Hydroponic Systems – Basic Types & How They Works Differently? [Pros & Cons]

Last Updated on May 17, 2019

Hydroponics is a soil-less gardening technique in which plants grow in water. By reading this post, you’ll know how hydroponics works in different designs.

Hydroponic gardening is simply growing plants in the water. But how to get nutrients and water to your plants? To know, you’ll need to learn about the different types of hydroponic growing systems. As you observe each kind of system, you will notice their approach to the three major concerns: How to

  • Get the nutrient solution to the plants
  • Keep the plants from drowning
  • Make sure there is no problem

Hydroponic Growing Systems

There are as many ways to deliver the nutrient solution to the plants as you can possibly think of. These are the main types of hydroponic growing systems organized by skill level (low to high):

Type of SystemGrow MediaPumpsRe-circulation
The Wick SystemYesAir Pump
Deep Water Culture (DWC)NoAir PumpNo
Ebb & Flow SystemMay or may notWater Pump
(with Timer)
The Drip SystemMay or may notAir + Water PumpsYes
Nutrient Film Technique (NFT)May or may notAir + Water PumpsYes
AeroponicsNoWater PumpYes

Above table will give you a comparison between different types of hydroponics systems. It will give you an idea of which system will need grow media and water pumps & which system saves water by recirculation.

Before getting into the details of all systems. A very important question is that many people think that aquaponics is a type of hydroponics.

The Aquaponic System: Is it really a type of hydroponics?

No, Aquaponics isn’t a type of hydroponics. Aquaponics is a combination of hydroponics and aquaculture, and it formulates the nutrients in a different way. Plants get nutrients from decomposing fish waste. You can implement aquaponics technique using different systems of hydroponic by replacing the regular nutrient reservoir with a fish tank reservoir. The most commonly used aquaponic systems are ebb & flow, the float bed, and NFT systems.

There are a lot more complexities in aquaponics because you have to control specific nutrient levels naturally with microorganisms, bacteria, and microflora living in the fish water. All this to decompose the fish waste into the nutrients the plants can use. In simple words, aquaponics is a process of producing nutrients out of fish waste without affecting the way of delivery of water, nutrients, or oxygen to the plants’ roots.

Comparison Factors

1. Active or Passive?

An active hydroponics system actively moves the nutrient solution, usually using a pump. It recirculates the excess nutrient solution. These systems need a water pump. Any Power Failure can result in crop damage.

A Passive System passes the nutrients via the wick. The system doesn’t supply enough oxygen. Cause slower growth rate. These system doesn’t need a pump and relatively simpler.

2. Media or Water Culture?

Media Based or aggregate Culture: The gravel, sand or other growing media is used to provide anchorage and support for the plants. Therefore, known for the type of medium, such as gravel culture, sand culture, or rock wool culture. You can supply nutrients in form of a solution or dry fertilizer either by flooding from the bottom up, drenching or scattering dry on the surface, trickling onto the surface, and watering into the root zone. Examples are Ebb & Flow system, Drip System, and Wick System.

Water-Culture: In this type of system, the upper parts and stem of plants are held above the nutrient solution with roots submerged. With this system, you need to choose a suitable container with a way to hang the plants above the nutrient solution with proper aeration. Examples are NFT (Nutrient Flow Technique), Aeroponics and Deep Water Culture (DWC).

Types of Hydroponics Systems

Based on different factors, hydroponics can be classified into 6 basic types. Following is the list of the types of hydroponics growing system with some related information.

1. The Wick System

Hydroponics system types - wick hydroponics system

Most Simplistic and passive type of hydroponics! Requires no pumps or electricity. You can add oxygen to the water optionally by using air pumps.

In wick hydroponic systems, you grow the plants in a separate container. Plants container is filled with absorbent growing media like coco coir and vermiculites/permiculite. A piece of nylon rope is placed in the plants’ container that runs from roots into the reservoir that soaks the nutrient solution up into the grow media. This system is an ideal option for organic hydroponics

However, it gets difficult to maintain a suitable level of moisture in a wick system if you have not used the right growing media. A 50:50 mix of perlite and vermiculite is a good grow media for this type of system. Coconut coir also works well. Check the list of all growing media here. The wicks are able to suck up lesser solution over time- especially with organic nutrients.

This system works best only for small plants and herbs. Wick systemisn’t good for larger plants or the plants that need a lot of water

Pros of the Wick Systems
  • High level of control over feeding and watering schedule
  • Less likely to break
  • Low Maintainance
  • No Nutrient Pump
  • Relatively cheap
Cons of the Wick Systems
  • Limited Oxygen access
  • Slower Growth  Rate
  • Prone to algae growth
  • May be overkill for a smaller garden
  • No Nutrient Circulation
  • Fluctuating levels of pH and nutrient (if using the recirculating system)
  • Higher amount of waste (if using the waste system)

2. Deep Water Culture (DWC)

Hydroponics system types - Deep Water Culture

This method, also known as floating-raft culture, is a simpler and effective way to grow hydroponics plants! It requires no nutrient pumps but air pump is used that bubbles in the nutrient solution to oxygenate the water.

In this system, roots of plants are directly suspended in nutrient water. This is done by either placing plants in 5-gallon hydroponics tanks or suspending them directly in long polystyrene rafts.

With no spray emitters or drip to clog, this system is a great option choice for organic growing media like vermiculite, volcanic lava chips media, and expanded clay pellets. This system can also do well without any growing media by using net cups

Deepwater culture Hydroponics systems work well with plants that produce fruits.

Precautions: The direct light can cause rapid algae growth in the nutrient solution that deplete the nutrients avaiaability to your plants. The died pieces of algae attract fungus gnats that lead to many other problems.

Pros of DWC Systems
  • Cheapest of all
  • Simpler setup and easy to make at home
  • No Nutrient Pump needed
  • Reliable and extremely low-maintenance
  • Recirculating, so less wasted inputs
Cons of DWC Systems
  • Risk of root rot if not cleaned regularly
  • Need frequent refilling to keep the reservoir full
  • Does not work well for large plants
  • Slower growth rate: does not work well for plants with long growing period

There are four variations of dwc hydroponics. Read more about Deep Water Culture in detail here,

3. Ebb and Flow Systems

Hydroponics system types - Ebb and Flow Hydroponics

Also known as flood & drain method, the ebb & flow system is very popular among home hydroponics growers.

In this system, the plants grow in their own separate container filled with grow media like in wick system. But this system uses a water pump with a timer. On a set schedule, the nutrient solution is pumped from the reservoir to the plants’ container, soaking the growing medium and roots. Then, pumps turn off draining the solution back into the reservoir. Bell siphon can be used to automatically drain the water without shutting the pump off.

The intensity and frequency of flooding are determined by your choice of growing media. You may flood the fast draining expanded clay pellets 4 times a day.for a half hour However, the slower draining Rockwool needs to be watered less. You can also use lava chips and perlite in this system.

This system can grow a variety of plants. Since there is an open growing beds and plants dont need net pots.

Pros of Ebb & Flow Systems
  • Efficient use of water and energy: Excess nutrient solution recirculates
  • Affordable
  • Highly customizable to your specific needs
Cons of Ebb & Flow Systems
  • Prone to Algae Growth
  • Technical failure (pump or timer fails) can lead to quick drying out of Roots
  • Uses a lot of growing medium

Check the video for more information

Check this post for Watering schedule of Ebb & Flow Hydroponics system

4. Drip Hydroponics System

Hydroponics system types - drip system

Drip system is the most widely used type of hydroponic system at commercial and backyard level.

In the drip system, the plants grow in their own container. The submerged pump is controlled by a timer that turns it on to push the nutrient solution onto the base of each plant. You can make the drip faster or slower by equipping the end of each tube with different emitters.

This system needs growing media. The standard media for drip hydroponics systems are rockwool and expanded clay pellets. A faster-draining media (such as clay pellets) requires faster dripping emitters (or more of them per plant). Slower draining medium (such as Rockwool) needs slower dripping emitters.

The tropical veggies like tomatoes and cucumbers are well suited to grow using this method. Its modular design makes it easy to remove any dead plant without disturbing the entire crop.

Pros of Drip Systems
  • High level of control over feeding and watering schedule
  • Less likely to break
  • Sufficient Oxygen Flow
  • Relatively cheap
Cons of Drip Systems
  • Prone to Clogging
  • May be overkill for a smaller setup
  • pH and nutrient levels fluctuates (if using recirculating system)
  • Prone to algae growth
  • Requires regular cleaning
  • High amount of waste (if using waste system)

5. Nutrient Film Technique (NFT)

Hydroponics system types - Nutrients Film Technique

NFT is a hydroponics technique that works for well for plants with small roots.

In the nutrient film technique, you grow plants in long tubes or channels or “gutter” separate from the nutrient reservoir. To force water to flow back by gravity to the nutrient reservoir, one end of the tube is kept lower than the other. A pump constantly transfers nutrient solution at the higher end, creating a constant water stream in the bottom of the tray. A layer of absorbent material (called capillary mat) is placed at the bottom of the tray to ensure smoother and even flow of water.

You can start your plants in any type of media and transfer in the NFT system to grow right in the water. This system, when properly set-up and maintained, works very nicely.

NFT is fine for certain plants like herbs and lettuce, but plants with heavier root systems won’t benefit from the technique. Therefore, NFT is the least common form of hydroponics gardening setup.

Precaution: You should put the plants having a large roots that can reach down into the solution. You can use a drip system to top feed the plants until their roots system is large enough.

Pros of NFT Systems
  • Minimal growing medium needed
  • Excess nutrient solution recirculate
  • Recirculating system means less waste
  • Space efficient
  • Good Oxygen Flow
Cons of NFT Systems
  • Pump failure of any kind can completely ruin your crop
  • Prone to clogging: Roots can become overgrown and clog the channels

Check the video for more information

6. Aeroponic System

Hydroponics system types - Aeroponics System

The most advanced form of hydroponics and usually more expensive than other setups.

In aeroponics, a container is filled with a few gallons of nutrient solution that is sprayed to constantly soak the whole container with a fine mist of solution. A high-pressure pump is used with special spray emitters that produce a highly oxygenated fine spray.

No growing medium is used in aeroponic systems. The roots hang in the air until they grow long enough to make it bottom into the nutrient solution.


  • This system is the most difficult and volatile out of all the hydroponics growing systems.
  • The fluctuation in pH and imbalances of nutrient occur more often due to high absorption rates and oxygenation levels.
  • Moreover, there’s no grow media to protect the roots, that makes the plants react negatively to any change at much higher rate.
  • The individual parts of the system can be expensive and are not easy to assemble into a well-working system.
  • Using anything except high-quality hydroponic fertilizers will lead to instant clogging in the fine-spray emitters.

However, you will get faster growth rates i properly maintained aeroponic system.

Pros of Aeroponic Systems
  • Roots often are exposed to more oxygen than submerged-root systems
  • Maximum nutrient absorption
  • Space-efficient
  • Excess nutrient recirculates
Cons of Aeroponic Systems
  • High-pressure nozzles can fail and roots can dry out
  • Not as cheap or easy to set up as other methods
  • Prone to clogging
  • High Tech
  • Time-intensive
  • Not suited for thick organic-based nutrients and additives

Check the video for more information

Closing Remarks

Once you have chosen your favorite system, you’ll need to obtain the basic components necessary to build your gardening structure.

You’ll need a grow bed or container for your plants, growing media if creating beds (click here to read detailed top hydroponics growing beds), plant pots, LED grow lights if growing indoor, pumps – a water pump to get the nutrient water to the plants and an air pump to aerate the container, and standpipes or siphons (simple plumbing tubes). Your system design can be as simple or complicated as you desire. But it will need to include these basic components.

Click here to read about the best water pump for a hydroponics system

You can also order a ready-made, automated, easy to use and maintain indoor hydroponics garden. Check here to read about indoor Aerogardens.

Which hydroponics system did you like? Tell us in comments.


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