Top Five Beginner Return Pumps

Updated 2024

When it comes to return pumps, you’ll find two main categories: AC and DC pumps.

AC pumps, or alternating current pumps, are the standard fixed flow pumps. They operate at one speed, tend to run warm, and consume a significant amount of energy. For smaller tanks, AC pumps are sufficient.

On the other hand, DC pumps, or direct current pumps, are controllable pumps with variable flow rates. They are more energy-efficient and run almost silently. However, DC pumps are generally more expensive, which is why some hobbyists opt not to use them.

So if you can afford it, I would recommend always getting a DC powered pump.  The fact that you don’t have to listen to that slight vibration that AC pumps produce, is enough reason for me to stick with DC.  Plus, as DC pumps become more and more common, there are even affordable small options on the market.

Rather than recommend specific pumps, below you will find five different lines of pumps.  For example, rather than the specific Sicce Syncra Silent 1.5, I’m going to talk about the Syncra line, and then you choose the right size for your tank and flow.

Again, in no particular order, here we go.

1. Sicce Syncra Silent

This is the only AC pump I’m going to recommend today.  That’s not because AC pumps are crap, but I just like DC pumps so much better. Hands down, the Sicce Syncra Silent line is my favorite AC pump.  It is Italian made, super high quality, and is backed by an actual 5-year manufacturer warranty, with great customer service in case something breaks… I’ve owned, I don’t know, at least 10 of these over the years, and I’ve never had one break.

They are technically controllable with a dial that can turn it up or down, but it’s not actually changing the speed of the pump.  Rather, it is controlling how much water can enter the pump, therefore how much can leave the pump. I would have to assume this would create a little bit of strain on the pump over time if it was dialed back.

Not only are these great return pumps, but fantastic utility pumps.  I used to use them all the time for water changes, RO refills, mixing saltwater, etc.  The only reason I don’t use them as much anymore is because I’ve gone with more permanent solutions with my reef tanks, so slightly bigger pumps.

The main downside of the Sicce Syncra line of pumps? Vibration.  Yes, they do have rubber feet and suction cups, but if the pump starts touching the side of the tank, you will hear the vibration.  It’s kind of like putting a tuning fork to your chin… you can hear the vibration. It’s not terrible, but noticeable for sure.

Solid pump, good value, and here is a chart from Sicce to help you choose the right size.

2. Innovative Marine Mighty Jet

Return pump for Saltwater Aquarium

I first encountered these little beauties when I started heavily using Innovative Marine Aquariums.  These came stock with the kits, and I was impressed.  I was so used to AIO kits coming with some sort of super cheap AC pump as a way to save money and increase profit margins.  But not IM.  This Mighty Jet Pump runs silently, and has a simple controller to adjust the speed.  It’s awesome actually, and is perfect for smaller AIO style tanks that have a rear filtration chamber.

The smallest size outputs 266 gph, meaning it can work for tanks ups to 40-50 gallons.  Now the manufacturer only recommends 10-25 gallon tanks, but if you want to turn over the entire water column 5x per hour, then this would work on a 53 gallon tank.  Personally, I would use this on a 10-30 gallon system, mainly because on larger tanks, I want the ability to turn up the flow higher than this thing is capable of.

And I’ve only tried these in rear filtration chambers, not in sumps. I can’t find any information about the head pressure, which makes me think it’s not a good pump to push water all the way up from a sump.

3. Reef Octopus VarioS DC Pump

product shot of the white and red reef octopus varios dc return pump with the rectangular white controller.

I love this pump.  I can’t remember why I started using it, but it probably had something to do getting a new protein skimmer. I can’t even exactly pinpoint what it is that I like so much about it, but here is everything I can think of.

Yes, it’s DC and comes with a controller.  For some reason I like the look of it.  I love the fact that it comes with schedule 80 unions so you can either hard plumb in some pvc pipe, or use the included barbed adapters.  It comes with a float switch which you can attach, let’s say somewhere in your sump, which will automatically shut the pump off if the water gets to high. And I like the fact that I don’t have to fiddle with iPhone apps to program this. Who really needs a programmable DC return pump?  I just want to be able to press a button and control the speed!

 This pump runs perfectly silently, and is just a high quality option. I mean, I don’t know what else to say except I love it and highly recommend you try it yourself. 

Oh, and I love the impeller on this.  Instead of a flimsy skinny impeller, this is a giant plastic impeller that just feels so much more solid and way less likely to break!

The VarioS comes in three different sizes, ranging from a max of 1720 gph down to 792 gph. And they are large, so I would recommend these for systems with sumps, not rear filtration chambers.

I’m just remembering that I used the VarioS pump in both my clownfish harem tank and my seahorse tank.

Check out the ridiculously long video below to see my old seahorse tank… It’s cued up to 3:49 for you so you can see the VarioS in action!

4. Maxspect Jump DC Return Pump

Full disclosure here… I have not used these pumps.  But, I do like Maxspect as a brand, and have used their other Jump products like their lights.  Their Jump range is meant to be a high quality, no frills, budget option. Rather than pay almost triple for a fancy wifi-controllable pump, Maxspect just does it for a lot less cash.

These are pretty cool looking pumps that can be controlled with the included controller, and can be adjusted from 0-100% in 5% increments, and has a 10, 20, and 30 minute feed mode.

These are big pumps, and definitely meant for a sump. The Jump line comes in four sizes, ranging from 1585 gph up to 3170 gph.  

Who would want this pump?  Somebody with a larger tank, we’re talking at least 70 gallons, but all the way up to a couple hundred gallons, so probably not most beginners.  But remember you can turn this down a lot, so you can run it on smaller tanks.

It comes with barbed adapters, but the output is also a standard threaded PVC size, so you can hard plumb something if your are interested. 

5. Sicce Syncra SDC

Our 2nd Sicce product on the list, the SDC, the DC option. Same amazing company with great customer service who stands by their Italian made products, these are just great DC pumps.

With four different options ranging from 800-2500 gph, these are great for tanks about 40 gallons and higher. I have used these pumps, and they work just fine.  For whatever reason, I do prefer the Reef Octopus VarioS pumps, but I think that is simply because I like the controller better.

Able to be plumbed in the sump, or externally and dry, this wifi enabled pump actually comes with a legit 5-year warranty, which is incredible for this hobby. As an added bonus, the pump also monitors the water temperature, so it’s like a little temperature controller that can actually send alerts to your phone if the temperature gets too high or low. Pretty handy. 

Recent Beginner Blogs

saltwater aquarium tank on cabinet with clownfish and anemones

Ultimate 4-Month Saltwater Aquarium Guide: Stunning Results

Setting up your first saltwater aquarium can be an exciting yet daunting task. In this beginner’s guide, we explore a detailed tour of my 15-gallon Hello Reef tank, covering essential tips, equipment recommendations, and maintenance strategies to ensure your saltwater aquarium thrives.

Read This Next