Hydroponic Systems: 4 Things to Know
November 27, 2015
These are all things you should be aware of before buying a hydroponic system, or building your own. Each of these common issues can make your garden more difficult to maintain, or your crop’s health harder to manage, so choose a setup design that minimizes the possibility that these potential headaches will make your gardening efforts less enjoyable, or less successful.
Considering high pressure hydroponic systems? Leaks in these are more likely than with a low pressure system, which are commonly caused when emitters slide out of place, and around the stab fittings. Drip systems and aeroponic systems both use high pressure pumps to deliver nutes where your plants need them, while deep water culture (DWC) and NFT systems use a low pressure pump. Always check that fittings on hoses are nice and tight on a drip or spray system, because the high pressure pump can continue loosening them to a point that they disconnect, leading to a huge mess since the pump will just keep on doing its thing.
Not having the right sized equipment for your plants also puts too much demand on a high pressure system, like huge root masses that can create a dam impeding the nutrient solution flow, which causes backup and overflow. Also, make sure you have a reservoir tank that’s big enough for what you’re growing, because if that’s not adequate you can have leaking issues too. How big is big enough? It depends on what size plants, and how many of them are planted. You need a MINIMUM of:
- 1 gallon per Small Plant
- 1-1.5 gallons per Medium Plant
- 2.5 gallons per Large Plant
There are also situations that can cause high pressure hydroponic systems to leak that you have little control over, like loss of power, which has been known to result in solution drain back. Also make sure your pipes are the right size, because skimping here can also cause your hydro system to leak.
While high pressure system nozzles and emitters – the ones with spray, mist, or drip delivery of nutrients – are simply prone to the emitters getting plugged up, it’s not always the system’s fault. The holes that the nutes are pushed through are tiny, and impurities in the tank contents don’t always fit through them. This is one reason you don’t find organic hydroponic nutes occupying a lot of shelf space at your local hydro shop. Likewise, sediment in your water source does the same thing, which brings a lot of indoor growers to use filters, and pre-filters, because then you’ve reduced the possibility of clogs as much as possible.
You’ll never be able to prevent all clogging. It’s just part of growing in certain types of hydroponic systems. High pressure pumps and more time spent checking on system performance simply go hand in hand. So plan on staying close throughout the grow, and using reliable monitors with alerts, because if you’re not there to correct the problem quickly, you can start loosing plants fast. This is especially true with aeroponics, where an hour without mist is certain plant death, because there is no media at all on your roots to protect them from air, no hope of any moisture retention.
So, if you’re going to use aeroponics, you need to check your emitters no less than 4 times a day, if not more. The media you choose can certainly buy you more of a window for identifying and repairing a clog, but once again, if the time lapse between you making sure everything is as it should be is too long… it won’t be pretty. So, be prepared to check a drip system twice, if not three times a day. If this doesn’t fit into your normal schedule 7 days a week, then go with a DWC or NFT system where you only need to check on it one time a day.
Wherever water, light, and plant nutrients are present algae will grow. It doesn’t matter how clean your system was was when you started, its just the perfect environment, and you can count on it establishing itself in your garden too. Which is definitely something you want to avoid, because if you’ve got it, you’re going to have fungus gnats next, and they cause root damage. But you can prevent or greatly reduce its ability to thrive.
What’s your system made of? You can’t get rid of the water, or the nutrients, but you certainly can make sure that you’ve blocked out the light as much as humanly possible. Start with the reservoir, which must be made of a material that doesn’t let light pass through. If it’s not opaque, your solution tank will have algae growing in it. The same is true of pipes, tubing, and the growing bed or pots involved. Make it light-proof!
With a commercially manufactured system, this will normally be covered, but you’ll still have issues at the planting sites. Gaps around the lip of net cups, or rockwool allow light to enter the tray or trough. Make sure the holes are precisely cut and the right size for your pots to fill completely. Plug any unused opening in the growing surface. There are also caps that can cover your media to thwart algae growth on the surface, but these make checking a drip system difficult – because you can’t see through them. Also make sure there are no light leaks around the fittings for your pipes and tubing.
Ease Of Use
From changing or checking your nutrient solution to flushing and cleaning the system, you want a hydroponic garden that’s not a hassle to use, and has the best interests of your crop in mind throughout a grow. Be sure that there is very little disturbance to your plants when you’re accessing the reservoir, because you need to check your tank quite often, even every day as plants grow larger or start bearing fruit. How easy is it to top off the reservoir or change out the solution? If it’s not fast and easy it makes it too convenient to put it off… not good!
Then there’s the cleaning of hydroponic systems between crops, which needs to be thorough, and doesn’t have to be a pain if the system is well designed. How well does it empty all the nutes that were running through it? It must completely drain. Also avoid a design that lets you access all interior surfaces with your hand or a brush. You want a lid, no tight corners, or bends that cannot be reached.
Now that the most common problems experienced by hydroponic gardeners have been identified, it’s easy to see why so many people use deep water culture or nutrient film systems. They’re simply so much more convenient, reliable, and easier to maintain than the other options. This is not to say that each kind of system does not have it’s uses. If that were true, the more complicated hydroponic systems would not be on the market. Choose your system wisely, and make sure it’s designed well. Don’t cut corners too tight or you won’t enjoy the growing process as much as you could, and your harvests could be really disappointing.
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