The Best Protein Skimmer For Your Fish Tank

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To stay in tip top condition and live a long and healthy life, marine fish require ultra clean water.

So what’s the most effective way to remove harmful elements from the water to keep your saltwater aquarium healthy? A protein skimmer.

This is an essential piece of kit for saltwater aquarists and is truly the key to a thriving fish tank.

We’ve compiled a guide to everything you need to know about protein skimmers, together with the best products on the market in 2017.

Let’s get straight into it…

What is a Protein Skimmer?

A protein skimmer is a device used mostly in saltwater aquariums to remove organic compounds and biological toxins from the water before they break down into nitrogenous waste. They are essential for maintaining a healthy aquarium environment and keeping your marine fish alive and healthy.

A protein skimmer pump is the only form of aquarium filtration that physically removes organic compounds before they begin to decompose, easing the pressure on the primary filtration system and allowing it to perform more efficiently.

That’s right — you should be using a protein skimmer in conjunction with your canister filter.

Plus when used with an ozonizer, a saltwater protein skimmer can also improve the water’s redox potential (a measurement used to determine the oxidizing potential in water).

protein skimmers
By Skimz (CC BY-SA 4.0 licence)

Protein skimmers also provide numerous other benefits for superior water quality and clarity, including reducing phosphates to help prevent algae growth, removing oily waste on the water’s surface to enable more light to penetrate the aquarium, increasing oxygen levels, and reducing carbon dioxide build up within the tank to preserve proper pH and keep the aquarium inhabitants healthy.

In smaller saltwater tanks where space is at a premium it may not be critical to have a protein skimmer provided you have a good filtration system installed, but it is worth bearing in mind that without one you will be required to perform much more regular and rigorous maintenance to ensure water cleanliness.

Certain saltwater fish can survive in slightly ‘dirtier’ conditions, but there is nevertheless a greater risk of their failing health without a protein skimmer, and in reef aquariums, where a very low nitrate level is crucial for coral health, the use of a protein skimmer is essential.

How Do Protein Skimmers Work?

Protein skimmers work using the chemical principle of adsorption where waste particles adhere to air molecules and are then transported to the water’s surface.

In a protein skimmer system, water is vigorously mixed with air within a reaction chamber to create thousands of tiny bubbles which then pull waste particles up out of the water to the surface to produce a foamy waste. This waste is then collected by the protein skimmer collection cup, trapping it and ensuring that it cannot release pollutants back into the aquarium.

As a protein skimmer is constantly producing these tiny air bubbles, the process of adsorption is continual, making for very efficient, continuous waste removal.

Here’s a great video primer on protein skimmers, and how they work well for reef aquariums:

When used in conjunction with an aquarium ozoniser, a protein skimmer is even more effective.

By creating electrical discharges that combine oxygen molecules to form ozone molecules, ozonisers break down organic waste even further, allowing it to be pulled more efficiently through the protein skimmer system, resulting in even cleaner water.

Ozonisers also help to kill bacteria and parasites, as well as increasing all important oxygen levels within the tank.

Protein skimmers are normally cylindrical, with an inlet where water is drawn into the skimmer, the main body which contains the reaction chamber where the process of adsorption takes place, an outlet, and the collection cup where waste particles are accumulated.

There are various different styles of saltwater protein skimmer.

Recirculating protein skimmers which pass dirty water through the reaction chamber repeatedly are among the most efficient but they do require an additional external pump or gravity feed system.

Other simpler protein skimmers use an air stone to create bubbles and an air pump to push water through the reaction chamber before being transported to the surface and the collection cup.

Protein Skimmer Maintenance

As it’s their job to remove organic waste particles from the water, protein skimmers can get pretty dirty, and require a certain amount of maintenance to keep them in tip top condition.

How often they need to be cleaned will depend on your tank size and the biodiversity within the tank.

If the water in the tank is relatively unpolluted, it is possible to only clean the protein skimmer two or three times a week, but a dirtier tank may need to be cleaned daily.

The collection cup where waste accumulates is easy to clean and just requires a good rinse. The reaction chamber, pump and water impeller on the other hand can be a little more fiddly to maintain.

small protein skimmer
By mcgammon (CC BY-SA 2.0 licence)

Specialist cleaning brush kits are available to buy for this purpose, but if your tank is healthy you should only expect to clean the protein skimmer body once every two to six months.

To clean your protein skimmer, disassemble the body part by part and then soak it in hot water and vinegar for about an hour.

After it has finished soaking, use a brush to scrub the parts to remove any deposits of the organic matter and rinse thoroughly with clean water.

If using an air stone driven protein skimmer, stones will need to be changed regularly as they have a tendency to get clogged up with algae and other debris which blocks air flow.

The Best Protein Skimmer Reviews

Bubble Magus BM-Curve 5 Protein Skimmer

best protein skimmercheap protein skimmer

Ideal for reef and saltwater tanks up to 140 gallons, the Bubble Magus Curve 5 protein skimmer is one of the most popular protein skimmers on the market.

This moderately sized protein skimmer has a slim profile and offers excellent performance for the size.

It uses a counter-flow needle-wheel design which rotates at a high velocity to produce a large amount of bubbles, and a special curved skimmer body which enables dirty foam to rise smoothly to surface.

The large collection cup benefits from a built in drain to minimize maintenance.

This protein skimmer comes equipped with an efficient 8 watt SP-1000 pump with a silencer to diminish running noise.


  • Relatively easy to clean
  • Easily adjustable
  • Slim design for size
  • Simple assembly
  • Quality construction
  • Runs quietly in proportion to power output
  • Extremely efficient
  • Good choice for beginners


  • Customer service for troubleshooting isn’t great
  • Ideally needs to be used with a sump for maximum performance

>>> Read our full Bubble Magus BM-Curve 5 review

saltwater protein skimmer

SCA-302 180 Gallon Protein Skimmer (In Sump)

best protein skimmerwhat is a protein skimmer

The powerful 41 watt Atman PH2000 pump of the SCA-302 180 Gallon Protein Skimmer produces the masses of fine bubbles needed to dissolve nasty organic matter, and despite its neat size it is vigorous enough to be efficient in saltwater aquariums of up to 180 gallons in size.

It features a super sized collection cup with drain tube, six different water flow settings, and an air silencer to reduce pump noise.


  • Quality parts and durable construction
  • Good value for money
  • Runs quietly
  • Easy assembly
  • Extra strong pump
  • Simple to adjust and operate
  • Ideal for larger aquariums
  • Short breaking in time


  • Collection cup can be a little tricky to remove

saltwater protein skimmer

Aquatic Life RO Buddie Reverse Osmosis Systems

best protein skimmersmall protein skimmer

This cheap ozoniser has some great features to recommend it in addition to its affordable price.

It employs a clever reverse osmosis technology with three types of filter cartridges to purify the tank water as much as possible.

The reverse osmosis system of the Aquatic Life RO Buddie works as an ozoniser to break down organic waste and oxygenate the water in the tank.

Its compact design means it can fit easily into a smaller space, and it is available in both 50 gallon and 100 gallon versions to suit different sizes of aquarium.


  • Very easy to construct
  • Ideal for use with a protein skimmer
  • Cost effective purification system
  • Suitable for small to medium aquariums
  • Cartridge replacement is easy
  • Compact design
  • Efficient


  • Leakage can occur if connections are not properly made during assembly
  • Cartridges can sometimes deplete quickly

saltwater protein skimmer

CoralVue Technology BH-1000 Octopus with External 1000 Pump

protein skimmersaltwater protein skimmer

The major advantage of the CoralVue Technology BH-1000 Octopus is the ‘hang on’ design of the pump mounted externally directly underneath the skimmer body which means it takes up much less room inside and outside the tank.

It also means it can be used without an additional sump, and there is less heat-to-water exchange than with a conventional protein skimmer design.

The 9 watt Aquatrance pinwheel 1000S needle wheel pump provides the necessary power for optimal waste removal, and is suitable for aquariums of up to 100 gallons.

This model is also fitted with an air silencer to keep things running as quietly as possible.


  • Sleek design
  • Robust acrylic construction
  • Pump can be easily removed for upkeep and cleaning
  • Very easy to install
  • Simple to use
  • Performs effectively
  • Runs quietly


  • Inlet port cannot be adjusted once mounted

saltwater protein skimmer

Coral Vue Technology AC20287 Octopus Needle Wheel Skimmer

best protein skimmerscoralife protein skimmer

Another offering from Coral Vue, the AC20287 Octopus Needle Wheel Skimmer boasts an even more powerful pump than the BH-1000 Octopus reviewed above.

The Hailea OTP 2000 pump is combined with a high performance Venturi air injection system and pinwheel impeller to create an enormous amount of waste removing micro-bubbles in tanks of up to a generous 210 gallons.

The special valve on this model allows the water level of the skimmer to be adjusted easily. This saltwater protein skimmer is intended for in sump use.


  • Excellent choice for larger tanks
  • Very powerful
  • Comes apart easily for efficient cleaning
  • Sturdy acrylic build
  • Very high foam production
  • Baffles muffle noise effectively so runs quietly
  • Starts working very fast – not much settling in time required
  • Wheel impeller is of very good quality for the price


  • Must be used with an additional sump — to be purchased separately

saltwater protein skimmer

Coral Vue Technology AC20284 Octopus Needle Wheel Skimmer

best protein skimmersbest protein skimmer

Similar to the Coral Vue Technology AC20287, the AC20284 Octopus Needle Wheel Skimmer benefits from much of the same technology as its bigger brother but at a cheaper price as it is designed to be used with smaller tanks up to 100 gallons in capacity.

Nevertheless, this cheap protein skimmer boasts the same high performance needle wheel impellers, well designed gate valve for water level regulation and massive micro bubble production thanks to the Hailea OTP pumps, plus the collection cup comes with a drainage plug if required.


  • Easy to clean
  • Effective, impressive performance
  • Affordable
  • Simple to operate
  • Quality construction
  • Great value for money


  • Can occasionally be a little noisy

saltwater protein skimmer

So there’s everything you need to know about protein skimmers.

What’s your pick for the best protein skimmer?

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