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What is a Protein Skimmer?

What is a Protein Skimmer?


A protein skimmer is a type of mechanical filter used to remove organic material from aquarium water before it can break down into phosphate and nitrate. Marine and reef aquariums frequently contain high levels of organics—much higher than you would find in an ocean reef. Protein skimmers remove these organic compounds that otherwise would have adverse effects on water quality, causing nuisance algae growth or health problems in fish, coral and/or invertebrate.

So where do these organics in your aquarium come from? A few examples are animal waste, uneaten food, excess bacteria and toxins from corals and other organisms.

There are many different types of protein skimmers available: hang on protein skimmers (also referred to as a HOB protein skimmers), in-tank (also called internal) protein skimmers, external protein skimmers and in sump protein skimmers. The example shown above in our protein skimmer diagram is an in sump protein skimmer, which is designed to sit inside the sump of an aquarium system.

Despite the differing sizes, styles and technologies that power protein skimmers, they all essentially operate the same way. Water is pulled into a protein skimmer pump from your aquarium. Inside the pump, a spinning needlewheel (or pinwheel) impeller chops incoming air bubbles into even smaller bubbles. Organic material reacts and sticks to these micro bubbles inside the skimmer body and produces foam called skimmate that rises into a collection cup for removal. The foam is similar to what you’d find on the beach after waves crash along the shoreline.

To find the best protein skimmer for your aquarium, read How to Select, Setup and Maintain a Protein Skimmer, The Science of Protein Skimmers and Reef Ramblings—All About Skimmers.

If you have any questions about protein skimmers, like what would be an ideal nano protein skimmer, please contact us. Tech support is always free, whether you're shopping or just need advice from an experienced aquarium hobbyist. We can help you get your aquarium water clean by learning a bit more about your tank, equipment and maintenance routine. We're here to help!
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