Today’s post is discussion the protein skimmer, often times the workhorse of a saltwater aquarium. The best protein skimmers are the heart of a system and even for some systems that put refugiums first, a protein skimmer is still a major component of the life support system in the reef.
Skimmers have been around a very long time and have been implemented in large tanks, public aquariums, aquaculture faculties, and fish stores. I’ll explain further on how skimmers work, what types of protein skimmers are available, and go through a list of the best protein skimmers available for purchase today.
What is a Protein Skimmer?
A protein skimmer is a filtration unit that removes protein and other organic compounds. It works by relying on a chemical process to remove waste from the water column. Waste and dissolved organic compounds will adhere to the surface of air bubbles produced by the protein skimmer and are literally pulled out of your aquarium water by the thousands of bubbles produced by the skimmer. The waste from these bubbles will go to a collection cup where they can be removed by the aquarium keeper. This waste that is produced is called skimmate.
Along with aquarium usage, protein skimmers are used in commercial applications like municipal water treatment facilities. They have been around for many years and are a tried and true filtration technology.
Tidal gardens breaks down protein skimmers in the video below:
Types of Protein Skimmers
Protein skimmers are unfortunately one of the saltwater aquarium products that is plagued with tons of marketing fluff. I’m going to attempt to simplify the discussion by breaking down protein skimmers by type and the differences below:
Internal Protein Skimmers
These are protein skimmers you will typically see in nano tanks. They are usually air stone driven and generally, the quality of them really is not that great. Unless you are purchasing a highly internal skimmer, we would recommend you save your money and opt for high quality live or aquacultured rock.
Hang On Back Protein Skimmers – AKA HOB Protein Skimmers
A hang on back protein skimmer (HOB) is a skimmer that is designed to work without an aquarium sump. The skimmers will hang on the back of the tank and will pull aquarium water directly out of the display tank. While they are great for smaller tanks or tanks that do not have a sump, they often time are not as powerful and comprehensive compared to in sump protein skimmers. They also tend to leave a pretty sizable footprint in the tank as the pump needs to sit in the display tank, which leaves aesthetics to be desired. Some lower quality HOB skimmers struggle with releasing air bubbles into the aquarium.
In Sump Protein Skimmers
These are where the vast majority of the best protein skimmers fall under. The best manufacturers of skimmers make them to operate inside a sump as many reef tank keepers maintain an large aquarium sump that can hold these units. They offer lots of features like needle wheels, some are DC powered, and others are recirculating protein skimmers which provide even more cleaning power. We highly recommend shopping for an in sump protein skimmer.
External Protein Skimmers
These protein skimmers are usually meant for larger aquariums or commercial applications. They are often sold for aquariums over 300 gallons and most smaller aquarium setups do not have the room to house these. If you are a monster fish keeper with a fish room, a commercial external protein skimmer might be on your radar.
Do You Really Need A Protein Skimmer?
The short answer is no. However, many successful reefers and saltwater aquarium keepers use them because they are excellent tools of filtration and the best protein skimmers can do an incredible job of keeping nitrates and phosphates low when working in conjunction with a refugium or as part of a refugium sump build. Less phosphates and nitrates means you can keep lower levels for your fish and corals or even control your levels and dose up to the levels you prefer to stay at and maintain a healthy low term tank.
A protein skimmer has been essential to many of the key methods of filtration used by high end reefers today. The skimmer was one of the cornerstones of the Berlin Method that utilized live rock and protein skimmers and still is a preferred method of filtration for large coral sellers like World Wide Corals. The protein skimmer is also a key component of the Triton Method of filtration, which is a high level method of reef keeping that involves a skimmer, a large refugium, dosing of trace elements and supplements in order to keep an aquarium free of water changes.
So with both of these points stated, I would say it is a recommended piece of equipment for a saltwater aquarium.
The 13 Best Protein Skimmers on the Market
As I stated earlier, protein skimmers have a ton of marketing fluff behind them and that makes it difficult to find a protein skimmer that will work for your needs. I’m going to provide a list of recommended skimmers from all price ranges that we known have been part of very successful reef tank builds. We will also list out the only hang on back protein skimmer we recommend.
As a quick disclosure, Aquarium Store Depot may collect a share of sales or other compensation from the links on this page (learn more).
So without further ado, here is the list:
Best Protein Skimmer Reviews 2020
1. Nyos Quantum – Excellent Quality Protein Skimmer
The Nyos Quantum in my mind is the pinnacle of AC powered protein skimmers. Made in Germany, this skimmer is designed for extreme performance. The German made pump is designed for power and silence, providing one of the quietest protein skimmers available. The skimmer is expertly crafted and designed to last throughout the life of your tank. It is built to be disassembled so cleaning and maintaining is very painless with this skimmer. They also seemingly seem to break in very fast, nearly having no break in time! They are equipped with a larger reaction chamber than most on this list. This is the best built needle wheel skimmer I have come across. It will remove nutrients like crazy out of your aquarium water.
Quality does come with a price. This is one of the most expensive protein skimmers on the market, but you definitely get what you pay for. If you are looking for very clean aquarium water, this is the skimmer to buy!
- Footprint – 7.1″ x 9.8″ (For Nyos 160 Model)
- Height – 20.9″
- Power Consumption – 18W @120VAC
- German made skimmer
- Expertly crafted and incredible performance
- Easily disassembled for cleaning
2. Bubble Magus Elite – The Best Value Protein Skimmer On The Market
The Bubble Magus Elite is the best value on protein skimmers on the market today. It has a great price and it is equipped with a high quality Italian made Sicce. The red and black colors have a coolness factor to them. I also like the easy to use dials that adjust the bubble levels in the neck.
The elite skimmer is an upgrade to the original Curve Series. It addresses the biggest issue with the original Curve series which was the pump. Some folks did not like the pump and wanted a Sicce pump. This version addresses the original with a better more modern design. At the price it sells at, it is a great buy and outperforms many other skimmers in its price range.
- Footprint – 7.3″ x 7.1″ (For Elite 5 Model)
- Height – 18.5″
- Power Consumption – 18W @120VAC
- Great value!
- Italian made pump
- Looks cool
- Mid priced
- Break in time
3. Bubble Magus Curve – The Protein Skimmer With The Best Bang For the Buck
The original Bubble Magus Curve series protein skimmers are the original bang for the buck protein skimmer. This is the protein skimmer that has been used by many reefers with great series. You can probably call this the Chinese Black Box LED equivalent for protein skimmers.
This is a very practical and efficient needle wheel skimmer. It is fitted with a needle wheel pump and the modern curve skimmer body that are commonplace with higher end protein skimmers.
The main con with this unit is the dial in time. They really take their time breaking in and the pump isn’t as high quality as other protein skimmers on this list. But the great thing now is the manufacturer came out with the Elite Protein Skimmers that are armed with a Sicce pump. These elites are now up there with the top brands and deserve your attention! Both models can be equipped with skimmer swabbies that will keep the neck of your collection cup clean.
- Footprint – 7.28″ x 7.08″ (For Curve 5 Model)
- Height – 18.5″
- Power Consumption – 8W @120VAC
- Lots of features from higher end skimmer models
- Elite versions are available for those wanting an Italian made pump
- They take time to break in and can be finicky
- The original curve’s pump is above average – upgrade to the elites for higher quality
4. Aquamxx HOB 1.5 – The Best Hang on Back Protein Skimmer on the Market
For many years, the Aquamaxx HOB Protein Skimmer has held the title of best hang-on skimmer on the market. This new 1.5 remodel amps up the skimming power to the pinnacle of what HOB skimmers are capable of.
Armed with a Sicce rebranded “Shark”pump, this skimmer has all the power that an in-sump skimmer can provide but with the ability to be placed on the back of an aquarium. It is even compact enough to fit in larger all in one aquariums like the Innovative Marine 40.
The main complaint with this unit is the footprint inside of the tank. It does take away at the aesthetics using an HOB and the price is on par with many in-sump skimmers. It is the choice for HOB skimmers without a doubt! No need to look or find anything else.
- Footprint – 7.5″ x 3.5″
- Height – 17″
- Power Consumption – 11W @120V
- Powerful skimmer – the best hang on back protein skimmer
- Italian pump built to last
- Compact enough to work in larger all in one systems
- Hang on backs take up space in the aquarium
5. Macro Aqua M-50 – The Budget HOB Protein Skimmer
If you are looking for a cheap protein skimmer that works, the Macro Aqua M-50 is the protein skimmer that you are looking for! There are many protein skimmers that are cheap that are absolute junk like the old sea clones or air stone driven skimmers. The Macro Aqua differs from these as it uses a needle wheel pump to run the protein skimmer.
What you get is a wet skimmate production, but that is adequate for many smaller systems. The price really can’t be beat unless you start making some huge sacrifices in quality or function.
My main gripe with this skimmer is the noise factor. It just is not that quiet, but given the price, something has got to give!
- Footprint – 5.5″ x 5.5″
- Height – 13.5″
- Power Consumption – 8W @120V
- Needle wheel skimmer
- Not the best production compared to high quality and more expensive offerings
6. IceCap K-2 – A Solid Mid-Price Skimmer
The CoralVue IceCap K-1 Skimmers are the main line of CoralVue skimmer offerings. They are mid-priced skimmers that offer a lot of value and features for the money. Like many of the higher end skimmers, this K-1 skimmer is equipped with the iconic Italian made Sicce pump. The skimmer has some extra touches with marking on the collection cup and adjustment dials so you know what levels you have adjusted to. This pipeless design also allows for a quieter operation than lower budget range skimmers.
It’s overall a really good value, with my only hesitation is that it may be still out of range for some reefers budgets.
- Footprint – 6.7″ x 8″ (For 160 model)
- Height – 20″
- Power Consumption – 15W @120V
- Mid-Priced skimmer with high-end features
- Italian made Sicce pump
- Smaller footprint to comparable skimmers
- Still a little out of range for some mid-priced shoppers
7. IceCap K-1 – An IceCap Skimmer for The Budget Conscious Reefer
For those of you who like what the IceCap K-2 skimmers offer, but not in their budgets, the IceCap K-1 protein skimmers are a great alternative. The K-1 offers the same features as the K-2 with the exception of the pump. You still get the markings and a professional level adjustable valves.
While all the features offered are great, you are sacrificing the pump quality. The pump included here is a wavereef pump, which is a step down for the benchmark Sicce pumps that many reef veterans trust. It is nonetheless a great value offer for budget conscious saltwater aquarists.
- Footprint – 6.7″ x 8″ (For 160 model)
- Height – 20″
- Power Consumption – 16W @120V
- A budget conscious, but value loaded skimmer
- Various models sizes available for all sizes of aquariums
- Compact Size
- Pump is a wavereef pump – it’s not a Sicce
8. Red Sea Reef Skimmer – Skimmer with A Swabbie Feature!
The Red Sea Protein Skimmer has a feature that stands out among all the skimmers listed on this article. It has a built in skimmer swabbie on the collection cup. A skimmer swabbie cleans the inside of the neck of your collection cup allow the skimmer to operate at maximum efficiency. Usually, a battery run swabbie can be very expensive to fit on a skimmer and are not available on all brands and models. This skimmer has only built in. It’s a mechanical dial that allows you to clean the neck, but this feature alone is a huge deal if you want to run your skimmer at max capacity. It’s even a bigger deal if you don’t clean out your collection cup often and choose to drain the cup to a bucket or container before disposing.
This protein skimmer has highly quality adjustable dials and your benchmark Sicce PSK pump. It is on the pricier size of the skimmers on this list, but that swabbie is a really big deal in my mind and worth the extra money, especially if you don’t like to empty your skimmer collection cup that often.
- Footprint – 9.1″ x 8.3″ (For RSK 300 model)
- Height – 21″
- Power Consumption – 16W @120V
- Skimmer Swabbie!
- High quality dial for easy adjustments
- Sicce Pump
9. Reef Octopus Classic – Quality Name Brand Skimmer With High End Performance
Reef Octopus Classic Skimmers have been been unchanged for a very long time. The newest remodel of these skimmers of the classic line is an improvement over the decade old proven reliability of these series of protein skimmers.
The Reef Octopus brand is well known in the marine reef industry and has a long standing quality reputation among the community. They were the first protein skimmer manufacturers in the world that designed their very own protein skimmer pumps. When you purchase a Reef Octopus, you know you are purchasing a skimmer with a pump specifically designed for the protein skimmer instead of the typical bolted on 3rd party pump that other manufacturers use.
Reef Octopus further backs up their product with a 2 year warranty versus your typical 1 year warranty. The also have a Reef Octopus Classic Space Saver Protein Skimmer model for those with small sumps.
Our only con to report on the classic line is the price. When these new classic models were released that came with an increased price, but you get what you pay for.
- Footprint – 10.4″ x 8.1″ (For 152-s model)
- Height – 20.7″
- Power Consumption – 11W @120V
- Respected Reef Octopus name and quality
- Skimmer pump is designed specifically for the skimmer
- 2 year warranty
10. Reef Octopus Essence – High End Protein Skimmer with Convenient Features
The Reef Octopus Essence series protein skimmer take what we love about the classic series and adds an number of hobby friendly maintenance features.
The skimmer cup has an easy to use twist and lift feature and there is a detachable silence collar that makes the skimmer super quiet. There are quick release tabs that are very similar to what bubble magus features that allows you easy access to the skimmer body for cleaning. They are designed to have a small footprint so you can fit these in tight spaces and the dials have a nice extra touch of being marked.
This is a skimmer for those who want simplicity. It does come with a price though as they are more expensive than the reef octopus classic series skimmers. Overall, it’s a great product release by Reef Octopus.
- Footprint – 8.3″ x 6.9″
- Height – 20.5″
- Power Consumption – 11W @120V
- Respected Reef Octopus name and quality
- Has a number of hobby friendly convenience features
- 2 year warranty
- Price – more expensive than classic line
11. Reef Octopus Regal – High End DC Protein Skimmers with Serious Reefkeepers
The Reef Octopus Regal Protein Skimmer is the first skimmer on the list that is DC Powered. This is the top of the line skimmer series from Reef Octopus and it puts out no stops in providing the best of the best that current skimmer technology can offer. The heart of the system is a the very high quality Reef Octopus VarioS DC Pump that is the considered the overall best aquarium return pump in the industry.
This skimmer has the same high quality construction that you would expect from any Reef Octopus skimmer. The DC pump provides enhanced control, performance, and energy efficiency that puts it at another level compared to traditional AC powered options.
It’s a top of the line protein skimmer, so it commands a top of the line price. Again with Reef Octopus, you get what you pay for. There is also the Regal INT protein skimmer models for those who have additional space in their sumps.
- Footprint – 11.4″ x 7.5″ (For 150 INT model)
- Height – 22.6″
- Power Consumption – 15 – 25W @120V
- DC Powered protein skimmer – enhanced controllability
- Very powerful and efficient
- Very high quality DC pump that is built to last
- Price – most expensive protein skimmer on this list
12. SCA Protein Skimmers – The In Sump Protein Skimmer for the the Ultra Budget Conscious
The SCA Protein Skimmer is the cheapest in sump protein skimmer on this list and it’s actually a pretty decent skimmer. It powered by an Atman skimmer pump, which is a value pump that is used to replace more expensive skimmer pumps, but it is plenty serviceable here.
The main value here is the simple construction of the skimmer. It is really simple to setup and use and just has all the bare essentials to get you skimming all the junk out of your tank.
The main gripes I have with this skimmer is the pump and the the maintenance. The pump isn’t the best and I tend to be bias for Sicce pumps and the body doesn’t have a quick release like the Bubble Magus or Essence skimmers. The atman pump draw a huge amount of power. It draws 28 watts, the highest on our list.
- Footprint – 9″ x 9.5″ (For 180 model)
- Height – 18″
- Power Consumption – 28W @120V
- Simple construction and easy to use
- The Atman skimmer is just an average skimmer pump
- It uses nuts instead of a quick release for the skimmer body
13. Simplicity DC Protein Skimmers – A Value DC Power Protein Skimmer
If you are looking for a DC Protein Skimmer, but do not want to spend an arm and a leg, the Simplicity DC Protein Skimmers are an incredible value. The adjustable speed of the DC speed offers incredible adjust-ability with these skimmers and silent functionality.
It is simple to use, which makes sense given the name brand and due to the DC pump takes less time to break in than traditional protein skimmers. Simplicity is also known for having great customer service, so you will have a good experience with support versus other value line protein skimmers.
The price is in line with many mid-grade protein skimmer so you are getting a skimmer with the higher end features of a DC protein skimmer, but with the price of a mid-grade skimmer.
There are only two things I see as cons with this protein skimmer. The first is that the skimmer body is held together with nylon bolts so it’s not a quick release like the others on this list. The other is the pump itself. The protein skimmer pump is a re-branded Jabeo which makes us question the long term reliability of the pump. The good thing though this also means that the pump is cheap to replace.
- Footprint – 6.7″ x 6.3″ (For 120DC model)
- Height – 18.7″
- Power Consumption – 6-12W @120V
- DC powered skimmer = lots of controlability
- Cheap for a DC skimmer!
- Excellent customer service from Simplicity
- No quick release function for skimmer body
- DC Pump reliability could be questionable
Our Best Protein Skimmer Recommendations
This is a tough one because there are a lot of high quality protein skimmers on the list. I’m actually going to list several here as each of these recommendations would fit different tanks. Before I provide the list I will say I’m a big advocate of Reef Octopus protein skimmers, but they don’t really fit with any of the category winners below:
- Best Quality Protein Skimmer – Nyos Protein Skimmers
- Best Value Protein Skimmer – Bubble Magus Elite
- Best Budget Protein Skimmer – Bubble Magus Curve
- Best Budget DC Powered Protein Skimmer – Simplicity DC Skimmer
Beginners Protein Skimmers FAQs
The following FAQs are below for common questions. If you have additional questions, please leave a comment.
Can A Protein Skimmer Be Used in Freshwater Tanks?
Generally no. The reason why skimmers do not work in freshwater is due to surface tension. They are best used in environments with a high level of dissolved organics in the water (e.g. – dirty). This means that heavy duty applications are the only realsitic means of use like commercial fish farms or large ponds. For most hobbyists running a freshwater tank, a simple water change is far more convenient and easier to do.
Will A Protein Skimmer Reduce Ammonia?
A protein skimmer will not remove ammonia from a saltwater aquarium directly. However, it will remove harmful organics from your water that will break down into ammonia, nitrite, and nitrate.
Do Protein Skimmers Remove or Reduce Nitrates?
They do not directly, but they do so indirectly with how they work. Protein skimmers remove dissolved organic compounds out of the water column, which in effect will lower the concentration of nitrates over time. It is common for high end skimmers to run a tank “too clean” so the best answer is – indirectly yes they do.
Will A Protein Skimmer Help With My Algae Problem?
Indirectly yes. Protein skimmers will remove nutrients for algae by removing the organic pollutants from your aquarium water. I still believe that growing a marco source of algae like cheato can be very useful in choking out nuisance algae.
Do You Run A Protein Skimmer All The Time?
You certainty can run a protein skimmer all the time and most people do. Monitoring your parameters with a quality test kit should give you a better answer though. If your levels are too low for your corals, you might want to consider leaving your skimmer operating less than 24 hours a days. This is easily controlled with an aquarium controller, or plugging your skimmer to a smart power strip, where you can set a schedule for it.
Is A Protein Skimmer Necessary?
In my opinion, a protein skimmer is not necessary in a saltwater aquarium. It has a great ability to remove organics in your aquarium and as a result will lower your nitrate and phosphate levels since there will be less nutrients in your aquarium. However, there are other natural ways of reducing nitrates and phosphates, with quality dry rock or live rock being the easiest to implement.
Do Protein Skimmers Add Oxygen?
Yes, protein skimmers add oxygen in your aquarium. This is done by the air bubbles produced by your pump. The air bubbles inject oxygen in your tank indirectly due to the skimming process. This is a added side benefit to having a protein skimmer in your aquarium.
Where Should The Bubbles Be In My Protein Skimmer?
In my opinion, the bubbles should be at the beginning of your collection cup at the neck of your skimmer. As your protein skimmer runs, there will be thicker foam that will get pushed to the top of the collection cup. I find this level to be the baseline operating line for most skimmers on the market. You can adjust from this baseline as you see fit. Some people prefer wet skimmate and others dry. Wet skimmate has the advantage of pulling more organics while dry skimmate provides a balance of organics removal and less maintenance.
How Deep Should My Protein Skimmer Be?
Most manufacturers will recommend between 8″ to 10″ for a protein skimmer. However, how deep your protein skimmer should be in your sump will depend on your manufacturer specifications. Some protein skimmers can be placed in a shallow depth while others need to be placed in a deep water level. Always read the specs from the manufacturer to make sure you place it at the right level.
How Often Should You Clean Your Protein Skimmer?
You should clean the collection cup of your protein skimmer at least every 2-3 days. You may be able to go longer if your collection cup is bigger or you have it connected to a larger container. For the skimmer body, you should clean it every three to six months. The skimmer pump should be cleaned every 2-3 months.
Where Should I Put A Protein Skimmer In My Sump?
This is a preference related question. However, I will state that the worse place to put a protein skimmer would be in the return chamber of your sump. That leaves us with either the first or second chamber and that’s the part that is going to depend on your saltwater tank build.
Traditionally, a protein skimmer is best placed in the first chamber of your sump. The reason why is your protein skimmer is your first filtration device after your filter socks or media cups (if you use either). This allows for cleaner aquarium water to pass through your other sections in the sump. This is my usual recommended place to put a skimmer.
There is a newer method of system now called the Trition method that places the protein skimmer in the second chamber. Placing the skimmer in the second chamber allows for a great chance of pops populating in your refugium section and a high volume refugium. Some Triton systems will run socks though and I can tell you from experience that socks love to catch pods so to me if you are going to do Triton you should consider ditching your socks and living with a dirtier looking sump. Check out our best aquarium sump reviews for more info about the best sump available for your reef tank.
Best Protein Skimmer Reviews Conclusion
My goal with these blog posts is to make you as well informed as possible with the products you are looking to purchase so you can make the best decision for your aquarium. I hope I achieved this and you were able to find what you were looking for. If you think I missed something, please feel free to leave a comment. See you next time!