The Different Types of Hydroponic Systems Plus Pros and Cons of Each

by Kevin

Whatever you’re growing, one question will undoubtedly arise rather sooner than later: What hydroponic growing systems should I be using to maximize the efficiency of my plants’ growth? If you’re planning on making a hydroponics vegetable system, you have six options to choose from and this article covers them all, detailing the advantages and disadvantages of each.

Six Types of Hydroponics Vegetable Growth Systems

Six Types of Hydroponics Vegetable Growth Systems
Six Types of Hydroponics Vegetable Growth Systems

Despite being around for a century, hydroponic vegetable growth technology as we know it today, was not popularized until the 1930s. Since then, this technology has gone far beyond being used in remote locations and is now a growing industry that rivals classical soil-based agriculture.

One of the first choices you’ll have to make in your life as a hydroponic gardener is settling in on the system that you’re going to use to grow your plants in. In the past, due to lack of information and a lot of hype and myths surrounding each system, people had to rely on a trial and error kind of decision making process.

Even more so, a lot of do-it-yourself and home based hydroponic vegetable growth systems have been marketed over the past few years, becoming an increasingly popular trend as people learn about their benefits. If you’re interested in one of these kit types or a beginner, I suggest you read my article on the best hydroponics system here.

Six types of hydroponics vegetable growth systems have been defined and I plan on covering all of them as well as explaining how they work.

I recommend you buy your hydroponic system from a trusted hydroponics store that offers a large variety of hydroponic systems, cheap to expensive.

The Wick Hydroponics Vegetable Growth System

The Wick is the most basic hydroponics system and it’s probably the easiest to create. It’s basically a tray held on top of a reservoir, with a wick connecting the two. The nutrient solutions you’ll be using to grow the vegetables are drawn from the reservoir to the tray and an airstone connected to an air pipe will filter and oxygenize the water based solution.

Advantages of the Wick

  • easy to create, even if you’re not a technical person
  • cheap
  • can use a variety of growing mediums
  • the system is passive

Disadvantages of the Wick

  • the system cannot support larger amounts of plants (or large plants) due to the fact that the wick cannot transport the nutrient solution as fast and in the quantity needed
  • not a lot of room for improvements when compared to other hydroponics vegetable growth systems

The Water Culture Hydroponics Vegetable Growth System

Another very simple design, which means it’s great for do-it-yourself people. The principle behind the water culture system is that the plants are held in the water and nutrient solutions using a Styrofoam floating “plank” that is placed directly on the reservoir. Again, an air pump and airstone are used to oxygenize the system.

Advantages of Water Culture Systems

  • Water loving plants will…well, love it
  • Straightforward design that doesn’t require a lot of components
  • Cheap to make

Disadvantages of Water Culture Systems

  • Plants that aren’t specifically keen on loads of water will do much better with other hydroponic vegetable growth systems
  • Large plants cannot be grown in it

The Drip Hydroponics Vegetable Growth System

Drip systems are probably the most common of the six, but they’re more popular with large greenhouses rather than home based hydroponics systems. Just like with the Wick systems, a growing tray is placed on top of a reservoir full of water and nutrients, but this time there’s a submersed nutrient pump that’s connecting the two.

A timer is attached to the pump, controlling the flow of solution from the tank to the tray, drip by drip (hence the name). Some systems come with an overflow hatch in the tray, so if the pump floods the tray with too many nutrient drips, these fall back down into the reservoir.

Advantages of the Drip System

  • Very efficient, since it reuses nutrients that end up being in excess in the tray
  • The timer handles everything automatically, so this system will require less attention
  • Can grow larger amounts of vegetables

Disadvantages of the Drip Systems

  • Recovering extra nutrients that get in the tray is a double edged sword, since when these come back, they alter the pH of the general solution over time
  • More expensive than the Wick and Water Culture hydroponics vegetable growth systems

Ebb and Flow Hydroponic Growing Systems

Ebb and flow systems work on the principle of flooding the plants’ roots with water for a short period of time, then draining the water back to the nutrient container, literally recycling it.

Quite similar in design to the Drip, the Ebb and flow hydroponics system handles the nutrient pump a bit differently.

Instead of dropping the solution into the tray where the vegetables are grown drip by drip, it temporarily floods the tray, shuts itself down and allows the excess solution to drain back down and so on.

Advantages of Ebb and flow Systems

  • Can be used with a large array of growing mediums
  • Can sustain large amounts of vegetables, or larger ones since there’s no risk that they run short of nutrients when the flood cycle occurs

Disadvantages of Ebb and flow Systems

  • The system is more vulnerable to power outages
  • You have less control over the pump, so in case you get a broken pump or timer, things could get messy
  • If the flood/drain cycle is interrupted by some reason, the roots of the vegetables will be dried out

The Nutrient Film Technique Hydroponics Vegetable Growth System

Nutrient Film Technique, or NFT for short is a system that works without a timer and shares some similarities with all of the above mentioned hydroponics vegetable growth systems. Just like with water culture systems, NFT ones suspend plants over the nutrient solution, with only their roots dipped inside it.

A nutrient pump continuously flows solution inside the tray where the plants are suspended, just like with wick systems. And like with drip or flood ones, the solution that is not absorbed flows down back into the reservoir, where it is recycled.

Advantages of NFT Systems

  • Continuous flow, so no extra work is needed in setting timers
  • Uses air as the growing medium, which eliminates the need to change the medium after each crop, like you would with other hydroponic vegetable systems

Disadvantages of NFT Systems

  • Because they’re suspended in air, plant roots can dry out very fast if a problem occurs and there’s no more solution pumped in the tray
  • Less control over the entire system
  • Vulnerable to power outages and pump failures

The Aeroponic Vegetable Growth System

It might sound confusing that you’re growing plants in a hydroponic (water based) system that is called aeroponic (air based) but in truth this one uses both mediums to work towards your goal.

It’s also the most high tech of the six, which means it’s more expensive and less popular with home systems. Aeroponic growth systems have a rather different design from the rest, with the plants being suspended in mid air, with their roots in the reservoir.

Nutrient solution fills the reservoir half-ways, with a pump inside it that regularly pumps out a mist inside the reservoir, which gets sucked in by the plants’ roots. A timer will be attached to the pump, in order to control the release of mist every few minutes.

Advantages of Aeroponic Systems

  • Simple design, although it’s hard to produce it on your own
  • Nutrients in mist are sucked in faster by roots

Disadvantages of Aeroponic Systems

  • Being suspended in the air, roots will dry out fast if the mist pump breaks down
  • Timer needs to be checked out regularly, since the pump needs to work on short cycles

NASA Hydroponics – Hydroponics on Mars

What was just recently science fiction seems to have a very real future up ahead. Lunar and Mars hydroponic systems can provide us with the means to advance and live on a planet other than Earth thanks to NASA hydroponics research.

Traveling to the Moon or Mars is one thing, but actually living there for extended periods of time has always been the subject of science fiction, rather than something we actually thought possible. However, recent technologies have been staggering, in that we discovered ways in which we could create actual cities on Mars or the Moon, protected by he harsh environment out there.

But there was still the question of local life support…because we can’t simply bring in food and water from Earth every now and then, it would be way too expensive. Thankfully, Lunar and Mars hydroponic systems give us no reasons to think they won’t work properly.

How Could Hydroponics Be Possible in Space?

The concept behind hydroponic systems fits in perfectly to the idea of living on another planet, in this case the Moon and Mars, since they’re our most probable initial destinations beyond Earth. Since the Lunar and Martian soil proves to be too tough and harsh for a plant to grow in, not to mention lacking the required nutrients, hydroponics can avoid this problem easily.

Another exciting aspect of setting up Lunar and Mars hydroponic systems is how they will change these planet’s environments. Since plants work on a mechanism that takes in light and trades off oxygen, having a large number of hydroponic systems set up on Mars for example could change its environment dramatically in the long run.

The effect that such a dramatic change would have on Earth and other planets in the Solar System is still understudied, but it’s an exciting prospect.

Even if we would manage to grow crops in the Lunar and Martian soils, many scientists believe that hydroponics will still be a better choice, due to their low cost, practicability and mobile nature. And Lunar and Mars hydroponic systems might even perform a lot better out there than they do on Earth. That’s because on the Moon or Mars, plants don’t have to deal with any sort of pests.

What Other Benefits Could There Be?

But hydroponic grow systems aren’t helpful on just such long-term goals. NASA and the European Space Agency (ESA) reportedly are planning on sending a manned mission on Mars, via the Moon, in the following 2 decades. The trip would be quite long, so the question of food was raised and again, hydroponic grow systems had the solution.

The fact that hydroponics can be performed in space as well as the increased growth rate of the plants can prove to be two determining factors for science in the near future.

Admittedly, we can’t know what the future brings and we can’t say for sure that Lunar and Mars hydroponic systems will ever be viable, or if something better and even more adaptable will come along. Until that better stuff comes along though, all our hopes to living on another plant lay on the field of hydroponic gardening.

The Hydroponics Drip System versus the Ebb and Flow

Do you really need to read an entire article to determine which of two very similar hydroponics systems are best for you? I think so, because each of them have some small particularities that can make a world of difference for you in the long run. Find out which one is better suited for you in this versus article between a hydroponics drip system and an ebb and flow.

The continuous hydroponics drip system and the ebb and flow are probably the most well known to the casual gardener, next to the water culture one. Water culture has been done in and out by now and there’s little new information I could provide around it, so I thought of focusing on the two mentioned above, pointing out their flaws and strong points in a versus article.

What I’ll do is compare the hydroponics drip system to the ebb and flow and vice versa, through a number of parameters, such as building/installation difficulty, reliability, efficiency and power consumption. So let’s get to it then.

I recommend you buy your hydroponic system from a hydroponics store that offers a large variety of hydroponic systems, cheap to expensive.

Building and Installation Difficulty

Both types of systems work on pretty much the same principles and are quite easy to set up if you’re buying a ready-made kit that you just need to install. Although both systems are slightly harder to build from scratch in comparison to water culture, the ebb and flow has a slight edge, due to the fact that the drip component in the system bearing its name is harder to get working. So ebb and flow hydroponics systems win a point at this category.


When I say reliability, I’m thinking of how often a particular system breaks down and how much risks does it take. Another aspect of reliability I will take into account is the damage these systems produce if they do indeed break down…because it’s not the same thing if your hydroponic system breaks and floods your entire greenhouse, or if it breaks and spills a few drips on the floor.

And I guess you already noticed where I’m going with this, namely that an ebb and flow system does a lot more damage if something breaks, thus it is less reliable than a hydroponics drip system.

However, there are certain ebb and flow products out there that come with an automatic water pump controller that spots when something goes wrong and cuts off the water pump so it doesn’t make mess. And honestly, if you’re serious about gardening, you shouldn’t be caught without such a protection system. Still, for making us take this extra measure, the ebb and flow system loses one point to the continuous drip.


Efficiency refers to how well and how fast plants will grow in a specific system as well as how much of the supplies you will use will go to waste. From the perspective of growing efficiency, both systems do fairly well, so none gets the extra edge (after all, they work on almost the same principles, so there shouldn’t be large variations in performance either). But when it comes to supplies efficiency…the ebb and flow hydroponics system will prove to be quite the waster.

Because it constantly floods the plant tray then pulls back the excess water/nutrients in the nutrient container, the pH levels in here will be on a constant fluctuation. This will force you to change the solution more often, since an unstable pH can have some nasty effects on your plants.

On the other hand, although a hydroponics drip system will still have this problem, it will have it at a much lower rate, which gives it the edge in efficiency over the ebb and flow. 2-1 for drip!

Power Consumption

The fact that the drip system uses a special pump header to control the flow of water doesn’t affect power consumption at all. So the power these two systems eat up should be similar. But obviously, the main power hungry component is the lighting system, so whatever lighting system your hydroponics kit comes with will determine its power consumption ratio.

Since the systems themselves are on equal terms in this category, neither one gets any points, leaving the final score 2-1 for the hydroponics drip system!

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