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

Last Updated on December 15, 2018

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? requires a look at the different hydroponic gardening systems. As you look

You may need to look at the different hydroponic gardening systems. As you observe each type of system, you will see their approach to the three major concerns: How to

  • Get the nutrient solution to the plants
  • Keep the plants from drowning
  • Make sure there are no problems

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 systems organized by skill level (low to high):

Type of SystemGrow MediaPumpsRe-circulation
The Wick SystemYesAir Pump
(optional)
No
Deep Water Culture (DWC)NoAir PumpNo
Ebb & Flow SystemMay or may notWater Pump
(with Timer)
Yes
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 argue that aquaponics is another type of hydroponic system.

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

No, Aquaponics isn’t really a 7th type of hydroponic system, simply because what makes aquaponics different is how the nutrients are formulated. Aquaponics is a combination of hydroponics and aquaculture. The technique of aquaponics and supplying the nutrients from decomposing fish waste can be used in any of the 6 types of hydroponic systems. In any system, replacing the regular nutrient reservoir with a fish tank reservoir can make an aquaponics system. The most commonly used aquaponic systems are the float bed, ebb & flow, and NFT systems.

There are a lot more complexities in aquaponics because you are trying 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. Simply put, aquaponics is a process of making nutrients out of fish waste, basically, you are making your own nutrients. But that doesn’t affect how water, nutrients, or oxygen are delivered 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. Hence, named for the type of medium, e.g., sand culture, gravel culture, or rock wool culture. Nutrients can be supplied in solution form or as dry fertilizer in any one of several fashions: 1) flooded from the bottom up; 2) drenched on the surface; 3) trickled onto the surface, or 4) scattered dry on the surface and watered into the root zone. Examples are Ebb and Flow system, Drip System, and Wick System.

Water-Culture: Plants are grown with roots submerged in a nutrient solution, with the stem and upper parts of the plants held above the solution. With this system, the main considerations are the provision of a suitable container, suspension of the plants above the water, provision of a suitable nutrient solution, and proper aeration of the water solution. 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. Air pumps are optional to add oxygen to the water.

In wick hydroponic systems, the plants are grown in their own container, separate from the nutrient reservoir. Plants container is filled with absorbent growing media like coco coir and vermiculites/permiculite. A piece of nylon rope is placed in the container that runs from plant roots into the nutrient solution. This is how the system pulls the nutrient solution from the reservoir up into the growing medium.

The system is a good choice for organic hydroponics, but there are a couple of things to consider: Sometimes it is difficult to get the right moisture level in a wick system. IT entirely depends on growing media you use. A 50/50 mix of perlite/vermiculite is usually a good medium for this system. Coconut coir also works well. Check the list of all growing media here. Also, over time, the wicks suck up less and less solution – especially when using 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
  • No Nutrient Circulation
  • May be overkill for a smaller garden
  • Fluctuating pH and nutrient levels (if using recirculating system)
  • High waste (if using 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 plants in hydroponics! Requires no nutrient pumps. Air pumps are used to add oxygen to the water.

In this system, plants’ roots are suspended directly in nutrient water. This is done by either placing plants in 5-gallon hydroponics tanks or suspending them directly in long polystyrene rafts. An air pump constantly bubbles in the nutrient solution, oxygenating and keeping the roots from drowning.

Since there are no drip or spray emitters to clog, DWC is a good choice for organic hydroponic growing media like volcanic lava chips media, vermiculite 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: Light can cause rapid algae growth in the nutrient solution. Algae eat the nutrients you are trying to feed to your plants, and when pieces of algae die they attract fungus gnats. Fungus gnats 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 the flood and drain method, the ebb & flow method is popular method among home hydroponics growers.

In this system, the plants sit in their own container filled with grow media and separate from the nutrient reservoir like in wick system. But this system uses a water pump with a timer. On a set schedule, a pump transfers the nutrient solution from the reservoir to the grow tray where the plants are located, soaking the plant roots and the growing medium. The pumps then turn off, and the solution drains back into the reservoir. Bell siphon can be used to automatically drain the water without shutting the pump off.

Your choice of growing media determines how often and how long you should flood the grow tray. Fast draining expanded clay pellets may be flooded for a half hour 4 times a day, while the slower draining Rockwool can be watered less. This system is also well suited for growing in straight perlite or lava chips.

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 and Flow Hydroponics system

4. Drip Hydroponics System

Hydroponics system types - drip system

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

With the drip system, the plants are in their own tray, separate from the nutrient reservoir. The operation is simple, a timer controls a submersed pump. The timer turns the pump on that pushes the nutrient solution through many small tubes onto the base of each plant. Different emitters can be placed at the end of each tube to make the drip slower or faster.

This system needs growing media. The expanded clay pellets and Rockwool are the standard media for drip systems. A faster draining medium (like clay pellets) will need faster dripping emitters (or more of them per plant). Slower draining media (like Rockwool) would require slower dripping emitters.

The veggies like cucumbers, tomatoes or some tropical fruits 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 garden
  • Fluctuating pH and nutrient levels (if using recirculating system)
  • Prone to algae growth
  • Requires regular cleaning
  • High 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, plants are grown in long tubes or channels or “gutter” separate from the nutrient reservoir. To encourage water to flow back by gravity to the nutrient reservoir, one end of the tube is lower than the other. A pump delivers a steady flow of water at one end, creating a constant stream of nutrient solution in the bottom of the tray. In order to make sure the water flowing through the bottom of the tray is nice and even, a layer of absorbent material (called capillary mat) is placed in the bottom.

It doesn’t matter what type of media you start your plants in. Once positioned in the NFT system, the roots will be growing 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 must start with plants that have a root system large enough to hang down into the flowing nutrient solution. Your other option would be to top feed the plants with a drip system until their roots are large enough (this requires a lot of time and patience).

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 aeroponic systems, a large container contains several gallons of nutrient solution in the bottom. A pump pushes the nutrient solution through spray heads that constantly soak every inch inside the container with a fine mist of nutrient solution. The pump must be a high-pressure pump, and the spray emitters are made specially to deliver a very fine, highly oxygenated spray.

There is no growing medium in aeroponic systems. The roots hang down into the container and grow mostly in the air, except for the few that grow long enough to make it into the nutrient solution on the bottom.

Downsides: Of all the hydroponics growing systems, this is the most difficult to master and the most temperamental. pH changes and nutrient imbalances occur more quickly because of the increased absorption rates and high levels of oxygenation. Furthermore, with no grow media to protect the roots, the plants react negatively to these changes much more quickly. It is often very hard to assemble individual parts into a well-working system, and the individual parts can be expensive as well. Also, the fine-spray emitters will instantly clog if you try to use anything except high-quality hydroponic fertilizers (no organics). If you can keep up with the maintenance of an aeroponic system, aeroponics generally provides faster growth rates.

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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