Saltwater aquarium hobbyists today have a dizzying array of devices, doodads, and doohickeys at their disposal for improving water quality and maintaining appropriate water parameters. Some of these items are essential for aquarium success, while others might be more appropriately placed under the heading of “bells and whistles.”
High on the list of what we would consider vital gadgetry is the protein skimmer. This is one device we believe no saltwater system should be without. In fact, it’s possible to maintain a perfectly healthy marine aquarium relying on nothing more than a good protein skimmer, powerheads to provide vigorous water movement, a heater, appropriate lighting, quality live rock, and frequent partial water changes.
What is a protein skimmer?
In a nutshell (clamshell?), a protein skimmer is a device that mixes aquarium water with a large amount of very tiny air bubbles in a reaction chamber. As the bubbles rise up through the water column, molecules of dissolved organic compounds (DOCs) adhere to them and are carried to the top of the chamber where a thick foam begins to develop. The foam keeps building until it eventually reaches a collection cup, where it collapses into a tea-colored, foul-smelling liquid called skimmate. The skimmate is then eliminated whenever the hobbyist empties and rinses the collection cup in the sink.
Some protein skimmers are designed to sit in a sump below the tank, some are free-standing, others are intended to hang on the rim of the tank, and still others are designed to be placed inside the tank. There are also myriad variations on precisely how the water and air bubbles are mixed in the reaction chamber from one style of skimmer to the next.
Why is protein skimming so important?
Here at Saltwater Smarts, we don’t call the protein skimmer a “water-quality workhorse” for nothing! Here are the key advantages of using one:
- Eliminates DOCs before they decompose and are acted upon by nitrifying bacteria, thus easing the burden on your biofilter and slowing the buildup of nitrate
- Increases water clarity by removing yellowing compounds
- Maximizes dissolved oxygen levels
- Helps maintain a proper pH level by “driving off” carbon dioxide
- Denies troublesome algae a “fertilizer” source
Don’t skimp on your skimmer!
Keep in mind that not all protein skimmers are created equal. You don’t need to shell out for the most expensive skimmer on the market, but you shouldn’t skimp on your skimmer investment either. Get the best model you can reasonably afford, and consider purchasing one that is rated for a larger aquarium than the one you have (we use and recommend Coral Vue Octopus skimmers, such as the Super Reef and Needle Wheel). This will give you a greater margin of error as your stocking level increases and your specimens grow.