Looking for the best protein skimmer to add to your reef aquarium? 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.
This article is designed to start off by providing some background to what a protein skimmer is, how it works, and why you might want to have one to help keep your aquarium water pristine.
But click here to jump down to the section you would like to read first:
Introduction to protein skimmers
As technology has evolved, it has become easier to maintain ideal conditions for our reef tanks, but our equipment options have multiplied too. Having options is generally a good thing, but having too many options can sometimes be overwhelming.
So let’s start with some of the basics.
What is it?
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.
What does a protein skimmer do?
A protein skimmer cleans saltwater aquarium water by removing organic waste. The most popular models work by pushing a current of ‘dirty’ aquarium water down against a current of tiny bubbles that float up to the top. As the bubbles pass through the water, the organic molecules essentially get ‘caught’ on the bubbles and ride with them up to the collection chamber at the top.
As the bubbles reach the top of the collection chamber, they burst and the organic wastes get stuck on the sides and walls and get removed from the water.
See this sludge–it’s hard to believe that it came out of the aquarium water, isn’t it?
What does a protein skimmer do? It removes that nasty brown stuff from your aquarium water, by creating tiny regular bubbles that grab onto organic molecules and pull them out of the water and into the collection cup.
How does it work?
A protein skimmer works by:
- Pushing a current of dirty saltwater aquarium water through a small column of ordinary air bubbles
- The air bubbles float up to the surface (like bubbles always do) through a specially designed chamber
- Since many organic molecules that pollute a reef tank have a ‘charge’ to them, they actually stick to the bubbles and get pulled out of the water and float up with the bubbles
- The bubbles burst, when they reach the top of the collection chamber and the dirty molecules then coat the sides of the collection cup
- Once a day, you unscrew the collection cup, dump out the contents and wipe the cup clean
Quick fact: the process by which a protein skimmer works is called foam fractionation–it essentially means that the foam from the bubbles pulls out the nasty stuff you don’t want in your water.
All protein skimmers use bubbles and foam fractionation as the mechanism by which they purify your water, but there are at least 3 different designs or mechanisms by which they create those bubbles:
- Impeller wheel
Air or airstone-driven
These are some of the weaker (and less expensive) models, simply because the air pumps are usually loud and not that efficient and airstones make relatively large bubbles. Since protein skimmer efficiency is generally driven by the creation of large numbers of small bubbles…this is not so good…but it is better than nothing.
So if you have one of these models, make the best of it. These are also sometimes called counter-current skimmers. Bubbles float up, pumping water down against the flow of the bubbles improves the efficiency a bit–this is how these skimmers work.
There are DIY skimmer designs that employ this method. Since this is a fairly basic design, counter-current airstone driven models are sometimes described in DIY plans.
A venturi is a valve that is designed to suck air in. Venturi-driven protein skimmer models tend to be paired up with powerful pumps to create the air bubbles and drive the performance of the skimmer.
With this design for a protein skimmer, bubbles are pumped through a needle wheel or pinwheel impellers (think about the propeller on a plane) where the bubbles are sliced up into even smaller bubbles, which improves the efficiency of the skimmer. The impeller driven models are often paired with another feature, like a venturi design.
Does every reef aquarium have to have a protein skimmer?
No, you don’t always need a protein skimmer, but they are good to have, as a general rule. Just take one look at the brown, smelly, nasty gunk they remove and you’ll be convinced they do a lot of good.
To continue learning about what a protein skimmer is, what they do, and how it works, check out this video:
One of the most important factors when determining the best model to buy is the size rating for the skimmer. Every skimmer is rated for a certain size tank, based on the amount of skimmate they can remove from the water, factoring in design, pump size, etc.
If you buy a protein skimmer that is under-sized for your aquarium, you run the risk of always struggling to keep nutrient levels down. Take into account that the marketing messages for these skimmers tend to accentuate the positive, and consider purchasing a skimmer that is rated a little bit higher than the size of your tank–or a model where your tank is in the middle of the range.
These days, I tend to use articles (like this) and the wisdom of the crowd, captured as best protein skimmer reviews on trusted websites to help me narrow the field of endless options.
More often than not, it seems that the crowd tends to get things right. Look for protein skimmers with the highest ratings. In researching this article, all the reviews were already sorted through, so you don’t have to (although don’t have to take my word for it and are welcome to do your own follow-up, of course. I won’t tell anyone).
There are still a lot of skimmer options–you could probably spend almost as much money as you wanted on a protein skimmer–so ask yourself–how much money do you want to spend…then do some research to try and find the ‘best’ skimmer for the money.
Where you install it
The next design feature that matters is to figure out where you are going to install it. The three basic options are:
- In sump design. This, of course, will only work for your saltwater tank if you have a sump.
- HOB design, which stands for “hang on back”. This design works whether or not you have a sump and
- External or recirculating skimmers–these are skimmers that are external to the pump and don’t hang on the tank. A pump pulls the water out of the tank, to your skimmer and returns it.
An often overlooked (and by often, I mean I did it once so I’m suggesting that this is overlooked all the time, so I don’t feel as dumb) but extremely important aspect of selecting the best protein skimmer brands is to consider exactly how big the skimmer is. Since bubbles float up, most protein skimmers have their collection cup at the very top of the apparatus.
You could purchase the most efficient protein skimmer in the world, but if you install it in your sump, under the tank and don’t have enough room to get the collection cup off…well…then you’re in for a long ride. Make sure to check the size specifications as well as the minimum clearance needed. Then measure it again. Then check again.
Ok, I’m overcompensating for something here…but I messed that up before…can you tell?
Aquarium protein skimmer manufacturers
There are a lot of aquarium protein skimmer manufacturers. This article will review some of the most popular models from the following aquarium protein skimmer manufacturers:
- Bubble Magus
- Reef Octopus
To make the recommendation here for best protein skimmer, several factors were considered, including:
- The design (air stone vs. impeller vs. venturi)
- Size rating
- Product reviews
Recognizing that not all tanks are the same, the reviews were further subdivided into skimmer category:
Why I love the Reef Octopus Skimmer
- The shape of this skimmer (half-cone) lends to improved foam collection.
- It features a pinwheel impeller and a Hailea OTP pump with a venturi air injector.
- While other protein skimmers for saltwater aquariums (like the Coralife Super Skimmer) have a cheap, loose knob that regulates the water height within the body of the device, the Reef Octopus Skimmer has a substantial, signature gate valve to allow precise control of the water level. Based on my experiences with the Coralife protein skimmer, this seems like a well-designed feature.
- The reviews for this product are consistently 4-5 out of 5 stars. A Reef Octopus protein skimmer will run you ~$200-$800.
Check out Reef Octopus prices on Amazon
Bubble Magus Protein Skimmer
Bubble Magus is a popular skimmer brand, and is certainly one of the best protein skimmer brands, with 4.5/5 stars on one of the major online retailer websites. The design is a venturi-pump with a needle wheel impeller. The cost is about $200 for the Bubble Magus Curve 5 model rated up to 180 gallons and is 7.3 inches by 7.1 inches by 18.5 inches, paired with an 8-watt pump.
What is a small protein skimmer?
For all intents and purposes, a nano protein skimmer is just a small protein skimmer, in the same way, that a nano reef tank is just a small reef tank. This is a skimmer that has a smaller profile, small pump, and is sized for a smaller tank.
What is a HOB Protein Skimmer?
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 is a great design option if you don’t have an aquarium sump. Designed to hang on the back of your aquarium, the HOB Protein skimmer is a great option–and is the style of skimmer I first installed on my display tank.
If you are in the market for a small protein skimmer, my recommendation would be the AquaMaxx HOB 1.
AquaMaxx HOB 1
The AquaMaxx HOB 1 is a hang-on-back model that is rated for up to 75 gallons but is light enough to fit on tanks smaller than that.
Despite the large size, however, this AquaMaxx HOB 1 protein skimmer will work (and fits nicely with) the JBJ 28 gallon nano reef tank.
How does it work?
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 is what creates the bubbles that ultimately remove the waste from your reef aquarium. The Sicce Syncra 1.0 pump is rated for 252 Gallons Per Hour (GPH) flow rate and runs on 16 watts.
Protein Skimmers I do not recommend
Recommending which protein skimmer to avoid is probably as important, if not more important than recommending the best protein skimmer brands. Starting things off, here, I’d like to introduce you to two brands that I highly recommend you avoid.
This is an expensive hobby. In general, I am 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 have.
And I like getting value for my hard-earned money. The two brands below are inexpensive, which is great if they make the hobby more approachable for some people, but I don’t feel that they represent good value for the money–and as such, I would advise you to keep on reading to learn more about the later brands, if you can afford to spend just a little bit more.
By the way, I don’t have images of all of these products, some of these images are available to me as an affiliate for Amazon.com and they have affiliate links.
What that means is that if you click on the images or the product links below, they will take you to Amazon’s website, where they hope you will buy something. If you do, I will earn a small commission at no additional cost to you. I don’t want to make a big deal about it, I also don’t want you to feel any pressure at all, but I did want to disclose that.
SeaClone is the first protein skimmer for many reef aquarium enthusiasts, probably because if the affordable price and the fact that it is a brand that is available even in the larger national pet store chains. The problem is that this model doesn’t have a reputation for being all that efficient and can, therefore, be quickly 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.
I suppose it will help out a little bit, but it is not one of the preferred or recommended brands.
The price for the Coralife protein skimmer seems too good to be true. In my personal experience with this product, it has been too good to be true. I purchased different size models of this item on two different occasions because of the price, while on sale. Once for my fish room–and once for my display tank. Both times, the self-proclaimed “super skimmer” stopped working way before I thought it should have. The 220-gallon unit costs less than $200 (and is even cheaper 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 very tiny tweak and the skimmer level goes from too low to overflowing and 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 gets 3.5-3.8/5.0 stars on various websites, but I wanted to share my own experiences and product review with you here.
Not a big fan of this model.
Take your shopping online
Thanks for taking the time to read this article about the best protein skimmers. I hope you found it helpful and informative. If you want to take your shopping online to check out the prices for the recommended options on Amazon.com, I recommend you check them out here:
For more information
Here are a few resources to check out:
For smaller tanks, you won’t want a full-sized model. Learn about: Nano protein skimmer models
DIY Protein skimmer
Want to do-it-yourself and build your own protein skimmer? Check out this video:
Written by Albert B. Ulrich III, bestselling author of the Reef Aquarium Book Series on Amazon.