Over the years, I have tried several different protein skimmer models, and have even run my reef tank for years at a time without one. Now I am in the process of a new tank build and digging back in to find out which one I plan to buy and add to my tank.
The best protein skimmer for a saltwater aquarium is manufactured by a reliable company with strong reviews and customer service, right-sized to handle the bioload of your tank, has a collection cup that is easy to empty and keep clean, is easy to set up and adjust, runs quietly, at the best price that fits in the space you have available, either in your sump or hanging on the back of your tank.
Reliable skimmer manufacturers
The search for the best protein skimmer starts by narrowing down the options to a handful of manufacturers who are known in the industry for reliable performance, affordable prices, and good customer service, in case you experience an issue. A few name brands that I know and trust to help start your search are:
- Red Sea
- Bubble Magus
- Reef Octopus
There are many other manufacturers as well. But I recommend you start with these three first–explore the different designs, features and identify what size skimmer you need first. Then, if you want to look at other options, you will have an easier time comparing them with the other manufacturers.
Sizing a skimmer
One of the other reasons I recommended you first narrow down your search to a small number of the top brands you’re interested in is that you will need to depend on the manufacturer’s recommendation to determine what size skimmer you need. For example, the Red Sea Reefer Skimmer 300 is effective for tank sizes between 80 and 240 gallons (that’s a massive range!) depending on the nutrient load in your tank. Take a look at the manufacturer ratings to figure out what size you need.
Here’s a little tip, based on my personal experience with protein skimmers. Ideally, you want a perfectly sized skimmer, but, if you don’t exactly know what perfectly sized means for your tank, it is best to err on the side of being a little smaller than ideal. An undersized skimmer will still pull dense, gross skimmate out of the water (that’s a good thing!), but an oversized skimmer will struggle to produce anything at all, just because of how the physics works with all the bubbles.
Ease of emptying and cleaning the collection cup
Skimmers are amazing because those impressive scrubbing bubbles it creates will pull waste out of your tank water. But, that waste doesn’t remove itself. The skimmers generally just isolate the waste in the collection cup that you will have to manually remove and rinse out. It would be a nightmare if the cup was a pain to remove. The good news is that most of the newer models are super-easy to use.
My recommendation for the best protein skimmer is the Red Sea Reefer
The Protein Skimmer brand that I decided to order for the new reef tank I’m building is the Red Sea Reefer.
I compiled the size ratings across all three models in the following table:
|Nutrient load/skimming rigor need||300-series||600-series||900-series|
|Low nutrient or fish only (low rigor)||240 gallon||500 gallon||740 gallon|
|Medium nutrient or mixed reef (medium rigor)||160 gallon||320 gallon||500 gallon|
|High nutrient or SPS reef (high rigor)||80 gallon||160 gallon||240 gallon|
You can see from the size ratings above that these skimmers are designed to handle nicely-sized reef tanks. If your tank is less than 80 gallons, you may prefer to check out the Nyos 120, which is rated for a 50-gallon tank with high bioload.
Take a look at all beautiful design-work here:
Easy to keep clean:
The Red Sea Reefer protin skimmer has several unique design elements that I’m super excited about to make it easy to clean and maintain.
There is a neck cleaner built right into the collection cup. It’s like a squeegee for the inside of your cup, which makes it effortless to keep the inside of the cup clean, smooth, and operating a peak efficiency.
There also is a drainage port, tube and valve built right in to make draining the skimmate a breeze. No disassembling required!
The last thing I want is a noisy skimmer disrupting the peaceful tranquility of the reef tank I build. One of the reasons I really like the Red Sea Reefers is that they have build quieting features right into the design. There are specialized feet, connectors, and an air-intake silencer to help keep things whisper-quiet.
Another reason I like the Red Sea Reefer Skimmer is that you can customize the layout to fit within the space you can allocate to it. There are two different orientations you could use: either a 9.1 by 8.3 inch or a 9.8 by 7.1-inch footprint for the -300 model, a 10.2 by 9.4 inch vs. an 11.4 by 8.3-inch footprint for the -600 model, and an 11.4 by 10.6 or 12.6 by 9.4 in the -900 model.
That flexibility allows this skimmer to be the right size for a variety of sump conditions.
Perhaps my favorite aspect of this skimmer is the cost. It’s a premium model, with premium model features, and it is available at a moderate cost. See the best prices are on Amazon today.
In depth review video:
Check out this video that goes in-depth about the Red Sea Reefer skimmer:
It’s the right size for the tank I have planned, easy to clean, easy to adjust, runs quietly, and is a great price, for all of that skimming output it gets, in part, because of the powerful Sicce pump that comes with it.
Introduction to Protein Skimmers
Technology evolves at a constant rate, making it easier to maintain ideal conditions for our reef tanks. And that means our equipment options multiply, too. Having options is generally regarded as a good thing, but having TOO many options can sometimes overwhelm. Protein skimmers are no exception. If you’re starting with your first saltwater aquarium, you’re probably in that boat. So let’s start with some basics.
What Is a Protein Skimmer?
A protein skimmer is a specialized aquarium filtration device that removes suspended and dissolved organic compounds that would otherwise pollute your water through a process called foam fractionation. (I’ll explain what that is in the next section) It takes the place of the wave action you find in the ocean but generally don’t see in the average home aquarium. And you’ll find multiple types available for every size of tank – whether you’re working with a nano or installing a sump tank under your display aquarium.
What Do Protein Skimmers Do?
So what IS foam fractionation – besides a fancy term? It’s the attraction of organic waste to foam bubbles. No, seriously. As waves agitate and roll around on the surface of the ocean, you see white foam. Protein gets drawn to the bubbles. And what IS protein? Dissolved organic waste. When the waves roll onto the shore, they dump those wastes onto the sand. It’s the sea’s way of filtering and cleaning things up. And that’s the same way protein skimmers work – without the need for storms or driving winds to create wave action.
The most popular models work by pushing a current of aquarium water against a current of tiny bubbles (foam) that float up to the top. As the bubbles pass through the water, all of the organic molecules catch hold and ride them to the collection chamber at the top. As the bubbles reach the top of the collection chamber, they burst. That leaves the protein behind to get stuck on the sides and walls, removing them from the water column.
All you have to do at that point is empty a collection cup once a day and clean it to reset the protein skimmer to start working again.
See the sludge in the photo below? Hard to believe it came out of aquarium water, isn’t it?
Protein Skimmer Designs
All protein skimmers use foam fractionation as the mechanism to purify your water. But you can find at least three different designs or mechanisms by which they create those bubbles:
- Impeller wheel
Each of these designs comes with its pros and cons. And depending on your budget, your tank, and your ingenuity (you CAN make your own!), that can drive the direction you look when you’re ready to add a new piece of equipment to your roster.
Airstone protein skimmers are weaker (and typically less expensive) models. These are also sometimes called counter-current skimmers. Bubbles float up, pumping water down against the flow of the bubbles. However, air pumps are usually loud and less efficient, while airstones make relatively large bubbles. Since foam fractionation works best with the creation of a large number of small bubbles, this isn’t an ideal situation. But it is better than nothing, and it can give you a start in the right direction.
Since this is a fairly basic design, counter-current airstone-driven models are sometimes described in DIY plans. All you need are some PVC pipes and fittings, and air tubing.
A venturi is a valve designed to suck air in. Venturi-driven protein skimmers usually get paired up with powerful pumps to create the necessary air bubbles and drive the skimmer’s performance. You’ll get more power out of the system than you’ll see from an airstone, which means more efficiency. Because of how compact and efficient venturi pumps are, you don’t see them on their own very often anymore. Usually, they’re incorporated into other designs – such as impeller wheels.
Impeller Wheel driven
With impeller wheel protein skimmers, bubbles are pumped through a needle wheel or pinwheel impellers (similar to the propeller on a plane). The bubbles end up sliced even smaller, creating the foam you want to see. This improves the efficiency of the skimmer. The impeller-driven models are often paired with another feature, like a venturi design. That provides extra power to the system.
Does Every Reef Aquarium Need a Protein Skimmer?
Who doesn’t want a handy bit of equipment, removing gross, dissolved particles of unwanted protein from their tank? I mean, you saw the photo, right? But, if you’re feeling overwhelmed, take a deep breath and relax. You don’t always need a protein skimmer. Are they good to have around? As a general rule, yes. Take one look at the brown, smelly, nasty gunk they remove, and you’ll be convinced they do a lot of good. But you can always table the purchase (or DIY work) for another day. You have your filters, and they’re top-notch. Save the protein skimmers until you’re ready.
But if you want to continue learning about protein skimmers, what they do, and how they work, check out this handy YouTube video:
Choosing the Right Protein Skimmer
Let’s recap a few of the most important factors.
Size rating is everything–and it comes from the manufacturer. Every protein skimmer is rated for a certain amount of nutrient load in the tank. The three biggest factors affecting nutrient load are:
- the size of the tank
- the type of animals you plan to keep in the tank
- the amount of food and the number of times you feed your tank
The amount of nutrients available in the water for the skimmer to pull out will affect its efficiency and the amount of skimmate (the crud) they can remove from the water, which will depend on the design, pump size, etc.
If you buy a protein skimmer that is under-sized for your aquarium, you run the risk of struggling to keep nutrient levels down. On the contrary, a skimmer that is too big for a given system will struggle to pull anything out of the water column at all.
Once you have your shortlist of protein skimmers that will suit your reef aquarium’s size, it’s time to move on to a few more questions. And the next design feature that matters? Where you’re planning to install it. The three basic most common options include:
- Within your sump design. This, of course, only works for your saltwater tank if you HAVE a sump.
- As part of the HOB design (“hang on back”). This design works whether or not you have a sump.
- External or recirculating skimmers. These are external skimmers (I know, hard to believe) to the pump and remain separate from the tank. A pump pulls the water out of the tank and returns it.
An often overlooked (and by “often,” I mean I did it once, so I’m suggesting it’s overlooked, so I don’t feel dumb) but crucial aspect of selecting your protein skimmer is to consider exactly how big the skimmer is. Bubbles float up, so most protein skimmers have their collection cup at the very top. (Trust me, I’m going somewhere here).
You can buy the most efficient protein skimmer in the world, sparing no expense. But if you install it in your sump, under the tank, and don’t have enough room to get the collection cup off. Well, that won’t work, will it? Make sure to check the size specifications and the minimum clearance needed. Then measure it again. Then check again. (Measure TWICE – or, you know, three times).
(In case you can’t tell, I messed this up before. I’d like you to learn from my mistake).
I use articles (like this one) and the wisdom of the crowd. That means checking for “best protein skimmer reviews” on trusted websites to help me narrow the field of endless options. More often than not, the crowd tends to get things right. When you check for products online, look for protein skimmers with the highest ratings.
You can pay anywhere from a few hundred bucks, upwards to a small fortune on your protein skimmer. The price range you decide to set will help you determine which model you prefer.
I recommend you check out the Red Sea Reefer and see if it’s right for your tank too.
Once you select the skimmer you want for your saltwater tank, setting it up and tuning it to the right flow rate are important and sometimes challenging tasks. Skimmers can be finicky pieces of equipment that work perfectly the first time. Others get so frustrating, they cause people to give up on the idea completely.
Obviously, after going through all of this work to help you choose your protein skimmer, I don’t want you to give up. So here’s a helpful YouTube video that will walk you through the tuning process:
And if you need some more nano protein skimmer models to choose from, I set aside a special space exclusively for them. After all, smaller tanks don’t need a massive protein skimmer pulling them off their displays.
Hopefully, you found some useful information in this article. And if you’re finding yourself with some additional questions (or have a skimmer you particularly love or hate?) Make sure you let me know!
Written by Albert B. Ulrich III, bestselling author of the Reef Aquarium Book Series on Amazon:
- The New Saltwater Aquarium Guide
- How to Frag Corals
- 107 Tips for the Marine Aquarium Hobbyist
- Reef Journal