What Is A Protein Skimmer For Fish Tanks And Aquariums? What Do They Do?

What is a Protein Skimmer?

Some people think that they can simply fill their tanks with water, and their fish can live happily ever after.

Unfortunately, this is not true. Fish can get too stressed, sick, and even die if you don’t keep an eye on your aquarium’s parameters.

This is why you need to install several filtration systems to keep the tank clean and your fish, aquatic plants, and other animals in perfect health.

So what is a protein skimmer? What does it do and how can it keep your fish tank clean?

If you were just wanting some recommendations, check out Bubble Magus Protein Skimmers for a top-quality range.

What Is A Protein Skimmer?


Fish waste, excess food, toxins from corals, and other organic matter deposit at the bottom of the tank.

Later on, these particles break into phosphate and nitrate. These chemicals can affect fish health and make them get sick or even affect the population in your tank.

A protein skimmer is a mechanical filter that removes this organic waste and drains it out of the tank’s closed ecosystem.

Protein skimmers are more important to use if you have a reef aquarium because saltwater aquariums usually contain more waste than freshwater tanks.

Without a protein skimmer, you’ll experience a growth in algae that competes for food with the aquatic plants in your tank, affecting the fish population and its health.

Having too much protein in your tank will also affect the color of the corals, the color of the fish, their health, the cloudiness of water, and the health of other invertebrates in the tank.

There are several types and sizes of protein skimmers, and choosing the right one depends on the setup of your tank, its size, and the technologies used in the protein skimmer.

They are also used in other applications outside of fish tanks and aquariums. For example, swimming pool skimmers like the Instapark Solar Skimmer perform the same type of function.

Parts Of A Protein Skimmer

what does a protein skimmer do

Although there are different parts of protein skimmers, they come with similar parts.

Here are the parts of a protein skimmer:

  • A water pump with a needle wheel.
  • An intake for water and air.
  • A bubble diffuser.
  • A neck.
  • An adjustment valve.
  • A collection cup.

Some models will have different parts, depending on their type.

See the most popular AquaMaxx Protein Skimmers here for examples.

How Does A Protein Skimmer Work?

A protein skimmer skims the water to catch and trap the waste away from the water.

It usually features a wheel that spins in the water to create bubbles that contain the waste and toxins in the water.

This waste is later collected and appears like a froth, which is later stored in the collection cup.

This dirty foam or skimmate collects in the cup until it’s full, and then drains out through the drainage tube.

Although some reef-ready systems are advertised as being skimmer-free, your water will never be 100% clean and free of toxic waste, unless you have installed a practical protein skimmer.

Types Of Protein Skimmers

All protein skimmers depend on the surface tension, so the waste particles get attached to the air bubbles created by the wheel.

The waste rides up the bubbles created by the wheel and collects in a water column then burst once they reach the air’s surface.

After that, the waste is collected in the collection cup, which prevents the gunk from traveling back to the water.

This works in the case of saltwater because freshwater skimming involves a complicated technology that is not available for hobbyists.

Protein skimmers are available in several types, including co-current, counter-current, ETS, and venturi-style skimmers.

You can also get good nano protein skimmers for smaller tanks.

Co-Current Protein Skimmers

what does a protein skimmer do

These protein skimmers were first used by European hobbyists who used limewood to create the foam to catch the waste.

It features an open-end cylinder with a bubble source at the bottom to attract the waste. The volume of the air bubbles pushes them up through the chamber.

Once the bubbles burst in the collection cup, the waste will be collected while the water will fall back into the aquarium, after cleaning the protein waste. Co-current skimmers are either sump-mounted or hang-on models.

Although they’re the easiest to install, these models aren’t the most efficient. The level of efficiency depends on the length of the tube, and installing a long tube behind your tank might not be the most convenient option.

Counter-Current Skimmers

how does a protein skimmer work

Counter-current skimmers became available to overcome the problems associated with co-current skimmers.

In these models, the water is passed through the top of the tube, while the bubble source is located at the base. As a result, the water has to travel counter or against the current.

This increases the time the bubbles take to stay in touch with the waste. As a result, this method is more potent at removing waste.

ETS Skimmers

diy protein skimmer
Environmental tower skimmers are modern versions of protein skimmers that work to remove the waste from the aquarium efficiently.

These models are also known as down-draft skimmers and are more suitable for bigger tanks because they can handle larger volumes of water.

In these models, the water is also injected from the top, and there are bio-balls inside the tube to diffuse the water that is pushed at high speed.

Inside the tube, there is a baffle plate that allows the waste to get in contact with the bubbles, pushing the froth up into the collection cup.

The drain valve then drains the waste and allows only the clean water to fall back into the aquarium.

Venturi-Style Skimmers

These special protein skimmers depend on the potent technology of air injection, just like the ETS models.

Each skimmer has a venturi-style valve that allows the water and millions of microscopic bubbles to pass through.

The high movement of the water draws the air to create bubbles inside the valve.

The protein in the water then exits through the valve to be collected away from the water.

DIY Protein Skimmer


Alternatively, you can DIY a protein skimmer for your tank. Check out the above video for one example of how you can do it!

Every aquarist needs a protein skimmer to remove the protein waste from uneaten food, fish waste, toxins, and other protein substances that affect the life of your aquatic animals and plants.

If you have a freshwater tank, you won’t need a protein skimmer, but it’s an essential piece in the setup of a saltwater or reef aquarium.

We hope this has helped, and since you’re looking for reef tank equipment, have you also considered getting an osmolator?

These units automatically top up your tank as water evaporates!

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