The correct return pump is an essential component of a successfully functioning aquarium, and the right one for your needs depends on a variety of factors. You’ll need to take into consideration the size of your tank, the number of fish inside it, and the types of fish you have — some fish are sensitive to too much motion, while others require it.
A natural coral reef has constant water moving through and around it, caused by tides. This movement helps the reef gets the essential nutrients it needs, while simultaneously flushing away waste. Your aquarium also needs this movement to provide your fish with oxygenated water and to move the water through the filtration system.
It can be a difficult task to find the ideal unit for your fish tank, but don’t worry! We’ve done all the hard work for you and put together this list of in-depth reviews to help you find the right one to suit your unique needs.
A Quick Comparison of Our Favorites in 2023
|Best Overall||Uniclife DC Water Pump||
|Best Value||Fluval Hagen Sea Sump Pump||
|Premium Choice||Current USA eFlux DC Flow Pump||
|Hygger Quiet Submersible and External Water Pump||
|Eheim Universal Pump||
The Best 7 Aquarium Return Pumps
1. Uniclife DEP-4000 DC Water Pump — Best Value
The best aquarium return pump for the money is the DEP-4000 from Uniclife. This pump has a powerful three-phase, six-pole motor, and a wear-resistant ceramic shaft for enhanced longevity. Its Smart Controller function allows you to easily switch between the 10 different speed settings, and it has a useful built-in 10-minute feed mode. The memory function is a useful addition that will prevent you from having to reprogram the unit after every restart. It has multiple modes, including an IC chip control and protection against burning out if there is no water. The pump can be used both externally and submerged inside either freshwater or saltwater. It has a decent 1052 GPH flow rate, ideal for small and medium-sized tanks, and its detachable design is quick and easy to clean.
The flow rate of this pump is reported by users to not be as powerful as claimed, and it frequently underperforms at high settings. The unit also has a small design flaw in that the front face of the pump is held on by only three small clips, making it easy to detach and pour water everywhere. This poor design choice keeps the DEP-4000 from the top position.
2. Fluval Hagen Sea Sump Pump — Premium Choice
This Sea Sump Pump from Fluval Hagen has a premium price tag but will give you a premium and powerful flow rate of up to 1822 GPH. It has a cool running temperature, so you can be sure that it won’t affect the temperature of the water in your tank and won’t overheat. This rugged pump is electrically certified for marine use and is well-constructed with unmatched energy efficiency. The magnetic drive construction makes the pump suitable to be used externally or submerged in your tank, which is a useful option. The unit also comes with barbed hose fittings included for easy setup and installation, and this pump is almost completely silent. This quiet operation is a great feature for bedroom and living room tanks.
An important factor to consider is that this pump is larger than most of the other pumps listed here, and this is especially important if you are using it submersed in a small-sized tank. Also, there is no filter cap on the intake, so you’ll need to either leave it open or DIY one yourself. These small caveats keep this pump from the top two positions.
3. Current USA eFlux DC Flow Pump
The eFlux DC Flow pump from Current USA can be used externally or as a submersible and is safe for use with freshwater and saltwater tanks. It has an adjustable flow rate, which is controlled by simply turning the external dial. It is simple and quick to install and has a small and compact size that will easily fit into small tanks. The eFlux has energy-efficient operation to save on power use, but it will still produce strong water flow and high pressure to your aquarium. Its built-in soft-start will ensure a smooth speed transition that won’t shock your fish, and the IC electronic protection will make sure your pump doesn’t burn out if there is no water present. The coupling hose and fittings are included for easy installation, and it has a powerful flow rate of up to 1900 GPH.
Several users report problems with this pump leaking when used externally and that the pump’s flow rate decreased significantly over time. Some users also reported the pump sporadically cutting out, likely due to faults within the controller.
4. Hygger Quiet Submersible and External Water Pump
This aquarium return pump from Hygger has a quiet running operation and can be used in both external and submersible applications. The 6.6-foot power cord is a great feature, as it negates the need for messy extensions and adapters, which can be dangerous. The LED screen controller is a standout feature, with settings that allow you to adjust the flow rate between 30% and 100% for optimum customization, essentially giving you 70 different control speeds. It has an auto shut-off feature for when there is no water detected or the levels are too low, and it includes two different interchangeable water intake screens. The water-resistant ceramic shaft and lack of copper element make this pump long-lasting and versatile, safe for both freshwater and saltwater use.
Several users report the pump turning off intermittently and then having to be reset in order to work correctly again. It can be a huge problem if this occurs while you are out at work or on vacation, leaving your fish with no circulating water. The flow rate adjustment is also sensitive, as it is regulated by the voltage of the controller, and this can produce somewhat inconsistent flow rates.
5. Eheim Universal Pump
This universal pump from Eheim is epoxy-filled and hermetically sealed, making it ideal for both external and submersible use because it is protected against leaking. It has an energy-efficient motor that results in quiet operation and will save you money on electricity bills. It is also a versatile pump that can be used in both freshwater and saltwater. The unit is quick and easy to install, with a removable integrated pre-filter, barb fittings, and a built-in twist clamp. One of the standout features of this unit is the simplicity of its plug-and-play installation.
This is a small return pump, with a flow rate of only 158 GPH, so it is not suitable for large aquariums. The flow rate is not adjustable and there is no included controller.
6. Aquastation Silent Swirl Controllable DC Aquarium Pump
This tiny pump from Aquastation is small and compact yet surprisingly powerful. The maximum flow rate is a respectable 1056 GPH and can be adjusted with the included controller that offers up to 20 different speed settings. Its sine wave technology makes it energy-efficient and gives it a quiet operation, with the option for submersible or external use. Its smart controller has a Constant Flow Mode, a Wave Function, and a 10-minute feed function.
When used externally, this pump is likely to leak, and you may need to do DIY silicon repairs to mitigate this. The fittings are not standard, so installation can become frustrating even if you can source the right sizes. Many users report faulty controllers, causing the pump to stop intermittently, with some units not ever switching back on! Although the description states otherwise, this pump will rust if used in saltwater.
7. Aqueon Quietflow Submersible Utility Pump
This submersible pump from Aqueon has quiet operation and is ideal for submersible return pump use due to its convenient suction-mount feet. The unit comes included with all the adaptors you’ll need to get started, including an inlet adaptor. It is also made for use with freshwater or saltwater, with a small and compact design that is a breeze to install and won’t take up massive amounts of space in your tank.
The flow rate of 515 GPH is not enough for large aquariums, and the pump lacks a vital auto shut-off feature should the water level run low. Many users report that this pump is far from quiet, as it is advertised, but the noise may settle after a short break-in period. The internal motor does not last long, with users reporting that you can likely expect 6-12 months with average use. There are no adjustable speed settings and thus, no controller, and the flow rate can be fairly unsteady.
A good quality return pump is an essential component for a healthy, functioning aquarium. It allows all the water entering your tank to first go through the filtration system, which will ensure only clean and filtered water will enter your aquarium, and it will also assist in oxygenating the water. But how do you make sure you are choosing the correct pump for your tank? There are a few important factors to take into consideration.
Submersible or External?
While many pumps on the market today can do both, return pumps generally fall into two categories: submersible and external. A submersible pump can be fully immersed and operate inside water (usually both freshwater and saltwater), while an external can only be used outside the tank. Both these options have their advantages and disadvantages, which is why hybrid units are so popular and widely used.
Submersible pumps are generally quieter and easier to install and maintain, but if they run hot, they can dramatically affect the water temperature of your tank. External pumps are more complicated to install and will require regular maintenance. That said, they are usually more powerful with higher flow rates, will not transfer added heat into your aquarium’s water, and generally last longer.
Another important factor to consider is the volume capacity of your aquarium. If you get a pump that is too small for your aquarium’s water capacity, it will not allow the water in your tank to be filtered properly. This will eventually result in an unhealthy environment for your fish and possibly a burnt-out pump motor. If you have a pump that is too large for your aquarium, it can easily cause overflow in your tank or sump. Also, bigger pumps are more expensive, and buying one that is too big is a waste of money.
AC vs. DC Pumps
Traditionally, AC pumps have been the go-to for aquariums, requiring not much more than plugging them into the wall. More recently, DC pumps have become popular, as they typically have an included controller that lets you adjust the speed to a custom setting. The flow rate of your pump can be conveniently adjusted with the press of a button, which is a huge advantage when you have several species of fish. These types of pumps can also be set up with backup batteries in case of a power outage, and more advanced versions can even be adjusted remotely with apps on your phone. The downside is the price, as DC pumps are more expensive than their AC counterparts.
The last thing that you (and your fish) want is a noisy pump, especially as most aquariums are installed in bedrooms or living rooms. The noise can send harmful vibrations throughout your aquarium, which can cause distress to anything living inside. While much pump noise can be mitigated somewhat by proper installation, some pumps are noisier than others. Submersible pumps are usually quieter, as long as they are not touching the walls of the tank or any installed pipes or rock features.
Our top pick for an aquarium return pump is the Jebao DCP Sine Wave pump. It has big power in a small and compact package, with quiet and energy-efficient sine wave technology operation. A flow rate of 1710 GPH and a wall-mountable controller make this a return pump that you can’t go wrong choosing.
The best aquarium return pump for the money is the DEP-4000 from Uniclife. It has a Smart Controller function that allows you to switch between its 10 different speed settings, and it has a built-in 10-minute feed mode. It also has a decent 1052 GPH flow rate, which makes it ideal for aquarium enthusiasts on a budget.
The correct return pump is a critical component of your aquarium, so it can be a stressful and often confusing process to find the right one. Hopefully, our in-depth reviews have helped you narrow down the options, so you can find the right one to suit your unique needs.
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Featured image credit: dominickkrolik, Pixabay