Hydroponic Systems

Hydroponic systems are extremely adaptable to different spaces, different setups, and even artistic expression.  The above system combines elements of vertical gardening with hydroponic lighting and NFT nutrient solution delivery.  Image originally from Epic Gardening.

One of the biggest decisions to be made about hydroponic production, is which hydroponic system(s) to use.  A variety of systems have been developed over the years, each with their pro's and con's.  Some are extremely simple in theory but become rather complex in practice.  On the other hand, others may seem very complex at first yet offer very simple day-to-day operation.  On this page, we'll attempt to offer a summary of all the systems and the performance details associated with them.  As we more fully develop this website we'll provide comprehensive descriptions of each approach.

Hydroponic Systems Comparison

We've put together the following comparison table as a way to illustrate different hydroponic systems and how well they address real-world concerns.  This is definitely a qualitative comparison only, based on our experiences and the experiences of other hydroponic growers we've spoken with.  The variables we've listed describe those features which growers have repeatedly described as being part of their decision-making when selecting and keeping any given design.   The terms we use can be defined as follows:

  • Complexity: this is a rough measure of how complex the system is to build and maintain.   This variable depends on both the assembly methods, and how nutrient is cycled through the system.  In general, the more complex a system is, the more maintenance it requires, yet the more performance can be fine-tuned to precisely deliver what the plants need at any given point in the growing cycle.
  • Cost: this is a rough measure of how much the system costs to assemble; day to day operation is also a feature but acquisition cost is given more weight.  In general, if a system has a high acquisition cost, that can serve as a big barrier to getting the system up and running, and that cost may not be recovered right away.
  • DIY Potential: this is an approximation of how easily a system could be built by someone with average construction skills.  Many growers opt to build their own systems, and turnkey operations are considered too costly.  So DIY Potential is often listed as a critical design criteria.
  • Scalability: this is a nebulous concept, but it generally refers to how easily an approach can be increased or decreased in size.  For instance, a small kit which provides everything a grower needs may be very inexpensive by itself, but it's production will be limited by its size.  If a grower wants to boost production, he or she would have to get an additional kit, which may then bring in redundant pieces of infrastructure.  The rule of thumb is that if a system is easily scalable, a grower will know they can increase or decrease the size of their operation without massive new investment and/or a lot of redundant equipment.  If an approach is very appealing for other reasons, make extra effort to carefully match the system's initial size to expected long-term production goals.
  • Nutrient Distribution: different hydroponic systems deliver nutrients in very different ways.  Some of those delivery methods give full nutrient solution exposure to all the plants all at once, while others give each subsequent plant a slightly more diluted sample of nutrient solution, after the plant before it has taken up its share.  This is not necessarily a fatal fault, but rather means that the nutrient solution will have to be cycled more frequently and/or monitored more carefully.  That might be a minor inconvenience, or a major hassle.
Description Complexity Estimated Cost DIY Potential Scalability Nutrient Distribution
Flood and Drain (Ebb and Flow) A shallow container of growing media, which is regularly flooded then drained with nutrient solution. simple to moderate low to moderate high DIY potential very scalable even distribution
Nutrient Film Technique (NFT) individual plants housed in cups which sit in an irrigation channel. low to moderate low to moderate high DIY potential low to moderate scalability uneven
Deep Water Cultivation (Raft) Individual plants housed in cups, which are inserted into a raft floating on surface of nutrient solution reservoir, such that the roots are suspended in the nutrient solution. low to high moderate to high (unless a large reservoir is already available) limited DIY potential (unless a large reservoir is already available) not very scalable even (but nutrient solution should be circulated)
Bucket System (container) Individual plants housed in a container large enough for plant roots, with nutrient solution delivered to each container. low to high low to high moderate to high DIY potential very scalable even, but potentially complex
Vertical Farming Housing individual plants in vertical trays, racks, cylinders or other vertical framework. Nutrient solution delivery varies with each system. Term may also refer to architectural styles or layouts which are designed to house such systems. moderate to high low to high low to high DIY potential, depending on size very scalable uneven and complex
Growbox A completely enclosed growing environment of various sizes, offering not only containers but also lights and temperature/humidity control. moderate to high moderate to high moderate to high not very scalable even but complex
Wick System (passive system) A nutrient delivery system which moves nutrient solution to plants via a wick. low to moderate low to moderate moderate to high DIY potential lot to moderately scalable even distribution

Ongoing Efforts

I have tried to include those variables which seemed to be most likely to be important considerations for someone trying to decide between different hydroponic systems.  A few other variables, such as "which system is more productive than the rest" would be impossible to even estimate, because so much depends upon any given system's ongoing management.  Hopefully the above table will at least give some guidance as each system, and allow some side-by-side comparison.  We will also be writing up individual pages and/or sections devoted to each of the system types listed above.  In the meantime, this Colorado State University PDF provides a wonderful summary of the various hydroponic systems, along with summaries of various growing media and nutrient solutions.

If there are systems not listed which you'd like to see included in the table, please Contact Us.