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Control the Flow

Posted: January 10, 2011, 7:40 p.m., EDT

Reef aquariums need water motion to thrive, and retailers can help customers achieve their desired results.

By David Lass

The goal for most saltwater aquariums is to have fish, corals and invertebrates look like a “piece of the reef,” and a big part of getting that realistic look is having good water movement in the tank, according to many professionals in the reef aquarium trade.

“Anyone who has done scuba diving or snorkeling knows how much water movement there is on a reef,” said Gary Knabe, co-owner of Elmer’s Aquarium and Pet Center in Monroeville, Pa.

This abundance of water movement on natural reefs is the main reason hobbyists need good water movement in marine reef aquariums.

“These animals are from high water flow surge zone areas in the wild, and we want to mimic their natural conditions,” said Michael Tlusty, Ph.D., director of research for the New England Aquarium in Boston. “You want to prevent dead zones, where bacteria will flourish and cause subsequent problems.”

Industry Voices

Why is water movement important, especially in a marine reef aquarium?

“Four reasons: To move the surface for oxygenation, to get food to sessile animals, to get waste products away from them and for aesthetics—good flow makes things look very natural.”
—Steve Lane, owner of Steve’s Wonderful World of Pets in Williamsville, N.Y.

“Broad flow is important for any reef aquarist to create a lifelike simulation of the coral reef. Flow brings nutrients and oxygen to the sessile invertebrates…without flow, corals will starve and suffocate.”
—Patrick Clasen, director of finance for EcoTech Marine in Bethlehem, Pa.

“Having the correct water movement in a marine tank is not just having a current. In addition, it is very important to make sure that the water surface is being moved, since that is where the oxygen exchange takes place.”
—Steve Richmond, owner of
Lovely Pets in Quincy, Mass.

“To get waste away from your livestock, and food to them. Water movement will affect the growth forms of most corals.”
—Michael Magaletti, service
manager for Hydor USA Inc. in Sacramento, Calif.

“Water movement ...helps keep the system from creating ‘dead spots.’ Dead spots are typically seen as areas in the aquarium where food, debris or even undesirable algae grow and settle.”
—Dave Troop, part-owner of
AquaticLife LLC in Burbank, Calif.

“Keeping water moving is the way a lot of inverts get their food, and also makes it less likely for debris to settle on them and the area becoming stagnant. Out in the ocean, there is constant water movement.”
—D. J. Nelson, owner of the AquaRealm Aquarium in St. Johnsbury, Vt.

Many reef-dwelling fish are continuous feeders, picking food off of surfaces and taking it from the water column, so they do best with a lot of water movement. For sessile animals such as corals and anemones, moving water in aquaria is critical.

“For invertebrates, it takes waste products away and brings oxygen and food to them,” said Neal Dulaney, president of Lifegard Aquatics in Cerritos, Calif. “In an aquarium, it is also important to move the surface of the water around, since that is where the oxygen exchange takes place.”

Water movement isn’t purely a function of bringing oxygen and food to corals, however.

“In addition to taking waste away from your inverts and bringing food to them, water movement has a lot to do with the growth forms of corals,” said Michael Magaletti, customer service manager for Hydor USA in Sacramento, Calif. “Without proper water movement, coral polyps may not develop well, and the entire growth form of corals can be distorted.”

Though water movement is almost uniformly considered to be important for reef aquarists, methods and techniques to create that movement are many and varied. One way to move water around is by using powerheads, or simple pumps, generally located in-tank, designed solely to provide water movement. They can be fixed in position, may have swiveling outputs, and they can also be hooked up with wave controllers.

“There are many different types of powerheads,” said D.J. Nelson, co-owner of AquaRealm Aquarium & Pets in St. Johnsbury, Vt. “Some have rotating outlets, and they can be hooked up to timers and timed power strips that will turn them on and off to mimic wave flow.”

Moving up in features, and potentially in cost, from basic powerheads, there are a number of options and additional products that retailers may to offer  their customers.

“Improved impeller technology enables better performance with less heat and using less energy,” Dulaney said.

Dulaney added that Lifegards’ powerheads’ front covers are now designed for easier servicing, and the pre-filter cap is designed to distribute the inflow so animals aren’t sucked into the impeller.

Retailers can market a wide variety of offerings to customers, and various retailers reported they have their favorite products they prefer to sell customers.

“[Hydor’s] Koralia is our biggest seller, and we are very happy with them,” said Steve Richmond, owner of Lovely Pets in Quincy, Mass. “They move more water with less energy and less heat, and are priced very well.”

Heat is often a problem in a reef tank, and powerheads can add to reef aquarists’ heat-related issues.
“The average reef tank is bombarded by heat coming from multiple sources,” said Patrick Clasen, director of finance for EcoTech Marine in Bethlehem, Pa. “Our design places the motor outside the aquarium, yielding very low heat transfer.”

Several retailers reported a preference for other powerhead brands, as well.

“I really like the EcoTech VorTechs,” said Allen Fefferman, owner of Old Orchard Aquarium in Skokie, Ill. “They are great products, a little expensive but worth the price.”

Control systems are vital for water-motion efficacy and therefore should be a key component of retailers’ overall marketing strategy for water-movement systems.
One way to promote water-movement products is with a live demonstration.
Photo by Clay Jackson/BowTie Inc.
Fefferman added that he found the VorTechs’ ability to convert to direct current to be a great benefit.

“With a battery backup, you can get up to 36 hours of water movement if the power goes out,” Fefferman said. “The small investment required makes sense to protect the large investment in corals and fish.”

In addition to the powerhead-type pumps located inside the aquarium, many industry professionals reported they create good water movement using sump returns.

“In big tanks, 75 gallons and up, we move water by both individual powerheads in the tank and by returns from the sump,” Knabe said.

The only problem with using sump returns to move water in the aquarium can be that as there is more water flow coming into the aquarium, or alternatively, if the water level in the sump gets low, the noise of the overflow can be annoying, according to several retailers.

Some manufacturers reported success dealing with this common problem, however.

“We have solved that,” said Dave Troop, part-owner of AquaticLife LLC in Burbank, Calif. “Our intake shield is designed to prevent a vortex where the pump could take in air.”

Control systems are vital for water-motion efficacy and therefore should be a key component of retailers’ overall marketing strategy for water-movement systems.
Control systems are vital for water-motion efficacy and therefore should be a key component of retailers’ overall marketing strategy for water-movement systems.
Photo by Ben Weiner/BowTie Inc.
Reef hobbyists are, by and large, gadget freaks, and many of them seem to enjoy spending as much money as they can on their hobby, according to various retailers. In many cases, their reliance on high-tech devices to keep exotic and unusual animals means reef aquarists can be thought of as the big money spenders in the aquarium hobby. And one of the places reef aquarists may need more technology to enable reefkeeping is in controller devices for wave-making and water-moving devices.

“Powerheads and wave makers are the traditional way to get good water movement,” said Scott Bogner, marketing manager for Digital Aquatics in Woodinville, Wash. “We ‘control’ the powerheads by cycling [them] on and off. This helps create a turbulent flow that mimics a natural water movement.”

Mimicking a “natural” flow is important to success in the reef aquarium hobby. To that end, flow customization is often in demand among reef aquarists.

“The more flexibility you have to create different conditions in your tank, the more realistic environment you can create, which in turns leads to a thriving ecosystem,” said Patrick Claysen, director of finance for EcoTech Marine in Bethlehem, Pa. “And it’s fun to play around and experiment with different wave types in your tank.”


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