Choosing Your First Hydroponic System
For growers trying out hydroponics for the first time, choosing the best system can be a daunting task. Are you up for the challenge? Take our quiz to find out, then read on to learn about several low-maintenance hydro systems and determine which one is right for you.
As laws and climates change and mentalities shift towards living more sustainably, an increasing number of people are joining the grow revolution and bringing things indoors so they can grow year-round. Selecting your first indoor garden set-up can be difficult with all the options available, each with its own set of pros and cons.
Depending on your unique set of circumstances, certain set-ups may be more valuable to you than others. Take this short quiz to find out if you’re ready for hydroponics, then read on to dial in the specifics.
1) Do you have limited start-up cash?
- a) Yes
- b) Not necessarily
2) Do you see this as a long-term hobby or just temporary?
- a) Temporary
- b) Long-term hobby
3) Do you have plenty of time available to spend on this each day?
- a) Yes
- b) No
4) Do you live in a region with frequent power outages?
- a) Yes
- b) No
5) Do you want to grow organically or in a sterile environment?
- a) Organic
- b) Sterile
6) Are you eager to get started right away?
- a) Yes
- b) No rush
7) Will the growroom be in a rural area subject to many pest infestations?
- a) Not sure
- b) Yes
8) Is it important to you to keep your growroom as clean as possible at all times?
- a) Not a factor
- b) Definitely
Tally up the number of answers you responded to with A versus B. If you answered more questions with A, you might be better off with a traditional, soil-based system. If you answered more questions with B, hydroponics may be for you. Even if your answers were mixed, there might be a hydro system listed here that fits your bill perfectly.
Ebb & Flow
Ebb and flow systems have long been recognized as classic hydroponic systems. An ebb and flow system consists of a shallow table with a centralized flood and drain system that is hooked up to timers to control the feed schedule. An overflow valve is also installed to control the height of the water that is flooded onto the tray that holds the plants.
Once the plant tray is flooded for a set amount of time, the water drains back into the reservoir, which is usually placed beneath the table. There are many benefits to choosing this type of system, including the ability to move plants around if they become crowded, and how easy it is to set up and customize your system based on spatial and financial limitations.
Drawbacks include a few slightly higher risk factors than other methods. If you live in a region with frequent power outages, this might be the least desirable option for you, as plants rely solely on the pump delivering the nutrient-rich water to them on a strict time schedule.
If you are out and about and are unable to get to your growroom in a timely manner, plants can die in a matter of hours. However, many plants are resilient, so if you open up your tent to see wilted, sad-looking plants, it is worth trying to resuscitate them by watering them immediately, as you may be pleasantly surprised.
Some water culture systems are visually similar to ebb and flow systems, but they operate somewhat differently. A traditional water culture system consists of a vessel that is flooded but never drained.
The plants may float around in the water in Styrofoam rafts, or they might be held in net pots positioned directly above the water with their roots suspended indefinitely in the water below, which is usually referred to as deep water culture. Plants are exposed to a nutrient-enriched water source at all times. To avoid suffocating plants, the water must be properly oxygenated with air pumps and air stones.
One benefit to water culture is being able to run your nutrient solution at a lower concentration, since the food source is ever-present and plants are free to feed as they need. One of the most serious drawbacks is the threat of diseases.
Because roots are constantly exposed to the solution, whatever is in that solution—good or bad—will propagate quickly. Some common, serious threats include fusarium, root rot and pythium. You can use products like hypochlorous acid, or H2O2, to help prevent the development of water-borne pathogens.
Read also: Dealing with Pythium Root Rot
Similar to water culture, the roots of plants in aeroponic systems are also suspended, but instead of being immersed in the water, they are hanging in the air. The nutrient-rich solution is then misted periodically from a reservoir onto roots. Plants are often held up by flexible, firm neoprene collars instead of grow media.
Aeroponics is one of the cleanest, most sterile ways to grow. Without grow media, there aren’t as many locations for bacteria to hide. The absence of grow media also allows the plants to grow as quickly as possible without any limits to the span of their root mass. These conditions make aeroponics one of the most preferred cloning options available, as fresh cuttings are highly susceptible to various diseases and prone to failure.
One limitation is that many plants will eventually outgrow their original system, so they will have to be transplanted. Unless you’re growing lettuce or basil, you will have to have something lined up for when that happens. While it is possible to grow mature plants in an aeroponic system, some plant strains may have higher demands for water and nutrients than the misting environment can viably deliver.
Nutrient Film Technique
Most hydroponic systems are hybrids, and nutrient film technique (NFT) systems are no different. This set-up may require a bit more experience than the rest, but its results are typically superior. Every system has its shortcomings, which usually evolve from a lack of one of three things: air, water or nutrients. The beauty of NFT is that all three of these essentials are abundantly available at all times.
Typically, people think of NFT as a hollowed-out, cylindrical tube on a downward slope that houses the channels that carry nutrients and water. Plants are spaced proportionally and placed in the holes on the upper surface of the tube. Grow media is not necessary and like aeroponics, growers may use neoprene collars or something similar to hold plants in place.
Nutrient-rich solution is pumped from a reservoir, usually located at the base of the channel and then directed up to the highest part of the channels and allowed to flow continuously downstream through the roots. The unused water may then drain directly back into the reservoir for recirculation. When NFT is done right, it can be the best in its class. However, dialing in all the details is something that only comes from experience.
Drip systems are one of the most popular hydroponic methods. Similar to NFT, plants on a drip system may be placed on a slanted table to direct nutrient solution overflow into a recovery or non-recovery system. In recovery drip systems, the solution not absorbed by plants will ultimately drain directly back into the original reservoir, while the water that drains into a non-recovery system is considered wastewater.
The dripline is controlled by a submersible pump that supplies nutrient solution around the base of each plant directly onto the grow media. Common grow media used in this technique include stonewool, clay pebbles and coco. Stonewool and coco allow growers to irrigate less frequently, as they tend to hold enough moisture to keep plants adequately hydrated in between drip cycles. Clay pebbles make nutrient management easier in situations where the drip is more constant.
Drip systems are popular for their easy and affordable set-ups, and high level of control over how plants are fed. On the other hand, drip systems are more prone to fluctuations in pH and EC, as these levels are less stable in recirculating systems.
One of the goals of hydroponics is running a fully automated system. With all the plug-and-play systems available, there is bound to be something for everyone. When selecting a system, keep in mind it isn’t always about which method is best overall, but rather which method will work best for you. Don’t be afraid to try something new.