Different Types of Hydroponic Systems And How They Work

Last Updated on April 15, 2024 by Real Men Sow

Hydroponic systems can be a complex field with many technological and scientific solutions. Each solution has its own advantages and disadvantages. It is important to understand the differences between hydroponic systems. The right one can make all the difference in your garden’s success.


1. The Kratky Hydroponic System

kratky hydroponic systemIt’s as simple as that. It is enough to ensure that the stems and leaves are not in the nutrient solution. You can use a grid or a mesh pot for this purpose. A simple vase with narrow necks will work well. Sweet potatoes can be grown in vases, which is the Kratky method. Some people don’t even use a nutrient-rich solution but simply water.

Advantages of Using This Method

Disadvantages of Using This Method

  • The passive system means that the nutrients are not delivered to the roots by a pump. This is a good thing for maintenance and financial reasons, but it also limits your ability to control the feeding of your plants.
  • After the roots absorb it, the nutrient solution will run dry. It may be difficult, or impossible to top up depending on the size and shape of the plant.
  • This system doesn’t provide root aeration.
  • This is not suitable for small plants or small gardens.

This is an amateurish way to grow a plant. It’s fine if it looks nice in a vase, but not if your goal is to provide food. This is why there is a current trend to transfer epiphytic orchids this way since they are naturally adapted to live without soil.

2. Deep Water Culture Hydroponic System

The “mother” of all hydroponic systems, the oldest and most historical. It isn’t a popular choice with hydroponic gardeners. It’s based on a tank, also known as a grow tank. This tank contains the nutrient solution as well as an air pump to supply oxygen to the roots. This is the simplest way to do it. An air pump can help you grow more plants in a smaller space. The basic model is rarely used. Gardeners will prefer two tanks and two pumps.

Advantages of Using This Method

  • Improved Kratky Method.
  • Simple and cheap; it only has a few elements, which means low setup costs, and it also means that there are fewer parts that can break.
  • Allows nutrient solution top-up.
  • Aerates of the roots.

Disadvantages of Using This Method

  • The nutrient solution is almost still because still water can be a breeding ground for pathogens, such as bacteria and algae growth.
  • An air pump is not enough to provide adequate aeration. 
  • This system is not recommended for hydroponic towers, vertical gardens, or any other solution that seeks to maximize space through the growth of plants on different layers. This system is heavy and bulky.
  • It is impossible to clean it completely if it isn’t in use. You must empty the grow tank before you can do that.
  • It is not recommended for all plants. Some species, such as raspberries and peppers, are not suitable for it. Peppers and raspberries cannot tolerate having their roots “wet” constantly. They need periods of dryness to prevent them from rotting.

3. The Wick Hydroponic System

wick hydroponic system

This method is simple, but it works well. Although it isn’t the most efficient hydroponic system, I find it to be very useful. It solves many of the problems associated with deep water culture using a simple and inexpensive solution: a Wick.

Materials Needed:

  • A grow tank
  • A reservoir
  • One or more wicks (felt and ropes, ropes, or any other spongy material).
  • A growing medium, such as coconut coir, expanded Clay, porous, and inert material, that retains the nutrient solution and then slowly releases it.

How It Works

Simply dip the wicks in the reservoir, making sure they reach the bottom. Then you will place the ends in the grow tank. You will need to add some solution to your grow tank so that the tips are still in it. Fill the tank with the growing medium. Then plant your favorite lettuce or flowers…

Capillary action is a phenomenon that plants use to move water in their bodies. The nutrient solution slowly, but steadily, will spread from areas where there are more to those with less. It works in the same way as a sponge. This means that the roots will absorb the solution and the tips of the wires will absorb it from the reservoir. Similar to how a plant absorbs nutrients and water from the soil based on its hunger, so will it with a wick system.

There is another trick that makes this system extremely convenient and clever: You can place the grow tank over the reservoir and make a hole in its bottom. This will ensure that the excess solution does not remain in the tank, which could cause stagnation or infection, and it will be recycled quickly and efficiently into the reservoir.

Advantages of Using This Method

  • Simple and cheap.
  • Recycles the nutrient solution.
  • The amount of nutrients you give your plants is controlled automatically. It responds to your plants’ needs automatically. If they drink lots, it will give them more.
  • Have Good Aeration
  • Reduces the growth of pathogens and algae, but not completely.
  • The system is almost self-sufficient. You don’t have to run the pumps or check the nutrients in the grow tank. The sump tank will still need to be monitored.

Disadvantages of Using This Method

  • It is not recommended for towers, vertical gardens,or multi-layer gardens. You can place grow tanks on top of each other, but the drainage system requires some pipework. Furthermore, the wicks are too short.
  • It is not as good as the DWC and it does not address the problem of plants that require dry spells for their roots. Even the wick system can provide a steady supply of nutrients and water.
  • Although the DWC solution is better than the wick system, it still has issues with bacteria and algae, as well as fungi. The reason is that the grow tank will always be humid.
  • It is not recommended for larger plants. Placing a heavy plant on a table or trellis so that the reservoir can be placed underneath is hard. Larger plants might also require a higher nutrient absorption speed than what you can offer with a series of wick
  • It is therefore not suitable for large gardens or crops. There is a limit to how much nutrient solution can be distributed, which limits its ability to sustain the biomass.

4. Ebb And Flow (Or Flood And Drain) Hydroponic System

ebb and flow hydroponicYou will have realized that hydro ice’s main problem in its development was not how to give nutrients and water to plants. It was how to provide oxygenation and nutrition. The ebb-and-flow hydroponic method was the first to solve this problem.

It is important to water the roots frequently and only for a short time. They will be able to breathe without being in constant water, and they won’t have to stay there forever.

Materials Needed:

  • A grow tank
  • A reservoir
  • Reversible water pump: This pump can send water (here the nutrient solution), in two directions. It sends water out to the grow tanks and then takes it back to the reservoir.
  • An air pump. Not everyone uses it. However, many gardeners still like to aerate the solution in their reservoir.
  • Pipes for transferring the nutrient solution from the grow tank to the other side.
  • A timer. You don’t have to turn on the pump continuously; the timer can be set.

You can use a growing medium that has ebb or flow, although it is not recommended. Your garden will still function without one. The reservoir to mix the ingredients. The timer will tell your pump when to send it to the grow tank. The solution will then be readily available, but the plants will still feel the irritations.

There are two phases to a cycle of irrigation: the irrigation phase and the dry phase. There is usually one irrigation phase that lasts 10-15 minutes each hour of daylight. As you can see the pump will remain on most of the time.

The number of light hours your plants receive each day will affect the number and number of cycles they get. On average, there are between 9-16 cycles per day. It all depends upon the climate, temperature, and atmospheric humidity as well as the type of crop that you grow.

A growing medium will allow you to keep the nutrient solution longer and slowly release it to your roots. This allows you to have fewer irritations over a longer time span. The irrigation time should take a little longer, about one minute, because the solution takes time to soak into the growing medium.

Advantages of Using This Method

  • It provides excellent aeration, which is its greatest benefit.
  • Importantly, the nutrient solution does not remain stagnant around the roots. This means you can greatly reduce the likelihood of bacteria and pathogens growing in your garden.
  • You have the ability to control how your plants are fed and watered. You can even change the watering schedule to suit their needs and the climate.
  • It can be used for all crops, even those that require dry spells or root crops.
  • It can also be grown vertically. This is not ideal, but it has been adapted.

Disadvantages of Using This Method

  • It can be difficult to set up. You will need an irrigation system that is reliable. A good reversible pump, timer, etc. will also be needed.
  • This system is difficult to use
  • It is dependent on many components. If they fail, it will cause problems. 
  • This requires knowledge about the crops you are growing, as well as their nutritional, watering, and humidity requirements.
  • It is quite common for the pump to get clogged. It is because the pump has to work so hard. Roots can break off and end up in it, or leaves could collect there. So it needs maintenance.
  • Even if the piping is broken and clogged, it’s still possible to have small accidents. This is because the pipes are constantly in use and filled with large amounts of fluid, which is not the case with drip systems or nutrient films.
  • The pump can also be very noisy. You might have an issue with your hydroponic system if the pump is turning on while you’re trying to sleep on the couch.

The flood and drain system is best left to professionals and experts. If you are looking for an easy-to-understand and manageable system that you can afford, or one that is very cost-effective, this system may not be right for you.

5. Nutrient Film Technique

Researchers have created NFT (nutrient film technique) hydroponic system in an effort to solve the problem of aeration. NFT will provide only a thin layer of solution (a “film”) at the bottom of a deep tank. This will allow the roots to breathe and the lower portion of the roots to receive nutrients and water.

Researchers discovered that this hydroponic technique works by allowing plants to adapt by growing roots that reach the film, then spreading horizontally. Don’t be alarmed if your roots look a little like a mop pressing against the floor. This technique has one important technical characteristic: the grow tank must be slightly angled. It is not completely horizontal.

The nutrient solution will actually enter the grow tank from one side, and then flow down a gentle slope until it reaches a point where it can be collected and recycled. It’s a matter of degrees. You don’t want your solution stagnant, but you also don’t want the solution to flow too quickly.

Materials Needed:

  • Grow tank that needs to be slightly inclined. It does not have to be a large rectangular tank. You can also use pipes. This system is great for long lines of plants.
  • A reservoir is used to store the nutrients for your garden and to also recycle them after they have been irrigated.
  • The water pump will supply the nutrients to the growing tank.
  • Air pump to place an air stone in the reservoir. The nutrient film won’t aerate because it is moving along the bottom.
  • Pipes that bring water from the reservoir to the grow tank.

It’s quite simple. It is a technical problem due to the tilting of the grow tank. This can be quickly fixed by purchasing a kit. You can set one up yourself, perhaps tailored to your space or needs. However, it is best to start with 1:100.

This means you must go down one inch or centimeter for every 100 inches or cm. If you prefer this method of measuring, the angle is 0.573 degrees. Hydroponic gardeners tend to avoid using the nutrient-film technique as a growing medium. This is due to practical reasons:

  • The growth medium could stop the flow of nutrients or disrupt it in any way.
  • NFT doesn’t require the additional aeration provided by a growing medium, as part of the roots are permanently in the air.
  • The continuous film means that the system doesn’t need to continue feeding the roots or keeping them moist between irrigation cycles.

Advantages of Using This Method

  • It requires very little water and nutrient mixture. Because the nutrient solution can be continuously recycled, this is why it is so efficient.
  • You can also reduce the reservoir’s size.     
  • It’s easy to inspect the roots. You can simply take them out of the grow tanks and, if they don’t have a growing medium, remove them and replace them.       
  • It is also easy to address root causes.       
  • The pH of the pants is maintained by the fact that roots are always partly in the nutrient solutions and partly in the air. The pH of the roots can change when they dry out or when they aren’t fed. For the health and well-being of your crops, a constant pH is essential.      

Disadvantages of Using This Method

  • NFT is not recommended for large plants. This is because the roots won’t have the support of a growth medium.       
  • Roots can block the flow and cause the nutrient solutions to stop flowing. NFT tanks are typically pipes. Roots can block the flow of the nutrient solution if they grow large and thick.       
  • It is not recommended for carrots, turnips, and other root vegetables. This is because the root’s shape is unusual. The tuberous portion of the root is very large and the roots at the bottom are small. This means they might not be strong enough to feed the plant with a thin nutrient layer. Although experiments have been made with NFT and carrots, the results are not conclusive.       
  • The nutrient film technique is best suited for leaf vegetables. Even fruits and vegetables prefer a faster flow than NFT.       
  • If the system fails, your plants may not have enough nutrition or water. This could even lead to the death of your crop depending on how long you take to fix it.      

This technique eliminates the problem associated with aeration. It is also good for growing leaf vegetables. However, it is not suitable for all plants and may cause some problems.

6. Drip System

The drip system is a great solution to the “big issue” of aeration. It also provides continuous nutrition and watering. The concept is simple: pipe and hoses, and a growing medium. It is closely linked to drip irrigation in-ground gardening, which is rapidly becoming more popular. In hot and dry areas, you will find long pipes and flexible hoses to irrigate crops. This saves water and prevents evaporation.

The plastic pipes and hoses that made this system possible were flexible and inexpensive. It’s easy to see how it works. You use pipes and hoses for the retrieval of the nutrient solution. Then you send it to each plant. You can then drip it or sprinkle it onto the growing medium, which will slowly release it. This allows for uniform distribution of nutrients. These are important if your crop is uniform.

Materials Required:

  • Reservoir to mix your nutrient solution.
  • A water pump is required to be connected to a system that will irrigate each plant.
  • Hoses and pipes that are inexpensive
  • Growing medium. The solution cannot be dripped directly onto the roots. It would end up falling on the same spot, damaging the root system, and causing it to dry out, wilt, and die.
  • An air pump. Also with the drip system, it is more efficient to air the solution in the reservoir.
  • If you wish to irrigate in regular cycles, you will need a timer (which we will soon cover).

You will need to master two areas of expertise: irrigation (cycles) and growing medium. Let me explain. This system makes it important to choose the right medium for your plants. Each one has its own advantages and disadvantages.

Furthermore, your choice of growing medium can also impact how often and how often you water your plants. It all depends on where you plant your plants, the climate, and the crop. It is important to consider how long the medium can retain the nutrients.

There are many options. You can choose from continuous irrigation where you drip small amounts of the solution continues to your plants or long irrigation cycles. If your hydroponic expanded clay is your growing medium, continuous irrigation can be used. However, rock wool will require you to irrigate every 3 to 4 hours.

Advantages of Using This Method

  • The drip system can be used for all kinds of plants, even fruit trees.
  • Perfect aeration is possible.
  • You can control how much nutrient solution each plant receives.
  • One central system can be easily adapted to different sizes, crops, and plant types.
  • It requires a very little nutrient solution. Many gardens have an excess nutrient solution recovery system.
  • It’s ideal for towers and vertical gardens. This allows you to get more from the ground or floor space you have.
  • It can be shaped to fit in odd places. You may even place the odd pot with a water hose in that dusty corner of your fridge.
  • The roots should not be in stagnant water. This is bad for their health as it reduces the chance of bacteria, rot, and other problems.
  • Each plant is irrigated separately to prevent the spread of infection. The water in the plant’s nutrient solution can carry disease if it is shared with other plants.
  • It is quiet; unlike ebb flow, which requires a powerful pump, there will be no noise from the pump. The pipes, however, will remain silent.

Disadvantages of Using This Method

  • Leakage is common because it has many pipes and connections. It is usually not a major problem, and it can be fixed quickly and easily.
  • If your water pump fails, chances are you won’t notice it. This could mean that your plants may be without a nutrient solutions for a long period of time.

7. Aeroponics

A  network of pipes to send nutrient solution under pressure to the plants. This is then sprayed onto the roots by the sprayer. This allows roots to not only receive nutrients and moisture but also allow them to breathe freely. This means that you’ll need to keep the roots in an enclosed area, called an aeroponics room. You will then insert them through flexible rubber collars into the chamber. These are technical solutions to an effective, but simple concept.

Aeroponics allows you to irrigate very quickly and for short periods of time. The frequency of a cycle depends on the crop type and the climate. However, it also depends on how much pressure your system uses. Aeroponics actually uses two pressure systems: LPA (low-pressure system) and HPA [high-pressure system].

You can have irrigation cycles as short as 5 seconds per 5 minutes with HPA. This should help you understand the differences between drip irrigation hydroponics and ebb-flow. You will still need to use a pump. But, what’s more, you need to consider not only the pump’s capacity (how many gallons it can shift per hour, or GPH), as well as its pressure power (measured in pounds per square inch, (PSI).

Materials Needed:

Most people will order to buy an aeroponics kit, but if you want to build your own, here is what you need:

  • A reservoir
  • Good pressure water pump.
  • An irrigation timer is used to control the frequency of your irrigation cycles.
  • Pipes and hoses are equipped with sprayers or nozzles.
  • An aeroponics chamber is made from plastic. However, any durable, waterproof, and rot-resistant material that doesn’t heat up can be used. Iron is not a good option, as it can become too hot in the Sun, then too cold at night, or freeze in winter. To avoid algae growth, it is best if the material is Matt.

You won’t need an air pump because the roots are already aerated, and even the drops will aerate after being sprayed.

Advantages of Using This Method

  • It requires less nutrient solution and actually consumes less water than other hydroponic systems. Will also require less nutrient mixture.
  • Allows for perfect airflow.
  • Aeroponics chambers can be constructed in many forms, including towers. This makes them a great system for creating vertical gardens.
  • It yields significantly more than other hydroponic methods.
  • It can be used for many crops. However, it is not suitable for fruit trees or plants with complex root systems. This is because it is difficult to spray all of them, especially the central ones.
  • The nutrient solution can be recycled.
  • This reduces the chance of infection. A bit like the drip system, plants don’t share the same nutrient pool. Infections are more difficult to spread.

Disadvantages of Using This Method

  • Keeping the climate within the chamber stable (humidity and temperature) 
  • Generally not suitable for outdoor spaces because of the reasons above.
  • It is more expensive to set up than other hydroponic systems, and the pump and aeroponics chamber are both more costly.
  • Heavily dependent on the pump’s performance. You cannot afford to stop feeding your plants every five minutes. The roots could dry up quickly if they don’t have a suitable medium for growth.
  • It consumes more electricity, so a pump that is constantly working requires more money.
  • Needs a lot of space because the chamber must not be full of roots. It also needs to have large volumes that can be used to spray the droplets. Aeroponics works best if you are looking for a large, but low-growing garden. These are why towers, prisms, and pyramids are so common.
Real Men Sow
Real Men Sow

Hello, I’m Pete and I’m currently based in the west of Scotland, in a small place called Rosneath, where I’m exploring my garden adventures. I personally started gardening around 6 years ago and initially, I started out by growing my favorite fruits and berries, such as strawberries, Raspberries & Gooseberries. Since then I’ve added a lot of vegetables and working closely with my neighbor, it’s been a lot of fun.