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Hydroponics Systems (I): Active Setups

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There are many ways of setting up a hydroponic system. Some do take more work than others, but it’s important to know that a more complex system doesn’t necessarily lead to a larger harvest. This week, we’ll give a brief overview of common hydroponics techniques to give you an idea of what’s possible for your own setup.

There are two main types of hydroponics methods: systems where the water isn’t moved are “passive” hydroponics setups, and systems where the water is either pumped or moved in some other way are “active.” Let’s take a look at some active hydroponics setups.

By Lucis (Own work) [GFDL (, via Wikimedia Commons

Close-up of Light Expanded Clay Aggregate (LECA) pebbles. 

Ebb and Flow

This is a classic hydroponics setup. Plants are placed in containers (or a suitable medium) and arranged in a tray. Water is pumped into the tray at regular intervals. This is the “flow” part of the technique. As the water drains, or “ebbs,” away, the growth media retains enough water for the plant to sustain itself. Like all active systems, this technique is great for promoting root growth, and is relatively simple to construct to boot. Since plants are kept in separate removable containers and the irrigation system is easily accessible, this setup is simple to maintain and a great option for first-time growers.


A drip system uses a pump to cycle water through a tubing system. Using emitters or drip rings, this water is slowly delivered at a set rate to your growth medium or soil. It’s easy to set up a system where runoff is reserved and recirculated, minimizing waste. Drip systems can be added to existing reservoirs or wick systems, allowing you to reap the benefits of additional root growth that an active system encourages. 

An emitter used for the drip hydroponics technique.

Nutrient Film Technique (NFT)

This method is used by many commercial greenhouses. NFT doesn’t require a growth medium--plants are placed in net pots, and roots are directly exposed to the water. Though it may be more challenging to set up than other systems, if you have the time and expertise it can be a great option for a fast-growing group of smaller plants. Because the plant itself does not get support from a growth medium, taller plants are more likely to tip over. Furthermore, large plants with more extensive root systems can clog NFT’s low-volume water channels.

To overcome these challenges, It’s possible to use NFT in conjunction with a growth medium. Plants are placed in regular pots filled with a medium (e.g. LECA), with a drip hose at the top of the pot to supply a thin film of running water over the pebbles. These pots are then set in a larger container acting as a reservoir. This way, if a plant’s roots grow out of the container they still have access to water.

Stay tuned for the next installment of our hydroponics setup overview, where we’ll look at passive systems--perfect for those who seeking a low-maintenance hydroponics setup.

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