Hydroponic System 101: 9 Types of Hydroponic Systems & How To Build Your Own

Takeaway: An introduction to the 9 different types of Hydroponic Systems (6 basic and 3 Advance). How They Work, What You Need to Build Your Own, The Pros and Cons of Each System, and 3 Common Variations.

If you aren’t familiar with the term or system of hydroponics, you’ve landed in the right place.  

Here, you’ll find simple, easy-to-use information I have put together since I began my foray into hydroponics. 

Let’s start with the basics.

What Is Hydroponic Gardening?

Simply put, it is the process of growing plants without soil.

Plants are grown in a water-based, nutrient solution or a sterile growing medium.

Both ways ensure optimal delivery of nutrients to roots.

The sterile growing medium allows for the nutrients to be absorbed precisely, ensuring optimal growth.

Plant root systems endure less stress when grown in these environments as they no longer need to seek out food from soil, converting nutrients into energy faster.

This results in higher yields over shorter times.

You control the supply of nutrients via a liquid solution and adjust the pH of the water for optimal growth.

You can choose to use organic or non-organic nutrients.

At the end of the day, with hydroponics, you are not concerned with the health of the soil, so either choice leads to the same results.

Using organic or non-organic nutrients is a personal and ethical one rather than a right or wrong way.

Advantages & Disadvantages of Hydroponics

A hydroponic system aims to deliver to the plant its three essential needs, namely light, water, and nutrients.

In ideal conditions, where these three needs are met, plants will grow strong and healthy, producing a high yield.

When these three needs are not in perfect balance, the plant and the yield suffer, producing poor quality fruit and weak plants.

There are benefits and drawbacks to growing hydroponically, so before choosing your system, ask yourself some questions.

  • Do I want to grow for myself or commercially?
  • What plants do I want to grow; food, flowers or medicinals?
  • What is my budget?
  • How much time am I willing to give on a daily basis?
  • How much space do I have available?
  • What is my level of experience?

The Benefits Of Hydroponic Gardening

Starting on a small scale for pleasure is easy, rewarding, affordable, and FUN!

With hydroponics, you can create the perfect conditions for your plants.

When plants are grown without soil, there is less stress on the root system to search out nutrients as the system supplies all this directly.

The plant spends less time converting minerals and nutrients to energy, so the plant grows faster and bigger.

This results in higher yields in a shorter period of time.

The Drawbacks Of Hydroponics

The initial setup can be costly if you’re trying to grow commercially, and lack of experience can often mean your first few attempts may not be completely successful.

But as with everything in life, perseverance furthers, and anyone who has a passion for anything always has success in the end.

The other main drawback is that because you’re creating the environment, you are the one that will determine how well the plants grow.

This means you need to spend the time, especially in the beginning, checking nutrient levels, pH levels, and moisture content.

You need to make sure the system of your choice runs smoothly as any setback, like a pump not running or roots drying out, could mean loss of stock.

How Does Hydroponic Gardening Work?

Plants are grown without soil to maximize nutrient absorption. This means the delivery system of nutrients is essential.

A system can be classed as active or passive.

Active means the nutrients are supplied via a pump. Passive means no moving parts or electricity is needed.

Variations on these systems mean sometimes a passive system will incorporate a pump, although traditionally, this is not common.

The recovery or non-recovery of nutrients characterizes the other aspect of a system.

Some systems use the nutrient solution only once, and it is then discarded.

The recovery system entails the recirculation of hydroponic nutrient solutions.

Although non-recovery is more cost-effective, it can be detrimental if growing on a large scale as hygiene is compromised.

What do you need for a hydroponic system?

Before deciding what system you want, consider how much money you want to spend, what plants you want to grow, and your experience level.

To build your own hydroponic system, regardless of what system you use, you’ll need to source the following:

  • Grow Lights (if growing indoors or in a climate where sunlight is diminished)
  • Heating systems (if growing in cold winter climes)
  • Trays/Containers with lids/Net Pots etc.
  • Growing medium like perlite, coconut coir, vermiculite or gravel
  • Pumps – either submersible or air pumps 
  • Reservoirs/Tanks/Tubs – to hold nutrient solutions
  • Air Stones/Hoses
  • Water-soluble, mineral-based, buffered nutrients
  • pH kits and TDS (total dissolved solids) meters (for more professional enthusiasts)
  • Plant stock

Related post: DIY Hydroponics Gardening For Beginners

6 Different Types Of Hydroponic Systems and How They Work

Different Types Of Hydroponic Systems And How They Work

Below are 6 different types of hydroponic systems that are commonly used by hydroponic gardeners.

  1. The Water Culture System – also known as Deep Water Culture or Aquaponics
  2. The Wick System
  3. The Drip System
  4. The Ebb and Flow System – also known as Flood and Drain
  5. Nutrient Film Technique (N.F.T)
  6. Aeroponics

1. Deep Water Culture (DWC)

The deepwater culture system is the simplest of all active systems.

Many small plants can be placed on a tray made of polystyrene, which floats on top of the nutrient solution held in a reservoir or tub.

The roots are submerged in water.

Alternatively, plants can be placed in net pots and fitted into a lid that fits the reservoir/tank/tub.

The water is kept oxygenated using an air stone connected to an air pump via an air hose or tube. 

This ensures the plant’s root system does not become waterlogged, which would lead to rotting and an inability to absorb nutrients.

Plants that benefit the most from this system are salad greens like lettuces, rocket (arugula), endives, and numerous Asian greens.

This system is sometimes referred to as Deep Water Culture or Aquaponics, but in essence, they are all water culture systems.

Related Post: All You Need To Know To Build A Simple Backyard Aquaponics System

Benefits of Deep Water Culture

  • Great for beginners
  • Affordable
  • Good for small short-term plants
  • Easy to build
  • Easy to manage
  • Only small space required
  • Good system for commercial growing

Drawbacks of Deep Water Culture

  • Not suited to single, large, long-term plants

What You need to start Deep Water Culture System ?

  • Hydroponic Reservoir 
  • Air pump
  • Air hose
  • Containers/Trays for plants
  • Growing medium like coconut coir
  • Nutrient kit
  • pH kit

2. Hydroponic Wick System

The Wick System is traditionally a passive hydroponic system.

This means no moving parts and no electricity is needed, making it perfect for beginners and people on a tight budget.

It is the simplest of all hydroponic systems.

How it works is that the plant receives its nutrients via a wick which connects the plant to the reservoir and soaks up the nutrient solution.

The growing medium absorbs the nutrients, and the roots are fed.

Benefits of Wick System

  • Affordable
  • Easy to build
  • Great for children or beginners

Drawbacks of Wick System

  • Due to the nutrient delivery system via wick, it is only suited to small non-fruiting plants
  • Larger plants with higher nutrient requirements won’t fair well with this system as they may use up moisture faster than can be supplied via a wick.
  • Nutrients can be unevenly absorbed and over time the salt levels may build up in the growing medium.
  • Not the easiest method of controlling moisture content.

What You Need To Start Wick System ?

  • Reservoir/Bucket/Tub with lid
  • Container/Basket
  • Growing medium
  • Wick, either rope or an absorbent material
  • Nutrient kit

3. Hydroponic Drip System

This is the most popular hydroponic system.

The nutrients are transported from the reservoir through a tube to an irrigation pipe that water the base plant.

Drip irrigation can be recovery or non-recovery. Commercial growers tend to favor non-recovery and home growers, recovery.

Pros and Cons: Recovery versus Non-Recovery

With a recovery system, a timer is used to control the pump that supplies the drip lines.

The solution then flows back into the reservoir.

This system is cost-effective, but nutrient levels may be more inconsistent, and a build-up of salts in the growing medium means more maintenance.

With non-recovery, the cost of nutrients is higher, as the solution is used once and drains off.

However, the advantage is that the pH is regulated, and maintenance is less time-consuming.

Timers can be set precisely and left until more solution is needed.

What You Need To Start drip irrigation system ?

  • Container or trays for plants
  • Container (reservoir) for nutrient solution
  • Air pump with tubing and air stone
  • Submersible hydroponics water pump and tubing to supply nutrients
  • Irrigation pipes and drip lines – available in sets with adapters and joiners
  • Timer
  • Nutrient kit
  • Growing medium
  • pH kit

4. Ebb and Flow Systems of Hydroponic

The Ebb and Flow System is more complicated and advanced than other systems.

Here the plants are placed in a grow tray in their growing medium and placed on top of a reservoir.

The system is operated with a scheduled timer that allows the pump to switch on and fill the grow tray with the nutrient solution from the reservoir at regular intervals. 

The tray is flooded, and the timer switches off. The hydroponic nutrient solution then drains off.

This system is either set up as a recovery or non-recovery system, meaning the solution can be used once or recycled and used again.

Benefits of Ebb and Flow System

  • Plants are not fully submerged allowing good aeration and good nutrient absorption at regular intervals.
  • Plants are not directly connected to the reservoir so more plants can be grown on a platform much larger than the reservoir.
  • If growing indoors the temperature can be more efficiently controlled with this system as the reservoir is separated from growing trays.

Drawbacks of Ebb and Flow System

  • Slightly more experience is needed with this system to ensure nutrients and pH levels are kept constant and that the medium doesn’t get clogged with salts from the nutrient solution.
  • Disruptions of power supply could affect timers and pumps, leading to dry roots. This can be solved by choosing growing mediums that absorb and retain moisture efficiently.

5. Nutrient Film Technique (N.F.T)

Plants are grown in tubes called gullies. Alternatively, grow tanks are used to increase the space needed for root growth.

The grow tray or gully is placed at a slight angle above the reservoir, and ideally, a channel in the center of the grow tray is needed to help drain the solution more efficiently. 

The need for a timer is eliminated as the pump supplies a constant flow of nutrients over the roots. Plants are placed in net pots, and no growing medium is required.

The reservoir is kept aerated utilizing an air pump attached to an air stone.

This keeps the nutrient solution from settling and supplies the roots with oxygen that helps with nutrient absorption, meaning less energy is used by the plant to feed, and more energy is used to grow.

A submersible pump in the reservoir sends a constant supply of nutrients to the grow tray—a gap between plants and water guarantees aeration.

The water is drained off back into the reservoir.

You can see how this system is an improvement on the Drip System’s recovery method.

Benefits of Nutrient Film Technique

  • Cost effective as nutrient solution is recovered and recycled and growing medium is generally absent.

Drawbacks of Nutrient Film Technique

  • If power supply is interrupted roots will dry out quickly in the absence of growing medium.
  • Maintenance is higher as one needs to keep checking that the pumps are running continuously.

What You Need To Start N.F.T System ?

  • Reservoir
  • Gro-Tanks or gullies to grow plants in
  • Table or platform to house gully, with a channel to direct used nutrients back into reservoir
  • Pump and tubing to supply nutrients from reservoir to plants
  • Spreader mat (optional) to increase nutrient absorption
  • Nutrient kit
  • Tubing to direct nutrients from channel back into reservoir
  • pH kit

6. aeroponic systems works

This is the last kid on the block.

The most technical and latest of all the systems to be implemented by hydroponic enthusiasts. It works on an automated time system.

Just like the N.F.T system, it needs no growing medium.

The roots are suspended in the air with this system, and a mist is applied every few minutes.

Benefits of Nutrient Film Technique

  • Very efficient and cost effective after initial set up.
  • Saves on water, nutrients and growing medium.

Drawbacks of Nutrient Film Technique

  • Pump and timers need to be checked regularly, making it high maintenance.
  • Drying out of roots at the slightest interruption is even more severe than with the N.F.T system.

What You Need To Start Aeroponics System ?

  • Reservoir
  • Fitted lid to keep moisture in and house potted plants
  • Plant containers or net pots that can be fitted on top of reservoir
  • Submersible pump with tubing to connect to mist sprayers
  • Mist sprayers/nozzles/sprinklers
  • Timer to activate sprayers at regular intervals
  • Nutrient kit
  • pH kit

Popular Variations of Advance Hydroponic Systems

Popular Variations Of Advance Hydroponic Systems

A variation is just a combination or a modification of these 6 basic systems.

There can be hundreds of combinations/variations. Here are 3 of the most common advanced variations.

  1. The Kratky Method
  2. Fogponics
  3. The Dutch Bucket System

1. The Kratky Method

This is a variation/combination of the Wick System and Water Culture System. It is a passive, non-circulating system.

A reservoir with a tight-fitting lid holds the nutrient solution.

The plant and growing medium are put into a net pot. A hole is cut out of the lid, and the pot is fitted into it.

The roots will initially be submerged in the solution with only a small air gap available between the inside of the lid and the nutrient solution.

The system can then be left alone. As the nutrients get absorbed by the growing medium, the roots grow, the water level drops, and the air space increases.

This ensures the plant gets enough oxygen and still receives food.

Benefits of The Kratky Method

  • Perfect for beginners
  • Affordable
  • Almost no maintenance

Drawbacks of The Kratky Method

  • Not suited for large scale growing
  • Only suits small foliage plants

2. Dutch Bucket System

This Ebb and Flow system variation uses single buckets placed in rows.

There is one irrigation line supplying nutrients from above and one drainage pipe below, leading back to the reservoir.

This system is ideal for large operations as the single rows can easily join the same irrigation line and accommodate large, fruiting plants.

Because each plant has its own bucket, it is easy to access and move the individual plants.

With this system, you want a growing medium that can maintain high moisture levels and stay well aerated.

Good drainage is essential as you want to avoid clogging when nutrients drain back into the reservoir.

The reservoir is placed below the buckets using gravity to reclaim nutrient solutions.

Only then is the submersible pump used to feed solution back into feed line connected to individual buckets from above.

The nutrients in the reservoir are kept oxygenated via a hydroponic air pump and air stone.

Maintenance has to be carried out regularly, and pH and salt levels must be checked and balanced.

Ideal Growing Mediums for Dutch Bucket System

Using a water culture system, seedlings are started in coco peat, sphagnum peat, or Rockwool.

Once established, they can then be transferred from the propagation area to the Dutch Bucket system.

Light expanded clay aggregate (LECA) is ideal for this system as the large size of pebbles means they can’t get stuck in the drainpipe and block the circulation system.

Perlite is another good choice. It is light, has excellent drainage, aeration, and water retention.

Measures must be taken to prevent blockages.

Covering the entrance of the drainage pipe with mesh will work. Perlite works best when mixed with another medium such as vermiculite.

Coconut coir is not the best choice with this system. If using a very absorbent, slow draining medium like coir.

It is advisable to use the ‘Drain to a Waste’ method and convert it to a slow drip/ low volume irrigation format instead of flooding.

But this, in essence, defeats the purpose of the recovery system and increases running costs, as nutrient solutions don’t get recycled.

Benefits of The Kratky Method

  • Best system for large scale growing
  • Water saving
  • Rapid growth levels

Drawbacks of The Kratky Method

  • Costly as success will depend on quality of equipment
  • High maintenance

3. Fogponics

A variation on aeroponics, this system has improved growing results by leaps and bounds.

Rather than misting at intervals, a fogger is installed in the reservoir, and a humid environment is created.

Foggers, or mist makers, decrease the size of the water droplets significantly.

Not only do these gravity-defying droplets give the root system full nutrient coverage, but they also stimulate the growth of tiny root hairs, increasing the root system’s surface area exponentially.

Benefits of Fogponics

  • Economical
  • Cuts water and nutrient waste by over 40%
  • Nutrient solution does not dilute as recirculation is not used.
  • Easy to set up

Drawbacks of Fogponics

  • Mist must be contained
  • Initial set up is costly
  • Cleaning equipment leads to higher maintenance
  • Power outages could wreak havoc if roots dry out.

In Conclusion

Hydroponics is a sure-fire way to get hooked on growing your own plants.

There is a system suited to everyone. The availability and choice of products are mind-blowing. Happy growing!