The Hydroponic Drip System: Should You Use It?

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By Alex Harris

If you are a gardener or just someone who loves growing plants, then chances are that at some point in your life you have come across the term hydroponic drip system.

Maybe you were wondering what it was and whether or not you should get one.

In this guide, we will discuss exactly what these systems are, how they work, maintenance requirements, and costs associated with them.

Related: Types of Hydroponic Systems

What Is The Drip Irrigation System?

Hydroponic drip systems are one of the most efficient methods for watering your plants, but also among the most expensive.

A hydroponic system is an awesome method that allows you to grow crops without soil. The only thing needed here is an inert medium in which water can be delivered at controlled rates and then it will gradually release nutrients into the growing medium.

A hydroponic drip system is an automated method for delivering water and nutrients to plants that are grown in a potting mix or other inert medium, such as clay pebbles.

The main components of these systems are the nutrient reservoir, pump unit with timer control, growing tray(s) with net pots filled with the soil-less mixture, and a tube delivery system.

Using the hydroponic drip irrigation method allows for improved growing results due to its ability to deliver water directly at optimal rates which can be customized according to plant needs.

The nutrient solution is delivered in very small amounts every few minutes allowing your plant’s roots quick access without causing root rot or other problems associated with overwatering. This method is very efficient and uses less water than conventional methods of irrigation.

How Does The Drip System Work?

It works by drawing water from the nutrient reservoir and pumping it through a small hose to drip emitter(s) that are placed around each plant. The pump will automatically turn on and off according to your programmed timer, releasing specific amounts of nutrients at regular intervals which gives the plants what they need when they need it.

As you can imagine this method requires electricity so make sure you place the system near an outlet or where you can run a cord without it being too much of an eyesore. A timer is required to control the pump and this will need to be set up in advance so make sure you plan ahead for growing seasons if possible.

Variations Of The Drip System Hydroponics method

  • Recirculating/Recovery Systems – These systems have a filtration system that allows you to reuse the nutrient solution. Also known as recovery systems, they are more efficient than non-recovery setups because your nutrients never get flushed out of the growing tray and into the drain or outside environment where it becomes wasted resources.
  • Non-Recovery/Non-Circulating System – This is the simplest of all drip systems. Basically, you set it up and forget about it while your plants drink in nutrients at their own pace until they are ready for harvest. This type doesn’t require electricity or a timer but does require more attention when checking on them to make sure that there isn’t any over-watering going on with these plants.

How to Setup A Drip Hydroponic System

Ready to get your very own system setup? Great, here’s exactly what you’re going to need:

  • PVC Tubing – This tubing is used to distribute nutrients throughout the growing tray and can be found at any hardware store.
  • Drip Emitters – These are the very small holes that will be placed in each net pot and they typically come in a pack of 100 for around $15.
  • Growing Trays (Net Pots) – You can use any type of growing tray but make sure it has plenty of drainage at the bottom to allow excess water to escape without saturating your plant roots.
  • WaterPump – This will be the most expensive component of your entire system and it is important to research which one you get carefully. It should come with a flow adjustment dial that allows for easy regulation of water volume, pump timer control (so it automatically turns on and off), adjustable pressure settings, a filter screen attached to protect delicate drip emitters from clogging up over time, and a fountain setting that can be used for constant circulation.
  • Nutrient Solution – You will need to acquire nutrient solution made specifically for your hydroponic system which will typically come in a concentrated powder form with the exact measurements needed to use it properly. This is added into the water before being poured into the nutrient reservoir where it then comes through the pump and into the thin tubing that will distribute it to your drip emitters.
  • A Large Bucket/Bin – This will be your nutrient reservoir and it needs to hold at least 30 gallons of water. Keep in mind you need room for all the tubing, pump, and other components so make sure you have enough space before setting up a hydroponics drip system.
  • A Growing Medium – Any inert grow media can work but we recommend using clay pebbles because they provide excellent aeration, drainage, and water retention. Another good choice is coco coir.
  • A Timer – This is used to turn your pump on and off automatically so make sure you have one beforehand.
  • Silicone sealant (needs to be aquarium grade) – This is used to create waterproof connections between your tubing, pump, and nutrient reservoir.
  • Small pots for your plant – Choose a size that is appropriate for the plant you are growing and make sure they have drainage holes at the bottom.
  • Pipe cutter (drill, hacksaw, etc) – This will be used to cut PVC tubing into the appropriate lengths.
  • A TDS Meter – This tool is optional but it’s very helpful in understanding how much nutrient solution you have left after each watering cycle so that can help determine when to reorder more supplies.

The best plants to grow for a drip irrigation system

Not all plants are great with the drip system, but here are the best:

  • Tomatoes
  • Bok Choy
  • Cucumbers
  • Lettuce
  • Peppers
  • Strawberries
  • Watermelon

Advantages of the drip system

  • When compared to other strategies, it requires little maintenance.
  • Installation costs are reasonable and low.
  • A scalable system that may be expanded as needed.
  • There’s less of a risk of the system failing.
  • Provides more management over water and nutrients.

Disadvantages of the drip system

  • If you’re a smaller grower, then this system might be too complex
  • There is a danger of waste if you use a non-recovery system.
  • Maintenance is expensive when using a water recycling system (for the reservoir water)

Conclusion: Is it right for you?

Knowing whether the drip irrigation system is the best option for you comes down to a few key considerations:

The size of the operation you want to run. If you are a smaller grower, then this system might be too complex for your needs and it would make more sense to opt for an ebb & flow or tray flooding strategy.

The number of resources (time/money) that you can invest in making sure plant health is maintained. If you are a smaller grower and don’t have much money to invest in equipment or supplies, then the drip system might be too expensive for your needs and it would make more sense to opt for an ebb & flow strategy.

The type of plants you want to grow. Some types of produce (like tomatoes) require larger root systems that are able to support their weight. If you want to grow plants like these, then the drip irrigation system might not be a great option for your needs.