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Do I Need a Protein Skimmer on My Saltwater Aquarium?

One of the trickiest parts of getting into any new hobby is figuring out what things you actually need and what things are luxuries or things which you can add later. The aquarium industry is like any other hobby where the number of opinions you will run into can become bewildering. Take any facet of this hobby and you can be sure there is something there that people are arguing about on the internet. By and large, having a protein skimmer on your system is something most people are going to agree on. But what brand skimmer? BOOM, back to argument.

So if you are new to the hobby, you might not fully understand what a skimmer is doing and why it is important. I'm going to attempt to explain it, but in a manner that should be easily understood by anyone who is interested.

Fish waste and uneaten food enter your aquarium everyday. Both of these are made up of proteins and organic compounds. These are generally complicated molecules that have a positively charged side and a negatively charged side. Because of this, one side is attracted to water and the other is repelled by it. This causes these organic molecules to seek an air/water interface that will accommodate them. That could be a tiny bubble or the water's surface. If you had an aquarium with no overflow and no skimmer, you would notice what looks like a thin oil slick on the water's surface. This is the proteins and organic molecules I am talking about. You don't want those building up in your aquarium; they degrade water quality. 

The great thing about protein skimmers is the massive amount of tiny bubbles they make. That provides a huge surface area to attract all these molecules onto. A skimmer concentrates all this dissolved muck at the top of the unit and small amounts trickle over the edge throughout the day. You want to keep an eye on your skimmer daily as you don't want the cup to overflow, releasing all the collected, scummy water, called skimmate. You'll need to dump out the contents and keep the internal skimmer neck clean for visibility and also to ensure the crud is making it into the cup of the skimmer so it is fully removed from the system water.

Without a skimmer on your system, all these molecules will get broken down by biological means but that creates substances like Nitrate (NO3) which you want to avoid as sensitive reef animals are not fond of this substance. I would say you generally want to keep Nitrates down to 10 ppm or less. A skimmer REMOVES the initial fish waste and uneaten foods BEFORE they can even be broken down, which is a preferable situation, whereas biological filtration breaks down these wastes into less harmful substances. The question is, why rely on a method that creates other harmful (albeit less so) substances when you can use a piece of equipment that works to strip them completely out?

In my opinion, a protein skimmer is easily one of the most important pieces of equipment on a saltwater aquarium. While things like regular water changes are important, a skimmer is working 24/7 to remove wastes and they can do so quite efficiently. I suggest to not skimp on a quality one, seeing as how it is so important. I don't believe it is something you would want to cut corners on. Get a quality unit and it will work hard for you.

Thanks for reading!

Ben Johnson
Captive Aquatic Ecosystems, LLC.