If you’re beginning the process of learning about hydroponics, then you need to know about the most popular of all hydroponics systems: drip systems. Here are the 8 things you need to know about drip system hydroponics when you’re getting started, from what it is to how you can implement it in your own home, backyard, or business.
1. What is drip system hydroponics?
Drip system hydroponics takes the old technology of traditional drip irrigation in field-based agriculture and applies it to hydroponics, a soil-free cultivation method. What’s powerful about using drip irrigation in hydroponics is that it utilizes — and wastes — very little water compared to other methods.
2. How does drip system hydroponics work?
Drip system hydroponics uses a system of tubes powered by a water pump to deliver nutrient-infused water to plants individually, based on each one’s needs. Drip systems send the intermittent drips directly to the base of the plant, minimizing the soil saturation and evaporation that occurs in traditional growing methods.
3. What are the different kinds of drip systems?
The two main types of drip systems are recirculating and non-recirculating. Let’s break down the difference.
Recirculating drip system hydroponics
Also called a recovery drip system, recirculating systems are exactly what they sound like: They recirculate water. After the plants are watered, any of the water that isn’t absorbed collects in the tray beneath them. Then, the used water is pumped out of the tray and back into the reservoir, where it will make its way through the entire system all over again.
Non-recirculating drip system hydroponics
Also called a non-recovery drip system or run to waste, this version of a drip hydroponics system takes the used water that collects in the tray and disposes of it as wastewater.
Variations and misclassifications
Beyond recirculating and non-recirculating systems, there are a couple more variations on the drip system. The most common ones are vertical systems (such as vertical farming or tower gardens) and bucket systems.
Other types of hydroponics systems are often misclassified as drip systems, such as wick systems, but they’re not really the same type of system.
4. What are the key components of a hydroponics drip system?
These are the items you’ll need to create a basic drip system.
In a drip system, each plant has its own individual plant pot or nursery container.
Place this around the base of each plant in its pot or nursery container. Rockwool, clay pellets, and coconut coir are all examples of growing media or substrate you can use. The media will stabilize the plant while allowing oxygen in and retaining just enough water and nutrients.
All of the plant pots sit in or above a shared tray (or set of trays). The tray collects the water and nutrients that drain out of the plants, where it can easily be recirculated or discarded.
The reservoir is what contains the nutrient solution before it is pumped into the plants. A large bucket or bin can act as your reservoir. The exact size you need depends on your setup. Make sure your reservoir isn’t clear or transparent, or else algae and bacteria will grow in it quickly.
Think of this as plant food. It’s a premade mixture of nutrients designed to help plants grow — all you have to do is add it to water.
Submersible water pump powers the nutrient solution out of the reservoir and through the tubing, where it can reach the plants. If you do not want to use a water pump, you will need to position your reservoir so that gravity can power the nutrient solution through the tubing.
You can also choose to install an aquarium-style air pump and/or air stone to add extra oxygen to the nutrient solution before the water pump sends it out to feed the plants.
You will need tubing to form distribution lines to funnel water from the reservoir to each plant. A larger tube such as PVC pipe can act as the main distribution line, while smaller spaghetti tubes branch off the main line to reach individual plants.
Drip emitters live on the ends of each section of spaghetti tubing. You should end up with one drip emitter per plant. Adjust the drip emitter to tailor how much of the nutrient solution a plant receives.
A garden timer will automate your drip system by regulating the watering time for your plants. You may also choose to add a pressure regulator to your system to control the water pressure during the drip watering process.
Particularly if you are using a recirculating drip system, you may want to use a pH tester to monitor the reservoir’s fluctuating pH levels.
5. What are the advantages of using a drip system?
Each hydroponics system has its pros and cons. Here’s what you need to know about the upsides and downsides of using drip systems:
- Drip systems use less water than other methods.
- They give you a lot of control over how much water and nutrients each plant receives, at which times, which makes it easy to successfully grow a lot of different kinds of plants.
- Drip systems are well-suited for large growing operations, whether backyard or commercial because they require very little water and are easy to scale. For these reasons, commercial operations tend to prefer drip hydroponics over other systems.
- They are affordable.
- They are unlikely to break.
- Once established, they last a very long time.
- They provide good oxygen flow (also called root aeration) to the plants.
- With drip method hydroponics, there is minimal salt or other mineral buildups, which is ideal, since they can form a barrier against nutrient absorption.
- The individual plant containers make it easy to remove any dead plants without disturbing other plants.
- You get to choose what growing media you want to use.
- You get to choose between running the nutrient solution continuously or running it on a timed system.
- A drip system may be too much work for a small growing operation because of how time-consuming it is to set up.
- Drip systems are susceptible to tube clogging.
- They are susceptible to the growth of algae and bacteria if not maintained properly. Because of this, they need regular cleaning.
- In a recirculating system, pH and nutrient levels can fluctuate, so you may need to monitor pH carefully.
- In a non-recirculating system, you end up with wasted water.
6. What grows best with drip system hydroponics?
This method is widely used for a reason — it’s hard to go wrong with a drip system. Tropical plants that need lots of water, as well as Mediterranean plants that need to keep their roots on the dry side, both do especially well on a drip system.
- Tomatoes & peppers
- Cucumbers, zucchini & eggplant
- Peas & beans
- Pumpkins & squash
- Sweet potatoes
- Leafy greens (arugula, cabbage, chard, lettuce, okra & spinach)
- Fruit trees (apples, peaches, pears, lemons & figs)
7. Can I convert my soil plants over to drip system hydroponics?
Yes, plants started in the soil can be transferred to a hydroponics system. The plants need to be at least 3 inches tall in order to safely make the switch. All you have to do is gently remove the soil from the roots before transplanting it to a container with a dirt-free growing media. Follow these detailed instructions from SFGATE for a successful transfer.
8. How do I clean and maintain my drip hydroponics system?
One of the biggest things to watch out for with a drip system is algal and bacterial growth within the tubing. For this reason, drip systems need to be cleaned regularly, in between each growing cycle.
To give your system the maintenance it needs, rinse the growing media with clean water, empty and sterilize the reservoir, and flush the tubing with nitric acid.
Drip system hydroponics are popular for a reason: They use water and other resources extremely efficiently in order to grow food. It’s not only a resource-efficient method of farming but cost-effective as well. It’s also easy to scale and modify your operation as it evolves from year to year.
In spite of some drawbacks, the advantages of drip system hydroponics far outweigh any of its disadvantages. We hope this guide will enable you to try this powerful, versatile growing method for yourself.