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All the Different Hydroponics Systems — Explained

If you are just getting into indoor hydroponic growing, there is no better time than now to dive into the many different systems. There is more than one way to grow without soil in an indoor environment, from deep water culture to nutrient film to drip.

Why so many systems? As hydroponic technology continues to evolve, it has branched off into many different forms. All remove the necessity of soil while improving efficiencies, using less water, and growing bigger yields. 

Let’s examine the most common types of hydroponic systems, including which ones are best suited for beginner growers.

Deep Water Culture (DWC)

Covered in more depth here, deep water culture or DWC is one of the most affordable and simple hydroponic setups used today. Perfect for beginners and advanced growers alike, a deep water culture system can be set up at home with parts from a hardware store. It’s also easy to expand as needed.

The basic concept behind a DWC system is the suspension of plants into a nutrient-rich solution. Plants sit in a soilless medium, like Rockwool cubes, suspended over a bucket filled with water and the necessary nutrients. Part of the root system grows into the solution for continuous feeding.

Each DWC system can contain one or more buckets with individual plants. Water cycles through the system thanks to a water pump and gets aerated with one or more Airstone. 

Some systems use a separate reservoir to hold the nutrient solution and aerator. Some systems have everything contained within a single “Bubble Bucket.”

Deep water culture hydroponic systems are beloved for their simplicity, efficiency, and low cost of setup. You can quickly make one at home or skip the setup with a plug-n-play kit from HydroGuide.

Ebb and Flow (Flood and Drain)

Another simplistic hydroponic system is known as ebb and flow, or sometimes, flood and drain. Instead of individual deep water buckets, this system relies on flooding a deep tray with the nutrient solution. Once flooded, the water then drains back into the reservoir. The entire system operates on a timer, flooding and draining several times a day.

Effective systems use a tray with drainage channels, and the system sits on a slight angle to avoid pooling. Every plant in the system is rooted within a large pot filled with clay pellets, Rockwool, or another soilless medium. Like the plastic pots you’d use for gardening, these pots have holes in the bottom that allow the plant’s root system to absorb the nutrient solution when it floods.

As is the case with other systems, the nutrient solution reservoir uses an airstone to aerate the water and a water pump to push it through the system. The frequency and length of the floods will depend on several factors, including the size of plants and the absorbance of the growing medium.

Nutrient Film Technique (NFT)

One of the more complex options for hydroponic growing is nutrient film technique (NFT). Due to its intricacy, it is best suited for more advanced growers. 

The NFT setup pumps a nutrient solution from a separate reservoir up into a long container (like a piece of PVC gutter piping). Along the length of the pipe sits a series of net pots and plants, whose roots have access to the nutrient solution as it flows along the channel.

Because the pipe is set at an angle, the nutrient solution continuously flows down to drain back into the reservoir. The reservoir aerates and recirculates the water back into the pipe, so the roots have a never-ending supply.

A bit finicky to set up, NFT lends itself to commercial operations more so than at-home growers. It’s not impossible to build at home, but it does require more regular monitoring, at least compared with other hydroponic systems.

Drip Systems

drip irrigation hydroponic example
Similar to landscaping, drip irrigation is a highly efficient way to feed plants.

If you understand drip irrigation systems, as you see in landscaping, you’ll understand the basic premise behind hydroponic drip systems. 

Within this hydroponic system, a drip irrigation hose runs between every plant within the network. Each plant, rooted in an appropriately sized container of growing medium, gets all the nutrients and water it needs from a constant drip. A large nutrient solution reservoir feeds the irrigation hose. The reservoir is aerated with an Airstone.

There are two different types of hydroponic drip systems: recirculating and non-recirculating. In the recirculating versions, each potted plant sits in a large flood and drain style train. As the water saturates the growing medium and feeds the roots, the excess runs off for recollection and reuse.

As the name suggests, the non-recirculating system doesn’t collect the excess nutrient solution. But, if the system is dialled in, there will be very little (if any) runoff. The irrigation drip provides a minimum supply, just enough to keep the medium moist but not waterlogged.

Drip systems are affordable to set up, using the same irrigation systems available at any garden center. They are also one of the most efficient systems for water use and nutrient applications.

Aeroponics

If hydroponics systems is a water-based system, aeroponics is an air-based cultivation system. Aeroponic cultivation stands apart from the other hydroponics systems on our list —simply because the plant’s roots are not submerged in a nutrient solution.

Tested for applications in space by NASA, aeroponics is simple in premise but quite technical in layout. 

Plants sit in nets suspended into a large enclosed “reservoir.” Unlike traditional hydroponics systems, this reservoir does not contain water. Instead, it has a system running through it that regularly sprays a fine nutrient-rich mist over the plant roots.

Growing without soil and, realistically, without a large nutrient reservoir uses the least water and the lowest nutrients. This makes it one of the cheapest to run over the long term.

What’s more, because the plant roots are constantly hanging naked in the air, they absorb a significant amount of oxygen, further boosting the growth rate.

The cons? Aeroponic farming is one of the most technical soilless systems. It is complicated to build from scratch, and you’ll need a high level of expertise to dial in the details. Complete aeroponics kits are the best route, especially for new to intermediate growers, since it alleviates the burden of setting one up yourself. 

What Hydroponic System Will You Choose?

Have you started growing hydroponically? What system did you start with? Have you encountered any hydroponic issues? Of course, every system comes with pros and cons, but all should use efficiency use limited resources to produce a better final yield.

If you are totally new to hydroponic life, you’ll want to stick with simple setups, like DWC or a flood and drain system. We recommend hoping on the HydroGuide App to make your introduction to soilless growing even easier. 

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