What Are Hydroponic Systems and How Do They Work?
Many people are getting into the hobby of growing plants. Whether it is for farming, gardening, or aesthetic purposes, having plants in your home is a great way to relieve stress, and possibly earn money on the side.
Alternative techniques for growing plants such as hydroponics are now becoming popular. What is hydroponics, how does it work, and what else do you need to know about it?
What Is Hydroponics?
Hydroponics is defined as a method of growing plants without the use of soil. Instead of soil, the plants are grown in water, inert mediums, or other formulations.
Hydroponics is currently being practiced in different parts of the world, and is now considered as a multi-million-dollar industry.
There are different plants that can be grown using hydroponics. These include food plants, ornamentals, herbs, and medicinal plants.
The use of hydroponics provides an intriguing list of advantages for those who will engage in it. As such, a boom in the practice of hydroponics was observed, and that partly facilitated the growth of this craft in recent years.
How Does Hydroponics Work?
The method used in hydroponics is relatively simple: grow your plants in a liquid solution rich in nutrients, oxygen, and other plant necessities, and watch your plants grow.
Of course, everything sounds so simple on paper, but there are some considerations that you have to make to ensure that your plants have the suitable environment for growth.
For starters, the solution should have just the right amount of nutrients and oxygen to facilitate the growth of plants. Also, growth mediums should be applied to facilitate healthy growth of roots.
When used the right way, hydroponic methods can create a near-ideal environment for plants to grow at their best form, even without the use of soil.
Faster growth rate - Provided that you create the ideal conditions, plants can grow up to 25% faster and produce up to 30% more compared to traditional growing methods if they are grown using hydroponics.
Can be done anywhere - Hydroponic techniques allow people to grow plants where you can’t traditionally grow them, or where there’s not enough soil. With this system, people can now grow plants in urban areas, places with extreme weather, and the like.
More environmentally sustainable - Using hydroponics is a more sustainable option for growing plants because it uses less water and chemicals, while also creating a smaller carbon footprint.
A potential answer to food shortage - With the rise of hydroponics and other alternative farming techniques, people can now grow food virtually anywhere. Hydroponics can be used both for personal food supply and for mass distribution purposes.
Needs more attention to detail - Using hydroponics as your plant-growing method of choice is potentially unforgiving. You need to put extra attention to detail in your growing and take a more hands-on approach to it.
Potentially costly to get started - Investing on the equipment needed for creating your own hydroponics system is not cheap; it could cost you hundreds if not thousands of dollars to get started.
Components of a Hydroponics System
A hydroponics system is composed of multiple parts, with each part having its role in creating the ideal ecosystem for your plants.
While there are some setups that will contain more parts with more complex functions, the 3 parts that would be discussed here are considered essential for any type or scale of hydroponics system.
The growing medium essentially plays the role that the soil would otherwise play in traditional plant growing. The medium supports the weight of the plants and facilitates root growth.
Growing media should also have the ability to hold moisture and oxygen. Your media does not facilitate plant growth on its own like soil, but it provides conditions essential for its optimal growth.
There are different types of materials used for growing media, with each of them having its unique list of benefits. Commonly-used materials include expanded clay aggregate, rockwool, perlite, and coconut fiber.
Air Stones and Air Pumps
Plants need oxygen in order for them to grow adequately. Air stones and air pumps are equipment used for oxygenating water in a hydroponic system.
The air pump resides outside the water, and it is responsible for delivering oxygen-rich air in the water.
The air stone, also called the diffuser, is located inside the water tank, and is responsible for taking air from the pump and dispersing it in the water in the form of bubbles.
Net pots are designed to hold your growing medium and pots in place. With its net design, it allows for the free flow of fluid downwards.
Another function of the holes of the net pot is it allows the penetration of roots beyond the pot as it grows. This will ensure non-restrictive growth for maximum growth and productivity.
Net pots are available in different sizes, material thickness, and mesh size.
Types of Hydroponics Systems
Deep Water Culture
Deep water culture is considered as hydroponics in its simplest form. While it is simple, it is still a highly effective technique for growing plants.
A deep water culture system is best described as the plant being suspended in a water solution containing both oxygen and nutrients. It is called such because in this system, the roots are submerged virtually the whole time.
The main advantage of this approach is it is a low-maintenance approach for growing plants. It requires only fundamental equipment, and you can grow plants at a surprisingly quick rate.
The disadvantage of this system is that parameters such as water levels, water pH, and nutrient concentration can fluctuate rapidly, which can adversely affect growth.
Nutrient Film Technique
A simple yet versatile approach in hydroponics, the nutrient film technique uses a system where the bare root absorbs nutrients from water that is consistently pumped into the grow tray/tube.
To set up a nutrient film system, there are 2 reservoirs of water, the grow tray/tube and the nutrient reservoir. The water from the reservoir is pumped from the reservoir to the tube for the plants to absorb, and then the excess gets drained while returning back to the reservoir.
Advantages of the nutrient film system include consistent oxygen access for the roots, water pH is better regulated, and better water and nutrient efficiency.
The biggest disadvantages of this technique include issues if the fluid cycles malfunction, which can cause sudden death of plants.
Aeroponics is a unique approach to plant growth wherein the plants are not submerged in water. Instead, they receive nourishment through misting with a nutrient-rich formula.
The roots are held by a soilless growing medium, and then misted with water and nutrients periodically.
The biggest advantage of this system is it gives maximum freedom to roots, which then boosts growth dramatically. It also allows more plant growth in smaller spaces, and it is highly water-efficient.
The biggest disadvantage of aeroponics is it takes precise methods to get the growth parameters correctly. Also, you’ll need more equipment such as misters and lighting systems.
Also known as the wick system, wicking is an approach in hydroponics that takes advantage of the power of capillary action.
Wicks are placed between the growth medium and the fluid reservoir, which would then draw the nutrient solution up for the roots to absorb.
The biggest advantage of wicking is that you won’t need to use pumps or other mechanical parts. Also, because it requires minimal equipment, you enjoy lower costs in both setup and operation.
The primary disadvantage of wicking is it can only grow limited types of plants, due to the relatively slow uptake of water and nutrients. Also, you have to watch out for toxic buildup at the growth medium.
Ebb and Flow
Also known as the flood and drain system, ebb and flow is a system in hydroponics that uses a cyclical flooding and draining of nutrient solutions.
On the first phase (the flood), water containing nutrients is delivered to the plants. On the second phase (the drain), the water is drained back to the reservoir.
Advantages of the ebb and flow system include constant access to nutrients, simple construction methods, and relatively low cost of operation.
Disadvantages of the ebb and flow system include possible disruptions in the system and instances of unstable pH levels, which are potentially toxic to plants.
A drip system is a method in hydroponics in which a pump is used to supply plants with water and nutrients. It is also known as a trickle or micro irrigation system.
Water is distributed to the plants using a dripping action, which helps in both saving water and ensure better control of nutrient distribution to plants.
The biggest advantage of a drip system is it allows for rigid control of water and nutrient supply. Other advantages include low maintenance, affordable installation, and avoidance of drowning of plants.
The disadvantages of such a system include the need for tight regulation of dripping and an increase potential for waste if not used properly.
Osmosis and Hydroponics
Many experts consider reverse osmosis systems to be an essential tool for anyone who is into hydroponics. In fact, you can see reverse osmosis systems in just about every shop that caters to hydroponics enthusiasts.
A reverse osmosis system purifies water to a level of concentration that is most beneficial to your plants. It can filter out excess minerals like calcium and magnesium as well as other contaminants such as volatile organic compounds and pesticides.
Should I Use RO System for Hydroponics?
Any expert would recommend that you install an RO system for your hydroponics setup. It’s proven to provide tangible benefits such as faster plant growth and reduced foul odor.
When buying a reverse osmosis filter, select one with the right size to adequately filter your hydroponics setup. Most hydroponics shops are ready to help you find the right filter size for your system.
In summary, hydroponics is a system wherein plants are grown without the use of soil.
General advantages of this method include space efficiency, faster growth, more economic use of raw resources like water and nutrients, and potentially better yield.
Any of the different hydroponics systems can be used to your advantage. Some systems work best for certain plants, in specific situations, and according to grower skill and commitment.
How do you build a hydroponic system?
Setting up a hydroponic system needs an appropriate location and the right tools. Once everything is set up, you need to regularly monitor your plants.
Check out this awesome guide on building a hydroponic system from scratch.
Is PVC safe for hydroponics?
Using PVC for hydroponics is highly discouraged because of its toxic potential.
PVC can leach toxic materials that can harm both your plants and the environment at large. It can also poison humans and other organisms that consume plants grown in PVC.
For more information on the safety of PVC, check out this detailed look on PVC and hydroponics.
Is ABS safe for hydroponics?
While many would discourage the use of plastics in general for hydroponic purposes, available information says that using ABS is a relatively safer option compared to using other plastics.
The main argument for the safety of ABS is its smaller tendency to leach. With less leaching, the chemicals associated with plastics are not transmitted to plants, water, and the environment.
Is Styrofoam safe for hydroponics?
Styrofoam is considered safe for hydroponics. Such claim is made by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA).
While it contains styrene, a highly toxic substance, its styrene composition is not high enough to create significant risk. Furthermore, prolonged exposure to water does not cause leaching of styrene or other potentially harmful chemicals.
What is the easiest hydroponics system to use?
While each of the systems mentioned in this guide has their own list of unique traits, many consider the deep-water culture method as the easiest hydroponics system to use.
It requires the least amount of materials, supplies, and skill to assemble and maintain. Once you master how it works, this method is easy to understand, making it perfect for beginners.
Where can I buy a hydroponics system?
There are 2 approaches to get your own hydroponics system up and running. It is either you build them from scratch or have someone assemble it for you.
There are many stores both online and offline that are dedicated to hydroponics systems. You can either pick from them the parts you need to assemble your system or ask their help to build one for you.