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Hydroponic Systems - Different Types and How They Work

Submitted by max on Mon, 03/20/2017 - 09:48

Have you ever heard of the "soilless culture"? Do you ever want to have a garden of your own, and enjoy the fresh healthy food despite the limited space, and the lack of light? Are you looking for a method to improve your plant growth?

Hydroponics is the answer to all of your concerns.

Hydroponics was born to make plant growing much easier. You are no longer bounded by climate, season, and space. The pursuits of green living as a hobby, and of a modern method to boost plants growth more minimal and at a fast rate have been adopted and proved by millions of gardeners around the world.

What is Hydroponics and How Does Hydroponics Work?

In essence, Hydroponics is a method of growing plants in a water based, and a nutrient rich environment. Hydroponics let plants reach full genetic potential by carefully providing with all they need as nature is sometimes unable to do that.

It does that by allowing plants' roots to come into direct contact with all necessary nutrients dissolved in water. These nutrients are created with a mixed medium of perlite, Rockwool, clay pellets, peat moss, vermiculite,...

Since plants are no longer searching for food. Most of their energy can be navigated into producing the foliage, flowers, and fruits.

But how to do that?

This is the purpose of the post, and I will list to you all of the vital ways to create the hydroponic growing environment, but let's get into the benefits and downsides of this method first.


The most significant advantage of Hydroponics is a huge increase in the growth rate, which means faster product yield time. Experimenting has shown that plants in the hydroponic system can enjoy a 20-30% faster growth rate than soil plants. This is to assume that you adopt a careful and right method of a Hydroponic system (which I'll show you later).

Plants grown hydroponically are generally healthier than soil-grown ones. This is because Hydroponic plants come into direct contact with the well-balanced nutrient in the water and rarely interact with soil born pests, and diseases. There are fewer worries about the weeds, and stray seedlings, which in turn eliminates the insecticide uses. 


As you have imagined, in order to have your hydroponics system, you must spend some initial expense to purchase stuff like a light, containers, a pump,... Of course, I will help you get the knowledge, and make most of your budget, but be ready to spend ten to a hundred dollar minimum for starting. But this is the initial cost, once it has been built and running, the only expenses are minimal electricity and nutrients.

Plants grown hydroponically need time and commitment. This is not to say soil-grown counterparts do not have. But for hydroponics, it needs more. A soil-based garden can be left to its own survival for weeks with no care. But for your hydroponic gardens, it needs you to survive. It needs your regular attention. It needs you to monitor the inputs - water, nutrients, lights, and other things that plant needs.

The Basic Parts of a Hydroponic system

There is not one type of Hydroponics systems. But most of them all have some of the common essential parts. We'll have a look. 

Basic Parts of Hydroponics

Types of Hydroponic Systems

Hydroponic systems can be either active of passive. Active means that nutrient solutions will be moved, usually by a pump. Passive relies on a wick or the anchor of the growing medium.

Hydroponic systems are also characterized as recovery or non-recovery. Recovery means the nutrient solution will be reused into the system. Meanwhile, with non-recovery, the nutrient solution is applied to the growing medium, and vanish.

There are 6 main types of hydroponic system. Meanwhile, the plant roots need 3 things, water/moisture, nutrients, and oxygen. So, what differs in the 6 systems is the way the deliver these 3 important things to plant roots.


6 Types of Systems



Before identifying, and getting into details each of them below, we have made an easy-to-digest infographic about each system.


Hydroponic System Infographic


Now, these are the detailed descriptions of each of them.

The Wick System (Passive & non-recovery)


Wick System

The wick system works passively. It uses no pumps and there are no moving parts.

This is by far the most basic type of Hydroponic system.

Just like it sounds, the wick system operates by drawing up nutrient solutions from the reservoir to the plants through the capillary movement like a wick into the growing medium. And good choices of the medium include coconut fiber, perlite, or vermiculite.

The downside is that because the wick isn't able to produce a strong stream of water, and nutrient solution, it is only ideal for smaller plants, and non-fruiting ones, like lettuce and herbs.

Also, the system tends to keep the growing medium wet. This makes the oxygen absorbing activities of the plant root harder. The wick system is not the most effective way to hydroponic plants.

Deep Water Culture (DWC) Systems

Deep Water Culture

This is an active recovery system, so there are moving parts. Of all active system of hydroponic growing, this is the simplest.

All you need is a net pot, a reservoir/container, a lid, and a pump.

Plants will be grown in a net pot with some growing media and is placed and held by the lid on the top of the reservoir/container.

Roots grow out the net pot and reach the nutrient solution held in the reservoir below. 

An air pump helps oxygenate the water and let roots breathe.

In order words, this system work by immersing plant's roots directly into the nutrient solution of the reservoir that is highly oxygenated.

The cons of this system are that it does not work well with large, and long-growing plants. Very few plants other than lettuce thrive in this system.

Ebb and Flow System (Flood and Drain)

Ebb & Flow System

The active and recovery type is less commonly seen, but still quite effective.

How this system works is basically like the way it sounds. Nutrient solutions are flooded onto the plant root system and then drain periodically. And the process goes on.

Plants are grown in a tray/container with a growing medium. A timer is scheduled to turn on the pump, which pushes water with nutrient solutions in a reservoir below to rise through the tube and onto the main part of the system.

After the tray/container is filled (flooded) and soaks the plant roots at certain minutes and water level, gravity automatically drains the solution back down into the reservoir.

With this system, a variety of growing medium can be used, e.g. gravel, granular Rockwool, grow rocks, perlite,... depending on Hydroponic gardeners' choice.

However, there is a risk of power outages, or pump and timer failure, which causes the root dryness, and water cycles are stopped.

Nutrient Film Technique (N.F.T)

NFT Nutrient Film Technique

This active and recovery system is a very common hydroponic one which has been used by lots of gardeners for commercial growing. 

Again, N.F.T uses the submersible pump and reusable nutrient solutions. It works by constantly flowing the solutions so no timer is used. The nutrient is pumped into the growing tray (or a tube) and delivered to the root systems of the plants. Once the flow reaches the channel's end, it drains back to the reservoir through the slight downward tube.

The roots suspended above the water level, are constantly moisture and get plenty of oxygen from the air surrounding them.

To provide oxygen in the water, and the grow tube, air stones or capillary matting must be placed in the reservoir. This also helps keep the system run for long without manually and frequently checking.

Since no growing medium is used, plants are usually held in a grow-basket or a supporting collar.

And because there is no growing medium to hold moisture, long period of interruption of the nutrient solution flow and cause the root dry, and plants' death.

Drip System

Drip system

Active recovery or non-recovery type system.

Drip systems are the most common types of hydroponic systems in the world, especially for commercial growers.

The main principles behind the system are quite simple yet effective, and so their popularity.

A timer is set to schedule the submersed pump. When the timer is on, the nutrient solution is pumped and dripped onto plants' base through a small drip line. And with this line emitter for each plant, gardeners can adjust the amount of solution per plant they want.

In a recovery drip system, the nutrient solution is sent back to the reservoir via the drip tray. Meanwhile, the non-recovery system doesn't collect the leach-out, which is not efficient, and this is only often used in the early days of hydroponics.

However, while the recovery one can be more efficiently, and cost-effective by reusing the excess solution, non-recovery one needs less maintenance due to the same reason that solution is not recycled, and hence pH of the reservoir is not affected. By this, gardeners can mix pH adjusted nutrient solution in the reservoir, and forget all about it, until they want to fill more. Meanwhile, with recovery, hydroponic gardeners need to check pH regularly.

Since this is a drip system, slow draining medium is often used like Rockwool, coconut coir, or peat moss

The downside of the drippers/emitters system is the clogging, which is formed by the particles from nutrients that accumulated in the emitter.



Aeroponic system is probably the most high-tech type of the six listed.

Just like the N.F.C system, the plant roots hang freely in the air, with no growing medium used.

But in Aeroponics, the nutrient solution is pumped and sprayed onto the root systems constantly instead of flowing through a thin film of nutrient by a channel.

A timer is used to controlled the nutrient pump, but the cycle is much shorter compared to other hydroponic types. Typically, it is a few minutes between each misting interval.

Again, since the roots are exposed to the air, the roots will be dried out fast in case of a misting cycle interruption. And this system is not as cheap, and easy to set up as other types.

Should I buy a system or set up one myself?

And in fact, there are no ideal answers for this. And in many cases, the combination of both are better.

If you want to set up your hydroponic garden immediately and get your hands on your plants' results, we recommend you to buy one, especially the inexpensive system. By this, you'll also get the valuable experience, knowledge, and the motivation to start building a system of your own later.

Suppose you are a researching type and want to learn bit by bit, then do your own research, and set the hydroponic garden up by trials and errors. Be patient, don't get frustrated as results are always awaiting you on the door's way.

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