Hydroponic Systems 101 How they Work and Types

What Is Hydroponics?

Before we dive into how hydroponics works, we’re going to start by understanding what this practice is. Hydroponics is a method for growing plants that use a nutrient-rich water-based solution. Unlike traditional gardening, hydroponics doesn’t utilize soil. Rather, it utilizes an inert medium like peat moss, clay pellets, or vermiculite.

With hydroponics, the gardener has more control over the variables that the plant needs to grow successfully. This can help to ensure that the plants grow fuller and faster. This is one of the major reasons that hydroponics are so popular when it comes to gardening competitions. Over time, the gardener can find the ideal combination of variables to make their plants better than traditional soil grown plants.

The Science Behind Plant Nutrition

By understanding how plant nutrition works, you can better understand how the practice of hydroponics is successful in growing plants. Plants, in general, only need a few essential components to grow. These are water, mineral nutrients, oxygen, sunlight, and carbon dioxide.

When plants have adequate carbon dioxide, light, water, and mineral nutrients, they undergo a process called photosynthesis. This uses chlorophyll which is the green pigment found naturally in plants. It works to generate sugars and oxygen that allow the plant to grow.

During this process, the plant lets off oxygen into the air as its byproduct. This is why plants are so essential to humans being able to breathe. Throughout its lifespan, the plant will actually respire just like humans according to UCSB ScienceLine. This means it will take in oxygen and give off carbon dioxide. As you can see, plants need both carbon dioxide and oxygen to survive, contrary to many people’s beliefs.

Don’t Plants Need Soil Nutrients To Grow?

You may be under the common misconception that all plants need soil to grow. The truth is that there are components in the soil that allow plants to grow fully. These are in the form of mineral nutrients called nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium. These are given the common abbreviation of NPK by the Department Of Primary Industries.

As long as the plant is receiving these essential mineral nutrients from somewhere, the plant will grow healthy without the need for soil. In hydroponic systems, these mineral nutrients are supplied via a water-based compound. This is done either directly to the root system or through a medium that the root system uses to absorb the solution through.

Putting The Whole Concept Of Hydroponics Together

So far you’ve learned that plants need five essential components to flourish. These are light, water, mineral nutrients, and carbon dioxide. Hydroponics utilizes these essential components to grow plants, just without the basic need of soil as the base compound. Hydroponics allows plants access to everything they need to grow, but instead of using the natural mineral nutrients found in soil, plants are given the water-based nutrient solution.

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Active Aqua Root Spa 5 Gallon Bucket System

OUR #1 CHOICE

  • ​Water tight seal to guarantee no leaks 
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  • ​Multi-purpose air hose delivers air from the pump to the bottom of the bucket 
AeroGarden Harvest with Gourmet Herb Seed Pod Kit

TOP-RATED

  • ​Up to 6 plants can be grown at a time
  • ​Plants grow in waternot soil. Advanced hydroponics made simple 
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H2OtoGro Complete Hydroponic System

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  • The germination process was quick and successful
  • ​Grow herbs, flowers, fruits and vegetables
  • ​Made with 100% Food Grade materials
AeroGarden Sprout LED with Gourmet Herb Seed Pod Kit
  • ​Grow fresh herbs, vegetables, salad greens, flowers and more in this smart countertop garden
  • ​Up to 3 plants can be grown at a time
  • ​High-performance, full spectrum 10-watt LED lighting system
Alfred Horticulture 2-site Deep Water Culture
  • ​Includes 2 x 5 Gallon FDA approved bucket
  • ​2 x Blue water level indicator
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Viagrow VRDWC-4 Recirculating Deep Water Culture
  • ​Ideal for rooted seedling transplants and cloning from cutting
  • ​Requires a 120-volt outlet 
  • ​Includes growing medium 

PRODUCT

OUR #1 CHOICE

Active Aqua Root Spa 5 Gallon Bucket System
  • ​Water tight seal to guarantee no leaks 
  • ​8-Inch bucket basket
  • ​Multi-purpose air hose delivers air from the pump to the bottom of the bucket 

​​TOP-RATED

AeroGarden Harvest with Gourmet Herb Seed Pod Kit
  • ​Up to 6 plants can be grown at a time
  • ​Plants grow in waternot soil. Advanced hydroponics made simple 
  • ​High-Performance, full spectrum 20-watt led lighting system

​GREAT VALUE

H2OtoGro Complete Hydroponic System
  • The germination process was quick and successful
  • ​Grow herbs, flowers, fruits and vegetables
  • ​Made with 100% Food Grade materials
AeroGarden Sprout LED with Gourmet Herb Seed Pod Kit
  • ​Grow fresh herbs, vegetables, salad greens, flowers and more in this smart countertop garden
  • ​Up to 3 plants can be grown at a time
  • ​High-performance, full spectrum 10-watt LED lighting system
Alfred Horticulture 2-site Deep Water Culture
  • ​Includes 2 x 5 Gallon FDA approved bucket
  • ​2 x Blue water level indicator
  • ​2 x Dual barb elbow
Viagrow VRDWC-4 Recirculating Deep Water Culture
  • ​Ideal for rooted seedling transplants and cloning from cutting
  • ​Requires a 120-volt outlet 
  • ​Includes growing medium 

​A Little History About Hydroponics

Hydroponics has been around for centuries. There are notations about their use in the Floating Gardens of China and the Hanging Gardens of Babylon back in 600 B.C. Some other records of floating plant farms were notated by the Aztecs in Tenochtitlan, Mexico around the 10th century and Marco Polo in China around the late 13th Century according to Green And Vibrant.

​The Necessary Components Of A Hydroponics System

​Every hydroponic system will have some basic components that make it work. By understanding what these components are, you can better craft your own successful hydroponics system. We’re going to go over all the components below, including some optional ones that you may need depending on the specific type of hydroponics system that you’re going to utilize.

Grow Lights

Your plants are going to need sunlight to grow. When it comes to keeping your hydroponics system indoors, you’re going to need to artificially create the sun’s rays on a full-scale spectrum. Depending on the types of plants that you’ll want to grow, there are two different grow lights that you can choose from.

  • Fluorescent Lights – These are perfect for growing foliage plants that don’t require the full light spectrum to grow.
  • Metal Halide Lights – For all other growing needs, such as fruits and vegetables, you’ll need the full light spectrum. Halide lights are designed to mimic sunlight.
  • LED Grow Lights –  Light technology has come a long way and the proof is in LED lights.  Full spectrum LED lights are excellent for all your growing needs such as cannabis, fruits, vegetables, and flowers. Lightweight, less heat, and more efficient make them an excellent choice.

​While grow lights can be on the more expensive side of things, you can use other aids to ensure your plants get adequate lighting. For example, reflectors can help to maximize the amount of light that’s emitted to the plants. Light movers can also be a great asset to ensure that all of your plants receive adequate light throughout the day.

​Growing Medium

The whole concept of hydroponics is to eliminate the need for soil. In its place, you’ll need to supply a growing medium. There are various types of mediums that you can use. The best will depend on the type of hydroponics system you have and the plants that you’re planning on growing.

The job of the growing medium is to hold the nutrients for the plants. The most common kinds of growing medium are clay, Rockwool, sand, gravel, bark, coconut fiber, polyurethane foam, vermiculite, and perlite. When looking to hold more water content, opt for Rockwool. When looking for more air circulation, expanded clay is a must.

​Nutrient Solution

​This is the water-based solution that holds all the necessary mineral nutrients for the plants. This solution is typically held in the reservoir. It’s highly recommended that you change out this solution every one to two weeks. The mixture of your nutrient solution will vary depending on the plants you’re growing, the quantity, age of the plants, type of hydroponics system you’re using, and so forth.

​Nutrient Reservoir

​As you learned above, this is where the nutrient solution hangs out before it gets fed to the plants or medium. While you can choose pretty much any type of container to hold your solution, you should avoid metallic materials as they can be harmful to your plants. Simply using a large plastic container or old fish tank as your reservoir is fine. Hard plastic tends to be the easiest reservoir material to maintain.

​Grow Tray

​Your plants are going to need to sit somewhere. The grow tray is where plants are separately placed. This can also be commonly referred to as the grow chamber. These come in a lot of different sizes and shapes depending on the type of hydroponics system that you’re going to be using.

​Pump

​This component is used to move the nutrient solution from the reservoir. The whole purpose of this pump is to oxygenate the water in the solution to help prevent algae growth in the reservoir. Think of a hydroponics pump as an aquarium pump. It works to circulate the water to keep it fresh and clean. Ensure that you check your hydroponics pump often to prevent against unwanted blockages.

​Airstone

​While not a basic necessity for plant growth, an airstone is commonly included in most hydroponics systems. Its sole purpose is to add oxygen to the nutrient solution for the plants. The oxygen works to facilitate the germination and overall growth of the plants. When plants have more oxygen, they grow much faster.

​Timer

​Another optional component, a timer is commonly used in conjunction with the ebb and flow hydroponics system. This timer works to control when the water-based nutrient solution will be given to the plants. Depending on the size of your plants, their type, and the medium you’re using in your ebb and flow hydroponics system, you’ll want to set the time to water your plants about two to three times per day according to Greentrees Hydroponics.

The Various Types of Hydroponic Systems You Can Utilize

As you learn more and more about hydroponics, you’ll discover the fact that there are many different ways to make these systems. The whole idea is to have your plant roots reach the nutrient solution while still having access to light and carbon dioxide to grow. We’re going to take a look at the various techniques you can use to grow your plants in your very own hydroponic system.

​Deepwater Culture

Deepwater Culture

Also abbreviated as DWC, the deepwater culture method can be referred to as the reservoir method. If you’re a beginner starting out, then this may be the ideal growing environment for you as it’s the easiest to do. This type of system works by suspending the plants in a nutrient solution.

The DWC hydroponic system has an aquarium-style air pump that oxygenates the nutrient solution so the roots don’t drown. With this type of system, you’ll need to prevent light from penetrating the bottom of the system as it can create algae. With this type of hydroponic system, there are no spray emitters that can get clogged. This makes it an ideal environment for organic hydroponics as they tend to be more prone to clogging.

​Nutrient-Film Technique

Nutrient Film Technique

The nutrient-film technique, or NFT, is a specific type of hydroponic system that offers a continuous flow of nutrient-rich solution to the plant roots. The solution itself is implemented on a slight tilt so that the force of gravity allows the solution to trend downward throughout the NFT hydroponic system.

With this specific type of hydroponic system, the roots are able to absorb more oxygen from the air, unlike other systems where the roots are surrounded in the nutrient solution or medium. Plants need oxygen just like humans to live. And yes, they do emit oxygen during the process of photosynthesis too! These systems tend to facilitate a faster growth rate as well.

​Aeroponics

Aeroponics

This type of hydroponics systems is one of the more innovative and exciting systems to see in action. This works by suspending the plants in the air and allowing the nutrient solution to come to them. The solution is delivered via a spraying action or a fogging action, depending on what action the owner decides to utilize.

One of the major advantages of this type of hydroponics system is that it’s very easy to set up. Many commercial plant growers will opt for this method due to its easy maintenance. This method also allows the roots access to more oxygen, which results in a faster-growing rate.

​Wicking

shows hydroponic wick system

The wicking method is a very low cost and easy to set up a hydroponics solution. This works by having a material that wicks the nutrient solution, such as cotton. This wicking material is what houses the plants and their roots that you’re intending to grow in the hydroponics system.

The whole concept of this system is that the wicking material will absorb the nutrient solution is small doses. The plant roots in the wicking compound will then absorb the nutrient solution to grow. This type of system is best used with wicking materials that won’t absorb too much solution and suffocate the plants. Avoid Rockwool and peat moss.

​Ebb And Flow

Show ebb and flow system

This method is also commonly referred to as the flood and drain hydroponics system. This is a timed system that allows the nutrient solution into the growing area at specific time intervals. Once in the growing area, the solution is absorbed by the plants.

The leftover solution slowly drains back into the hydroponic reservoir for reuse. The nutrient solution is pumped into the growing area. This type of system is best for growing plants which are accustomed to periods of dryness. The roots of these plants will work to grow bigger during the dry spells, which will, in turn, allow them to absorb more nutrient solution when rehydrated.

​Drip System

shows hydroponic drip system

A very simple hydroponic system, this works by supplying the roots with a slow feed of nutrient solution via the medium utilized in the hydroponics system. The slow draining mediums that work best for this type of drip feed are peat moss, coconut coir, and Rockwool.

While this system is very simple to use, it has one major problem that can occur. The drip emitters tend to clog. This is due to the excess build up of nutrients on the emitter. Therefore, this system will require consistent cleaning to ensure the hydroponics system is working effectively to grow the plants.

​As you can see, each type of hydroponics system has its own advantages and disadvantages. If you’re new to hydroponics, deciding on the right system for you can seem like a difficult feat. With so many options, which one do you choose to use? Here are some top factors from Maximum Yield you’ll want to consider when purchasing your first hydroponics system.

  • ​What types of plants are you intending to grow?
  • ​How much money do you want to invest?
  • ​How active do you want to be with your system?
  • ​How much growing space do you have to work with?
  • ​How much do you plan on harvesting?

One of the biggest factors that you’ll need to consider when it comes to hydroponics is the amount of money you’re willing to invest. Some systems can get overly expensive and the energy costs to run equipment can add up over time. While more costly systems can ensure the fastest growing and fullest crops, they’re not your only option.

For newbies who are just trying to get their hands dirty, an inexpensive hydroponics system is possible. In a video by the Seminole County Government, you can learn how to easily start your own lettuce plants in a homemade hydroponics system. This can be a great starter project that requires little hands-on time and will give you experience in hydroponics growing.

What Are The Advantages Of Using A Hydroponic System?

Hydroponics have been growing in popularity for many different reasons. The biggest is that they work to greatly enhance the growth rate of the plants. This is because the variables that plants need for growth, including water, sun, carbon dioxide, oxygen, and mineral nutrients, can be accurately controlled.

Think of your hydroponics system as a big experience. Will your plants grow better with more phosphorus? Do they need more sunlight? With this type of environment, you can control all of these variables and, therefore, change them as you see fit. Plants have been able to grow up to 25 percent faster in hydroponic systems and produce 30 percent more than traditional soil-grown plants.

This increased growth rate allows your plants to not work as hard to survive. They flourish when they’re able to obtain the essential components they need to live. With their root systems already being present in the mineral solution, the plant focuses on producing more up top than on expanding its own root system.

Are There Any Disadvantages To Hydroponic Systems?

When it comes to looking at the pitfalls of hydroponic systems, there is one major one that tends to come up a lot. The cost of a hydroponics system can get expensive. Now, we can all craft some do-it-yourself systems at a fraction of the cost of the factory made ones. However, the quality that you receive from the system will likely be less.

As a newbie to growing hydroponics, you may find it difficult at first to find the right nutrient solution for your plants. Through investing time on a daily basis to measure pH levels, you’ll start to strike a balance. Also, beware that some hydroponics systems, such as the ebb and flow system, can have unexpected problems like pump failure. This can result in the killing off of your plants if you don’t fix the issue quickly.

Can You Transfer Plants From Soil To Hydroponics?

The simple answer to this question is yes. While you can start plants in the hydroponics system, it’s much easier to actually put them in soil growing trays first. Once the seedlings get to about three inches tall, then you can easily transfer them out of the soil and into your hydroponics system setup.

During the transfer process, you’ll want to carefully dig up the plant and its roots. Remove all of the soil from the roots. Remove the big pieces by hand and, then, use a bucket of water to soak the roots. Be sure to use extreme caution when cleaning the root stems as you don’t want to break them off. If there are soil clumps that are attached to the stems which will cause damage if pulled off, simply let them stay.

Now, it’s time to place your plant into the growing tray of your hydroponics system. Again, be sure to pay close attention to the roots of your plants as you don’t want to cause any damage during the transport process. Cover the roots with your soilless medium to hold the plant properly in place in its growing tray. Your plant is safe and ready to flourish in your new hydroponics system!

​Summarizing What You’ve Learned

In this informative article, we’ve fed you a lot of valuable information. Hopefully, you understand the basics of how hydroponics systems work to grow plants and their basic components, like the medium. You should understand the various types that can be used, including DWC, NFT, aeroponics, wicking, ebb and flow, and drip systems.


You should also understand the various advantages that hydroponic systems posses over soil-grown plants, such as faster and fuller crops. Now that you have the basic knowledge you need about hydroponics, it’s time to set up your very own hydroponics system. Start with the list of factors to consider and get to work constructing your very own hydroponics environment.

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Karen Miller

Karen Miller has been gardening and growing indoors since she was a child.Over the past few years, she has really started sharing her fast knowledge of indoor growing equipment.From grow lights, tents, ventilation, and nutrients you can count on Karen to have either used it or grown it.

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