Do I Need a Protein Skimmer for a Nano Reef Aquarium

Do I Need a Protein Skimmer for a Nano Reef Aquarium

A protein skimmer is a valuable piece of equipment that has recently become very popular in the aquarium hobby because of its significant role in aquarium filtration.

There are generally many opinions on online fora regarding using a protein skimmer for a nano reef aquarium. Many hobbyists argue for and against it following their personal beliefs and experiences.

According to one poll, lots of aquarists believe that can keep a reef tank without a skimmer. At the same time, the results of another poll showed that many people still prefer to use one.

Although there is no unanimous verdict even between well-known professionals, I strongly believe that a protein skimmer in a nano reef tank is required and there are many reasons for that.

Is this piece of equipment necessary for a nano reef aquarium setup? Is skimmer a must or how can we get away without it? You will find out in this article.

What is a Nano Reef Aquarium?

On the internet,  we can find lots of different opinions regarding the size of the nano tank starting from 10 to 40 gallons.

In general, a nano reef aquarium is a saltwater aquarium that can hold up to 20 gallons of water (80 liters) or less in capacity. Whereas 30-40 gallon reef tanks reef are usually considered small tanks.

Nano reef tank is compact, affordable, and space-saving. It is also easy to carry from one place to another.

If you have limited space but still desire to own a reef aquarium, then a nano tank should be top of your considerations. It is seen as a miniature version of the reefs found in nature.

While nano tanks are cute, maintenance is not the easiest. The water chemistry needs to be kept stable to prevent the demise of the aquatic life in it.

What is a Protein Skimmer?

A protein skimmer is simply a piece of equipment used in aquariums for two significant purposes:

  1. Pre-Filtration

The first is that protein skimmer removes wastes in the form of organic compounds from the water column before they even break down.

Basically, it functions like a filter for sifting out loads of impurities and waste from the aquarium water thus helping your main filtration system.

  1. Oxygenation

Secondly, it also oxygenates the water.

The aspect of oxygenation is critical because saltwater cannot hold as much oxygen as freshwater can.

When the room temperature gets warmer, it can also influence the temperature of the water in the aquarium, making it warmer and further reducing its ability to hold oxygen.

This part is where the importance of the protein skimmer comes into play. It helps oxygenate the water continuously, making it ideal for fish, shrimp, snails, and other aquarium inhabitants.

How Protein Skimmers Work

Protein skimmers are very important and needed in all saltwater aquariums. Skimmers function through a process called foam fractionation.

  • The equipment pumps water, which rises through a water column and generates massive amounts of tiny bubbles at the surface.
  • Then, surface tension forms and pulls many biological waste products: ammonia, proteins, etc.
  • The bubbles formed due to protein fractionation join together and become a fine lather.
  • Accumulation of the lather continues, and organic wastes are gotten rid of after a while.
  • The lather is channeled into a receptacle (cup) that you can detach and discard.

Observing the skimmer from time to time is crucial. You don’t want the collected gunk (skimmate) overflowing from the receptacle when it’s filled.

In nature, the skimming process can be likened to a steadily occurring phenomenon on the beach. The shoreline is usually awash with foamy and bubbly water from the ocean.

It is organic compounds separated from the ocean water and floating on the surface as bubbles.

Protein skimming improves water quality by removing contaminants and organic compounds that can break down and release toxic compounds like ammonia.

The skimmer removes large organic molecules, e.g., waste and uneaten food, before they break down into smaller molecules. Failing to remove these molecules would cause water pollution and have an otherwise deleterious, long-lasting effect on the overall health of the aquarium and aquarium inhabitants.

Should We Use a Protein Skimmer in Small Tanks? What Professionals say.

There are differing opinions from enthusiasts and experts on the necessity of protein skimmers. Jim McDavid, Author of Tropical Fish Hobbyist magazine, believes that protein skimmers are compulsory for nano reef aquariums.

However, another expert, Scott W. Michael of Aquarium Fish USA Magazine, mentions that using protein skimmers is not mandatory, although he considers it a helpful piece of equipment. Evaluating the reason behind Scott Michael’s comment, it’s obvious that other types of aquarium filtration can perform the work of a protein skimmer.

Pros and Cons of Protein Skimmer in Small Tanks


Maintenance. Less water changes.
Oxygen. Ensures good oxygenation in a small volume.
Stable environment. More ways to maintain your parameters.


Space. This is probably the largest limiting factor when it comes to deciding whether a skimmer is needed or not.
Overfiltering. In small tanks, skimmers can take out a lot of good organics as well. There can be mineral depletion where dosing may become necessary.
Treatment. The effect of medications is significantly reduced.
Quality. There are many bad not effective nano skimmers on the market.
Price. They are expensive

I would also like to say that this is by no means a cheap hobby and any error can cost us lots of money. Therefore, it is much better to be on the side of caution than to have to fix a costly mess later. It’s a safety net.

When There is No Protein Skimmer?

The water quality deteriorates rapidly in the absence of a protein skimmer, especially when there is a high bioload in the aquarium. However, there are still some ways to fix it.

  • Without a protein skimmer, it’s imperative to own a quality, efficient, and large-sized filtration unit to handle the aquarium’s filtration needs.
  • Also, make sure to do large water changes frequently enough (every week) to remove contaminants and excess nitrates. Water changes are a must. You need to be religious about it.
  • Good husbandry. Do not overstock and control the feeding of your animals.
  • Clean the tank, do vacuum cleaning.

While using a skimmer, maintenance demands of the aquarium is relatively low due to reduced waste accumulation.

Important: Do not think that you can skip out on water changes if you get a skimmer! Sure you can do them a little less frequently but they must be done anyway.

Water changes vs Skimmers in Small Tanks

Some people say that the main purpose of filters, reactors, skimmers, etc. is to help water conditions between water changes. So, when we are dealing with a small volume of water a protein skimmer is next to worthless. Others believe that water changes can be an adequate replacement for skimmers in nano (small) reef tanks.

Well, I do not agree with them. Even though water changes and skimmers do a similar job to some degree they are not the same.

  • Skimmers remove things that water changes cannot such as dissolved organic compounds, phenol oils, etc.
  • In addition, skimmers do this from the total water volume, whereas water changes are only going to take out a percentage of that.

Choosing a Protein Skimmer for Your Nano Reef Aquarium

When choosing a protein skimmer, there are certain things to consider.

1) The strength of the skimmer

Nano reef aquariums are usually small volume aquariums. They have small water volumes and also hold quite sensitive organisms.

Choosing a skimmer rated for a large aquarium, e.g. a 100-gallon tank, is ideal for removing waste efficiently and keeping the water chemistry stable.

2) Good fitting

Finding a protein skimmer that would fit your aquarium setup comfortably cannot be overemphasized, especially for reef aquariums. This type of aquarium often uses additional equipment known as the sump.

A sump is usually a piece of equipment that provides room for other equipment like the protein skimmer. Thus, make sure to acquire a skimmer that would be a good fit for your aquarium sump.

3) Design

There are several protein skimmer designs and the choice is left for you to make. Some of the skimmer designs are more compact than others, same goes for the efficiency/output.

Sadly, skimmers that are more powerful than their size or form are pretty expensive.

In Conclusion

On inquiry, you will realize that many saltwater aquarists use a protein skimmer because of the great help it renders to aquarium setups.

It is also relatively cumbersome to keep changing the water in your aquarium very often. A protein skimmer takes a lot of that work off your hands. This piece of equipment greatly aids in removing waste and providing oxygen in the reef aquarium.

Some aquarists who would not want to use the protein skimmer would rather do frequent water changes and/or have one readily available for emergencies.

The bottom line is that I strongly recommend using a protein skimmer for nano reef aquariums.

Related article:

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Recent Content