Alternatives To Using A Protein Skimmer

Using a protein skimmer on your saltwater tank has many benefits. All saltwater tanks should have one.

While they are not an absolute must, they are an important piece of equipment to improve the tank’s overall water quality and health.

The main job of a protein skimmer is to remove organic waste from aquarium water. They will reduce the amount of maintenance required and drastically improve water quality.

But what if you can’t add a protein skimmer onto your reef tank? Are there any alternatives to using a protein skimmer?

You can’t replace the value that a skimmer has on your tank. They play a very important role and simply cannot be replaced with another piece of equipment that will replicate the job of a high quality skimmer.

They add so much value and there are many reasons why you should have one.

Read: 13 reasons why you need a protein skimmer for your reef tank

benefits of protein skimmers

There are also a few reasons why you may not have a protein skimmer on your saltwater tank. Lack of space and cost are examples.

Here are a few alternatives if you can’t add a protein skimmer to your reef tank.

Keep in mind these suggestions do not replace the need for a skimmer but are very beneficial for any saltwater tank.

Water changes

If you do not have a protein skimmer on your tank, you will need to perform more water changes to prevent poor water quality. Water changes are always a great way to keep your system clean, healthy, and in balance.

Water changes are not an alternative to having a good quality skimmer. But water changes will help water quality if you don’t have one and will help your fish and corals have better water quality.

Aquarium water changes

Use a refugium

Refugiums are very beneficial and an essential part of a saltwater aquarium. Most refugiums are used to control nitrate and phosphate levels and provide extra filtration.

There are different ways to set up a refugium and the contents of it will depend on your tank’s needs. They can be incorporated into your sump system or added to the aquarium as a separate tank.

If you don’t have a sump system, hang on refugiums are a popular option.

Macroalgae are very effective in controlling nutrients and improving overall water quality. Refugiums are effective in reducing phosphate levels when using certain macroalgae like chaetomorpha.

Refugiums also provide extra space to add biological filter media where beneficial bacteria can grow and populate. Using sand in a refugium can also be very effective.

Refugiums are not a necessary part of a saltwater tank and while they are recommended, they are not required. They don’t serve as a substitute for having a protein skimmer, but they will certainly help to keep your reef tank’s water quality good.

Aquarium refugium

Use a media reactor

Media reactors are a common piece of equipment on saltwater tanks. They are generally used to control or maintain certain water parameters like phosphate and nitrate.

Media reactors are very effective when used with activated carbon, which will remove toxins from the water and coloration. Carbon is commonly used to provide crystal clear water and improved quality.

Using a media reactor is not a requirement to have a healthy saltwater tank. But they sure are helpful. They are easy to implement on any tank and are an affordable way to improve the overall health of the tank.

Certain media can be used inside the reactor, which is basically a filter device that holds the media. You can decide on the media type to use based on your tank needs.

Granulated Ferric Oxide or GFO is used to lower phosphate levels. Calcium, biopellet, and Kalkwasser are other types of media reactors that can be used.

Media reactors are certainly beneficial and can do a great job in improving water quality. But they are not an alternative to a protein skimmer.

Use an algae scrubber

A heated topic of conversation around the saltwater community is whether an algae scrubber can outperform a protein skimmer.

Here is my view. It depends.

If you are simply looking at nutrient export, they both are effective. But they are two different pieces of equipment.

Algae scrubbers use algae to remove ammonia, ammonium, nitrite, nitrate, and phosphate from the water.

Algae scrubber
Algae scrubber

Protein skimmers will not remove these items. They will remove organic waste before it has a chance to break down in the tank water.

Algae scrubbers are also effective in feeding the tank and providing oxygen to its inhabitants.

Although algae scrubbers are not a replacement for a protein skimmer, they are very effective and will help maintain excellent water quality.

If you don’t have the option of using a protein skimmer, consider an algae scrubber to improve the overall health of your tank.


If you don’t have the option of using a protein skimmer on your saltwater tank, you can use any of the options mentioned here to improve water quality. Keep in mind that they are not alternatives and do not replace the job or outperform a good quality skimmer.