Keeping a saltwater aquarium successfully depends on a lot of things working together cohesively. Like in any aquarium, the filtration plays a big role in ensuring that a saltwater tank and all of its inhabitants stay as healthy as possible. It is also in this respect that saltwater tanks somewhat differ from their freshwater counterparts.
While the basic elements such as mechanical and biological filtration stay the same, saltwater aquariums usually also use foam fractionating which is more commonly known as protein skimming.
For someone starting out in the saltwater hobby, a protein skimmer can seem like an unnecessary investment. However, they play a very important role in keeping the aquarium clean and hospitable. Today, we will take a lot at why that is.
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Are Protein Skimmers Absolutely Necessary In A Saltwater Aquarium?
The simple answer is ‘NO’. It isn’t one of those things that are vital to the survival of the saltwater aquarium. However, it is something that can make your life so much easier. It is a highly-efficient way of removing some of the more stubborn dissolved organic matter and phenol oils.
These are naturally produced in a saltwater tank and in small quantities are not harmful to the fish or corals you might have. However, in large quantities, they can start having negative effects. They can also overwhelm the mechanical and biological filtration systems.
Furthermore, they can make the water appear yellowish which is the last thing you want in your otherwise aesthetically pleasing aquarium. The simple conclusion from all of this is that while a saltwater aquarium can survive without a protein skimmer if you really want it to thrive then a protein skimmer is highly recommended.
What Does A Protein Skimmer Do?
As mentioned above, the primary function of a protein skimmer is to separate dissolved organic matter and oils from the water and make it easy to remove these unwanted by-products of a saltwater aquarium. They also work as an excellent gas exchanger.
This is also very important as it will prevent the formation of any dead spots in the aquarium. Finally, it acts as an excellent complementary system to the primary filtration system in the aquarium setup. A regular filter will take a lot more time to filter out these substances that a protein skimmer can tackle with ease. This will help you avoid more frequent water changes.
How Does A Protein Skimmer Work?
Protein skimmers use surface tension to their advantage. Surface tension is simply the force that is present at the point of interaction between liquids and gases. It was discovered a long time ago that when a lot of tiny air bubbles are pumped through water, the organic matter in the water gets attracted to these bubbles.
As the bubbles rise up to the surface, they carry these organic matters with them. This can then be collected to remove it from the water column. Protein skimmers use this very technique to remove unwanted organic compounds from the aquarium.
Different Types Of Protein Skimmers
Depending on the exact mechanism used, protein skimmers can be classified into three. Here is a closer look at each one of them
Counter-current protein skimmers
Its name somewhat gives its mechanism away. This type of skimmer will usually have separate water and air inputs. They generally need an air pump to work with some models also require a water pump.
The air is introduced from the bottom of the skimmer while the water is introduced from the top. This creates a swirling effect that dissipates the air bubbles into the water column. A vortex of water and air currents is created and that is where these systems get their name from.
The efficacy of protein skimmers belonging to this group depends upon the maximum height of the air-water vortex that can be created. The taller the mixing area, the higher will be the vortex. The volume of air and water that can be mixed at the same time also plays a role in how effectively it can execute its skimming tasks.
Venturi protein skimmers
This type of protein skimmer uses what is known as Bernoulli’s principle. Basically, whenever a liquid flows through an opening with a smaller area of cross-section, a pressure drop occurs creating a suction force. In a venturi protein skimmer, a water pump is used to pump water through a network of pipes that are narrower in the middle.
This reduces the area of cross-section and causes the aforementioned drop in pressure. This sucks in air which gets mixed into the water in the form of bubbles. Here, the efficacy is completely dependent on the pressure that can be generated by the water pump. The higher, the pressure, the greater will be the pressure difference at the narrow part causing more air bubbles to enter the system.
Of course, there is an upper limit to this maximum pressure and these types of protein skimmers are usually rated by the volume of water in the aquarium. If you are choosing such a system then make sure to get one that is compatible with your aquarium.
Turbo protein skimmers
These are perhaps the simplest to explain. They use specially modified water pumps that have an air intake. Inside the pump, there is an impeller with many tiny blades. These break up the air into many tiny bubbles which then gets forced into the water.
As the impeller blades can resemble needles, these skimmers are often referred to as ‘Needle-wheel’ skimmers. This creates a froth that is then pumped into the skimmer chamber. This is where the air bubbles along with the unwanted dissolved organic matter and oils rise to the top and accumulate in some form of a collection mechanism. These can then be removed on a regular basis.
The efficiency of such a system depends on the flow-rate of water and the speed and the number of impeller blades.
Protein skimmers might not come under the category of the really essential equipment in the hobby but they are definitely one of its most important. They do increase the upfront cost of setting up a saltwater aquarium but the benefits they offer in the form of pristine water conditions, excellent oxygenation, and stabler water parameters make them well worth the extra cost.
Hi, my name is Sean, and I’m the primary writer on the site. I’m blogging mostly about freshwater and saltwater aquariums, fish, invertebrates, and plants. I’m experienced in the fishkeeping hobby for many years. Over the years I have kept many tanks, and have recently begun getting more serious in wanting to become a professional aquarist. All my knowledge comes from experience and reading forums and a lot of informative sites. In pursuit of becoming a professional, I also want to inspire as many people as I can to pick up this hobby and keep the public interest growing.
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