replace and bill a customer for a new pump while I am already there to perform a regularly scheduled cleaning, or I could have waited until they broke to replace them.  This would necessitate a panicked call from a customer and a special trip.  I no longer use any Rio pumps and I don’t recommend others use them for the reasons I outlined above.

I don’t want to give the impression that I have never had another brand of pump fail,  I have.  I also don’t want to say that all Rio pumps will eventually go bad.  They are plenty of people that use them and never have problems.  However, I have never had another brand of pump give me an electrical shock and I seem to have had a disproportionate number of this brand fail when compared to other brands I have used.

 ZooMed Powersweeps

I have to say, these units are an absolutely brilliant idea.  A powerhead that has a built in oscillating nozzle to create random currents in the water is a great concept, at least on paper.  In reality, the little sweeper mechanism tends to clog with dirt rather quickly.  This stops the rotation and renders this powerhead to operate like any other.  That really should not surprise anyone that has kept fish any amount of time.  When any powerhead is taken apart to clean it, it is usually full of a slimy coating refered to as mulm.  This same gelatinous stuff which slows down standard powerheads over time jams the gears in the Powersweeps.  As I said, it was a brilliant idea.  Unfortunately, it just does not work too well in aquariums.

 Powerhead Maintenance

Regardless of  brand, all powerheads are going to require some routine maintenance to keep them functioning properly.  Intake screens should be cleaned at least once per month.  Every three to six months I give my pumps a series of chemical bathes to clean them thoroughly.  First, unplug the pump, remove it from the tank, and place it in a clean bucket that is only used for the aquarium. No mop buckets!  Be sure to arrange the powerhead such that the output nozzle is aimed sideways (Not up!  You'll see why in a minute!).  Add enough hot tap water to completely submerge the powerheads (a couple of gallons should do).  To that, add one quarter cup of white wine vinegar for every gallon of tap water that is in the bucket.  Plug in the pumps and allow them to run for 15 minutes.  The vinegar helps to liberate any hard calcium deposits.  Once that is done, drain the bucket and repeat the process, but this time, instead of vinegar use plain bleach in the same ratios.  Again, let the pumps run for 15 minutes to rid it of any built up organic sludge, bacteria, or algae growth.  Drain the bucket again, refill with plain tap water, and add a commercial dechlorinater product at twice the recommended dosage to neutralize any of the remaining bleach.  Run the pumps for another 15 minutes in this mixture.  Disassemble and scrub and rinse all the individual parts before placing the pumps back in the tank.  After all of this, your powerheads should look and run just like brand new.


Powerheads are usually the silent workhorses of our aquariums.  Good ones perform their function of powering filters or providing circulation while requiring little maintenance other than a good cleaning every couple of months.  Actually, keeping track of powerhead cleanings is another good reason to keep a log book, since better performers models can be forgotten about and neglected too easily.  It is not until you give them a thorough cleaning that one notices the difference in output.  If you get stuck with a poor unit, you are going to be diving into the aquarium routinely to get the pumps working again.  Pick wisely the first time around and have peace of mind so you can sit back, relax, and enjoy your display instead of cursing at it.

WWM about Powerheads in Aquarium Systems 

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