There is lots of lore, rumors and other odd recommendations commonly perpetuated within this industry. One of the most common questions asked is, “Activated Carbon, Protein Skimmer or Both?” Some people believe protein skimming is unnecessary because they run active carbon. However, this is not necessarily true! The truth is that while there is some crossover between the two, carbon and skimmers do very different things.
What is Protein Skimming? (The Simple Version)
Protein skimming isn’t really “skimming proteins.” Rather, it’s removing dissolved organics by taking advantage of their attraction to air. As these dissolved organics come in contact with the bubbles inside a protein skimmer, they stick together and won’t let go. These bubbles then rise up inside the skimmer and produce overflow into the collection cup. Therefore, the dissolved organics are removed before they have the opportunity to break down.
What is Activated Carbon? (The Simple Version)
Activated carbon is a form of processed carbon used to adsorb toxins, tannins (which create the yellowing of the water), odors and organics. Without removal, this would otherwise lead to phosphates and nitrates.
How Are Protein Skimming and Activated Carbon Different?
Both protein skimmers and activated carbon remove dissolved organics. However, active carbon removes simpler and smaller organics. In contrast, protein skimming removes the larger organics. You can think of it like a beach where protein skimmers take out the pebbles, rocks and boulders while carbon takes out sand. Those pebbles, rocks and boulders would otherwise break down and end up as sand over time. Therefore, removing them before they break down would entail far less carbon to be present to purify the same volume of water.
Which is More Important: Protein Skimming or Activated Carbon?
Now, back to the original question: “Activated Carbon, Protein Skimmer or Both?” The answer is that we recommend using both protein skimmers and carbon for best performance. However, if you had to choose one or the other, we advise using a protein skimmer over carbon. This is because carbon can also adsorb good items like iodine and other trace elements (which you’d want to keep). As a result, many people recommend only running carbon one week per month (or simply as needed).
Our Simplicity 410 Ultra Carbon is an excellent, broad spectrum carbon designed to remove many different sized organic molecules. While you could pay a lot more for a higher quality carbon, the difference in performance is minimal. Given the more favorable cost and comparable effectiveness, the Simplicity 410 Ultra Carbon is a great value. Learn more about it here, give it a try and let us know what you think!