Different Types Of Hydroponic Systems And How They Work

Last Updated on March 15, 2022 by Admin

What are the different types of hydroponic systems and how does each one work? This is guide will explain the different kinds of systems, their pros and cons and how each of them operates.

That way you’ll know what type of hydroponic system you should start based on what you want to grow and the resources you have available.


Types of Hydroponic Systems

Like most things, there’s more than one way to create a hydroponic system. In fact, if you look around, you’ll notice that just about everyone has their own technique.

Although, you can classify these hundreds of different types of hydroponic systems into 6 basic kinds. These are:

  • Wick Systems
  • Water Culture
  • Ebb & Flow (or Flood & Drain) Systems
  • NFT (Nutrient Film Technique) Systems
  • Aeroponic Systems
  • Drip Systems

I’ve ordered them in such that it’s easy to separate them according to difficulty.

The first 3 (wick, water culture and ebb & flow) are perfect for beginners.

The next 2 (NFT and aeroponics) are more suited for advanced/experienced gardeners.


Best Hydroponic Systems for Beginners

If you’re just getting started with hydroponic gardening, these are the systems I recommend you check out. They’re easier to set up. And, they’ll allow you to “learn the ropes” before dipping your toes into the more complex ones.


Wick Systems

Wick systems or wicking systems are the most basic type of hydroponics you can apply. It doesn’t have any moving parts like motors or pumps. So, there’s less likelihood of anything breaking down.

Because of this feature, it’s called a passive system.

Wick systems have 2 basic parts,

  • Container with growing medium. This is the top part of your system. The container holds the growing medium, which in turn, holds your plants.
  • The reservoir. This is where the water and nutrients are placed. It sits below the container which holds the growing medium.

The 2 parts are connected by a wick, which can be anything that allows water to “climb up” it. You can use a felt, rope or other similar materials.

If you remember your grade school or middle school science classes, this process is called capillary action. A few examples of this include:

  • A lamp wick can draw oil or kerosene from the container below it
  • A candle’s wick draws wax from the candle itself
  • Your underwear (and butt) getting soaked when you sit on a wet spot
  • How paper towels or sponges can draw water upwards from a cup or tray

I hope you get the picture.

In any case, the wick allows the water (with the nutrients) to climb up to the top container into the growing medium. From there, your plants can absorb the nutrient-rich solution.

As a beginner, this is the best way to see how hydroponics actually works.

The downside is, the wick is only able to carry a certain amount of water. As such, it’s slow rate doesn’t make it ideal for larger plants or those that are “water-hungry”.

So, wick systems are ideal for smaller hydroponic gardens.

Water Culture Systems

Meanwhile, water culture or deep water culture (DWC) is the simplest type of active hydroponic system.

The easiest way to imagine how this system works is to picture an aquarium. So, you have:

  • The container that’s filled with water. In this case, the water is the nutrient-filled solution.
  • A floating device. To keep your plants afloat on top of the water you have styrofoam or something like it. This material lets you hold the plants above water while letting its roots soak in the water.
  • Air Pump. This is what makes it an active hydroponic system. Like in an aquarium, the pump delivers oxygen into the water. Thus, allowing your plants’ roots to “breathe” it in.

Since the roots are constantly submerged in water, this is ideal for plants that require a lot of hydration.

Ebb & Flow Systems

Among the beginner hydroponic systems, this one is more difficult. As such, you don’t see it often. But, it’s very versatile.

It is also very different in the way it works compared to the wick and water culture systems.

Instead of constantly having the roots exposed to the water, ebb and flow systems flood the roots with water a few times a day and allow the water to drain out each time.

You can think of it much like a swimming pool where you fill the pool with clean water. Then, drain it to clean and then refill again with new, clean water.

Alternatively, it’s very similar to how your heart pumps blood throughout your body. Your heart’s arteries pump blood (that’s filled with nutrients and oxygen) out to different parts of your body to provide sustenance to your tissues. It then returns through the veins where the blood is “refilled” with nutrients and oxygen before getting pumped out again.

But, in the case of ebb & flow systems, the number of times the system fills and drains can vary. It all depends on:

  • Temperature
  • Humidity
  • Type of growing medium you’re using
  • Kinds of plants you have (if they require more or less water)
  • Size of your plants (bigger plants will require more water)
  • The stage of growth your plants are in

Here’s how it works.

  • Two containers. Again, you have 2 containers, one sitting on top of another. The top container houses your plants. The bottom is the reservoir where all the water is.
  • Water Pump. The pump pushes the water from the bottom container to the top container.
  • A Timer. This signals when it’s time to flood the upper container with water. When this happens, water from the reservoir is pumped up to fill the container holding your plants.
  • A Drain. The top container has a drain that allows the water to drain back down into the reservoir.

After the water is drained, the entire cycle starts from the beginning with the pump “refilling” the water in the reservoir with oxygen. Then, waiting for the timer’s signal for the next flooding cycle.




Best Hydroponic Systems for Experienced/Advanced Gardeners

If you have more experience, or you’ve grown some plants hydroponically before, you can try out these systems to see if they’ll help you produce better yields.


NFT (Nutrient Film Technique) Systems

NFT systems are very popular, especially in commercial use. And, they’re also uniquely different from the ones above.

Once again you have 2 parts.

  • A growing tray. This forms a channel that allows the water solution to flow (much like a river). The tray is also where your plants are suspended. Thus, the constant flow allows the roots to always touch the water. But, unlike in deep water culture systems, the water is not stagnant, nor does it cover the entire root system. Instead, it just flows through allowing the roots to absorb enough nutrients.
  • A reservoir. The reservoir is both where the water originates and where it ends up after the plants have gotten their nutrients. As such, the water goes through a loop cycle much like that in a water fountain.

Once again, you’ll need a water pump to push the water upwards from the reservoir to the growing tray above it.

NFT systems are efficient. But, they’re susceptible to electrical and mechanical issues. Since the roots aren’t drenched in the liquid, they can easily dry out if the pump stops working or a power outage occurs.


Aeroponic Systems

If you want to use less water, this hydroponic technique will let you do just that.

Aeroponic hydroponic systems are the most high-tech of the 6 basic types. And, it uses some of the concepts from the other methods above.

Here, your plants are suspended in the air. This allows the roots to hang down and get oxygen. Also, it’s position makes it easy to mist the roots.

This process makes it similar to the NFT system. But, instead of receiving a flow of water, the plants are misted every few minutes.

This makes it work somewhat like an inverted sprinkler. Instead of watering your plants from the top, you’re watering its roots. The timed intervals are also shorter.

As you would guess, aeroponic systems require pumps and misters to get the job done.


Best Hydroponic System for Large Scale Growing

For the sake of thoroughness, I’ve also included the system below. But, it’s not something that’s often seen with homegrowers because it’s kind of an overkill if used for a small scale.

Nevertheless, knowing what it is and how it works will help you understand which systems you should use for your crops.


Drip Systems

Drip systems are separate from the others because they’re less ideal for the home gardeners. Instead, they’re often seen in large commercial operations. That’s because they work very well when scaled.

But, they aren’t worth doing in your backyard or indoors.

That said, they’re the most widely used method around. That’s because their scalability makes them very effective and popular for commercial operations.

You’ve probably seen these in pictures of large scale hydroponic gardens.

How it Works

Drip systems are set up with 2 parts. You have.

  • A grow tray. This houses the pots where the individual plants are grown. The tray sits above the reservoir.
  • A reservoir. The reservoir holds water. A nutrient pump pushes the solution up to drip emitters that are positioned above the plants. This disperses the nutrient-filled water onto the plants.

As such, the process works much like your garden sprinkler system. It runs on a timer to deliver the water solution at set intervals.

That said, what happens to the excess water that drops into the grow tray can vary.


Recovery System

These systems reuse the excess water. As such, any water that isn’t used up by the plants is drained back into the reservoir so it can be used again.

This method helps you save water. But, reused water getting mixed with “fresh“ water means it will affect the pH level and other factors. As such, there’s more regular monitoring and maintenance needed.


Non-Recovery System

Non-recovery systems don’t re-circulate used water. While this is a bit more wasteful in concept, commercial setups are designed to deliver just the right amount of water in order to minimize wastage.

Because of its operating efficiency and lack of extra monitoring, this is the method most commercial systems use.


How to Choose a Hydroponic Growing System

Now that you know the different kinds of hydroponic systems, it’s time to learn how to choose the one that best suits you.

As always, when it comes to making decisions, knowing the right things to ask helps you get to your final choice.

Here’s are some things to consider.


What Plants Do You Want to Grow in Your Hydroponic System?

One effective way of deciding which kind of hydroponic system to set up is to first determine what you want to grow.

Some systems are designed so that they work well on many different kinds of plants. An example of this is the Ebb & Flow system.

Meanwhile, other systems are better suited for specific plants. For example, wick systems work great for leafy greens like lettuce. But, they’re not well-suited for larger ones like tomatoes.

Finally, don’t dismiss the possibility of running multiple systems. This allows you to grow different plants in different environments (pH, water requirements, size, etc.) and deliver varying kinds of nutrients to them.


How Much Does the Hydroponic System Cost?

Another important issue to consider is cost. Hydroponics can get expensive depending on which method you use and how much you plan to grow.

The bigger the setup, the more expensive it gets.

Add to that, the electricity costs of running grow lights (if you’re indoors) and the water pump.

Just as importantly, don’t always assume that DIY is always cheaper than store-bought kits.

From experience, the cost of materials can be cheaper. But, you’re likely to make mistakes. While I value the lessons my experiments have taught me, I can also tell you that the cost of materials, plants, nutrients and everything else adds up.

So, I can confidently tell you that DIY isn’t always cheaper than store-bought hydroponic setups.


How Difficult is the Hydroponic System to Set Up and Use?

In addition to cost, do consider how hard the system is to set up and use. The reason I divided the systems above is to give you an idea of which ones are easier and which are more complicated.

The simplest ones include wick systems, deep water culture and bottle hydroponics, which technically is a kind of wicking system.

Additionally, systems that don’t require electricity, pumps and motors are always simpler.

That said, having electrical and mechanical parts shouldn’t stop you from using a system. In fact, many of these are easy to use, including ebb & flow as well as water culture.


How Much Maintenance Does the Hydroponic System Require?

After you’ve gotten familiar with them, you’ll realize that setting up isn’t always difficult, although some are more complex than others.

That said, the “bigger” problem often lies in maintenance and monitoring.

Since setup is often a one-time thing (for each system that is), you’re less likely to get irritated by it in the long run.

In contrast, more monitoring and maintenance is an ongoing thing. After a while, it can easily become bothersome.

From a lot of experimenting, I’ve found that the ratio of water vs. plants is a guide of how much maintenance you need to do for a given system.

  • Less water in the reservoir and more plants often means more maintenance. The water will run out sooner. So, you’ll need to monitor it more closely. Additionally, this also means refilling the water, rebalancing the mixture of nutrients to solution. This can ultimately lead to more frequent full flushes.

Additionally, which plants you decide to go on affects how much maintenance the system will require.

  • Some crops will require more pruning. These include peppers, tomatoes and cucumbers. They can also require support structures as well, which adds extra work on your part.
  • Plants that grow quickly or are harvested regularly also require more maintenance. For example, microgreens are harvested every week or so. This means harvesting and planting new ones every 7-10 days or so.



Above you’ve already seen the differences of growing hydroponics indoors and outdoors. In addition to those considerations, how much space you have also come into play.

Some methods are better suited for large spaces while others don’t have a problem even in small spaces.

As an example, you can create a bottle hydroponic system by using a 2-liter Coca-Cola plastic bottle. It’s super simple, in fact, kids can make it a project.

The bottom line is one of the factors that will help you decide the kind of hydroponic system to use is location. That is, where you’re going to put it and how much space there is.