Hydroponic System Basics: The Ultimate Guide for 2020

Most people look at gardening and farming in a traditional sense: sunlight, water, and soil. However, there’s one system you may not be as familiar with called hydroponics. Hydroponic systems have revolutionized the farming and food industry, and the basics can even be applied to a small DIY setup at home. But first, let’s learn more about what hydroponics is.

What is hydroponic gardening?

A hydroponic system is a way to grow plants using formulated, nutrient-rich water instead of soil. In hydroponics, the plant is suspended with a net pot which allows for the plant to grow above the water, while the roots go down through the netting and into the water solution. Hydroponic systems can be used by at-home amateurs or by large scale farmers, and has been used for thousands of years.

Hydro (Water) + Ponics (Labor)

Check out the video below for a quick lesson in the basic of hydroponcs:

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Advantages of hydroponics

  • Higher harvest yield
  • Uses less water than soil planting
  • Takes up less space
  • Almost any type of plant can be grown
  • Food can be grown hydroponically in parts of the world not supported by traditional soil-based plants
  • Environmentally friendly since most pesticides aren’t necessary
  • Plants grow faster as they don’t continuously search for nutrients
  • No seasonality as crops can be grown continuously, all year-round, all over the world in a controlled environment
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Disadvantages of hydroponics

  • Can be time-consuming to set up the system and manage
  • Usually more expensive than traditional soil growing
  • If a part (like the pump) fail, the system will cease to work properly
  • Algae can build up and harm the system without proper care

All things considered, we believe hydroponics is a better and healthier way to grow plants. The environment is much safer with hydroponics thanks to the use of less water and zero pesticides in most cases. Pesticides kill pests found commonly within soil, and since hydroponics doesn’t use soil, there’s not really a need for these harmful chemicals.

Hydroponics is revolutionizing how food is grown around the world. A properly set-up hydroponic system is sustainable in most places in the world. The ability to grow things locally helps eliminate the need to import plants.

hydroponic system worker
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Components of a hydroponic system

There are six main subsets of hydroponics, but not all of them use the same equipment. Some of the components below are optional but, for the most part, each system will involve these main components:

Nutrient-rich solution

The most important part of the entire system is your hydroponic nutrient solution. In a normal growing system, this would simply be water but, because we’re not using soil, the plants need to derive all their nutrients from this liquid solution.

The nutrient solution is held in the reservoir and gets pumped up towards the roots, sprayed directly onto the roots, or directly contacts the roots. No matter which of the six systems you use, the nutrient solution is always the most important part.

The nutrient solution can be premixed, or involve mixing a variety of solutions into water to create the solution. We won’t delve into this too deeply since this is just a guide to the basics, but this can get technical and varies depending on what you’ll be growing.

Reservoir

The reservoir is the lower tank or tub that holds the nutrient rich water solution. In most systems, the goal is to get the water from the reservoir and up to the grow tray. This can be accomplished by using pumps, wicks, or nothing at all if the roots will be living in the reservoir solution.

The best hydroponic reservoirs can be made from almost any container as long as it does not leak. Typically, reservoirs are plastic tubs which are cheap and efficient. You need to make sure that light cannot get into the sides or bottom of the reservoir. If you can hold the tub up and see some light through it, it’s probably not a good choice. Thicker, darker plastic is your best bet for a good hydroponic reservoir. If light does get through, you can paint, cover, or wrap it if you don’t want to buy something different than what you have.

Growing tray

Also known as the growing chamber, the growing tray is where your plants will be. The size of your growing tray can vary based on how many plants you have and how big they will get. If you’re just starting out, go with a smaller tray.

Growing medium

As we’ve stated at the beginning, hydroponics is growing plants with the absence of soil. However, most systems involve a growing medium which acts as a soil substitute. The growing medium is what supports your plant and roots and helps absorb the solution and keep the plants moisturized, should the pump fail.

Hydroponic media are measured by how absorbent they are and how porous they are to allow oxygen in. Here are some examples of the best grow media for hydroponics:

  • Rockwool
  • Rocks (yep! regular old rocks)
  • Grow rock
  • Coco fibers or coco chips
  • Vermiculite
  • Perlite
  • Oasis cubes
  • Floral foam
  • Sand
  • Expanded clay pebbles
  • Rice hulls
  • Poly foam insulation
  • and more!

Submersible pump

This is also known as a pump or nutrient pump. In most systems, this is how the nutrient solution gets from the reservoir to the plant roots. You can find these types of pumps online or in garden stores in the pond or pump section. Since this pump lives in the water solution, you’ll want to clean and maintain it regularly for proper functionality.

These pumps come in different sizes, so try to get one that suits your own system best.

Air Pump (optional)

An air pump is not required but is encouraged and does offer added benefits for your system. More oxygen means more growth. The air pump provides oxygen to the nutrient-rich solution and, in some systems, to the plant roots. Oxygen is pumped through a line that connects to an air stone at the bottom of the reservoir, providing bubbles to your solution. For more info, check out our post on the best air pumps for hydroponics.

Air pumps can be found at most stores that sell aquarium supplies. These pumps are much more necessary if your roots are in the solution 24/7 because they help ensure your roots aren’t suffocating.

Grow lights (optional)

If you are unable to use natural sunlight, an indoor system will need to utilize an artificial light source: a grow light. There are several different lighting types available, but our #1 recommendation is an LED grow light. LED grow lights use less electricity and last longer than standard fluorescent bulbs. The downside to LED lighting is the higher upfront cost, but it is worth it.

LED lights can be tweaked to provide a customized spectrum that is ideal for growing different types of plants. Before you buy one, make sure to check out our best LED grow lights article.

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6 Types of hydroponic systems

Hydroponics is the large umbrella that covers several key types of hydroponic systems which we’ll outline below. Each technique has its own unique advantages and disadvantages. I’m sure there are many variations and combinations of systems but, for the most part, there are six main types of hydroponic systems:

[1] Wicking

wicking hydroponic system

A wicking hydroponic system is the easiest to set up because it’s the only system that doesn’t specifically need electricity. With this system, a specific material acts as the “wick” that connects the plant roots to the nutrient solution. The wick slowly absorbs the liquid below and delivers it to the plant roots. Electricity is not necessary, but an air pump is optional.

The wick itself can be rope, felt, cotton, strips from a mop head or even the wick from a tiki torch! By now you probably get the idea. You just need something absorbent, so feel free to test different wicks out to see what works best for you.

You might use the wicking system to grow herbs or other small plants.

[2] Deepwater culture (DWC)

DWC hydroponic system

One of the most basic and easiest systems is Deepwater Culture, or DWC. In the DWC system, the plant roots are suspended and hang directly down into the nutrient solution. There is basically no water being pumped or moving around because the roots sit directly in the nutrient solution at all times. An air pump provides the oxygen to the water which completes the system.

DWC is a great choice for larger plants especially because the roots can have a lot more room than other systems mentioned below.

One of the most popular methods of any hydroponic system for beginners is known as the Kratky method. This is a form of DWC that eliminates all electrical components. Check out our Kratky article to learn more about that.

[3] Drip system

drip hydroponics

A drip hydroponic system involves the nutrient solution being pumped through a tube above the plants which drips the solution down onto the plant and roots. The drip system is great for closely monitoring the drip amount to each plant. However, with more drippers, more can go wrong. These systems can be prone to clogs.

Drip systems can either be circulating, where the solution returns to the basin, or non-circulating. Non-circulating means the nutrient-rich solution is single-use only and does not get recycled back into the system.

[4] Aeroponics

Aeroponic system

Aeroponics is a system where the plant roots are suspended and sprayed with nutrient-rich water. The nutrient spray effect is achieved using an aerosol or misting spray.

Aeroponics uses even less water than a traditional hydroponic system. Since the roots are suspended in air, they are able to absorb even more oxygen. Mister nozzles can spray the nutrient water continuously or intermittently.

If you’re looking to try out Aeroponics on your own, AeroGarden makes some really cool starter kits that are worth checking out.

[5] Ebb and flow

Ebb and Flow Hydroponic system

Ebb and flow is also known as flood and drain, and is another great method to consider. This system involves a flooding reservoir that your plants sit in and is positioned above the nutrient reservoir water. The top tray with the plants gets flooded with the nutrient solution and then, in a specific interval, drains back down to the lower reservoir.

You can change the interval of the flooding by using a timer system. This is a great system for specific plants that flourish under these conditions of excess nutrients followed by a period of dryness. During the dry intervals, the plant roots will expand in search of more nutrients which causes faster growth overall.

[6] Nutrient film technique (NFT)

NFT hydroponic systems

Nutrient Film Technique is a great option if you want to increase the oxygen levels and decrease the amount of water used. The key difference with NFT systems is that they rely on the plants to be suspended in a row at a slight tilt. This tilt allows for gravity to move the water through the tips of the roots.

NFT brings in the most oxygen because the roots are almost entirely exposed to the air and only the tips of the roots touch the nutrient solution.


Hybrid systems can be created using a combination of any of the above six methods. These are just the basic six; there are also other interesting subsets including aquaponics and fogponics that are worth exploring.

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Hydroponics FAQ

How often should I change my nutrient solution?

We recommend every two to three weeks.

What pH level should the solution be set at?

Nutrients are most soluble at a level of 6.5. This can be easily tested using a pH meter for hydroponics.

What temperature should my solution be?

65-75 degrees

What should my humidity be set at?

45-55% is recommended (you can use standard dehumidifiers). We suggest buying one of the best grow room dehumidifiers as seen in a prior article.

What does a hydroponic system need?

For a complete system, you’ll need a nutrient-rich water solution, a light source (sun or artificial), seeds, and a growing medium.

Does hydroponics yield more than soil?

Yes, a well-calibrated system can grow plants up to 30% faster than traditional soil based plants. This advantage is achieved with proper nutrients in your water solution as well as great lighting.

What can be grown hydroponically?

Many different types of fruits, vegetables and flowers can be grown using hydroponic systems. For more info, check out our post on the best plants to grow using hydroponics.


Hydroponics is our favorite way of growing plants because each aspect can be finely tuned for maximum output. Farmers and commercial growers aren’t the only ones taking advantage of hydroponic systems. Lots of people are finding success in the hydroponic hobby with their own at-home DIY hydroponics setup.

There’s something fun about making tweaks to different parts of the hydroponic system and noticing the changes. After some smart tuning, you’ll be well on your way to an efficient growing system and enjoying the fruits (or vegetables) of your labor! Speaking of vegetables, we can help you out if you’re looking to grow hydroponic lettuce, hydroponic tomatoes, and more how-to’s coming soon.