The best protein skimmer is a thing you can’t skimp on when it comes to cost with a saltwater fish tank. If you have spent any time at all keeping marine fish or corals, you understand how hard it is to keep water conditions clean enough for them to not only survive but also thrive. Those who choose to fight this battle without the use of a protein skimmer usually find themselves on the losing end, which unfortunately often results in dead livestock. There are a lot of ingredients to having a marine aquarium, and the one at the top of the list should be the use of a quality protein skimmer.

What is a protein skimmer?

A protein skimmer is one of the most important devices in saltwater aquarium and is the most efficient way of removing organic compounds (including proteins and amino acids) from the marine aquarium water. This prevents them from breaking down into nitrogenous waste, which is dangerous for fish and other organisms living in the saltwater aquarium.

how an aquarium protein skimmer works

This device is made to utilize a process called foam fractionation in order to physically remove dissolved organic compounds (especially protein) not allowing them to decompose. Foam fractionation is the process of using foams, or air bubbles to transport organic compounds out of aquarium water. Thanks to that it lightens the load on the biological filter (live rock, live sand) and it improves the water redox potential.

How does a protein skimmer work?

As stated earlier, all protein skimmers use the process of foam fractionation. In basic terms, foam fractionation is the process of using foam, or air bubbles, to transport waste particles out of aquarium water.

how-protein-skimmer-work

When the protein skimmer is functioning, the water pump pumps aquarium water and air from the air intake into the main tube of the skimmer (skimmer body). The pump consists of a motor impeller that helps to mix the air and the water resulting in millions of tiny bubbles that fill the skimmer body. Since those bubbles are filled with air, they float to the top of the tube. As these bubbles rise, tiny particles of organic waste from the water attach themselves to the bubbles and ride to the top of the tube and overflow into the collection cup for removal.

protein-skimmer-flow-control

Most protein skimmers are equipped with a flow control on the top of the water output (the previous picture). The flow control works by expanding or narrowing the water outlet, thus allowing you to achieve proper water levels you want in the skimmer body.

As you can see, the fundamental of protein skimmers is fairly simple – uses air bubbles in the water to remove organic waste. The most effective skimmers are those able to produce the tiniest and largest amount of bubbles because the total surface area of the bubbles dictates how much waste can be removed in any given time period. The newest models of protein skimmers replace the standard impeller of the pump with the new need-wheel impeller for producing much more bubbles.

needle-wheel-impeller

Types of protein skimmers

Protein skimmers come in in sumphang on back, and internal models.

In-sump protein skimmerIn-sump protein skimmer HOB protein skimmerHOB protein skimmer

Most protein skimmers are made to operate in a sump, which is a smaller tank usually kept under the main tank inside the stand, where it is hidden from view. The sump tank provides a great place outside the main aquarium for you to set up a powerful filtration system. You can set up a wet/dry filtration system and place as many live rock as you can in the sump for the superior biological filtration. Sumps are very important for the success of medium-large reef systems that stock many fish and corals.

If you don’t want to have a sump setup, there are also Hang-On-Back and internal types of protein skimmers for you to choose. The hang on back type of skimmers are those that are made for smaller tanks, but it is possible to find this type for a medium-sized system. The internal type of skimmer is usually very small and compact in size that allows it to be placed well inside aquariums. This type is usually designed to be used in nano reef tanks that are smaller than 20 gallons.

Best in-sump protein skimmer reviews

SC Aquariums SCA-301 for small reef tanks up to 65 gallons

SC Aquariums SCA-301Editor's rating: Check on Amazon.com

The SCA-301 is a good buy for anyone who owns a small saltwater fish tank (up to 65 gallons) and is looking for an effective skimming machine. The materials used in the construction of this skimmer are not only aesthetic but also durable and long-lasting. It comes with most essential features of a good protein skimmer such as a powerful pump (1380 L/h, 28 watts – 110 – 120 V/60 Hz) with needle wheel impeller, air silencer, flow control…

The SCA-301 is relatively easy to install. The water levels recommended for the skimmer to work best are in the range from 6 to 7 inches. Its dimensions are 4.25 inches long, 7 inches wide and 17 inches high. The compact design and small footprint makes it easy to set up the SCA-301 in a small sump tank.

The SCA-301 is powerful, effective and costs only half of the prices of other comparable skimmers that are rated for the same tank size. It comes with a 1-year limited manufacturer warranty and is surely a great investment for saltwater fish tanks smaller than 65 gallons. If you are finding a cheap and affordable protein skimmer, this is the best option.

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Bubble Magus BM-Curve 5 for tanks up to 140 gallons

Bubble Magus Curve 5Editor's rating: Check on Amazon.com

The Bubble Magus BM-Curve 5 can work with aquariums that holds up to 140 gallons of water. It uses a SP1000 pump (22W – 120 V/60 Hz) with a venturi intake to produce a huge amount of air bubbles in its reaction chamber. It is fitted with a bubble plate that helps to reduce the turbulence in the reaction chamber for expanding the contacting time between the tiny bubbles and the organic waste in aquarium water. This design makes it very effective in handling organic waste produced by your fish and corals.

It comes with most things of a high quality protein skimmer and is very easy to install and use. Even a first-time owner will have no problem getting them up and working. It is almost noiseless, does the job it is meant to do, is easy to maintain and clean, and is definitely good value for the money. It is also very energy efficient with the pump wattage of only 22W making it the best choice when it comes to reduce operation cost.

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Coral Vue Technology AC20287 Reef Octopus skimmer, 210 gallons

Coral Vue Technology AC20287Editor's rating: Check on Amazon.com

This is one of the best skimmers that are rated for large reef tanks up to 210 gallons. Its water pump is fitted with a 6-inch needle-wheel impeller which helps to shred the incoming air into fine bubbles. As you know, the size and number of bubbles produced determine the effectiveness of foam fractionation as well as the entire skimming machine. It also comes with a gate valve that makes water level adjustments much easier for ensuring the effectiveness of skimming process.

This skimmer is well made with good quality materials for preventing it from being damaged easily and lasting for a longer lifetime. Its main chamber is specially curved to help remove dirty bubbles easily into its collection cup. The cleaning and maintenance is also very easy with its quick-release collection cup. To clean this model, you just need to snap the collection cup off and clean it with clean water. This model is a compact option and runs very quietly.

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Reef Octopus Classic 202-S protein skimmer, up to 265 gallons

Reef Octopus Classic 202-SEditor's rating: Check on Amazon.com

The Reef Octopus Classic 202-S is the best choice for 180 gallon heavy load, 200 gallon medium load, or 265 light load reef tanks. It uses a Reef Octopus Aquatrance 3000s pinwheel pump (211 GPH, 35W) to operate the entire system. The pump is so powerful, its flow rate is 211 gallons per hour and strong enough to keep a good circulation to constantly filter a large reef system with heavy biological load.

The product is made with heavy-duty materials to help prevent it from easily breaking. The skimmer body is made with a unique cone design that helps it to better remove matured bubbles, which contain a large amount of organic waste on their surfaces, out of your aquarium water. Its collection cup with a drain hose can be connected with an external collector for containing more skimming waste and reducing cleaning times.

The Reef Octopus Classic 202-S is fairly easy to install. The water levels recommended for the skimmer to work best are in the range from 7 to 9 inches. Its total height is up to 23.2 inches and the footprint measures 12.4- by 10-inch. You should ensure that the space in your sump where you plan to place the skimmer is large and high enough to accommodate it.

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Hydor Performer Universal Recirculating protein skimmers, 100-1100 gallons

Hydor Performer Universal Recirculating Protein SkimmerEditor's rating: Check on Amazon.com

There are many models available for saltwater and reef tanks from 100 to 1100 gallons. This model comes with new technology pumps with innovative ROTORMIX brush impellers for better foaming and high air concentration in the main chamber. Its clear construction will help you to see when this protein skimmer is working and make sure everything is running smoothly.

Its collection cup has a drain hose that can be connected to an external collector. This will help to prevent you from having to clean your collection cup often. It also comes with a venturi silencer – an air intake that is specially manufactured for reducing operating noise. Its water output hose is fitted with a flow control for you to adjust the water level inside the skimmer body to make it fit the water level in your sump tank.

This product is energy-efficient and quiet so you won’t have to worry about it being loud while it’s running or using a lot of electricity.

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Best Hang-On-Back protein skimmers for tanks without sump

Bubble Magus QQ1 Hang-On Nano protein skimmer for up to 25 gallons

Bubble Magus QQ1Editor's rating: Check on Amazon.com

This protein skimmer is ideal to use in fish tanks that hold up to 25 gallons. It uses a Rock SP600 pump with a needle-wheel impeller to help ensure that it works well to collect unwanted particles from your fish tank. Unlike other skimmers featuring a water outlet control, the design of this product allows you to adjust the height of its skimmer body for ensuring that it works properly in your fish tank.

The small and compact design make it easier for you to set up this skimmer. Only assembling all of its components and then hang it onto one side of the aquarium. This model also features a foam bubble reducer on the outlet to help make sure that it doesn’t overproduce bubbles on the aquarium surface.

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Reef Octopus Classic 100-HOB for 55-105 gallon reef tanks

CoralVue Technology BH-100 Octopus Editor's rating: Check on Amazon.com

The Reef Octopus Classic 100-HOB can work well in 55 gallon heavy load, 75 gallon medium load, and 105 gallon light load saltwater tanks. The main skimmer body features a solid acrylic construction for durability and visibility. It is fitted with a Reef Octopus Aquatrance 1000s skimmer pump (92 GPH, 9 W) with pinwheel to help make it run more efficiently.

This model also has an air silencer which means it won’t be loud while running. It comes with an adjustable surface skimmer to keep the water surface clean and clear for light penetration and better oxygen exchange. This is very important for the healthy of your corals and fish because they need to be supplied with enough light and oxygen to thrive.

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Reef Octopus BH-1000 HOB skimmer for 60-130 gallon reef tanks

CoralVue Technology BH-1000 OctopusEditor's rating: Check on Amazon.com

The Reef Octopus BH-1000 is intended for a 60 gallon heavy load, 80 gallon medium load, or 130 gallon light load saltwater reef aquarium. The skimmer body is made with high quality acrylic that prevents it from being easily damaged. It is powered by a Reef Octopus Aquatrance 1000s skimmer pump that is very durable and can serve you for a long period without any problem.

The product comes with a surface skimmer to help remove unwanted particles from your aquarium surface. This model is built with an air silencer so it runs quietly. If you are in need of a Hang-On-Back protein skimmer, the CoralVue Technology BH-1000 Octopus may be the best choice.

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Reef Octopus Classic 90-HOB for 60-130 gallon aquariums

Reef Octopus Classic 90-HOBEditor's rating: Check on Amazon.com

The Reef Octopus Classic 90-HOB features a gray/clear design and uses a Reef Octopus Aquatrance 1000s skimmer pump (92 GPH, 9 W) to work. This pump is placed externally under the skimmer body which helps to save much space needed to place it and reduce heat-to-water exchange. Its reaction chamber is fitted with a turbulence reducing bubble plate for the better contacting time between tiny bubbles and water, thus removing more unwanted waste in the water.

It has a collection cup with a draining feature. It also has an air silencer to help it run quietly and has a precision control output valve to help make adjusting it much simpler. This model can work well in 60 gallon heavy load, 80 gallon medium load, and 130 gallon light load saltwater tanks.

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Coralife Super Skimmer for saltwater fish tanks up to 65 gallons

Coralife Super SkimmerEditor's rating: Checkon Amazon.com

The Coralife Super skimmer is rated for saltwater tanks up to 65 gallons. This product is specially configured for both hang on the back and in sump applications. So, it is very flexible for you to install the Coralife Super skimmer. The most feature makes the Coralife Super skimmer popular is the great value you can get for its affordable price.

The skimmer features a patented needle-wheel system that creates a spiraling vortex of water and micro bubbles inside its reaction chamber. By this way, it increases the collection of fine proteins and organic compounds that results in clean and clear water in your aquarium for the healthy growth of your fish and corals. It also comes with a wide neck collection cup that is very easy to detach for cleaning by simply twisting its neck.

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Best internal protein skimmers for in-tank setup

Comline DOC 9001 skimmer for up to 37 gallons

Comline DOC 9001Editor's rating: Check on Amazon.com

If you’re looking for a protein skimmer for a smaller tank, this is one model you’ll want to check out. The Comline DOC 9001 features a sleek black and compact design making it ideal for internal operation in a fish tank. It’s designed to work with nano reef tanks that have a capacity up to 37 gallons (15 gallons for tanks with heavy bioload). Although lightweight and compact in the design, this small internal skimmer owns most important features of a good protein skimmer including: needle wheel pump, air flow regulation and silencer.

This model uses a needle wheel pump to help it quickly work to remove unwanted and harmful particles from the aquarium water. The pump is also energy-efficient (only 2.5 W) so it saves you a lots of money for electric fees. It is also very easy to assemble and install, you can use its magnet holder to secure it into a corner of the aquarium.

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Aquatic Life 115 Mini internal skimmer for up to 30 gallon reef tanks

Aquatic Life 115 MiniEditor's rating: Check on Amazon.com

The Aquatic Life 115 Mini is rated for nano reef aquariums up to 30 gallons. It uses an 8W needle-wheel impeller which helps to increase the air and water mixing together. This model also has a special knob built into it that will help with adjusting the water flow in the skimming reactor. You can turn it to increase or decrease the water flow depending on your preferences.

It has a 3.4 ounce collection cup which can be easily removed thanks to its quick-lock design. You can just simply remove the container from the model and clean it out without having to remove the entire system from the fish tank.

This mini skimmer runs quietly and is a good option to use if you don’t have much space to store large equipment. It comes with a mounting bracket/lock for you to hang in on a corner of your tank. One thing to keep in mind when installing this protein skimmer is that you should be sure to keep it about 3-3/4 inches above the water line for proper operation.

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How to choose a protein skimmer for your aquarium

A good skimmer performing at a high level can be the difference between an amazing system and one that has unhealthy and even dying livestock. It is not cheap, but having one that operates properly is vital for the health of your aquarium system. Those who have a reef tank already understand how important water quality is in keeping your livestock healthy and thriving in your tank.

As mentioned in the previous section, the fundamental of protein skimmers is to use air bubbles in the water to remove organic waste. So, the most effective skimmers are those able to produce the tiniest and largest amount of bubbles because the total surface area of the bubbles dictates how much organic waste can be removed.

One of the most important things to remember when considering a protein skimmer is to make sure you choose a unit that can handle the volume of your tank. If you take a shortcut and choose a model rated for a 75 gallon tank when yours is actually a 90 gallon tank, you are fighting a losing battle. If anything, you should choose a protein skimmer that is rated for a tank higher than your tank capacity. It is well worth the extra money to go a little larger, especially when you consider the cost relative to the cost of the rest of your equipment and livestock.

One common mistake people make is to not count their sump capacity when determining which size protein skimmer to purchase. If you have a 75 gallon tank and a 20 gallon sump, you really have a 95 gallon system, so your skimmer should be rated for at least that number of gallons. As you read through our protein skimmer reviews you will see that most brands offer skimmers in several different sizes with both the pump and the overall unit varying in size and power.

Another common mistake is to know what size skimmer you can fit. If you have a sump in the cabinet under your tank, you are limited in the space available, particularly the height available under the cabinet. The first time I had a reef tank with an in-cabinet sump, I did not pay any attention at all to the height needed when I ordered my protein skimmer. As I put the unit together it suddenly hit me that I might have a real problem fitting the skimmer under my cabinet. I got lucky and it fit, but the lesson was learned and I have since read some stories of others who made the same mistake and were not so lucky. For that reason, I want to stress how important it is that you check the dimensions of the skimmer you want against the amount of space you actually have.

An important thing to remember is that all skimmers need a break in period. This means your skimmer might be set at the perfect setting but not produce much in the way of waste for a few weeks. This is because the surfaces of the skimmer need time to become part of the system. Once your skimmer is broken in and the correct settings are in place, you will be able to develop a routine for cleaning your collection cup. The results left in that cup will be the proof that your skimmer is working as expected.

Benefits of protein skimmers

Reduce phosphates

The high levels of phosphates in your fish tank can lead to the overgrowth of harmful algae. This can end up irritating the aquarium water quality as well as your fish, corals and other livestock. A protein skimmer can help to remove redundant nutrients (protein, amino acid and other organic compounds) in the water and intermediately reduce phosphates, which are decomposition products of the unwanted nutrients.

Lower nitrates

As you know, too many nitrates can lead to the water uncomfortable for some fish and corals. Protein skimmers help to lower nitrates in aquarium water by removing their ancestor nutrients, which degrade into nitrates by the activities of microorganisms.

Increase the oxygen concentration

Your fish need to have an adequate amount of oxygen in the fish tank and protein skimmers can help with that. By directly injecting air into the water and improving its quality, these skimming machines help increase oxygen concentration in the water so your fish can be happy.

Maintain proper water pH levels

The water in a fish tank needs to have a healthy and stable pH range so the fish can be comfortable. Protein skimmers help with maintaining the proper water pH because they work to remove harmful particles and redundant nutrients from the water. This in return can lead the water being a safe environment for the fish to swim in.

Remove the skim of nutrients from the water surface

Sometimes fish tanks will get a thin layer of nutrients floating on the top of the water. This can end up blocking the needed light that your corals need for photosynthesis. Protein skimmers will help to make sure that this doesn’t happen by removing the particles that cause those surfaces to occur.

Reduce the number of times you need to clean the fish tank

One very helpful benefit that protein skimmers have is that they will work to help reduce the number of times you need to clean your fish tank. This is because they work to remove most of the harmful particles and substances in the tank that you would otherwise need to spend time doing yourself.

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