Types of Hydroponic Systems | Guide and Comparison
Hydroponic systems are a type of hydroculture that grows plants without soil. Instead, it uses a growing medium and a nutrient solution to feed the plants. Some of the systems simply immerse the root systems in the liquid nutrients while others utilize a growing medium which ranges from gravel to perlite.
It is often viewed as how we are going to grow plants in the future. It uses less water and allows for the faster growth of plants without the downsides of a weather cycle or drought. You can even find many large hydroponic companies that are doing this at an immense scale to see if it can support the food needs of the world’s future.
But, you don’t have to be a large company to start growing hydroponic plants at home. For just a few dollars, you can build one for yourself and see what all the excitement is about. Keep reading to see which one is right for you.
There are six basic types of hydroponics systems (+1 bonus system). The following information will explain how they work and provide references to material you can read if you are interested in diving in more. The basic types can be combined and modified to make many more variants, but the fundamental types are Wick, Deep Water Culture, Drip, Ebb and Flow, NFT (Nutrient Film Technique), Aeroponic, and the unique Vertical Hydroponics. Read below for the summary of each type.
Wick Hydroponics System
The first type of hydroponic system is the simplest and the easiest to understand. There are no moving pieces so it is classified as a “passive” system. It consists of three parts: the nutrient solution, the wick, and the soil. The nutrients sit below the plants and a wick connects the nutrient solution to the growing medium which is usually just soil with fertilizer. The wicks use capillary action to transfer the nutrients into the soil.
This system is great for someone just starting out with hydroponics and can be used indoors with low space requirements. If you are looking to use this type of system for larger plants, you may have to increase the number of wicks in order to keep up with the demand.
For a more in-depth look at our page on the wick system.
Deep Water Culture Hydroponics System
The second type of hydroponic system is the deep water culture system, or DWC for short. It is one of the early hydroponic systems that suspends the roots of the plants in a nutrient solution. A simply DIY version of this system can be created by using a five gallon bucket (or old aquarium) and a piece of styrofoam. The plants will sit on the styrofoam and the roots will sink below into the nutrient system.
There are a few things that you should watch out for when using this method. The first is oxygen levels. There won’t be enough natural oxygen in the nutrient solution for the plants that are floating so you will need to use what is called an airstone and air pump to ensure enough oxygen reaches the roots. The second is the pH levels of the nutrient solution. As the plant grows the composition of the nutrient solution will change. You will need to keep a close eye on the pH levels and adjust it properly if it gets too far out of range.
For a deeper look on the dwc system, see our in-depth article through the link.
Ebb and Flow (Ebb & Flow) Hydroponics System
The third type of hydroponic system is called the ebb & flow system. It works kind of like the tides in an ocean or a lake to temporarily submerge the plants in the nutrient solution. There are a few main parts: the soil, the nutrient solution, and the pump w/ a tube. The pump is connected to a timer and a few times a day it pushes the nutrient solution up into the soil and submerges the plants. After a short time, it stops pumping and the solution drains back into the reservoir. The frequency and length of each cycle varies based on the temperature, the soil, and the types of plants.
This method doesn’t need to worry as much about the oxygenation because the roots are exposed to the air during the drain phase. This system does have problems if there are timer problems or power failures because it is reliant on the pump.
If you are interested in learning more about this system see our information on ebb and flow systems.
Drip Hydroponic System
The fourth type of hydroponic system is called the drip system. This looks very similar to drip irrigation system that you might have in your backyard or see in commercial gardens. Each plant is planted in a growing medium and it receives nutrients from a tube and nozzle that constantly (or on a timer) drip onto the plant base.
This is a very hands-off hydroponic system that needs minimal oversight or maintenance. As long as you set the timer correctly so the proper amount of nutrients are fed to the plant it is hard to go wrong.
There are two variants on this class approach: recovery and non-recovery. In the recovery system, a drainage tube connects the growing medium back to the reservoir with the nutrients. Any excess nutrients that are not used by the plants are recycled back into the nutrient solution and pumped back at a later date. The opposite system (the non-recovery system) funnels all of the unused nutrient solution to the drain (or proper waste disposal). This ensures that each drip has the maximum amount of nutrients to the plant.
See our detailed analysis of the drip hydroponic system.
Nutrient Film Technique Hydroponic System
The fifth type of hydroponic system is the nutrient film technique (or NFT) system. This system uses a continuous stream of nutrient solution through the roots of the plants to help feed them. The plants are laid out in a channel or valley and a small stream of water, usually no more than a few centimeters, is circulated past them (using gravity or a pump). The roots of the plants will accumulate near the stream (some in the stream and some above it) allowing a great mixture of oxygen (above the stream) and nutrients below it.
It is typical for 1 litre per minute of nutrient solution to circulate past the roots every minute. This gives each plant quite a bit of high-nutrient solution to help them grow. You have to watch out for disease with this method since the recirculated water won’t help contain an outbreak. However, with proper observation it should be easy to keep your plants healthy.
If this method interests you, read our dedicated resource on nft hydroponics.
Aeroponic Hydroponic System
The sixth basic type of hydroponic system is the aeroponic system. It is by far the most technical of the systems, but many gardeners have had a lot of success using the method to grow their plants. The system doesn’t usually use a growing medium and relies on misting the hanging roots of plants with a nutrient solution. Any solution that is not absorbed by the roots falls back into the reservoir and is sprayed at a later time.
This system usually produces faster growing plants due to the large amount of oxygen that the plants receive since they are suspended in air. On the downside, it is a little more expensive to build and the nozzles can clog or break over time. Just keep a few on hand and replace them when you see an issue.
For more information on this type of system be sure to visit our dedicated page here.
Aquaponic Hydroponic System
Aquaponics is a hybrid of the basic hydroponic systems while adding fish as the mechanism to gather nutrients. The situation provides a symbiotic relationship between the fish and the plants and it is very ecologically friendly. In a normal fish tank, every time the fish produce waste the toxicity of the water increases. This means you have to add filtration systems to keep your fish healthy.
However, when you combine a fish tank with a hydroponic system, the waste is broken down into nitrates and nitrites which
This is a great option if you are looking to combine your gardening with animal life or you want to take your existing hydroponic system to the next level. Take a look at our dedicated page highlighting aquaponic systems if you are looking for more information.
Bonus: Vertical Hydroponic System
The last type of hydroponic system isn’t one of the basics, but it is cool enough I wanted to share it with you all. The general idea is that you stack a bunch of plants vertically, usually inside a large tube filled with growing medium. A pump pushes nutrients to the top of the tube and the solution trickles down through the growing medium until it reaches the bottom. Once at the bottom, it is recycled back up to the top by the pump.
This is a close variant of the NFT system that lets gravity pull the nutrient solution down through the growing medium. The plants take only what they need and the rest is eventually cycled back through the system.
Check out our page on this system if you want to learn more.
Which System is Right for You?
Now that you understand all the different types, it is time to choose which hydroponic grow system you would like to try for yourself. If you still haven’t decided, follow the links in each section that will take you to more in-depth information including the difficulty, cost, and tradeoffs of each system.
Regardless of which system you choose, the most important part of being successful is sticking with it. Even though these growing systems may give faster results than planting seeds in your backyard, they still need constant attention in order to succeed. Make sure you watch your plants each day and fix any problems that arise quickly.
If you are looking for an out of the box solution that you can put together quickly from a kit, here is a quick guide on our favorite items. You will be able to ship these directly to your home where you can get started learning about hydroponics immediately.
Learning about hydroponics systems is a great way to get involved with growing you own plants and learning about the future of gardening. We hope this page was a great reference and you were able to learn about all of the basics systems. Please reach out to us with any questions and we will be happy to help you out.