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What’s a Protein Skimmer and Do I Need One in My Home Aquarium?

Protein Skimmers Are a Valuable Accessory to Consider for Any Home AquariumPhoto of a home aquarium.

Does your home aquarium have a protein skimmer? If not, this may be an accessory you want to consider investing in. This handy device uses bubbles to eliminate protein-based waste in your aquarium, and reduces the maintenance load for larger tanks.

Here’s a more detailed breakdown of what a skimmer does, what benefits it provides, which aquariums it’s most beneficial for, and how to select the right one for your home aquarium.

What Does a Protein Skimmer Do?

Before you can decide whether a skimmer is right for you, you need to understand how it works. A protein skimmer uses air bubbles to collect and eliminate protein-based organic molecules.

The water in your home aquarium is run through a chamber in the skimmer. Inside this chamber, the skimmer is generating lots of tiny air bubbles. These microbubbles are always rising upwards in a column. Various particulate matter sticks to those bubbles and is pulled up along with them. At the top, these particulates form a foam, which is then pushed into a collection chamber.

The reason the unwanted particulates stick to the bubbles is because most waste in a home aquarium is protein-based. Most proteins, like most organic molecules in general, are amphipathic. This means that parts of them are hydrophilic (attracted to water) and other parts are hydrophobic (averse to water). Because part of the protein wants to touch the water and another part wants to get away from it, the protein easily sticks to spots where air and water meet—including bubbles.

As a result, most organic waste in your home aquarium can be picked up by a protein skimmer’s bubbles and extracted from the water.

How Does This Benefit My Home Aquarium?

The primary benefits you get out of having a protein skimmer are clarity and decreased maintenance needs.

Removing particulates from the water in a home aquarium improves how clean and clear the water looks. Your aquarium doesn’t just look better aesthetically, it looks healthier. In effect, having a protein skimmer is like having an additional method of filtration on top of your existing water filter.

This also means that you don’t have to clean your aquarium as often. Eliminating a large portion of the organic waste from your water means there’s less for you to deal with in terms of maintaining water quality, so you can do less cleaning and perform fewer water changes.Photo of a group of goldfish swimming in a home aquarium.

Of course, fewer water changes is more convenient for you, but it’s also better for the health and stability of the environment in your home aquarium. Consider, for example, if during a water change you accidentally dump out too much water. This produces a sharp change in the water parameters and living environment, and could be harmful to more sensitive organisms in the aquarium. An aquarium that doesn’t need water changes as often is more resistant to these dangerous fluctuations.

By filtering out organic particulates, a protein skimmer helps reduce water changes, maintain a more stable environment in your home aquarium, and mitigate negative health impacts for your fish.

What Kinds of Aquariums Could Use a Protein Skimmer?

A skimmer provides a lot of benefits, but is it beneficial for all aquariums? Not equally. Protein skimmers are most useful in large saltwater aquariums.

There are several reasons why a protein skimmer works far better in saltwater than in freshwater. The first reason is the difference in solubility. A lot of organic molecules dissolve much better in freshwater than in saltwater. This makes them harder to squeeze out of the water with the bubbles. The reverse is true in saltwater; because it’s harder for the organics to dissolve, they stick to the skimmer’s air bubbles more easily.

The second reason is that skimmers form smaller bubbles in saltwater than in freshwater. Why exactly this happens is still up for debate. Regardless though, a lot of smaller bubbles is better than a few larger bubbles, because it means more surface area for the organic molecules to cling to.

Besides salinity, the other factor that greatly influences the usefulness of a protein skimmer is the size of your home aquarium. The larger the aquarium is, the more beneficial the skimmer is. This is because with larger tanks, it’s a bigger deal to be able to change the water less often. With especially large tanks, a skimmer becomes an absolute must-have.

If you have a small 20-gallon tank, numerous smaller water changes are easy to perform, so a protein skimmer isn’t quite as important. Imagine if you have a larger 600-gallon tank, though. Without a skimmer, you may have to perform a 100-gallon water change every week. With a protein skimmer, you may be able to reduce that to just two 80-gallon changes per month. That’s a huge relief in terms of time and effort to perform routine aquarium maintenance.

However, newer designs are making protein skimmers increasingly more affordable. As a result, skimmers are becoming more prevalent, and since there aren’t many disadvantages to having one, they may soon become an industry standard even for smaller-sized aquariums.

Which Protein Skimmer Is Right for Me?

Once you’ve decided you want a protein skimmer for your home aquarium, it’s time to figure out which one is most worth the investment. However, unlike many other types of equipment, with protein skimmers this isn’t simply a matter of quality.

Protein skimmers are extremely application-specific. Rather than one skimmer being better than the others across the board, different skimmers perform better in different setups. There are designs to fit every filtration style, and you have to match your skimmer to your filtration system and your aquarium's size and design. To find that perfect match, you need a recommendation from an expert.

We here at Living Art Aquatics have been designing, building, and servicing custom aquariums for over 20 years, so we’re just the right experts to give you that recommendation. If you’re building a home aquarium in Crystal Lake, IL or elsewhere in the greater Chicago area, give us a call at (847) 737-5151 and our aquarium professionals will match you with the skimmer best suited to your setup. We’re always here to help you turn your home aquarium into a work of living art!

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