There are several important factors that should be present if a marine aquarium is to be a success. In both fish only and reef aquariums seawater movement is one of them.
One reason for the importance of movement is oxygen intake, if it is adequate the seawater will constantly reach air/water interfaces, in particular the display aquarium surface, where gas exchange can take place. Another reason is that it assists corals obtain food and rid themselves of mucus.
There are several ways of providing adequate movement, some advanced and some ‘basic’. It is likely that many (most?) aquarists use ‘basic’ equipment, namely powerheads. These devices are available in more than one type, though they are all basically an electric motor made seawater safe by encapsulating it in resin, the motor drives an impellor, and there is a seawater intake and outlet. The powerheads could be narrow outlet or wide (‘soft’) outlet types. The wide outlet ones are able to move large quantities of seawater but because they push out the seawater on a wide front the impact is soft and not harmful to corals, particularly if there are two in opposition or they are timed. Narrow outlet powerheads pump a much thinner stream of seawater which is very linear and can damage fairly close corals because of the force.
Random and chaotic seawater movement is the aim and this is often obtained by placing powerheads in opposition to each other and also ‘bouncing’ the outlets off the glass. This should result in the desired seawater flow once a bit of trial and error with powerhead positioning has been completed.
With the narrow outlet powerheads there is a further option and this is to use the generated flow of the seawater to drive a mobile directional outlet. This type of outlet can be bought as an ‘add on’ or alternatively a powerhead obtained which has the required outlet fitted. What happens is that the flow of the seawater from the powerhead causes the outlet to swivel from side to side in an arc. The movement of the outlet is not particularly fast and when the end of the arc is reached the direction is reversed. Another method is an outlet that spins, the seawater acting something like jet propulsion driving it round.
This idea has merits. The seawater flow is automatically being re-directed continuously which is good and in itself is going to create varying currents in the aquarium. If there are two powerheads present, for example, and each has a rotation ability then continuously varying seawater flow will be generated at each end of the aquarium. In addition, from time to time the outlets will come into direct opposition to each other and create more random currents.
Of course there have to be disadvantages! First of all, the rotation is driven by the outlet from the powerhead which detracts from the strength of the flow, though this could be compensated for by the powerhead strength itself. The rotation mechanism is submerged in seawater and there is the possibility (probability?) that the rotation will slow down or cease because of calcareous build up. Also, the seawater from the outlet is still linear even though it is rotating, though it would hit a coral that is in the way X number of times per minute rather than continuously. Standard powerheads require their outlet strength checking from time to time and in addition the rotating powerhead needs checking to ensure the rotation mechanism is operating correctly, meaning there is a small addition to routine maintenance checks.
Rotating powerheads are a useful idea and I have nothing against them. However, and this is purely personal, I prefer standard powerheads that have been correctly sized and placed. Better in a suitable aquarium would be wide or ‘soft’ outlet powerheads in opposition, or timed.