Best Protein Skimmers (Review & Buying Guide) in 2019

Saltwater aquariums are fantastic, providing the opportunity to have a range of aquatic live in your home that just isn’t possible with a fresh water aquarium. However, such habitats require specific conditions, knowledge, and a certain amount of upkeep and maintenance. One of the main concerns with saltwater tanks is the build-up of organics waste, which can be detrimental to the fish and other life that is within the aquarium. One of the best ways to deal with such waste is with a protein skimmer. But, with so many different types and sizes to choose from, knowing which is the right one for your aquarium can be difficult. Our panel of aquatic experts have created a list of the best protein skimmers to help you make the right decision.

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Best Protein Skimmer Buying Guide & FAQ

Choosing the right protein skimmer for your saltwater aquarium is not just about knowing which the best products are, it is also about knowing why they are the best. In this part of the buying guide we explore protein skimmers in more detail; looking at what you need to consider when buying a skimmer for your aquarium, what the benefits are of a skimmer, and the different types that are available. Additionally, we answer some of the most frequently asked questions about these important aquarium devices.

aquarium skimmer

Things to Consider When Buying Protein Skimmers

The right protein skimmer for your aquarium depends on a wide range of variables, from the size of your tank to how often you want to be cleaning the collection cup. However, there are some considerations that are universal. These include:

  • Cost

When considering the cost of a protein skimmer, it is not just the initial outlay that is important. There are also the ongoing costs to budget for. Skimmers use pumps, which in turn require electricity. The amount of electricity, and therefore the level of cost, depends on energy requirements of the pump. The more energy it requires, the more electricity it will use. Check the wattage and efficiency of any pump you are considering.

  • Size

The size of the skimmer you require is dependent firstly on the size of the aquarium tank that you have. Water level is also a consideration as is the type of skimmer that you are considering. You need to consider a range of questions before you settle on the right size.

These include:

  • Will your skimmer hang off the back of your tank or sit in a sump?
  • If your skimmer is to work with a sump, what size footprint will it accommodate?
  • How much head room (space above the tank) do you have to accommodate a skimmer?
  • If the skimmer is outside of the sump, does it require any additional or special plumbing?
  • Pump working capability

To work the skimmer needs to be supplied with air and water, this is the job of the pump. If the pump is not strong enough for the task at hand, then the skimmer will work slowly and ineffectively. The strength of the skimmer is directly related to the water flow that is delivered to it in relation to the volume of the aquarium. The amount of air that is pump through is important for the formation of the bubbles. If the pump is pumping too much water in relation to air, the air bubbles do not have enough time to remove the proteins and other organic waste matter for the water. The result of this is organic waste returning to the aquarium, rather than being collected for removal.

  • Bubble size and quantity

The size of the bubbles produced by the skimmer affect the efficiency of the unit. Smaller bubbles are more efficient, the more efficiently it works. Similarly, you want to produce as many bubbles as possible as this increases the surface area for the proteins to attach to.

Benefits of Protein Skimming

The main benefit of protein skimming is that it removes small particles of organic waste, such as food waste and other proteins from the aquarium habitat. This results in an oxygen rich environment and improves the health and survival rate of the fish in the aquarium.

Using a skimmer also helps to remove nitrates and other materials that can easily result in further breakdown and lead to the appearance algae or encourage it to spread. If not dealt with early, algae can be extremely difficult to control in saltwater aquariums, so using a skimmer to help prevent it appearing in the first place is always the best course of action.

Dirt build-up in an aquarium environment can also lead to issues and affect the health of aquatic life. Dirt can cause the water to become cloudy and result in not enough light penetrating the water. A skimmer helps clear cloudy water and restores it to the optimal condition for the marine life within the aquarium.

aquarium skimmers

If organic waste compounds are left to dissolve within the tank they can create unstable pH levels. If they become unfavorable for the marine life within the tank, it can have a detrimental effect on the health of the fish and other animals. An effective protein skimmer helps to maintain stable pH levels and supports the health and wellbeing of the occupants of the aquarium.

Types of Protein Skimmers

There are several different types of protein skimmers for you to choose from. The type that is right for you depends on a number of factors including the size and type of aquatic set up you have or are considering. The most common types of skimmers are hang on skimmers, in-tank skimmers, in-sump skimmers, and external protein skimmers.

  • Hang on skimmers

This type of skimmer is designed to hang on the back of the aquarium. They are a good choice for aquariums that do not have a sump. They generally attach with suction cups and reduce the space required inside the tank.

  • In-tank skimmers

In tank skimmers are generally compact in size, so they can be placed in the tank without greatly reducing the space needed by the marine life. Where the right size in tank skimmer is chosen for the tank they can be an effective choice.

  • In-sump skimmers

If you have a sump in your tank, then this type of skimmer can be integrated into it. It is important to consider the footprint of the skimmer to ensure it fits the sump you have.

  • External skimmers

These are situated outside the aquarium and require additional plumbing. The water is fed into the skimmer, where it is cleaned and then returned to the aquarium.

As well as these four basic types, there are also different internal workings to consider. Generally, skimmers operate as either co-current flow or counter current flow.

  • Co-current flow

In a skimmer that works through co-current flow, air is introduced at the bottom of the chamber and comes into contact with the water as it rises towards the collection cup or chamber. Examples of co-current flow systems include:

  • Air stone

This is one of the oldest forms of skimming where pressurized air pushes through the diffuser to produce a great quantity of micro bubbles. While an effective and economical choice it is a higher maintenance system than other more modern approaches. The air stone is generally, an oblong block of wood that has been partially hollowed.

skimmers for aquariums

It is positioned at the base of a water column. Water is then pumped into the column and passes the rising bubbles to return to the tank. Such systems are not suitable for small home aquariums as to get the required contact time with the bubbles the units need to be several feet in height.

  • Venturi

A venturi pump is used to create bubbles in a water stream. Water from the aquarium is pushed through the venturi, where small bubbles are added, before it enters the body of the skimmer body. The compactness and efficiency of this method makes it popular with many aquarium owners. However, the venturi pump design is most often incorporated a more complex design, rather than being used as a stand-alone design.

  • Counter-current flow systems

These systems are more effective and efficient than co-current flow systems, which is why those on our best protein skimmer list use this approach. In counter-current systems, air is forced into the system under pressure and moves against the flow of the water for a while before it rises towards the collection cup. The effectiveness of this type of system comes from the longer period of contact between the bubbles and the water. Examples of counter-current systems include the aspirating skimmer.

Aspirating skimmers include those that use a pinwheel or needle wheel impeller. Pin wheel designs have impellers that consist of a disk with pins that are mounted at 90-dregrees to a disk and parallel to a rotor. A needle wheel impeller consists of a series of pins that project from a central axis perpendicularly to the rotor. In both cases the impeller shreds or chops the air, which is introduced by either an external pump or a venturi apparatus. This motion creates micro-bubbles. Such skimmers are very popular with owners of home aquariums and work well with small tanks as they are compact, quiet, and easy to set up. They have lower power requirements than other skimmer setups because the pump is pushing a mix of water and air.


Q: What is a protein skimmer?

A:  A protein skimmer is a device that is added to a saltwater aquarium to remove organic waste compounds, including food waste, from the water. In doing this it improves the quality of the water and creates the ideal environment for the marine life within the aquarium.

Q: How does a protein skimmer work?

A:  A protein skimmer works by creating micro bubbles that attract the dissolved protein particles. The resulting foam is pushed into a collection chamber or cup where it can be safely removed from the aquarium environment.

Q: Where should I place my protein skimmer?

A:  Your protein skimmer should be the first step in your filtration process. If you use an in-sump system, then its placement depends on where your sump is situated. A hang on system should be placed at the back of the aquarium at the correct water level for your specific system. You should always check the manufacturers guide for proper placement of your specific make and model.

Q:  How to adjust protein skimmer?

A:  Once you have the right skimmer for your aquarium set up, you need to determine the depth at which it should be placed. Use your manufacturers guide to achieve this as different skimmers have their own specific requirements. Next, allow the skimmer to fill with water and connect it to an electrical outlet. The best skimmers have an adjustable valve that allows you to vary the amount of air that enters the system. However, most experts recommend that you run the skimmer for a few days without adjusting the valve to let it settle in. After this time make small adjustments until foam is collecting in the collection chamber or cup. As the valve adjustments differ depending on the make and model, refer to your manufacturers guide for specific adjustments.

Q:  How to clean protein skimmer?

A:  Protein skimmers have a collection chamber or cup, where the protein and other waste particles are deposited in the form of foam. In most cases the cup or chamber is removable, so you can detach it from the system and empty the foam before reconnecting the cup. Generally, this needs to be done once or twice a week, however, it varies depending on the amount of skimmate and the general health of your aquarium. For more general cleaning and maintenance refer to your manufacturer’s guide so that you do not invalidate any warranty that comes with your skimmer.

By following the guidance here and choosing the right protein skimmer for your saltwater aquarium, you can improve the health and longevity of your aquarium animals and enjoy watching them for years to come.


  1. Protein Skimmer, Wikipedia
  2. Freshwater Verses Saltwater Aquariums: What You Need to Know, PetMD
  3. Skimmer Basics 101, Reef Keeping
Olivia Williams
Olivia is our head of content for, mum of one and a true animal lover. With 12 different types of animal in her family, it's never a dull moment. When she isn't walking the dogs, feeding the cats or playing with her pet Parrot Charlie, you will find her product researching and keeping the site freshly updated with the latest products for your pets!