Looking for the best protein skimmer to add to your reef aquarium? Feeling overwhelmed by all of the choices? This article should help you sort through all the options and help you narrow your search, and find the best model for your saltwater tank.
Table of Contents: Protein Skimmer Product Reviews
Do you feel a little out of your depth? Not to worry – we’ll start by providing some background on what a protein skimmer is, how it works, and why you might want to have one to help keep your aquarium water pristine. Then the product reviews will make more sense. But if you want to jump straight down to choosing your next piece of equipment, these handy links have you covered, too.
- Introduction to Protein Skimmers
- Choosing the Right Type of Protein Skimmer
- Reviews of the Best Protein Skimmer Brands
- Protein Skimmers to Avoid
- For More Information
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
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.
Venturi Protein Skimmers
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 Protein Skimmers
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:
You think having a protein skimmer for your tank is a good idea! Great! But a quick peek through your favorite local fish store is leaving your head spinning. How are you supposed to figure out which works best for your aquarium? This isn’t a purchase you want to take lightly. And (since you’re here) you’re thinking through things. Not to worry – I’ve got you covered.
One of the most important factors when determining the best model is to look for the size rating. Every protein skimmer is rated for a certain tank. This is based on 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.
Marketing always accentuates the positive (no company will mention their skimmer struggles to keep up with protein at the high end of the range). So consider purchasing a skimmer rated a little HIGHER than the size of your tank. Or you can choose a model where your tank falls in the middle of the range.
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.
Made it this far and still have plenty of skimmer options? You can easily spend as much money as you want on a protein skimmer. At that point, you need to ask yourself: How much money do you want to spend? Then do some more research to find the skimmer within that price point.
Onto the fun part of things! (In my opinion, anyway) A quick search for protein skimmers will provide you with almost infinite results. And you can end up overwhelmed on what (and who) to trust. That’s where finding someone (like me) who’s compiled the data and research together can come in handy. Then you have a shorter list to look through and compare against the specifications of your tank.
You don’t even have to trust my word on things! Look through the reviews for each of these protein skimmers and find what other people are saying. That will give you a complete picture of the product.
And since not all tanks come in at the same size or design, things are broken down into two handy skimmer categories:
Protein Skimmer Manufacturers
To start with, you’ll find plenty of aquarium protein skimmer manufacturers. Listing EVERYONE would turn this article into a catalog. So we’ll just review the most popular manufacturers:
- Bubble Magus
- Reef Octopus
Why I love the Reef Octopus Skimmer
How did the Reef Octopus come out as my top recommendation?
- The shape of this skimmer (a half-cone) lends to improved foam collection.
- It features a pinwheel impeller and a Hailea OTP pump with a venturi air injector. That means plenty of power AND efficiency.
- While other protein skimmers (like the Coralife Super Skimmer) have a cheap, loose knob for regulating water height within the device’s body, Reef Octopus has a substantial signature gate valve to give you precise control.
- The reviews for this product consistently remain between 4-5 out of 5 stars.
- A Reef Octopus protein skimmer will run you ~$200-$800 (depending on the size).
My Honorable Mention: Bubble Magus Protein Skimmer
Bubble Magus is a popular protein skimmer with 4.5/5 stars on Amazon. The design is a venturi pump with a needle wheel impeller, promising you’ll get a handy delivery of air and the foam generation you need. The cost comes in around $200 for the Bubble Magus Curve 5 model, which is rated up to 180 gallons (681L) and is 7.3″ by 7.1″ by 18.5″ (18.5 by 18.0 by 47cm). It comes paired with an 8-watt pump. If you’re not ready to spring for the Reef Octopus, it makes an ideal second choice, and I don’t have any complaints to note.
What is a nano protein skimmer? For all intents and purposes, a nano protein skimmer is just a small protein skimmer. It’s no different than the fact a nano reef tank is a small aquarium. These skimmers have smaller profiles, smaller pumps, and come in size ratings for smaller tanks.
So how about HOB skimmers? First, HOB stands for “hang on back.” But what does THAT mean? Most hobbyists prefer to install their protein skimmer out of sight, below the tank in the sump area. The HOB protein skimmer works if you don’t have an aquarium sump. Designed to hang on the back of your aquarium, it’s a handy option for anyone with limited space. It’s the style of skimmer I first installed on my display tank.
AquaMaxx HOB 1
If you are in the market for a nano protein skimmer, my recommendation would be the AquaMaxx HOB 1. The AquaMaxx HOB 1 is n HOB model rated for up to 75 gallons (284L) but light enough to fit on tanks smaller than that.
The AquaMaxx HOB 1 is paired with a Sicce Syncra 1.0 pump, which blasts water through a needle wheel impeller. The pump and impeller action creates the bubbles that ultimately remove the waste from your reef aquarium. The Sicce Syncra 1.0 pump is rated for a 252 gallon per hour (GPH) flow rate and runs on 16 watts.
Recommending which protein skimmer to avoid is as important – if not more important – than recommending the best protein skimmers.
This is an expensive hobby. In general, I’m in favor of taking steps to reduce or contain costs. I’m personally not the type of person who always needs the best or highest-end equipment. I’m a do-it-yourselfer at heart (although I find myself with much less time to DIY than I used to). I like getting value for my hard-earned money.
The two brands below are inexpensive – which is great as they make the hobby more approachable for some people. But I don’t feel they represent good value for the money. As such, I would advise you to learn more about other options, if you can afford to spend just a little bit more.
SeaClone is often the first protein skimmer for many reef aquarium enthusiasts. This is probably because of the affordable price and the fact the brand is available in large pet store chains. This model doesn’t have a reputation for being efficient and can quickly end up outgrown.
SeaClone features a turbo-venturi injection system. The $90 unit is paired with a Maxi-Jet 1200 pump rated for tanks up to 100 gallons (379L).
I suppose it will help out a little, but it is NOT one of the preferred or recommended brands.
The price for the Coralife Protein Skimmer seems too good to be true. And, in my personal experience with this product, it HAS been. I purchased different size models on two different occasions because of the price (on sale, no less). One was for my fish room, and one was for my display tank. Both times, the self-proclaimed “super skimmer” stopped working before I felt it should.
The 220-gallon (833L) unit runs for under $200 (less if you catch it on sale), but, in this case, you get what you pay for. There is a flimsy knob that helps you control the height of the water inside the skimmer. A tiny tweak and the level goes from too low to overflowing, making a complete mess.
Coralife, sorry to rip on you, but I got a dud twice in a row and won’t try this brand again. In all fairness, this skimmer can’t be all THAT terrible because it receives 3.5-3.8/5.0 stars on various websites. But I wanted to share my experiences and product review with you here. Not a big fan of this model.
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