Protein Skimmer Tuning

Protein skimmer tuning is a somewhat controversial topic. Everyone seems to have their own idea of how to dial in their skimmer probably due to the fact that information available out there seems vague at best. Or just plain wrong.

And let’s not even get into the debate of ‘wet’ versus ‘dry’ skimming which has been going on for decades. But I think it is fair to say that if your skimmer is pulling light tea-coloured skimmate, or worse, nearly clear yellowish water, you’re not tuning your skimmer properly.

Back in the day when even medium-priced skimmers were often inefficient, we didn’t have much of a choice. It was either watery skimmate or no skimmate at all. But in this era where almost every skimmer on the market comes with a needle wheel pump — foam producing monsters, all of them — we have no excuse not to dial these suckers in for optimum performance.

It’s All About Bubble Level

New aquarists, and even many experienced ones have absolutely no idea how to set the bubble level or foam height in their skimmer.

Purchasing a new Tunze 9012 DC recently, and having a lot of fun tuning it with the DC controller, reminded me that it would be a good idea to post this article about protein skimmer tuning.

So what do typical saltwater aquarium hobbyists do when they buy a new skimmer? After setting it up in the tank or sump, the first thing they want to see is some massive foam production. They open up the air control so that foam rises rapidly up the neck of the skimmer, depositing very wet foam into the collection cup.

Reminds me of an inexperienced bartender pulling his first pint of lager. More foam than beer.

Now this is all well and good, and I’m certainly guilty of it myself when I get a new skimmer. We want to marvel at the performance of that new needle wheel pump and ‘ooh’ and ‘ahh’ at that good head of foam teetering on the edge of the skimmer neck before overflowing into the collection cup.

Tunze 9012 DC skimmer foam

Bubble level way too high!

But once I want the skimmer to do what it is designed to do, I dial back that foam and allow the skimmer to really do its job. Properly.

So How Do We Dial In The Right Bubble Level In Our Skimmer?

Overly wet, watery skimmate doesn’t really pull enough dissolved organics from the the water column. As mentioned earlier, our definition of ‘too watery’ is skimmate that is the color of light tea. Two cubes of sugar, hold the milk.

Setting the bubble level like the skimmer in the picture on the right will just produce water in the collection cup.

Before we can dial in our skimmer for efficient operation, we must clean and rinse the collection cup in freshwater, paying attention to remove any gunk from the skimmer neck.

And this is where the magic happens — when the cup is reinstalled, the bubble level should be set where it is right at the base of the neck of skimmer, where the base of the collection cup and the bottom of the neck of the skimmer meet. When setting up a new skimmer this is also the target you should go for, fine tuning over the next few days as the level may vary.

At this level, the skimmer is producing the finest and smallest bubbles it can and will be able to pull a lot more concentrated gunk from the water. Smaller bubbles capture dissolved organics much more efficiently. The finer the bubbles, the greater the surface area to which dissolved organics and other waste particles can adhere to.

At this point it should be said that most new skimmers will need a break in period of two the three weeks before they will be at their optimum performance.

And every time the skimmer neck and cup is washed, the skimmer may go through a mini break-in period of a day or two while the neck of the skimmer establishes a new biofilm before the foam will to rise again. With new, more efficient needle wheel pumps, the head of foam in the skimmer neck may form only a few hours after the collection cup is washed.

The key is to be patient and not expect foam and skimmate right away. Just know that our fine protein skimmer tuning adjustments will pay off in dense, dark-brown green skimmate in a few days.

How Much Skimmate Should Your Skimmer Be Pulling Out?

‘How long is a piece of string?’, was what my old literature teacher used to say when we asked him about how long our essays should be.

The two main variables are the efficiency of your skimmer, and your tanks bioload, which is directly related to the number of fish you have and how heavily you feed them.

A 100 gallon tank with cured live rock and two tiny fish is not going to yield a lot of skimmate. The density of the skimmate will still be there if you use the tuning method I describe, but it’ll take a bit longer to achieve a decent amount.

Put it this way, a dormful of teens is going to produce a heck of a lot more crap.

Go ahead and tune that protein skimmer. You’ll capture more waste and dissolved organics and get more out of skimming your saltwater aquarium!

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