Common Hydroponic Systems: How Do They Work?

  • Editor: Alex
  • Time to read: 7 min.

For those venturing into the hydroponic world for the first time, learning about all the different hydroponic systems[1] might overwhelm you. You might get a headache trying to rule out options and stick with the most suitable decision for yourself. This guide has been prepared with all the basic information you need to know concerning the common hydroponic systems.

A hydroponic system requires certain elements to function, including a sufficient supply of oxygen, water, and nutrients for the plants. However, each system is constructed with its unique set of working principles and hardware. This is what differentiates one system from another. Simply put, all hydroponic systems are designed to create the ideal environment for plant growth, but these designs are different depending on which hydroponic system is involved.

A few factors should be considered before selecting a system. The kind of plant you intend to grow and your budget should influence the choice you make. The plant to be grown is the first thing you should think of; their nutritional and other requirements determine the perfect hydroponic method to go for.

Wick Hydroponic System

This hydroponic method is straightforward and simple to operate. It makes hydroponic gardening pretty easy with its non-mobile parts. The system does not require electricity, so your plants will not be affected by a power outage.

The wick hydroponic system features 4 parts namely, the reservoir, the grow tray, growing medium, wicking rope. There’s also an optional air pump. Plants will take in oxygen via air pockets within the growing medium, but air pump can be used for increased oxygenation of the water and even distribution of nutrients.

The system operates on a basic, yet efficient principle. The nutrient solution is mixed with the water and then absorbed from the wick to the plant roots using capillary action.


  • Affordable and easy to use
  • Does not need electricity
  • Perfect for growing small plants


  • Not suitable for larger plants
  • Absorption of nutrients isn’t so effective compared to other hydroponic systems


Drip System

This system is famous choice for both domestic and commercial users owing to its versatile nature and efficiency. The drip system is easy to setup and really straightforward to operate.

The drip system is suitable for larger plants with wider roots because it does not need a large amount of water. The system also has sufficient control over the transportation of water and nutrients.

This method consists of two types, the recovery and non-recovery system. The former (recovery) takes and recirculates excess nutrients via the circuit. For this reason, recovery systems distribute balanced nutrients without a digital timer making them very efficient. On the other hand, non-recovery systems do not make use of excess nutrients, so the use of a precise digital time ensures the plant is well-nourished and hydrated.

To create an efficient drip system, you need a water reservoir, a grow tray, submersible pump, growing medium, light timer (for your pump), tubing and connectors.

The plumbing system is created by tubing and connectors between the reservoir and grow tray. They also form the overflow valve. While the air pump helps to increase aeration of water as well as nutrients, it isn’t exactly compulsory. A drip emitter is a suitable replacement although, it gets clogged easily. Creating small holes in the drip lines can suffice.

Once the timer gets started, the pump is activated. The nutrients go to the drip lines from the reservoir, then to the growing medium and down to the plant roots. The excess nutrient solution is drained back into the reservoir via the overflow valve with recovery systems.


  • Uncomplicated and affordable system
  • Nutrients are efficiently and evenly distributed
  • The ideal method for growing large plants


  • Water cycles require too much control
  • Recovery systems demand higher maintenance to control the pH of the solution
  • Non-recovery systems need accurate, digital timers

Ebb And Flow System

This system works excellently well for smaller and medium plants. Its flooding tray is built to support plants temporarily till you transport them to a permanent site. If you plan to grow plants for a while and later move them to a better location, the ebb and flow method will serve you well at that initial stage.

Timers are used to control the system’s growing medium. An ideal medium is one that efficiently conserves moisture which your plants need to thrive. If you suffer a power outage, there should be enough moisture retained to last for a few hours. Examples of excellent mediums are rock wool, coconut and vermiculite. Ensure you make the right choice when it comes to the growing medium.

It is best to keep your plants in separate pots containing the growing medium. That way, it is much easier for you to transport them when the time comes to do so.

The ebb and flow systems features the following parts; reservoir, grow tray, growing medium, submersible pump and tubing.

Within the day, the timer is programmed to come on for some minutes a couple of times. Once this happens, the activated pump transports nutrients in the reservoir to your grow tray and it gets flooded to the overflow tube level. When the timer goes off, the excess nutrient solution gets drained via the delivery tube to the reservoir. You can get stones and air pumps to ensure the nutrients are well distributed.

It is important to clean up your grow table frequently to prevent the growth of algae.


  • Ideal for growing plants that will be transported later on
  • Affordable
  • The nutrient solution is well distributed


  • Needs electricity
  • Growing medium required is much
  • Needs to be regularly cleaned

N.F.T (Nutrient Film Technique)

The N.F.T method is usually used to propagate small plants that develop quickly, including common herbs. This system functions in the absence of a growing medium. The plants grow in baskets and their roots just hang freely within the grow tray.

Timers aren’t required as well; the nutrient solution is in constant supply so the pump is very important in a N.F.T system. Due to the absence of a growing medium, the roots could die within some hours if the pump malfunctions.

A fully functional N.F.T system needs a reservoir, grow tray, baskets for seeds, submersible pump and tubing.

Since there’s no timer, the pump is always working. It sends the nutrient solution to the incline positioned grow tray via the tubing. From your grow tray, the nutrient is drained back to the reservoir and it gets re-circulated repeatedly. You can also use stone and an air pump to help properly distribute your nutrient solution.

The ideal slope required for the grow tray is 1:30; this translates to one-inch drop to every 30 inches of the tray. About 1-2 litres of nutrient solution per minute is the optimum flow rate for the N.F.T system. There may be an issue of nutrient deficiency if the solution flows too high or too low.


  • You don’t need to get a growing medium
  • Ideal for fast-maturing plants


  • Plants die within few hours once pump malfunctions
  • Needs regular cleaning to prevent clogging

Water Culture

The water culture hydroponic system is a basic method you won’t find difficult to work with. You can build this system yourself with a few materials right there in your home. However, you may not be able to grow anything other than leaf lettuce using this system. If that sounds okay by you, then go on to build yourself a water culture.

To construct your water culture you’ll need a reservoir, growing media (styrofoam), pots or baskets, stone, air pump and hose.

The water culture is a really simple system. You don’t require a grow tray, your reservoir does all the work. The plants are grown within a pot or basket within the Styrofoam medium which floats on the nutrients. This means the roots of your plants remain immersed in the nutrient solution. To ensure the plants are supplied with oxygen, air pumps are important to ensure continuous aeration of the solution.


  • Affordable
  • Very easy to build


  • Suitable for very limited plants
  • Use of air pump is important

Aeroponic System

The aeroponic system is ideal for those who need their plants to develop really fast. Aeroponics employs higher technology compared to other hydroponic systems. Air acts as the growing medium so the plant roots get sufficient supply of oxygen which facilitates quick plant maturity.

Unfortunately, air as the medium makes the plant susceptible to wilting when the water cycle gets disturbed. This system requires less water than others, so that means fewer expenses for you.

Your aeroponic system needs a reservoir, submersible pump, timer, growing chamber, mister heads and tubing.

The aeroponic system isn’t as difficult as you may think. It’s actually straightforward. Your plants grow within baskets and they are kept within openings at the top of the reservoir with its roots dangle freely in the air below. The nutrient solution is transported via the tubing and mister heads to spray plant roots. The pump works with a timer which comes on at intervals within the day to keep the plant roots properly nourished.


  • Plants mature quickly
  • Requires less water
  • Doesn’t require a growing medium


  • Requires a properly functional water pump
  • Mister heads get easily clogged


Hydroponic systems give you the luxury of controlling basic elements your plant need for your plant to thrive. Nutrient, water and oxygen play an important role to ensure your plants mature properly and you reap a fruitful harvest. The plants you intend to grow and your budget should influence the hydroponics method you go for. In any case, ensure that your system is fully functional so your plants do not suffer from malnourishment and dehydration.


[1] Hydroponic systems – Link


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