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Inexpensive Wavemaker Impressions

By Steven Pro

For saltwater reef displays, simulating wave action has always been a dream of many hobbyists.  The ebb and flow of the currents and the swaying action that they create has been a goal of many a fish keeper.  That desire has led to ingenious Do-It-Yourself devices such as the “Carlson Surge Device” and the “Toilet Flapper Valve Surge”. However, these units, while effective at recreating powerful wave-like surges of water, also have there down sides.  They are bulky, cumbersome, unsightly units that are noisy, and create a lot of micro bubbles and the resultant salt spray and creep.  As such, they have never really caught on big in the hobby world.

 Within the last few years though, the marketplace has been flooded with a variety of methods to create alternating currents and waves: Ocean Motions, Sea-Swirls, Tunze Stream pumps with controller units, and the Tunze Wavebox.  While all of these are interesting concepts in there own right, none of them are cheap and most are too large or powerful for smaller aquaria (55 gallons and under), making them impractical for many in the hobby.

For this article, I want to focus on the less expensive wavemaker devices- the ones that most anyone in this hobby could afford.  Besides that, these units are the ones that I have had the most experience with.  It is not that I am cheap mind you.  I will pay good money for something that is well built and useful or necessary, but I don’t like to squander money, either!  Because wavemakers are not necessary (Most any coral can be grown without a wavemaker.  All one needs is strong, turbulent circulation.), I have chosen to not spend a great deal of my own money on them.

 Aquarium Systems Natural Wave Timer:

The Natural Wave timer Photo Adam Cesnales

This is the first wavemaker device I ever purchased and I was very pleased with its performance.  This unit is very much like a standard surge protector multi-strip.  It is a long, small box with six plugs on it.  However, in contrast to a standard multi-strip, only three of the plugs have power 24/7.  The other three plugs are connected to a controller knob and turn on and off in an alternating pattern.  Plug #1 runs for a set period of time and then shuts off.  When #1 turns off, #2 turns on and runs for the same set period of time.  So, #1 and #2 are always opposite of one another.  The #3 plug is a little different.  It will turn on and remain on all the while #1 and #2 operates for one cycle.  It then turns off and stays off through the next cycle of #1 and #2. 

#1 Plug









#2 Plug









#3 Plug









This diagram should help to illustrate how the outlets are cycled on and off in relation to each other

All one needs to do to operate this wavemaker is to plug the powerheads in the display into those three outlets to create a mixed, random flow pattern.  The downside is that cycling on and off is not great for powerheads.  They are designed to run 24/7.  This constant on and off can damage or destroy some powerheads.  I would only use Aquarium System’s or Hagen powerheads for this type of usage.  Even such, occasionally these powerheads will make a brief chattering noise when first turned on.  This can be annoying to some individuals, so be aware. Check out this link for more:


Hydor Flo Rotating Deflector:

This is another wavemaker that I like, although it functions in a completely different manner than the Aquarium Systems Natural Wave.  This device is an add-on feature to a powerhead.  It simply slips on over the output and using a variety of gears and the pressure of the water flow of the powerhead it converts that straight jet of water into a revolving, diffuse flow of water.  As a test, I ran one of these on a Maxi-Jet 1200 for one month without a prefilter in my 120 gallon reef display before it failed to operate.  I then removed it, gave it a quick cleaning, reassembled, and it was performing as good as new again for another month before it required being cleaned again.  The entire maintenance procedure could not have taken me more than five minutes to complete from the minute I turned it off until it was returned to service.  I feel that this amount of maintenance is reasonable given how much I liked the performance of this unit.

 As for negatives, the units are a little big and unattractive, but in my mind so are powerheads in a display.  Either can be dealt with using strategic placement and concealment in, around, or behind the aquascaping.  I have also heard of some people complaining about these units because they reduce the water flow.  Apparently they have never heard the saying that ‘there is no such thing as a free lunch’.  Of course they reduce the flow rate some.  They use that flow to create the spin.  If Hydor could create a similar device that didn’t reduce the flow at all, then they should reconsider their business plan and go into the perpetual motion machine business. J


Rio Motion

I bought my first (and only) Rio Motion about two and a half years ago for my then new 120 gallon reef display.  It was to be placed prominently in the center of the tank.  One of my E. G. Danner/Supreme Mag-Drive 1200 return pumps was to supply it with water flow through 1” PVC pipe reduced down to ¾” at the junction to the Motion unit.  When I first got the tank setup, it ran beautifully, rotating nicely and consistently, for all of three days.  Then it jammed.  I removed it, cleaned it, and returned it into place where it again worked wonderfully, for one more entire day.  I went to remove and clean it again, when it broke coming off.  It then went into the trash, and that was the last time I used anything with the Rio name on it, having had several bad experiences with their powerheads as well. For more information:

 It is a good idea on paper, and is very similar in operation to those old-style rotating spray bars that came with the first wet/dry filters.  These would routinely clog as well and necessitate frequent cleaning, but these spinning spray bars got raw water from an overflow that would routinely suck up excess food, dirt, and detritus.  I thought that getting cleaned water after the sump with settling chamber, protein skimmers, and macroalgae refugium would limit the cleaning duties to a minimum.  Unfortunately, it did not work out that way and I ended up having to cut out that return line and replumb it differently.


Switching Current Water Director (SCWD)

These units use similar gearing as the Hydor Flo, but in a different way.  Instead of creating a rotation using the gearing, these units alternate flow out of two outlets.  They look similar to a large T fitting.  Water is pumped up through the bottom and the water exits in an alternating pattern from each side.

Just like the Hydor Flo, these units reduce the water flow because they use that pressure to create the alternating pattern. Again, I don’t feel like that is a major shortcoming.  It is simply a tradeoff that one must make for the wave-like action.  That said, I do think these units have one major weakness.  They only come with barb fittings, and they are not very good barb fittings at that.  I would much prefer if they came with threaded fittings, so that if one wanted to use barb fittings, they could.  Or, you could use quick connect unions and hard PVC pipe to minimize potential leaks or salt creep associated with barb fittings and hose clamps.


Zoo-Med Power Sweep

Photo Adam Cesnales

These wavemakers are quite simple.  They are a nothing more than a powerhead with a small geared device at the end which oscillates the ejected water back and forth.  This rather simple setup though has been plagued with problems.  The gearing routinely gets gummed up and fails to create the back and forth flow rendering them to nothing more than a standard powerhead.  And, if that was not bad enough, they are not particularly powerful units either.


 As I stated briefly before, wavemakers are not necessary to get good coral growth or coloration, but they can add a dramatic visible effect to the display and can be useful in maintaining a random flow pattern.  One note on their use though.  If you decide to purchase one of these, be sure to account for any reductions in flow rate or down time due to powerhead cycling in your calculations for total circulation needs.

WWM about Powerheads, Circulation in Marine Systems 

Related Articles: Pump Specification Chart (by maker/URL, power use, flow, head, fitting size), by James Gasta, Wavemaker Pump Specification Chart (by maker/URL, power use, flow), by James Gasta, Powerhead Impressions by Steven Pro, Circulation, Aeration, Water Flow, How Much is Enough, Marine System ComponentsRefugiums, Central FiltrationFlow-through Live-holding Systems, Refugiums, Business Set-Up

Related FAQs: Wavemakers, Powerheads 1, Powerheads 2, Marine Circulation 1, Marine Circulation 2, Marine Circulation 3, Marine Circulation 4, Marine Circulation 5 & FAQs on: Rationale, Designs, Pumps, Plumbing, What's About the Right Amount, Troubleshooting/Repair, & AerationPumps, PlumbingMake Up Water Systems, SumpsRefugiumsGear Selection for Circulation, Pump ProblemsSurge Devices


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