Best Aquarium Return Pumps (2019 Reviews) - AC vs DC What Works Best?
Following up our Best Aquarium Wavemakers Review post, it would be natural for me to write about the best aquarium return pumps next. Return pumps are an essential component for many fish tanks. They are used in all-in-one tanks, water changing stations, and in aquariums sumps or refugium sumps. It is the heart of the aquarium and thus the very piece of equipment in your setup that you do not want to fail. You can argue that next to an Aquarium Heater, a failed return pump can be disastrous not only for your livestock, but to your home in the event of a flood or leak.
The goal with this post is not to point you to the cheapest aquarium return pumps or the most expensive ones. I'm going to point you to the highest quality and reliable pumps available today on the market. This is a component of your system that you should not skim on. You want an aquarium return pump to last forever, be quiet, and to be relevantly maintenance free.
Aquarium Water Pump Basics
The first question you may be asking is why do I have to use a return pump versus say a wavemaker or powerhead. The main difference here is that return pumps are designed to pump water uphill and are made to handle head pressure. Wavemakers are meant to pump water within the aquarium and a powerhead is not suited to handle the head pressure that a return pump is design to take.
When selecting a return pump, it is very important to know how many gallons per hour you need and how much water is going to be pushed distance wise. As the distance increases, there is loss on the flow called headloss. Here is a link to a headloss calculator so you can do a best estimate. I would recommend that you slightly oversize your return pump and use the pump's control features or a gate value to reduce the flow to get it to the proper gallons per hour that you need. You may also decided to run additional equipment using a PVC manifold so oversizing would have it's advantages if you go that route.
AC vs. DC Return Pumps
Return pump manufacturers have been really pushing DC return pumps a lot recently. It makes a lot of sense given the control features that DC pumps offer. Nearly all DC return pumps are controllable with precision and have feed modes to instantly shut off the pump when feeding your fish, plants, or corals. Some return pump come with smart phone apps that makes monitoring and setup a breeze. They are also a lot more energy efficient.
However, they come with some big advantages. Reliability is the number one concern I would have with a return pump. You see, a large number of DC return pumps are made in China and the same manufacturer often makes several re-branded pumps (e.g. - Jabeos). Sometimes the quality control simply isn't there. Other times, the warranties are very short because the manufacturers are well aware of the issues --- especially if they operate in saltwater aquariums. A DC controller with have 3 failure points that you will need to deal with:
- The controller
- The power supply
- The motor
The motor will be the most reliable part of your DC return pump and the controller will be the least reliable. Often times when I see a DC return pump failure, it will usually be the controller.
AC pumps are a tried and true in this industry. The benchmark of this engineering comes from Italy. Italian engineers had developed the Askoll Motor Block.
Askolls motor blocks are known for their extreme reliability in the aquarium trade with many motor blocks easily lasting over 10 years. The manufactures will also back up their models with long-term warranties, typically at least 3 years or more! The motor block is the only failure point to be concerned with on an AC aquarium return pump. As you can see, they are very worry free!
AC pumps also come with some big disadvantages over DC pumps. Several are not adjustable aside from the flow reducer, which means the pump will always run at full power and the decrease flow results in head pressure (e.g. - more wear and tear). Nearly all will not have a feed feature and the energy consumption is a lot more. Several AC pumps are also loud, which is a big consideration if you are working with a setup in a study or bedroom.
Internal Versus External Return Pumps
An internal return pump can only be run submerged in water.
An external return pump is made to operate solely outside of the water. They can handle pushing water over long distances due to their designs. Nearly any return meant to work externally only is going to be extremely reliable. Not having the pump inside the water, especially not in saltwater increases the reliability of a return pump immensely. Many of these pumps will operate for years without maintenance.
The main drawbacks with external return pumps are that they are large, loud, and expensive. An external return pump is best operated for people who have basement sumps or fish rooms where water needs to travel long distances.
Aquarium Return Pump Reviews
Below are the list of recommended aquarium return pumps. They range between AC & DC pumps and external and submersible. All will have uses in your aquarium.
1. Current USA EFlux Return Pumps - Affordable DC Power and Reliability
Current USA starts off our list with a very competent Eflux DC Pump offering. This pump is well made with a controller that can adjust the flow fro 1% to 100% using a dial. It has the advantage of hooking integrating with the Eflux Wavemakers and Loop LEDs for a complete package. It is a compact for the power it brings and I really like the rubber feet that come with it so you don't have to worry about placing a silicon mat underneath it. Current USA's customer service has also been in my experience excellent and one of the reasons I go with them for many system components.
The main thing I don't like about this DC return pump is the lack of a true feed mode. There isn't even an option to do a feed mode out of the box. You get a feed mode when it's linked to the Loop Led manifold or the Bluetooth accessory, but the feed mode is a 30% dial down mode not complete shut off. This makes it disappointing if you want a button to to a feed mode, but since I tend to hook systems up with switch boards or a controller it is a non issue for me. I would say this is the weakest offering of the Loop trio though, with the EFlux wavemakers being the strongest product offer of theirs.
- Works with Current USA Loop System
- Adjustable by dial so it can go from 1% to 100%
- Current USA customer service
- Does not have a true feed mode
- Dial can also be a disadvantage
2. Fluval Sea SP - Askoll Motor + Warranty = Ultimate Reliability
The Fluval Sea SP series return pumps are a throw back to the reliable Askoll motor design. Italian engineered and backed by a benchmark 3 year warranty, the Fluval Sea offeres reliable, powerful, and quiet operation. Yes, that is right, these Fluval Sea have been reported to be quieter than old generation Jabeo DC pumps. They can also be run internally or externally. It is a great all around pump.
My main nitpick with this pump is there is no flow regulator out of the box. In order to tune down this pump, you are required to use a gate valve in your plumbing. While a gate valve is recommended in any sump design, this can be an added expense and time cost for some who is looking to save on design costs. These are all power hungry and large pumps so don't expect energy savings from them.
- Askoll Motor & Italian engineering
- Lots of GPH sizes for an AC pump
- Runs internal or external
- Pump does not have a flow regulator out of the box
- Large compared to DC pumps
- High wattage consumption
3. EcoTech Vectra - High End DC Pump With Smart Phone App Features
The EcoTech Vectra is our first high end DC pump on the list. It is loaded with lots of smart features like auto calibration which will adjust itself automatically to the overflow drain of your tank. It is compatible with the EcoTech battery backup system, which can power the pump for a couple of days. It can work with the ReefLink app giving you full access to your operations on your computer.
My favorite offering is the closed mode. I am a big fan of doing closed loop systems - especially for smaller tanks where you can eliminate a wavemaker and have more room for your corals and fish. The closed loop options offer wavemaking features like gyre and reef crest random modes giving you the random flow you need for a reef tank.
As with all EcoTech products, this is an expensive DC return pump. I'm not too upset about the price though. It's the warranty that really bugs me. EcoTech only backs this up with a 1 year warranty, which is a big shame for a return pump that is supposed to be the heart of the aquarium.
- Smart features like auto calibrate
- Compatible with EcoTech Battery Backup System
- Close Loop Modes
- Only a 1 year warranty
4. Eheim Universal Hobby Pumps - An Oldie but Goodie
The Eheim Hobby Pump is an extremely reliable aquarium return pump that has been around for many years in the hobby. I know a number of hobbyists who use this pump with many still running after over 15 years of usage. The reliability of these pumps are virtually unmatched. They only come in smaller gallon per hour outputs, but for the what they are capable of, they are great additions to a system.
Unfortunately, as of this post, they are becoming more and more difficult to find as the manufacturer is phasing them out for a more mainstream and cheaper pump. If you can find these pumps for sale, they are worth every penny for their reliability.
- Eheim name
- Extremely reliable
- Works submersed in water or externally
- Difficult to obtain
- Expensive for an AC pump
- Not designed for hard PVC installs
5. Eheim CompactON Pumps - New Generation Return Pumps
The Eheim CompactON aquarium return pumps are the newest generation of pumps from Eheim. These pumps are the successor of Eheim's popular Compact+ series pumps. What you get here is a compact fit that fits in tight sumps and all in one aquariums with the reliability of the the Eheim name. The ceramic bearing construction makes for a silent pump. There is an easy to access adjustment dial near the outlet and it comes with accessories so you can either do a hard or soft plumbing install.
Like many Eheim products, these pumps are on the pricer side of AC return pumps, but you are getting a more reliable pump spending more.
- Eheim Name
- Has accessories for soft and hard plumbing installs
- Small footprint
- Hard to find
6. Iwaki External Return Pumps - Japanese Quality with Long-Term Reliability
The Iwaki Magdrive Pumps are the first external aquarium pump on this list. Iwaki is a very well known brand in the aquarium and pond industry due to their reliability and performance. The main difference between these aquariums and internal return pumps is the head pressure they can handle. They can work across longer distances making them perfect for basement sump and fish room installs.
External pumps come with a number of drawbacks. They are big and loud and can only be installed externally. They are not ideal for below the cabinet installs due to this and really are best for separate room installs. They are expensive, but one of these will last a lifetime and well worth the money if you have a specialized install.
- High quality build and motor
- Handles a lot of headpressure (great for basement sumps/fishrooms)
- Loud and big
- Can only be used externally
7. MightyJet DC Pump - DC Power for All In One Tanks
The MightyJet DC Pump by Innovative is the perfect aquarium return pump to upgrade to if you are looking for a DC powered pump in your all in one aquarium. They come in either 326 GPH or 538 GPH sizes, with both models being small enough to fit in the return chamber of your all in one.
It has many of the features you would expect with a DC pump drawing little power, having a feed mode, and being fully adjustable. The 326 GPH model uses only 15 watts at 100% so in a backup situation it can be dialed down and can operate for a long-term with a UPS or battery backup system.
Because this is a name brand DC pump, they are expensive given the output. There is also no sound dampening features like silicone or rubber feet like you get with the Current USA and other name brand DC offerings. It is a great pump that works amazon for all in ones and should also be a consideration for those if you running nano reef tanks with sumps.
- Small enough to fit in all in one aquarium chambers
- Good GPH output given size
- Fully adjustable
- Expensive compared to similar AC powered pumps
- No sound dampening feet
8. Jabeo DCP Sine Wave - Affordable DC Power
The Jabeo DCP Sine Wave return pump is the first Jabeo return pump that I am comfortable putting under a recommended list. Everyone is always asking me if Jabeos are worth buying and in the past I am generally 100% against them because of reliability issue. This particular model however, has my interest because of the Sine Wave technology that makes them crazy quiet. Sine Wave removes that annoying humming noise so common with your average DC pump. It's frankly annoying to the ear to hear it throughout the day and I know some clients who hate that DC hum so much that they end up going with a Sicce pump instead because they can't stand it! The Sine Wave tech on this pump puts out about 25% less noise then the previous Jabeo generation (the DCS).
This pump features a controller than can adjust the pump from 30% to 100% power and comes with a feed mode that will shut off the pump for 10 minutes. Perfect for coral feeding or hand feeding shy inhabitants in your tank. This pump is also compatible with Jabeo's battery backup (the IceCap battery backup will also work) solution giving you hours of operation in the event of a power outage.
The DCP Sine Wave is also the one variant of Jabeo that you will not see clones for. There are a lot and I mean A LOT of Jabeo clones and even American sellers who rebrand Jabeo pumps like Simplicity, but the Sine Wave tech is exclusive to the Jabeo brand so if you are going to use a Chinese made DC pump that is not a major brand, this is the one to look at.
Now let's talk about issues with this pump. In my own personal experience, the controller is the achilles heal of this unit. It is fairly common to have a unit shipped with a faulty controller and it will generally fail right away. I'm not sure why they fail so much, but make absolutely certain that you purchase this pump from a seller who can ship you a replacement fast and with no added cost if you have to return it (like Amazon). Once you have a working controller, these units last a decent amount of time. They haven't been out for too long, but I do know of several installs with these going two years now and still working like new. Given the price of these units, that's pretty good if you are working with a budget.
- Sine Wave tech = more silent than many DC Pumps
- Lots of output options available
- Controller reliability
- Chinese quality
9. Panworld External Pumps - The Pump of Choice for Basement Sumps
Panworld External Pumps offer a very reliable return pump for a reason price. I see many basement sumps and fish rooms run these pumps for years. They are pretty common place in the reefing community with their great price point and reliability.
Panworld's price point comes from their 26 years of pump manufacturing experience, using Japanese pump technology and having manufacturing based in Taiwan.
As with any external pump, they are best for applications where you are moving water to an outside location like a basement or a fishroom. They are too big and bulky to be placed underneath cabinets and they are loud. They are amazing to use in water changing stations and various other external applications.
- Cheap for an external return pump
- Sturdy and reliable
- Big and bulky
- Only works externally
10. ReeFlo Pumps - Lots of Power for External Applications
Did I mention that external return pumps are loud? Well, the Reeflo External Return Pumps kick that concern to the curb. Don't believe me? Just check out this field test video below and hear it yourself:
Pretty quiet isn't it? Not only are they quiet, but they are very powerful. The entry level dart models go over 2600 GPH and their gold models can easily push out 5500+ GPH!. These are the pumps for you monster keepers or those with big fish rooms with lots of water to move. These pumps are built in the USA and small business owned. The motors are fully rebuild-able meaning that you are can ensure that these pumps will operate for a lifetime. All the pumps come with multiple year warranties for worry free operation and purchase.
They are expensive external pumps, but if I was looking for an external pump for my fish room or basement and silence was a huge priority - this would be the pump I would be looking at.
- Very powerful (high GPH)
- More silent than other external return pumps
- Rebuild-able motors
- Big and bulky
11.Reef Octopus VarioS -
The Reef Octopus VarioS return pump offers a fully controllable DC pump. This pump is controller ready, being able to connect with controllers like the Neptune Apex and is meant for aquarists looking for high end equipment.
The controller is pretty comprehensive on it's own offering a 15 or 16 minute feed mode and several speed settings.
It is an expensive return pump, but those looking for a controller ready pump won't be disappointed by its performance. It is considered the best value for high end name brand DC pumps in the hobby.
- Aquarium controller ready
- Very comprehensive controller
- Only a 2 year warranty
12. Sicce Syndra Aquarium Pump - Quiet & Reliable Return Pump That Last A Lifetime
The Sicce Syndra aquarium return pump is the first pump I recommend to clients when building an aquarium. Their final section will vary depending on their budget and their desire for control on their return pump, but the Sicce is also the benchmark I start with. I always start with a Sicce pump because they have the best engineering, best reliability, and best warranties in the industry.
I didn't even mention how quiet they are. They are insanely quiet. Many DC pumps are louder than these in comparison. It's all due to their 35+ years of Italian engineering and care in manufacturing. The pump is equipped with a synchronous motor and advanced rotor which cuts down on the noise significantly.
Sicce tops off all these features with a gold standard best in industry 5 year warranty. No maker unless you spending way more in the DC category (looking at you Abyzz) offers a warranty like this. This sounds the absolute confidence from Sicce that this pump will serve you will in a lifetime of operation.
Sicce's reliable and engineer are well earned and as a result, these pumps are on the pricey side. However, knowing that the return pump is the heart of an aquarium system I see no problem in spending a little more for a pump that will offer me a lifetime of worry free operation.
- Quiet (virtually dead silent!)
- Industry best 5 year warranty
- Can be run internally or externally
- Suctions instead of rubber feet
- Needs a gate valve for true precision adjustments
Return Pump Recommendations (Our Recommendation)
If you have been reading our other articles, you may be aware of our Sicce bias, but there are options available for every type of build from the list presented above. Below are category recommendations:
- Best Return Pump for All In One Tanks - Sicce Synda (AC) or MightyJet (DC)
- Best AC Pump - Sicce Synda
- Best DC Pump - Jabeo DCP Sine Wave (DC - Budget) or VarioS (DC -Premium)
- Best External Pump - Panworld (Budget) or Reeflo (Premium)
Best Aquarium Return Pump - Closing Thoughts
Return pumps in my early years of building aquariums with sumps was a very nerve wracking experience. There are many out there and figuring out what the proper gallons per hour that you need and making head loss calculations just made you nervous if you purchased a pump that was too small or too big. DC pumps have really taken out the guess work with their ability to adjust power with the controller and not worry about added stress to the pump over time by having an over-sized and highly restricted return pump.
AC pumps are still extremely valuable with their reliability and performance. If you take your time research the output that you need and get an appropriate gate valve you are set for worry free successor with an AC pump.
I hope this guide helped you in making your decision. If you have any questions, please leave them in the comment and I will do the best I can to address them. Thanks for reading!
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