Did you ever walk along a beach as a kid and see white bubbly foam on the shore? Perhaps you were so inclined to play in them, or make a fake bubble beard. I hope not because this post may gross you out. These bubbles are made up of dead decaying organic matter! As waves break the action puts oxygen in the water, this makes bubbles, and they are able to form because of the dead organic matter. Think of trying to blow bubbles with regular water then adding soap. It’s essentially the same, the dead protein changes the surface tension of the water.
In a saltwater aquarium there are not waves to remove this dead protein. It can make your tank water unclear, or increase undesirable nutrients. A tool to remove these dead proteins is a Protein Skimmer. A skimmer is usually a tall coned shaped cylinder piece of acrylic that has a detachable cup.
The skimmer works by injecting large quantities of air into your tank water within the cylinder. The organic matter causes bubbles to be created, as they pop they create larger and larger bubbles, these work their way up the neck and leave a liquid in the collection cup known as skimmate. Usually the worse this it smells and the darker it appears the more effective your skimmer is. The collection cup is then emptied on a regular basis depending on how much skimmate it’s pulling out.
Assembly usually requires installing a pump in the bottom of the body. A piece connected to the intake of the pump called the venture also takes a tube that goes above the water level, this is where the air that’s injected into the water comes from. Usually this tube also has a silencing device on the end, without it there may be a vibrating type noise. The collection cup typically twist on and has a rubber O-ring to connect it to the body. The adjustment valve is usually at the discharge of the skimmer.
Once the skimmer is assembled there is usually a break in period. If you purchased your unit new it will likely have oil on the acrylic from the manufacturing process, until this oil wears off you will not produce skimmate. Rinsing the inside of the neck and collection cup with vinegar may aid in this process. Don’t attempt to run it in freshwater to test it or speed up the break in period, fresh water lacks the viscosity needed and it won’t bubble effectively.
To get the most out of your skimmer there are some considerations. Most skimmers are designed for a specific water level, this can be preset by an auto top off, or a sump baffle. In some cases you will need to build a platform if your water level is too high and cannot be adjusted. In my instance I needed to add 3” so a small box of egg crate was used to do the trick. Next a skimmer can easily overflow if not dialed in, this can be done with a control knob that opens a gate or valve to increase either water or air. Initially this may have to be changed until the skimmer is working appropriately.
After setup is complete you’ll develop a rhythm for emptying the collection cup. Be sure to turn off your skimmer prior to maintenance if the task will cause the water level in your sump to increase. If your tank is having an issue your skimmer may be a good indicator especially if it starts skimming excessively more than normal, this would be a good time to check water parameters or review any changes you may have recently made to your system.
Skimmers are excellent tools for eliminating excessive waste, and keeping nutrients in check. So leave the bubble beard on beach, and replicate natures cleaning power in your home aquarium with a protein skimmer.