Popular for both home and commercial use, drip systems hydroponics is an effective way to provide a consistent supply of water and nutrients to plants.
It is an extremely flexible system that can easily be scaled up or down, and, when set up correctly, will lead to an increase in plant productivity and yield.
What is the Drip Hydroponic System?
A drip hydroponic system makes use of a traditional irrigation system that dates all the way back to ancient China, but adapts it in a way that makes it suitable for soil-less growing.
It involves slowly feeding a low-volume stream of water and nutrients directly to the roots of plants, in a way that gives you full control over the entire growing process.
A drip system can be used for both vertical and horizontal growing systems, with the vertical versions being especially efficient.
How Does a Hydroponic Drip Irrigation System Work?
A hydroponic drip irrigation system is extremely versatile – you can use it to either feed plants that are kept separately in individual containers, or you can use it to feed and water a larger growing tray.
Either way, drip emitters are placed into growing containers, with the drip emitters connected to a pump. The pump is placed into a reservoir that holds a nutrient solution, which is pumped through to the drip emitters on a regular basis, where it is then delivered directly to the roots of your plants.
A timer is usually involved too, as the roots of plants need time to dry in between nutrient flows. This allows the roots to absorb oxygen.
Let’s take a look at this video:
Pros and Cons of a Drip Feed System
- Since nutrients are delivered directly to the roots of each plant, nutrient wastage and leakage is minimal, making a drip feed system more cost-effective than other hydroponic systems.
- Your growing area does not need to be level – growing containers can be placed around or below your reservoir if needed, although this does require an extra pump.
- Setup is simple and usually quite inexpensive.
- Maintaining consistent moisture in plant roots is easy once you’ve established a watering schedule.
- Since each drip emitter can be adjusted, you can tailor how much water each individual plant receives.
- Water usage is less than most other hydroponic systems.
- Unlike many other hydroponic systems, drip irrigation is not labor intensive and doesn’t require much maintenance.
- A drip irrigation system is easy to scale up.
- Achieving an ideal nutrient balance can be difficult.
- Any mistakes in your watering schedule could be fatal for your plants.
- Drip emitters can sometimes become clogged, requiring you to regularly check their flow.
- A drip feed system is dependent on electricity – any power cuts could lead to your plants quickly drying out, although this does also depend on the growing medium you’re using. However, a backup electricity supply is often kept close to hand for larger-scale systems.
Drip System Variations
Before learning about how to set up a drip hydroponic system, you need to know about the variations of this technique, so that you can decide which one you want to go for.
You have two main options:
If you’re looking for a drip system that uses as little technology as possible, then the recovery system is it.
It requires you to have a vertical hydroponic setup, with the nutrient solution being delivered up to the top, where it drips into the growing medium you’re using.
Excess water and nutrients drain out from underneath and are sent back into the reservoir, where they are then pumped back up to the plants.
Pros of a Recovery System:
- Nutrients are recycled, which could save you money in the long run.
Cons of a Recovery System:
- As your plants absorb the nutrients they need, nutrient and pH levels of your solution will be constantly changing. This will mean that you will need to closely monitor and adjust your solution, as well as regularly replace it completely.
As you can tell from its name, a non-recovery system doesn’t reuse its nutrient solution.
Instead, this simply drains away as waste, although if a non-recovery system has been set up correctly, the amount of waste is actually very minimal.
Rather than a continuous drip fed to plants, a non-recovery system is heavily reliant on a timer. It needs to be extremely accurate, almost to the second, in order to ensure that plants are receiving enough water to keep them moist without wasting any excess.
Pros of a Non-Recovery System:
- Since your plants aren’t reusing the same nutrient solution, you won’t need to monitor pH and nutrient levels. Instead, you can simply top up your reservoir whenever it starts to run low.
- You will have the maximum amount of control over how much water your plants receive.
Cons of a Non-Recovery System:
- If you don’t have your timers accurately adjusted, you could end up with a lot of waste, as well as suffocated plants.
What You’ll Need to Set Up a Drip Hydroponic System
The components that you pick for your drip hydroponic system will vary depending on how small or large your setup is, as well as how much control you want to have over your plants.
Ideally, you will want to try to have one drip emitter per plant, although larger plants may need more.
There are 2 main types of drip emitters out there:
- Regulated/pressure compensated – these are extremely precise, which is what you need for maximum accuracy and control. Go with these if you are using a growing medium that retains high amounts of moisture.
- Faster flowing – these will saturate your growing medium extremely quickly, making them good for anything that doesn’t hold on to too much water.
Although less precise, another option would be to use tubing that has small holes poked through at regular intervals – these holes are where your nutrient solution would drip out.
However, you would need to lay these alongside your plants rather than burying it in their growing medium if you’re using individual containers, meaning that the nutrient solution won’t be delivered directly to the roots of your plants.
PVC tubing or thin spaghetti tubing tend to be best for taking water from the reservoir to your drip emitters.
The number of tubes you will need will depend on how many drip emitters you have, and lengths will depend on how large your setup is.
Since you only need a low-pressure stream of water to be sent to your drip emitters, a very basic pump will do, so long as it is submersible.
Pond pumps and aquarium pumps work well – the latter helps to aerate the nutrient solution, which is better for the roots of your plants.
If you are using a recovery drip irrigation system, then a simple timer will suffice. All it needs to do is turn your pump on and off at set times throughout the day.
However, if you’re going for a non-recovery system, you will need a precision timer that gives you maximum control.
This can be any opaque container that has a well-fitting lid – if too much light or air can access your nutrient solution, you will end up having to deal with bacterial and algae growths.
The ideal growing medium for a drip hydroponic system would be one that is capable of holding both moisture and air. Good options include:
Drip feed systems give you so much flexibility when it comes to growing containers.
Individual pots for each plant will give you the most amount of control over your system – you will be able to adjust nutrient flow based on the type of plant you’re growing, as well as its stage in its lifecycle.
Alternatively, you could use a larger growing tray that contains all of your plants, still placing a drip emitter at the base of each plant.
Don’t forget that your growing containers will need to have enough drainage holes at the bottom – you don’t want to end up drowning your plants with excess water and nutrients.
Let’s see this guy make a top drip bucket system:
How to DIY Set Up a Drip Hydroponic System
Unlike some of the other hydroponic systems out there, setting up a hydroponic drip system design is easy.
Once you have all of the necessary components, start by connecting up your pump to your tubing and drip emitters.
Fill your growing containers with your chosen growing medium, as well as your plants, and then place the drip emitters in. Place your containers at least a few inches above your reservoir, so that gravity can quickly draw excess water away, or back into your reservoir for a recovery system.
Placing your reservoir above your growing containers is an option too, but this requires a second pump.
Then, fill your reservoir with your nutrient solution and attach your timer, before turning it all on. Set your timer and keep a close eye on moisture levels over the next few days, as you will likely need to make quite a few adjustments.
Hydroponic Drip System Watering Schedule
It is extremely important to set up a good watering schedule for a hydroponic drip system, because getting this wrong could spell disaster for your plants.
Too much water and your plants will end up drowning, but too little will prevent them from accessing enough nutrients and moisture.
Establishing a watering schedule isn’t easy – it will require quite a bit of trial and error.
Many growers start with setting their timers to turn their pumps on 3 times a day, for however long it takes to fully saturate their growing medium without any waste.
This means that you will need to closely monitor your system for the first few days, in order to determine when moisture levels are perfect.
Your watering schedule will also likely change throughout the growing process – older plants will require more water and nutrients than younger plants.
Changing environmental conditions, such as an increase in humidity during the summer, will have an effect on how much water your plants need too.
Best Plants for a Drip Irrigation System
Being able to have full control over the level of nutrients and water your plants receive means that you can grow such a wide variety of plants with a drip irrigation system.
Both small and large plants are suited to drip irrigation. In fact, drip irrigation tends to be one of the best hydroponic setups for large plants, since you can grow them in any containers you want while still ensuring that they receive the optimum amount of nutrients and moisture.
Just about every type of plant will do well in a drip system, but those that really thrive include:
- Leafy greens
The versatility of drip systems hydroponics makes it perfect for both beginners and commercial growers.
It is easy and inexpensive to set up, and although it may take a while to get your watering schedule perfected, your efforts at the start will give you a low-maintenance growing system that produces healthy and productive plants.
Learn more about other Hydroponic System: Wick System, Nutrient Film Technique, Deep Water Culture (Kratky Method). Check out our collection of DIY Aquaponics Plans too!