What is a Protein Skimmer? How do I get the right one? A beginner’s guide to aquarium filtration

At its core, the protein skimmer is just a really cool tool that removes fish poop and uneaten food from the tank with near-zero effort. It works by whisking tank water and air together into a foam. The dissolved organic waste in your tank water helps to create a stable thick foam inside the skimmer which gently flows up the neck, spilling over into the collection cup for removal.


Protein Skimmer


Everything the skimmer removes ultimately results in the need for fewer water changes. Emptying and cleaning the skimmer’s collection cup is a lot easier than water changes. So while a skimmer is technically an optional piece of gear, you can see why a majority of reefers use them.


Protein skimmers just make your life a little easier, at least when it comes to maintaining your reef tank.


Protein Skimmer Options for a 40 gallon tank


40 Gallon Breeder Protein Skimmer Options

For the 40 gallon breeder, we don’t have the luxury of a sump or filtration compartments to install a protein skimmer out of plain view. That means our skimmer needs to hang on the tank or go directly into the display. There are three basic options, all of which will work great.



The Reef Octopus 100 and 1000 are the most effective and by far the most popular option here. They look pretty similar at first glance because both are designed to hang on the back of your display tank. The biggest difference is the location of the pump.


Reef Octopus Classic Hang-On Protein Skimmers


The Classic 100 relies on a design in which the pump is located inside the display, pushing water into the skimmer body. Easy to operate yet a little unsightly with a big pump in your display.


The Classic 1000 takes on the same body shape but relies on a gravity siphon to pull water out of the tank and down into the skimmer pump which is located on the outside of both your tank and skimmer body. This makes for a cleaner installation but requires a bit more attention to operate properly.


Tunze Comline DOC 9004 DC Skimmer


The Tunze 9004 DC is a drastically different design and although it may not be as effective in terms of waste removal, the form factor is far better. It is a small black box that looks like a classic overflow box and blends in nicely with the display. Inside our 40 Breeder, you hardly notice the skimmer against the matching black background and an added bonus is the included DC water pump is super quiet.


Tunze 9004 skimmer submersed into an aquarium


Another reason we chose this skimmer over the others is a simple straightforward operation. The Tunze 9004 sits 100% inside the display, simply plug it in and it works. No worries about siphon break or overflows onto the floor.


The Tunze DC water pump can be ramped up or down using the included controller to tune airflow based on your tank’s waste level. Strong magnetic supports hold it securely on the tank walls and make it easy to position anywhere in the tank.


Red Sea E170 Protein Skimmer


Red Sea E170 Protein Skimmer

Once again, the Red Sea tank makes our lives easy because it includes a protein skimmer that slides neatly into the filtration compartments, out of plain view.


Tuning this Red Sea Protein Skimmer relies on an air valve and the water level. First, use the air valve to create the type of foam you want, more air being wetter foam and less air being a drier foam. Then use the water level slide on the side of the skimmer to optimize how you collect it.


Red Sea E170 sump plumbing


Just as a reminder, if you ever decide that you want to upgrade down the road and utilize a high-performance protein skimmer, the addition of a sump is easy. The Red Sea E170 comes pre-plumbed to add a sump down below if/when you want. Almost future proofs the tank in some ways.


What’s Next?

Protein skimmers are now running but honestly have nothing to pull out because we have yet to add fish. Before fish, we need to cycle the tank making it stable enough to support life and process waste. This bridges us directly into our next topic in which we share some valuable tips and walk you through a successful tank cycle.


5 Minute Saltwater Aquarium Guide Episode #15


Looking for a different topic or have questions? You can binge the entire 5 Minute Saltwater Aquarium Guide playlist right here on our website. We also invite you to join the #askBRStv Facebook Group which is a free resource for you to ask questions, get advice, interact with other hobbyists and get your daily reef aquarium fix.


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