Selecting the Proper Return Pump for your Reef Tank

First, The Basics that everyone should know:

  • The return pump runs 24 hours a day
  • A return pump on a saltwater tank is often a critical piece of equipment in terms of the life support system
  • The pump must be made specifically for saltwater use

Doing some research on reef forums is a good place to start. Start by searching tank build threads, and looking at similar tanks to what you are designing. See what size of tank and sump they have, what kind of mechanical filtration that they use, and then what pump they are running. That will give you a few ideas to start with.

Another good source of info to look up the flow rate vs. head height Chart. This is commonly available on most return pump manufacturer websites. This chart will give you an estimate of what model you should consider.  It’s worth noting though that these charts don’t account for pipe size or fittings and you won’t know the true flow until you measure it in your own house. A good way to make sure you don’t lose flow is to use a decent diameter pipe for your return line and don’t use barbed fittings.

Although I am not sure how current it is, another useful thing to try is Reef Central’s handy Pump Calculator –
Return Pump Calculator



  • What is the head height? – The vertical distance between the pump and the outlet, usually the top of the display tank
  • What is the rate of turnover that I want? 3X? 5X? 10X? This is a large factor in your decision because there isn’t really a definitive answer on how much flow needs to run through the system every hour. There are differing schools of thought that may influence your decision.  More detail here: What is the ideal Flow Rate of Turnover through the Sump?
  • Do I want to spend more on a very quiet pump? This can depend on where the tank is located
  • Can my overflow safely handle the amount of flow that the pump will flow?


Plumbing size

When plumbing a return pump, you should generally use the diameter of pipe that the pump is made for (as in don’t downsize the pipe) then you will not reduce the pressure or throughput of the pump at all. You also generally don’t want to go with less than 1″ PVC for a return line (or anywhere in an aquarium system if you can avoid it). See this post for more info: Reef Aquarium Return Line Plumbing – A How-to Guide

Plumbing Type

There are a few types of pipe that you can use on your return line and other plumbing. They are all covered in this page: Suitable Pipe Materials for Plumbing Reef Aquariums

What about dialing back flow with a valve?

Sometimes you’ll find yourself with a pump that is too large, and you have to find a way to lessen the flow coming out of it. Restricting it with a valve is one option, but it can make it run louder and possibly create more heat or shorten it’s life.

All you are doing is effectively adding more head pressure by restricting it. A better strategy can often be to get a smaller pump that will be more efficient. Since the pump runs 24/7, this can add up to a lot of energy savings in the long run.


Reducing Excess Noise

When looking for something quiet, just remember — it’s a relative measurement. You won’t really know how loud a pump is until you install it and turn it on.

Reduce Vibration

When you install the pump, there are a couple tricks you can use to make it run quiet.

Vibration can be one of the more annoying sounds your tank can make, and the return pump can often be the culprit. Placing a soft surface under the pump helps with this a lot, so vibration doesn’t transfer to the glass.

Vibration can also transfer into the pipes, and then onto the stand or whatever else they touch. Rigid pipe will be the worst for this because there is no dampening at all.

On the contrast, flexible tubing will transfer almost none of this vibration. Some people opt to install a short run of silicone tubing from the pump to the main run of plumbing to completely eliminate it.

Flex-PVC won’t transfer too much of the vibration, and has an advantage over any type of tubing. It doesn’t require any barbed fittings, so there are no friction-losses through the pipe. The reason that tubing has these losses is that the fittings insert inside the tubing and constrict the diameter. More info about pipe versus tubing here: Suitable Pipe Materials for Plumbing Reef Aquariums

Protecting the Pump

Most return pumps will come with a strainer for the intake. This should always be in place to prevent objects from being pulled into the intake of the pump and stopping it’s flow.

Pumps such as the Danner Mag Drive line (shown in pic) will also come with a foam intake guard. The foam can quickly become clogged and dirty, so many people don’t use it. Here I have swapped the stock strainer with one that has a finer mesh.

Segmenting your Pump

Return pumps can be quite strong, so any fish in the sump should not be in the same chamber as the pump. Once sucked against the intake, they often can’t escape. For this reason many people avoid having fish in their sump at all.

Backup Plans

A return pump is something that is nice to have a backup of. It is a critical part of the system.

Having the ability to swap out pumps and get the system back online has a few benefits. You can take your time while you do maintenance such as disassembling the pump for soaking. In the event of a malfunction, you won’t have to worry about a surprise trip to your LFS to find a replacement.

Your backup pump just needs get you by until you can replace the primary one, and can even be smaller.

Make an informed decision

If you figure out your target flow rate based on your head height and desired rate of turnover, you can get the right pump.

One thing also bears mentioning because I have seen it a lot. If the person telling you what pump to get is also the same person selling it to you, take their advice with a grain of salt. You may walk away up with the pump that they make a few extra bucks off but is a little bigger and louder than necessary.

How to plumb and install a Return Line from a Sump to the 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.