How to Plumb and Install a Return Line from a Sump to Display Tank

Returning water to the aquarium

While pumping water from the sump up to the display aquarium is fairly straightforward, there are a couple things to consider. Like other parts of plumbing an aquarium sump, there are many ways to accomplish the same thing.

The return line is part of the circulation system — and if you understand what it should do, you’ll realize just how few parts are required.

What are we trying to design here?

  • a securely-mounted outlet that won’t budge or get knocked loose, but we can still disassemble it if needed.
  • minimize the amount of water that flows back into the sump after the return pump is shut off.

How much water do I need to be moving through the system?

This is based on a few factors, and more details are presented here: What is the ideal Flow Rate of Turnover through the Sump?

Choosing Materials

Piping Material

The most common choice for plumbing is PVC – a time tested material that is both cheap and easy to find at hardware stores in various sizes. This guide is based mostly around the use of PVC.

Info about how to choose pipe material is presented on Plumbing a Reef Tank – What Pipe Material Should I use?

What size of Plumbing line and fittings should I use?

As for pipe diameter, your pump will dictate what you should go with, but it’s a good idea to go up a size. This will also allow the pump to not lose any head pressure from constricted pipe diameter. Many submersible pumps will have a 1/2″ outlet, and as a general rule most people don’t use anything smaller than 3/4″ plumbing for a return line.

It’s a good idea to just go ahead and use 1″ pipe for your return. It’s not much bigger in appearance, and you won’t lose any flow due to friction loss of a smaller diameter pipe.

Connecting the Pump to the Return Line

PVC union fittingReturn pumps need to be removed and cleaned out, usually every few months. If you are running a high-calcium stony-coral-type tank, then calcium deposits will form on the pump over time. This can eventually lead to it seizing up completely. As part of regular maintenance, most people take the pump out, remove the impeller, and soak it in a vinegar solution for a few hours. It can then be scrubbed with pipe cleaners or a stiff brush, and put back in.
For this reason, you will want a union just above the pump to be able to disconnect the line.

Dampening Vibrations from the Pump

Return pumps are also known to produce annoying vibration in your sump, and if you are running a large model, it can be quite loud. A silicone “Trivet” made for Hot cooking pots is a good addition under the pump. These are available from any store that sells kitchen supplies.

There is more info here: Selecting the Proper Return Pump for your Reef Tank

How the Overflow is Affected

Can I Tee off the return to divert some water elsewhere?

Some people will use a “T” fitting to direct a portion of the flow to a valve or series of valves. These extra outlets could do things like feed a reactor, refugium or skimmer.

If you are using a siphon based overflow method like a Herbie or Bean Animal drain, then the balanced flow of the siphon will be affected. Even small variations in flow will throw the balance off and it will need to be adjusted more frequently than is convenient.

Mounting the Outlet to a Tank with Trim at the Top

Since this is where all the water from your tank passes through, it’s best not to cut corners with how you mount the return outlet to your tank and make sure it’s completely secure. Ideally you want it permanent, with the ability to disassemble it if needed. You want to make sure that the line can’t be knocked loose, which could result in a flood.

  1. Street 90 elbow fittings allow the pipe to point 180 degrees in a tight curve without extra pieces of PVC. street 90 fitting
    The parts that form the U shape should hang on the display tank and should fit snugly so it doesn’t move around.
    In order to get a custom fit, you can play around with how far the pieces insert to one another, or even cut pieces to make them more compact. Make sure to glue the fittings when you’re done.
  2. At the very least, you should mount the return line to the stand somehow using a PVC mounting bracket that screws in.PVC conduit clamp for securing a return line These are found in the electrical conduit section of hardware stores.

return line reef tank eurobrace

Should I install multiple return lines?

This is generally not necessary, and I will show you why.

If you inject a visible additive like an Alkalinity solution down at the intake of the return pump, you can observe just how quickly water mixes in a tank.

With adequate powerhead flow, all that water will mix together into a uniform haze in a few seconds with even low amounts of flow. This happens whether the the return is one outlet or many different ones. This is a good indication of why you need not worry about multiple outlets or placing an outlet as far away from the overflow as possible. Consider the following:

  • Splitting the return can unnecessarily add to friction loss of the return system, lessening the output of the pump. In order to compensate for this, you would need multiple outlets – which are unsightly and provide no benefits
  • Unless you have a 300+ gallon system or an 8′ long tank, there is no need to use more than a single return outlet
  • A single return line is inconspicuous and easy to hide out of sight

Back-Siphoning through the return line when power to the return pump stops

When the return pump stops, the filled-with-water return line will immediately reverse the direction of it’s flow via siphon action and start sucking in water from the main display. This is usually referred to as “Back Siphoning” because it is unintended.

The amount of water that drains during these few seconds can be minimized but not eliminated. The sump should have ample capacity to handle it.

Ways to avoid excess Back Siphoning

Install the return outlet nozzle just beneath the water surface

Simply by designing your outlet’s opening to be underwater by about 1/2″, you can eliminate excess back flow into the sump without the need for a check valve or any special fittings or methods. Other than sufficient sump capacity, this is all you need. This is the method explained in the diagram above.

Just for the sake of education, I will include the following info about some common mechanisms added to return lines. I don’t recommend either because of their likely probability of failure.

Other Methods – Click to Expand

Install a Check Valve

pvc check valveSome people opt to install a check valve somewhere in a vertical run of the line above the pump to limit back-siphoning. While very common, they are not necessary in every tank.

There are many types, some better than others. They all have the same shortfall – Stuff grows in them. Coco worms, snails, pieces of algae, anything. Once the seal is obstructed, they are useless.

You may enjoy months of trouble-free operation before this happens, but it will.

It is better to alter your sump design and minimize back siphoned water with the correct height of the drain inlets and return pump outlet. This is quite simple to do.

It goes back to the “Know thy self” philosophy.

“I’ll just clean it out” – yeah sure. The amount of people that clean the inside of their plumbing is about the same amount of people that clean the underside of their car.

Drilling a small “Anti-Siphon Hole”

– A small hole or two can be made in the pipe just under the surface of the water. As soon as this hole sucks in air, the siphon will be broken. These holes are usually made around 1/8″ in diameter — as anything smaller might not be able to reliably break the siphon. They are usually placed about 1/2″ beneath the surface of the water to avoid turbulence or create micro-bubbles.

Watch out – you should be aware that a small hole is very susceptible to getting clogged by debris or some kind of livestock in the tank. During normal operation at a positive pressure (water going out) this is unlikely to happen, however when flow stops, water will start to suck in through the hole, and it can tend to slurp up any surrounding algae or debris. It is also possible for the small hole to become completely covered by the growth of Coralline Algae. If the anti-siphon hole is clogged, the siphon continues until some air eventually enters the line from the main nozzle. If this is normally several inches beneath the surface, this can be a lot of water!

Have a backup plan – like sufficient sump capacity to account for this possibility.

The Spray factor – Under pressure, a small hole will also tend to blast out water, similar to a garden hose that springs a leak. This mini-jet of water can create noise, excess bubbles or put water where you don’t want it. For these reasons you might just want to avoid using an anti-siphon hole because of these potential problems.

Herbie Overflow Dry Emergency vs. Running a Trickle

In my original article, Herbie Overflow Guide I wanted only to explain each component and how it works, so I am covering this topic separately. It assumes you have a prior basic understanding of how the Herbie works.

The issue at hand is that some people think that running your Emergency drain with a trickle of water is risky, and that it should be dry at all times. They have a point — running an absolutely dry emergency line is the only way to assume 100% that it has full capacity if needed. But if this is true, who do so many people run the emergency drain with a trickle through it?

A Dry Subject

The emergency drain is your backup in the event of obstruction of the main siphon. It is also your last line of defense against a flood.

So it makes sense that you'd want it to handle the flow, so it would be better if it never touched water… right?

Of course – but let's look at what you've got to do to make sure that thing stays Dry… ALL THE TIME.

It sounds simple enough.

Using your valve on the main siphon drain, you have to adjust the thing so that it lets the perfect amount of water through it to match up with what the return pump is delivering to the tank.

This process is what I refer to as “perfectly balancing the flow” and has to be done every time any little variable changes in the circulation system's capacity.

So you sit there, staring at the overflow and fiddling with the valve. The water level goes up, down. You wait, adjust

Wait some more…


Then just when you think you've got it nailed, you leave it be.

Although you may be able to achieve perfect balance for a while, over time the water level in the overflow will rise or fall.

It could be a matter of hours or days, but one of two things will happen; The siphon will either start sucking air through a vortex, with that terrible slurping noise or… wait for it… The excess water will trickle into the emergency drain.

BOOM! You are now “Begging for a Flood” according to some.

Foolish and reckless because the emergency line should be reserved for emergencies!

Here is where the discussion becomes highly subjective and filled with arguments citing improbable what-if's.

Arguments against a trickle

"Stuff will grow anywhere water flows" -meaning that by running water down the emergency will lead to a clog from Algae or Sponges, etc.

In my experience this is not the case. If you cut light to an area algae will not grow. A trickle in the emergency line will still have more than 90% of the inner wall dry most of the time.

I personally have run the system for over 2.5 years without even the slightest hint of algae growth or clogging inside the emergency line due caused by the trickle of water flowing through it. By all means, if you have evidence, please show me.

The best analogy I can think of is a storm drain or culvert. There might be a small stream of water flowing through it most of the time. In that stream, some algae might grow. When the storm comes and the drain has do it's job, the chances of the algae blocking the drain is nil. Algae doesn't grow where the pipe is dry, ever.

The emergency line can easily be checked for debris or buildup in the pipe by peering down the standpipe with a flashlight.

An open pipe with no horizontal runs is very hard to clog. When you keep stuff out of your overflow with a cover and teeth on the overflow, you remove the risks even further.

The real risks in my opinion come from running too much of this extra flow through the emergency, and reduce the capacity.

Don't be dumb.

I have heard people describing "A trickle" as percentage of flow. — this is the wrong way to look at it. The amount allowed to pass into the pipe should be as small as possible. Like 1-2 gallons an hour. If you go past this, you are unnecessarily decreasing the capacity of the e-drain.

It is important for everyone who runs this system to know that by running a trickle down the emergency line, you open up more risk to it. This risk can be mitigated well by following the Best practices for a problem-free overflow box

It remains true that a dry emergency line is a true failsafe. This is one reason why the Bean Animal design was created with it's third pipe.

Automating your reef tank

In this video I go over the various things I did with my tank to make it as automated as possible during the times I had to leave on business trips out of town. This was so that the person watching the house didn’t have to actually do anything and just keep an eye on it for major problems. Generally the results were better than trying to teach someone what to do and then trust that they would do it properly when I was gone.