Best Protein Skimmers for Saltwater and Freshwater Aquariums – Reviews and Ratings

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When it’s time to get new equipment for your aquarium – whether you’re an old pro or a newbie aquarist – digging through the dozens or even hundreds of options can be a real pain.

There are reverse osmosis systems to contemplate, LED lighting to consider, protein skimmers to review, just to get things going.

And if you’ve been doing this a long time, you don’t need much more than thoughts on which product has what rating, while those who are just starting out need a bit more information.

Since I was once a newbie myself, I wanted to make sure I covered all bases for everyone.

Below you’ll find pretty much everything you need to understand what the best protein skimmer is for your given setup, and how to find it if you don’t already know.

Best Protein Skimmer Quick-Find Table

Image Product
  • Affordable on most budgets
  • Well-designed for tight spaces
  • Very durable and easy to maintain
  • Affordable on most budgets
  • Well-designed for tight spaces
  • Very durable and easy to maintain
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  • Compact and versatile
  • Incredibly easy assembly – laser cut seamless components
  • Nearly silent
  • Compact and versatile
  • Incredibly easy assembly – laser cut seamless components
  • Nearly silent
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  • Great for aquariums up to 240 gallons
  • Compact and easy to install
  • Super effective and efficient
  • Great for aquariums up to 240 gallons
  • Compact and easy to install
  • Super effective and efficient
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  • Best for larger than average aquariums
  • High-efficiency rates
  • Reduced noise operation
  • Best for larger than average aquariums
  • High-efficiency rates
  • Reduced noise operation
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  • Easy to clean, quick-release collection cup
  • Easy water level adjustment gate valve
  • Super powerful pump
  • Easy to clean, quick-release collection cup
  • Easy water level adjustment gate valve
  • Super powerful pump
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  • Easy install on hang-on-the-back model
  • Easy install on hang-on-the-back model
  • Comes with adjustable surface skimmer attachment
  • Easy install on hang-on-the-back model
  • Easy install on hang-on-the-back model
  • Comes with adjustable surface skimmer attachment
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  • Improved, more powerful model from previous models
  • Uses a powerful Shark 1.0 pump
  • Requires only 4-inches clearance for removal of the collection cup
  • Improved, more powerful model from previous models
  • Uses a powerful Shark 1.0 pump
  • Requires only 4-inches clearance for removal of the collection cup
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  • Dual function as in-sump or HOB skimmer
  • Dual inlets for an increased bubble to water time for ultimate waste collection
  • Bubble production diffuser for prevention of micro-bubble flow into aquarium
  • Dual function as in-sump or HOB skimmer
  • Dual inlets for an increased bubble to water time for ultimate waste collection
  • Bubble production diffuser for prevention of micro-bubble flow into aquarium
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What is a Protein Skimmer?

A protein skimmer – also known as a foam fractionator – is a device that you use in an aquarium to skim off and remove organic compounds like uneaten food particles and fish waste residue left in the water.

Water treatment plants use them, public aquariums, and, of course, owners of smaller aquariums also use these devices to keep their saltwater aquariums cleaner and gunk free for the health of their fish.

best protein skimmer

The reason they’re called protein skimmers, by the way, is because a large portion of what the devices remove is made up of proteins and amino acids that make up the particles and compounds in the water. Much of what makes fish food is, after all, protein based.

Other compound elements are removed by protein skimmers as well, though, including metals like copper, and trace elements of iodine. Phytoplankton, detritus, and bacteria are also skimmed off and removed for a healthier environment overall.

How Does a Protein Skimmer Work?

Protein skimmers, as mentioned before, may also be referred to as foam fractionators. The reason for this is how the skimmers actually work.

The skimmer produces foam on the surface of the water. This foam – made up of tiny air bubbles – captures the undesirable waste and by-products of fish and feeding fish and other organisms.

The waste actually clings to the bubbles of the foam the way that soap clings to the bubbles of air blown through a bubbler blower like you used as a kid.

The result is the nasty stuff clinging to the microscopic bubbles of the foam, which is then skimmed off the surface of the water by the device called a skimmer.

Why Do You Need a Protein Skimmer?

As mentioned in the definition portion, a protein skimmer is useful for getting rid of waste and uneaten food build-up in your aquarium.

Just as you clean your bathtub to remove unhealthy bacteria, mold, and microbes, for a healthier home and family, protein skimmers remove undesirable elements for a healthier aquarium environment for your fish.

barcheek unicornfish

What Types of Protein Skimmers Are There?

There are several different types of protein skimmers to choose from. You’ll want to best understand these different options before purchasing to make sure you’re getting the right one for your aquarium.

Hang-On (HOB) Skimmers

Hang-on skimmers do what their name indicates: they hang on to the back of the aquarium.

These skimmers are often viewed as ideal options for aquariums without sumps.

They are – for many – the most convenient type of skimmer. Below, you’ll see these referred to as HOBs – hang on backs – for easier understanding.

In-Tank Skimmers

In-tank skimmers are more compact and designed to be kept in the tank. They’re slim, but when designed well, do the job well.

In-Sump Skimmers

In-sump skimmers are designed to work with an aquarium sump. They vary in size, so be sure to pick the right one for the sump system you have, if this is the route you go.

External Skimmers

Finally, the external skimmer is kept separate from the aquarium. The water is fed into the skimmer, which cleans it, and then feeds the clean water back into the aquarium.

When Do You Need to Use a Protein Skimmer?

There are three primary types of aquariums that protein skimmers are used for.

Fish Only or Live Rock Aquariums

Aquariums that have either fish only populations or the heavily organic live rock situations have a lot of extra waste that some of the other types of creatures help to clean up.

A protein skimmer is handy for either of these situations for reducing this waste.

Reef Aquariums

Another instance when a protein skimmer is particularly useful is a reef aquarium. These have corals – a living organism that creates waste – and other creatures that need a healthy environment to thrive.

Some of the organic waste in such aquariums can actually be toxic for some corals, which means, all the more, you need to purchase and use a skimmer to eliminate these elements.

Aquariums with Invertebrates

Finally, any aquarium with invertebrates would benefit from a protein skimmer.

These creatures tend to release toxins into the water that can harm the other residents of your aquarium.

How to Choose the Right Protein Skimmer

It’s important that you find the right protein skimmer once you’ve decided to invest in one.

It’s easy to just go with the first thing you find when you Google “quiet protein skimmer” or “top rated protein skimmers” as you start the process of upgrading or starting your new saltwater aquarium.

However, like with most things, not all skimmers are created equal, and while a great protein skimmer and a cheap protein skimmer may not be one-in-the-same, there may be a high-quality option that’s still affordable for your aquarium budget.

Have Your Firm Budget in Mind

One of the first things I tell new aquarists is that you need to have a strict budget in mind as you develop your saltwater or reef tank.

You’ll already be investing heaps into the setup, fish, and basic maintenance, but you’ll wind up spending a heck of a lot more if you don’t budget properly and plan out each stage of your tank development.

Create a budget before you start – or if you’ve already started an aquarium, create a budget now – and do some research into what the average cost of each component you need will be.

Then, decide what your range within that average is, and stick to it. You may not be able to get the absolute Cadillac of protein skimmers, but you can still get a high-quality option on a lower-end budget.

Have Your Aquarium Size in Mind

As you shop, be sure you’re looking at skimmers that work for the size aquarium or reef tank you have.

The protein skimmer must be able to handle the volume of water in your tank, or you’ll wind up having issues.

Think About the Power Behind the Skimmer

It is recommended by many experts and hobbyists that you actually look more at the size of the skimmer rather than your tank.

While you absolutely need a skimmer powerful enough to work for your 100-gallon tank, some folks recommend this size skimmer as the minimum for smaller tanks anyway.

Because nano reefs, for example, use smaller volumes of water but house sensitive organisms, a 100-gallon skimmer may be more appropriate to power the full-on cleaning energy needed for the nano reef.

Here are our reviews of the best nano protein skimmers, though, in case you want a smaller option.

Consider the Size of the Skimmer

The protein skimmer also needs to fit the size of your setup comfortably.

If you have a tiny space, a large skimmer won’t work so well. If you have a small space, be sure you’re finding a compact unit

Reviews of the Best Protein Skimmers for Your Aquarium

Because your aquarium depends on you to care for it, clean it, maintain it, and keep everything in balance, you need to find the right protein skimmer for your setup.

For that purpose, the reviews below should help you find the right option for your setup based on the size of your tank, the power of the skimmer, and the quality of the manufacturing.

Bubble Magus BM-Curve 5 Protein Skimmer

For the absolute best of the best in protein skimmers (and perfect even for beginners), the Bubble Magus BM-Curve 5 protein skimmer is your best bet overall.

This device does everything you could ask for in a protein skimmer without the hassle of some of the more complicated machines.

The Bubble Magus Curve is an incredibly easy to use protein skimmer that sets up nicely in tight spaces. This makes it a great device for pros as well as beginner aquarists just learning the ropes.

Here’s the breakdown:

  • Type of skimmer: In-sump
  • Dimensions: 26 x 9 x 10-inches
  • Use for tanks up to: 140 gallons
  • Bonus features: Air silencer, quick-release skimmate collection cup

This protein skimmer creates incredibly small bubbles, which means you’ll have a really clean, clear tank. The smaller the bubbles, the more effective the protein skimmer is at removing the rubbish you don’t want in there.

The skimmer is highly efficient, uses a reliable SP1000 internal pump for working with up to 140-gallons, and has an easy to use, quick-release collection cup.

The curved body and needle wheel pump with venturi intake work together to create the right amount and size of bubbles that rise easily to the top for skimming smoothly.

The Bubble Magus Curve 5 comes with a 1-year warranty.

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BEST FOR REEF TANKS

#2. SCA-302

sca 302 skimmer

For an in-sump protein skimmer that’s easy to install and great for moderately sized saltwater aquariums, the SCA-302 is a great choice. It works for tanks up to 180-gallons and fits most sumps around.

This protein skimmer comes with an extra-large collection cup, making it a great option for aquariums with a lot of biologicals that put out those nasty toxins – think reef tanks and live rock tanks.

And since it works for tanks up to 180-gallons, you’re covered for smaller tanks that have loads of coral, too.

Here’s the breakdown:

  • Type of skimmer: In-sump
  • Dimensions: 9 x 18 x 9.5 inches
  • Use for tanks up to: 180 gallons
  • Bonus features: Atman 2000 pump needle impeller pump

This protein skimmer truly has impressive cleaning power for tanks up to 180-gallons, a strong pump for moving that water through and creating tiny bubbles and runs smoothly with simple controls.

The one drawback I’ve really seen on this is the need for regular cleanings.

It tends to cloudy up water more than other models unless you regularly clean the system – say once every month or two.

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QUIETEST MID-SIZED SKIMMER

#3. Simplicity 240DC

Simplicity 240DC Protein Skimmer

While the Simplicity 240DC protein skimmer doesn’t have as many user reviews or public praise, this little beauty is a powerful machine that provides you with an incredibly easy to understand and use controller.

The Simplicity 240DC allows you to adjust the speed, uses a unique design to create a small footprint and impactful skimming, and works on large tanks up to 240 gallons.

Honestly, one of the things I love most about this protein skimmer is the easy to adjust DC pump speed. You can let it work at just the right rate for your system without having extra hassles.

The needle wheel shreds the air and water creating those tiny bubbles and skims off the rubbish from the top.

Here’s the breakdown:

  • Type of skimmer: In-sump
  • Dimensions: 8.3 x 7.9 x 19.5 inches
  • Use for tanks up to: 240 gallons
  • Bonus features: N/A

What’s nice about this efficient model is that the unique cone design and placement of the water pump – inside the skimmer body – makes it very workable in small spaces.

The bubble plate disperses the bubble-water mixture into the cone, ridding your system of organic pollutants, and the touchpad lets you make fine adjustments if you notice anything is even slightly off.

The whole system runs super quiet, too, even when the skimmer is running at full speed.

The air intake adjuster allows you to maximize the skimming action as well and the collection cup is easy to remove and clean for a consistent skimmer system.

This skimmer is great for large tanks and tanks with heavy bioloads.

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BEST FOR LARGE TANKS

#4. AQUAMAXX

AquaMaxx ConeS CO-2 In-Sump Protein Skimmer

If you’ve got a larger than average aquarium, you’ll want to check out the Aquamaxx Cones In-Sump protein skimmer.

This sucker is built to work in tanks from 90 to 800 gallons. That means your big tanks are well taken care of with this one.

The Aquamaxx Cones protein skimmer efficiently removes the dissolved organic waste from your average to large aquariums with its advanced bubbler chamber design that uses numerous conical diffusers to create turbulence in the reaction chamber.

This turbulence is reduced by the technology – reducing noise – and the stable laminar flow is achieved for maximum efficiency every time.

Here’s the breakdown:

  • Type of skimmer: In-sump
  • Dimensions: 7.1 x 14.2 or 9.1 x 12.6 inches – depending on model
  • Use for tanks up to: 800 gallons
  • Bonus features: Quick, precise adjustment valve

The Cones CO-2 protein skimmer uses its innovative bubbler chamber in conjunction with a powerful needle wheel pump to generate the tiny bubbles needed to force the unwanted protein and waste to surface for skimming off the top of the tank.

And while the system is rated for tanks up to 800 gallons, its small enough to fit conveniently in a standard sump beneath your aquarium.

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BEST REEF OCTOPUS PINWHEEL

#5. Coral Vue Technology

coral vue technology skimmer

The Hailea OTP pumps in the Coral Vue Technology AC20287 reef octopus give you a high-performance machine that will create incredible foam for skimming off the top of your reef tank.

The pinwheel impellers are improved significantly over their previous products and the 4-inch cone-neck of the machine eases the transition of the bubbles into the collection cup for easy cleaning.

The capacity on the Coral Vue AC20287 works for aquariums up to 210 gallons in size, while providing high-performance bubble making for a clean skim. The powerful pump makes the process smooth and easy.

The system has a 4-inch cone-neck for easy transitioning of bubbles with the waste to the collection cup, meaning more of the rubbish ends up where it needs to go for quick, safe removal.

Here’s the breakdown:

  • Type of skimmer: In-sump
  • Dimensions: 6-inches
  • Use for tanks up to: 210 gallons
  • Bonus features: Easy release collection cup, great cleaning guide

The easy release collection cup makes the system easy to clean, but the manufacturer made some great guides for even easier use. In fact, I’d say this is probably one of the easiest models to clean and keep clean.

It’s also made of super strong acrylic material, has an easy gate valve for adjusting water levels, and genuinely is made for larger aquariums.

The one complaint is that it can be a little tricky to get it going on the initial install and use. But if you’re patient, it starts working and you’re all set.

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BEST HOB SKIMMER

#6. Reef Octopus Classic

Reef Octopus Classic 100-HOB Protein Skimmer

If you’re looking more for a back of the tank protein skimmer, you’ll want to check out the classic 100-HOB model from Reef Octopus brand.

The skimmer is very efficient, easy to use, and works for tanks up to 105-gallons.

For those with smaller tanks, the Reef Octopus Classic 100-HOB is a fantastic model that uses an adjustable surface skimmer attachment to help you keep your saltwater tank clean and clear of nasty gook produced by the biologicals in your reef tank.

Here’s the breakdown:

  • Type of skimmer: HOB
  • Dimensions: 8 X 3.75 x 17-inches
  • Use for tanks up to: 105 gallons
  • Bonus features: N/A

The Reef Octopus Classic 100-HOB protein skimmer is an incredibly easy-to-install hang-on protein skimmer that mounts on the inside of the aquarium.

Mount and adjust the skimmer and it’s ready to go.

It’s made of high-quality acrylic material and equipped with the highly effective Aquatrance pinwheel pump that produces an ideal mix of air and water for proper waste removal.

The design is made for simplicity, but it may take newbies a bit longer than average to put this thing into use.

Once you get the hang of it, though, you’re all set. And it’s easy to take apart again and clean, so you’ll reliably be able to maintain this without assistance.

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BEST FOR SMALLER TANKS

#7. AquaMaxx HOB 1.5

AquaMaxx HOB-1.5 Hang-On-Back Protein Skimmer

If you’re at all familiar with the old Aquamaxx HOB model, you’ll find this one an up-grade to a more powerful version of the HOB-1.

It has an enlarged bubble diffusor and reaction chamber to fully harness the power of the well-built, powerful Shark 1.0 pump that maximizes foam production and protein removal.

The conical bubble diffusers are custom designed to help minimize the turbulence into the reaction chamber. This helps redirect the water linearly upward to the collection cup for the most waste collection possible with the quietest operation possible.

The collection cup is super easy to remove and requires only 4-inches of clearance, which makes this model a great one for tight spaces.

Here’s the breakdown:

  • Type of skimmer: HOB
  • Dimensions: 7.5 x 3.5 x 17-Inches
  • Use for tanks up to: Up to 60 or 90 gallons (depending on bioload)
  • Bonus features: N/A

The Aquamaxx HOB uses the Sicce pump fitted with a proprietary needle wheel impeller for maximum force and precise efficiency.

The “Shark” pump draws more air and chops the water-air combo into the optimum bubble size and ratio for a super clean removal of biological waste.

Plus, the whole thing runs quietly and smoothly thanks to the custom conical shaped bubble diffusers.

The system is easy to set up and maintain and works great for newbies as well as well-established aquarists looking for a simple system.

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BEST MULTI-FUNCTION

#8. Coralife Super

Coralife Super Skimmer with Pump 65 gallon

The Coralife Super Protein Skimmer comes from a well-trusted manufacturer in the fish keeping world.

The skimmer uses Coralife’s patented needle wheel aspiration system and wide neck collection cup with easy twist feature for extra easy cleaning.

One of the most unique things about this reliably built protein skimmer is that you can either use it as an in-sump skimmer or HOB skimmer, depending on your needs.

The skimmer uses a high-performance foam fractionator with a specially designed needle wheel impeller and aspirating venturi for efficient removal of waste and compounds you don’t want in the water.

Here’s the breakdown:

  • Type of skimmer: In-sump or HOB
  • Dimensions: Depends on the model
  • Use for tanks up to: 65 to 220 gallons

The Coralife Super Skimmer is a high-performance option for your smaller tanks that we especially recommend for nano reefs and small tanks up to 40-gallons for premium performance.

This protein skimmer comes in three models – for 65-gallons, 125-gallons, or 220-gallons.

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Finding the Right Protein Skimmer

To find your ideal protein skimmer for your aquarium setup, remember to check your budget first. Then, make sure the skimmer fits your aquarium size, positions where you need it, and otherwise fits your needs. The first skimmer available may be great, it just may not be great for you.

fish tank at home best protein skimmer

FAQ

Can you use a protein skimmer in freshwater?

Yes, you can use a protein skimmer in a freshwater tank. However, the physical mechanisms that make protein skimmers effective in saltwater tanks don’t work very well in fresh water.

They work by creating foam. This foam carried the waste in the water up to the surface via the bubbles of the foam. Fresh water doesn’t foam as easily as saltwater, so the protein skimmer won’t be as effective in fresh water as it is in saltwater.

If you have a high biological load, the skimmer may still be useful in a freshwater aquarium. However, a different form of biological filter may be more effective at removing the particles you’re seeking to get rid of.

Do protein skimmers remove or reduce nitrates from the aquarium?

Yes, protein skimmers help reduce nitrates in your aquarium. They remove organic waste before it has the opportunity to break down and release nitrogen into the water.

Do protein skimmers remove phosphates from the water?

Yes, protein skimmers prevent murky and cloudy tanks and aggressive algae growth by reducing phosphates.

Do protein skimmers help oxygenate aquarium water?

Protein skimmers help promote proper gas exchange and increase the oxygen levels of aquariums. This is done through the bubbling of the water which helps to circulate oxygen throughout the tank. They also help rebalance pH levels by reducing carbon dioxide buildup.

Do protein skimmers remove biological toxins?

Corals, algae, and other invertebrates release biological toxins into the water around them. The microscopic bubbles created by protein skimmers capture these toxins and remove them by skimming them off the surface of the water.

Do protein skimmers run all the time?

Different types of protein skimmers – full or part-time skimmers – run for different lengths of time. The type of environment the skimmer works in will determine which type is needed.

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