The wonderful thing about the Internet is that there is so much information available at your fingertips. The frustrating thing about the Internet is there is so much information available at your fingertips. It is like drinking from the virtual fire hose and you are being deluged by well-meaning advocates from all the different camps: tap water, well, rain, reverse osmosis, distilled and others.
For the novice gardener, this can be both intimidating and paralyzing, but it is not necessary to have all the answers up front to be a successful grower. It may take time to refine your techniques, but remember, you are also building a new vocabulary and knowledge base. Here are a few simple rules to help point you in the right direction and make your experiences as stress free as possible. In a nutshell, here is a look at some of the different water sources you will encounter as a hydroponic gardener, and what each one could mean for your plants.
Tap water is unique to every municipality and will probably test differently depending on where you live. The greatest concern is the level of chlorine that is put into the water supply. One concern is that plants do not like chlorine and the second concern is that it kills off all the beneficial bacteria. Although chlorine dissipates in water after a day or two, newer chlorine-based chemical additives may not. The bottom line is that you will be able to get good, but maybe not ideal, results from using tap water. The one exception to this is treating water with water softeners. The high salt content can kill the plants.
This can potentially be one of the least desirable of all the options. Some wells, but certainly not all, can have extremely high mineral content. Although not an insurmountable problem, it takes greater skill and knowledge on the part of the grower. It could certainly create a challenge to a novice gardener. You should have your water tested and take the results to your local hydroponic retailer for recommendations. They will be able to help the beginner make sound choices for optimal results.
This one can also fall into the questionable bracket as pollutants are often the particulate matter that raindrops form around. Many people have great success with rain water but living down wind of a chemical plant may make you think twice. Follow the same advice that you would for well water.
Distilled water has many of its impurities removed through a process called distillation, which involves boiling the water and condensing the steam into a new container. Because of this treatment process, distilled water is more costly and can have a lower pH value than what is desirable. However, distilled water is prized for its lower mineral content. You can easily enjoy a good crop using it; just keep an eye on the pH levels.
Reverse osmosis (frequently referred to as RO) is the preferred water source for most growers. Be aware that it comes with a price tag, but many home systems are quickly becoming more affordable, making it worth a very serious look. RO produces a consistent water supply and has fewer worries than other sources due to its low mineral content and preferred pH level.
The wavelength of ultraviolet (UV) rays is lethal to bacteria. In a UV system, as the water passes by the UV bulb, any living microbes are immediately destroyed. Separate filters can be installed to trap sediments. The combined result is a potable water supply. A UV system can be installed at the water source as it enters the building, purifying all water on site, or smaller units can be installed directly to a single faucet purifying the water at only that selected location.
UV bulbs must be replaced annually, but the cost of running the system is no more than the cost of powering a low-wattage light bulb. Plants need beneficial bacteria and these can be added quite easily after the water passes through the UV system. Like RO systems, they come with a larger price tag, but they are becoming much more affordable, especially the smaller site-specific models.
The information above is only a cursory examination of water systems available to the hydroponic grower, and admittedly, it is neither complete nor robust. The fervor created over preferred systems can be quite intimidating to the beginner, but hopefully this article will help dispel the anxiety of information overload and instructional bias.
Learn, have fun and most importantly, don’t be afraid. No matter the source, plants tend to grow better with water than without.