How to Install and Maintain an In-Sump Protein Skimmer

A protein skimmer is considered by most hobbyists to be the heart of a saltwater aquarium filtration system.  Protein skimmers remove waste from your aquarium water before it has a chance to break down into nitrate and phosphate.  Therefore, using a protein skimmer really helps keep your aquarium water clean and helps to avoid unsightly nuisance algae.

There are several different types of protein skimmers available: such as hang-on, in-sump and external protein skimmers.  In-sump skimmers are the most widely used skimmers.

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When shopping for your skimmer, you want to closely evaluate the space you have inside your sump because this is absolutely crucial for choosing the right skimmer.

The term footprint is often used to describe the required amount of space the skimmer needs inside your sump.  These are usually advertised as a square dimension such as 8” x 10”.  You also want to take a look at the vertical height of the skimmer because often times space is limited under your tank.  Once you have sorted out the footprint and vertical height, all you have to do is decide!

Water level inside your sump will affect your skimmer.  Many in-sump skimmers have an ideal operating water level which means that the skimmer will perform best when submersed into water within this particular range. In order to accommodate this water level, it is sometimes necessary to utilize a skimmer stand that elevates the entire skimmer and/or install baffles in your sump to meet this water level requirement. Do keep in mind that the water level must also be stable as fluctuations in the water level will also cause the skimmer to perform erratically.

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Before installing the skimmer it is best to rinse all of the skimmer components in warm water to wash off any manufacturing residue. We do not recommend using any chemicals as any chemical residues may have negative effects on your aquarium.

After getting the skimmer placed into your sump and ensuring the water level is within range, you will want to open up the skimmer outlet all the way open.  This allows the maximum amount of water flow through the skimmer and keeps the foam level inside the skimmer at it’s lowest point.   Upon applying power, foam will generate and rise inside the skimmer and then level out.

The skimmer should then be left alone for 2-4 weeks to operate at this lowest foam level in order to properly break-in.  During this break-in period, a protein layer will form inside the skimmer body making it possible for the foam to rise into your collection cup without overflowing and producing pesky microbubbles.  It is normal for your skimmer to create microbubbles and possibly even overflow the collection cup during this time.  Water changes and running more activated carbon than usual help to reduce these effects; especially in situations where a protein skimmer has never been used or when particular additives such as water conditioners are present.

After the break-in period, you will want to adjust the foam level inside the skimmer in order to achieve maximum waste removal.  Some hobbyists keep the foam level a bit lower which results in a more dry skim collection with less water, while others keep the foam level higher which results in a more wet skim collection and ultimately fills the collection cup quicker.  Either way you choose, make small adjustments to the foam level inside the skimmer and give the skimmer about 24 hours between each adjustment.  Foam level is typically adjusted using the outlet or drain on the skimmer.

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captureKeeping your collection cup clean is very important.  We recommend that you empty and thoroughly rinse your collection cup at least once a week for optimal organic waste removal.  A dirty collection cup will drastically effect how much waste a skimmer can collect; as the collection cup becomes covered in muddy fish waste the amount of liquid skim collected will lessen.

About every 3-4 months it is important to clean the skimmer pump thoroughly. The pump is the heart of your protein skimmer and you want to soak your pump in an aquarium safe equipment cleaner or vinegar solution to remove calcium, salt creep and algae build up. Make sure to remove and clean all the components of the pump: including the impeller, the impeller cavity and the skimmer venturi. You can also take this opportunity to clean up other parts of your protein skimmer.

The airline that connects to the pump on your skimmer and the air silencer needs to be kept clean at all times as well.  Salt creep and other build up can quickly clog these airlines so be sure to check it frequently to ensure optimal air is getting drawn into the skimmer pump. I usually just check the airline on a weekly basis when cleaning out my collection cup.

One question we are asked most frequently is “Why is my skimmer overflowing?”. If your skimmer is already broken in, then there is likely a change in the viscosity of your water. Viscosity is the “thickness” of the water. The thicker the water, the longer air bubbles stay in the water column creating more foam.

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There are several factors that will increase the viscosity of the water in the aquarium. These include: certain additives, bacterial supplements, water conditioners, medications, greasy frozen foods, epoxy glue, sudden increase in organics, new filter socks and sometimes newly mixed salt water.

To reduce viscosity, a large water change (around 25%) and running twice the usual amount of activated carbon will help to lower the viscosity of the water back to normal levels. Perform another large water change after one week and replace the activated carbon if the problem persists.

If over-foaming occurs after a water change, simply leaving the skimmer off for a few hours will often solve the problem.

When kept clean and maintained properly, you can get years of service out of your protein skimmer and will experience higher water clarity, less organic waste, and provide a healthier environment for the animals inside your tank.

-Take Care and Happy ReefKeeping!

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