With so many different types of hydroponic systems, choosing the right method for you and your grow room can be a bit tricky.
There is no question these can be a substantial investment, so you want to make sure you get it right - that’s why you’re here, to learn about the differences between the main hydroponic methods.
We’ll break down the 6 different types of hydroponics systems and compare them to each other, helping you understand what the pro’s and con’s of each are.
By the end of this article, you’ll feel confident shopping for a complete hydroponic system - we’ve got a lot to cover, so let’s get to work!
Basic Information On Hydroponic Methods
Before we discuss the 6 different types of hydroponic systems, we need to cover some basic information on this method.
If you’re relatively new to the idea of growing with hydroponic methods, we encourage you to start instead with our hydroponics 101 guide.
This is a precursor to the wide world of hydro, and will provide you with a good understanding of everything soilless cultivation entails.
We cover the differences between soil and hydroponics, and even briefly introduce each of the main types of systems!
From there, we even share some tips on growing in hydroponics. It’s a great read for any grower delving into hydroponics, whether you’re brand new to it or you just need a refresher!
How The Types Of Hydroponic Systems Differ
One thing the main hydroponic methods all have in common is a soilless approach to cultivation.
They all feed a concentrated nutrient solution, and all come with the same general benefits - faster growth rates, greater efficiency with water & nutrients, and decreased risk of pests and diseases.
But, not all hydroponics methods are created equal! These all differ in one key manner - how nutrients are actually delivered to the plant in the system!
In hydroponics, however, nutrients are delivered directly to the roots in a different manner of ways - from constantly suspending the roots in the nutrient solution, to periodically flooding and draining the roots.
This is how these all differ - it all comes down to nutrient delivery. Let’s start looking at how this occurs in each of the 6 different types of hydroponics systems.
What Are The 6 Different Types Of Hydroponic Systems?
We’re going to quickly introduce each of the 6 different types of hydroponic systems, and explain how each one delivers nutrients to the plant.
We’ll go in order of popularity, starting with one of the most common types of hydroponics systems you’ll come across - deep water culture.
Deep Water Culture (DWC)
Referred to as DWC for short, deep water culture is one of the simplest systems on the market, right behind NFT systems (which we’ll cover at the end, as these are becoming less and less popular).
These systems have very few moving parts, as roots are suspended directly in a concentrated nutrient solution around the clock. Most DWC systems feature a set number of growth modules which will house the plants with individual net pots/cups.
You might be wondering, how do the roots now drown in this method? Well, that’s because these systems also rely on an air pump and air stone to constantly oxygenate the solution.
This leads to the perfect balance of aeration and nutrient concentration. Your roots have constant access to the oxygen and nutrients they need - add in a powerful grow light, and they have everything they need!
The real advantage of these systems is the ease of use. These are really good for beginners, because your main task will only be ensuring pH is dialed in, your air stone is providing ample oxygen, and regularly changing out the nutrient solution.
Ebb & Flow (Flood & Drain)
Another system that works great in both hobbyist and commercial growing environments is ebb and flow, or flood and drain.
As the name suggests, this system differs from DWC in that rather than constantly suspending roots in the nutrient solution, they will periodically be flooded with nutrients - and these nutrients will then drain back into the reservoir, giving the plant a chance to breathe, absorb the nutrients, and prepare for the next cycle.
Here, plants are housed in a grow tray which is filled with a hydroponic grow media. In some cases, ebb and flow systems will look similar to a DWC system, featuring individual growth modules rather than a grow tray filled with media.
As you might imagine, these require more working parts - namely a water pump and timer to execute the flooding and draining period. If you set this up on a slope, you can automate the draining portion and instead rely on gravity to return the nute solution back to the reservoir.
Once you have these setup and running though, they can be just as low maintenance as any other hydroponic method.
A third hydroponic method worth mentioning is the hydroponic drip system, sometimes referred to as a fertigation system. These are very common in commercial hydroponics, because they are so efficient!
Just as the name suggests, these use drip emitters to feed your plants. And unlike the rest of the systems on this list, drip hydroponics feeds your plants at the top of the roots, rather than from below.
This leads to super-high oxygenation of the root zone, which as you are likely picking up on, is key to a successful hydroponics grow.
These can be set up as a recirculating style, where the excess solution from the emitters is collected into the reservoir below and then sent back up into the drip emitters again.
As long as you monitor your reservoir and keep pH and PPM dialed into the ideal ranges, this can help you stretch your water and nutrients even further. Like any system though, you will need to regularly change out the solution.
While it often gets lumped into the hydroponics category, aeroponics is technically it’s own classification of cultivation.
Whereas DWC, ebb and flow, & aquaponics, will at the very least periodically flood the roots with water and nutrients, aeroponics does the opposite.
Instead, the nutrients are suspended in air - thus the name aeroponics. These systems then use ultra-fine sprayers, pointed at the root zone, to douse the roots in nutrient solution.
These apply such a fine mist that the entirety of your root mass is covered, and very minimal nutrient solution is wasted. This, coupled with the fact that plant roots have access to all the oxygen they could ever need, leads to insane growth rates and yields.
Now, these are certainly not as easy to grow in as other styles on this list, so we usually steer beginners away from aeroponics. However, if you’ve got some experience with other types of system, or you’re truly up for the challenge, your hard work will certainly be rewarded come harvest day!
You’ll also achieve cheaper harvests, as you don’t need to feed as heavily since such a little amount of nutrient solution goes a long way. You also save money on water!
Keep in mind though, these aren’t ideal for growing monster trees since the sprayers are only so big. If your plant is going to have a giant root mass, we would steer you towards a system that can accommodate larger root masses.
This unique hydroponics method involves elements of one of the systems we’ve already discussed - either DWC or ebb and flow - and combines it with an organic, automated approach to gardening.
Here, you are able to cultivate plants while growing fish too! Inside the reservoir, you’ll put some of your favorite fish. Their organic matter (feces) will serve as fertilizer for your plants, so you can forego the nutrient solution altogether!
These systems are typically pretty small, and not great for growing huge, heavy plants. They are great to keep on your countertop for growing certain herbs, veggies, or flowers.
Typically, plant roots and the fish do not coexist in the same reservoir. Instead, the “fish fertilizer” gets sent up to the grow modules using a water pump.
With that said, you can really configure any type of aquaponics system you want - we even have a complete guide on how to build your own aquaponics system!
Nutrient Film Technique (NFT)
The final hydroponic system type we are going to mention today is nutrient film technique, or NFT for short.
This is commonly used in commercial hydroponics, especially to grow foods like tomatoes, lettuce, and other mainstream garden vegetables. That’s not to say hobbyists don’t grow using NFT too - they certainly can!
It’s a bit of a combination of DWC and ebb & flow, in that roots are constantly suspended in a nutrient solution, but the nutrient solution is always being pumped in and drained back out into the reservoir.
Here, only parts of the plant roots are suspended in nutrient solution, so they have plenty of oxygen access as well. This, coupled with the constant supply of fresh, potent fertilizer, leads to explosive growth as you may have guessed.
In most NFT grow systems, you won’t see any sort of hydroponic grow media. Instead, plants are just housed in an empty net cup. This saves you money after each grow cycle on replacing the media!
The one disadvantage of NFT is that if there is a power outage, flow of nutrients will stop and the plant roots will dry out quickly. This is typically not an issue in commercial grow rooms, where a backup power supply is usually implemented.
Which Of The Different Types Of Hydroponic Systems Is Right For Me?
Now you have a good understanding of the different types of hydroponics systems. But which one is right for you?
Maybe you’re weighing a few of these different options, or maybe you still have no idea which one is right for you.
The good news? There is really no right or wrong answer! Hydroponics is great because it’s super versatile - just about any plant can be grown in any of these systems.
And these days, there are system types for every range of grower - from hobbyists with just a few plants in their closet to commercial cultivars growing hundreds of plants in multiple zones.
The best way to tell which system is right for you is reading our list of the best hydroponic systems. This breaks down our favorite picks of each hydroponics method and will help you narrow down your selection to a specific system.
Ease Your Way Into Hydroponics If You’re A Beginner!
If you’re new to hydroponics, but especially if you’re new to indoor growing in general, we encourage you to take it slow and make your first system nice and manageable.
You can always upgrade to a bigger, more complex system later on, but as a beginner, your goal should be getting a successful hydro grow under your belt - seed to harvest.
In order to do that, you should start with a system like DWC, since it has so few moving parts.
On top of that, there are even single bucket systems for less than $50 that allow you to dabble into hydroponics for cheap.
With all that said, if you are not a beginner and you want to dive right into hydroponics, we would encourage you to take a look at our selection of commercial hydroponics systems.
We carry the top brands at the best prices, and can help you get your system set up for less, stretching your budget further than you would have thought possible. We even have nutrient & pH dosers to help you automate feeding and monitoring your reservoir for good!
Final Thoughts On The Different Types Of Hydroponic Systems
Now, you are well versed in the different types of hydroponics systems. All that’s left to do is start shopping and doing some research into specific systems, which is made easy with our list of the best systems this year!
Regardless of if you’re a beginner hobbyist or a professional grower, we have the products and resources you need to reach your goals - whether they’re to attain your first successful crop or increase harvest weight this cycle.
If you have any questions at all, or need help choosing the right type of hydroponic system, don’t hesitate to reach out to our team of experts growers!