Organic Gardening

Hydroponic Drip System Explained: The complete step guide

If you can think of a plant, it’ll grow lavishly using drip system hydroponics. Also known as Dutch bucket or Bato bucket systems, drip systems are one of the most versatile types of system available to the home grower. It’s one of the most widely used hydroponic systems for growing plants in commercial greenhouses for a reason!

Hydroponic Drip System Peppers
Hydroponic Drip System Peppers

With a bit of work, you can create a hydroponic garden for just about any space and any crop you can imagine. 


How Does a Drip System Work?

First developed for field irrigation, drip irrigation is one of the most effective ways to control the flow of water in a hydroponic setup. In a drip system, plants grow in containers of medium. Tubing run from container to container, usually hung above the plant or resting just above the level of the substrate allowing one drip emitter per plant. This tubing supplies timed doses of nutrient solution that filters through the root system. These are generally automated systems using timers to regulate when each dose of water is released. 

Some drip hydro rigs return excess water back into the reservoir to be reused. Other setups are calibrated so all the solution is used for the plants, with none at all flowing from the container. But every drip system uses the same basic technique of small amounts of water added regularly.

” A well-designed drip irrigation system loses practically no water to runoff, deep percolation, or evaporation. Drip irrigation reduces water contact with crop leaves, stems, and fruit. Thus conditions may be less favorable for the onset of diseases. Irrigation scheduling can be managed precisely to meet crop demands, holding the promise of increased yield and quality.”

Clint Shock, Oregon State University

Types of Hydroponic Drip Systems 

Recovery or Recirculating Systems

 A submersible pump in the tank feeds the solution through piping and out an emitter head several times a day, where it will drip onto the plants’ containers. A recovery or recirculating drip system collects spent nutrient solution to be recycled. Typically the containers are placed either above the nutrient tank or on a grow tray to collect the excess. These hydroponic drip systems work best for home growers and other small-scale operations. 

Non-Recovery or Non-Circulating System

Non-Recovery or Non-Circulating Systems don’t collect water that may flow from the bottom of the containers. While this may seem wasteful, adding nutrient solution directly to the roots allows growers to supply exactly the amount their plants need and not a drop more. In well calibrated commercial drip setups they often have no water draining out at all. Others place the entire system outdoors over dirt, or in greenhouses with drainage that carries flow through away altogether.

Advantages and Disadvantages of Drip Irrigation Hydroponics

Hydroponic drip systems are incredibly resource efficient. Applying the water and nutrients directly above the roots of the plants prevents loss to evaporation. This precision also allows for very exact amounts of nutrition. 

Drip hydroponics is also versatile. Small plants in small containers are no different to grow than larger plants in big buckets. They use exact same system to regulate the flow. All that changes is the volume of water from the reservoir and the length of the pipes. You can even close emitters as plants are harvested from your system, allowing a changing number of plants without needing to make big alterations to your rig.

On the downside, hydroponic drip systems are very dependent on electrical components. Lose power and it’s possible to lose crops. Plants in this system are less fragile in that regard than Nutrient Film Technique or Aeroponics, but even a medium with good water holding capacity will dry out eventually.

There’s also a lot of fiddly bits that can go wrong. Mineral salts often build up on and inside drip heads, causing blockages. You also need to monitor the buildup of algae and bacteria films inside your irrigation system – it doesn’t take much for a bloom to gum up all your tubing. And that’s in addition to the usual need to monitor pH and nutrient levels in the solution, temperature, humidity and light levels.

What Do Do You Need To Get Started Growing In A Drip Hydroponic System?

Hydroponic Drip System
Hydroponic Drip System

Using a drip system is only as complex as you want it to be. A simple system with a few plants is no harder to build and run than other types of hydroponics. To build your own basic drip system will need:

  • growing medium
  • containers with good drainage
  • PVC tubes
  • Aquarium grade silicone sealant
  • Zip ties
  • emitter heads sized to fit your tubing
  • nutrient reservoir
  • timer
  • submersible water pump
  • air stone or air pump
  • monitoring equipment – an electric meter that checks both EC and pH is best.

It’s possible to place plants directly above the tank, much in the same way as a Deep Water Culture rig. Excess solution can simply drain straight into the tank. Alternately you can use a tray to catch runoff and connect it to your tank. If you’re growing indoors you’ll probably need a grow light, too. For truly large systems you may also need a drip manifold, a sort of splitter that allows you to run more than one drip line from the same pump and tank of reservoir.

How to set up your own DIY drip system hydroponic system at home

Below are the instructions for a fairly basic recovery system drip rig using a large storage tote as the nutrient tank. You can tinker with the layout to suit your plants and your space.

Step 1: Prepare your growing medium.

Begin by preparing your medium. A blend of one part perlite, one part coconut coir or peat, and one part vermiculite has the perfect ratio of water retention and drainage for hydroponics drip systems.

Ensure the mix is well hydrated with pure water. Coir or peat are best soaked overnight. Once everything is nice and wet place the medium in your containers, leaving room to plant your seedlings.

Step 2: Prepare your irrigation system.

This is the trickiest part of your rig – building the irrigation system itself.

For simple rigs, you can run out a length of spaghetti tubing long enough to rest across all the containers and puncture a 1-2mm hole immediately above where each individual plant will be. Drip emitters are more reliable and give a more even drip, so are worth adding if you have more than a few plants.

Seal the end of your tube with silicone sealant, or crimp and secure it with a zip tie. If you want to run more than one row of plants, use a drip manifold for the appropriate number of rows. It’s also worth using a central tube with a larger diameter leading to the manifold. 

No matter how simple or complex your irrigation system is, ensure all joins or connections are tight to prevent leaks.

Step 3: Prepare your reservoir

Cut drainage holes for your containers in the lid of the tote, along with space to run cords and tubes. I like to use a tote with recessed well in the lid. The lid itself then serves as a grow tray. Convenient! To provide drainage, all you need to do is position the whole shebang at an angle of a few degrees. Run off flows to holes cut in the lowest point and back to the reservoir. Alternately, you can cut a hole for each container sized to fit the drainage holes but tight enough to prevent it falling through.

Once the reservoir tank is ready to go, move it to the grow room or your chosen location. This is always easier to do when the tank is empty!

Step 4: Check the System

Now it’s time to check your handiwork. Fill the tank with pure water and add your air stone and pump. Plug in the lot and connect the pump to the tubes. Program the timer to your chosen watering interval, set to start its first cycle. 

Allow the system to run through a full irrigation cycle. Water should flow from the heads according to the interval and cut off after the programmed time. Check over the tubing, looking for leaks or blockages. Check your drainage, too – if you’ve opted to use an inclined reservoir, make sure the angle is sufficient to allow the ‘tray’ to clear.

Don’t be disheartened if you find leaks. Even commercial growers sometimes have leaky pipes! Seal them with silicone and once cured repeat the test cycle.

Step 5: Prepare the Nutrient Solution.

Once your piping is set up it’s time to mix your nutrient solution. Ensure the pH level and EC are appropriate to your crops. I like to perfect my solution in another container before adding it to the reservoir tank, but if you’re confident you can mix it in situ.

Step 6: Add your Seedlings

Carefully plant your seedlings in the medium you potted up back in step 1. Next, place them beneath your emitter heads. For most plants it’s best to rest the heads as close to the plant roots as possible. 

Step 7: Activate your System

Plug everything in, including grow lights if you’re growing indoors. Carefully monitor your first few cycles to ensure that they’ve been properly programmed and working as they should. 

Once all your bits and pieces are in, running well and are properly calibrated, the whole system can run with minimal supervision. You’ll still need to check in on the EC and pH level of the nutrient solution, and it still needs to be cleaned regularly. But once you’ve perfected the timer system to regulate when the rig will deliver water and nutrients to your crops, there’s little more to do. It’ll feed the plants indefinitely as long as the reservoir water doesn’t run out.

FAQ

Hydroponic mellons
Hydroponic Melons

How Often Should I Water Plants in my Hydroponic Drip System?

The frequency at which you program your watering cycle will depend largely on the crop in question. But in general a good schedule is to water them two to three times a day, for long enough to moisten the medium without drenching it. Small containers may only need a half a minute of flow to become well watered. Large plants in deep containers may need up to five minutes. 

The needs of your plants will change over time, too. Smaller plants early in their growth will need less water than big ones that are heading to harvest. The weather will also change how frequently you need to water. Faster growth at the peak of the growing season really tears through both nutrients and water, so you’ll need to modify how frequently you have your solution drip onto the plants as the season progresses.

What is the Best Growing Medium for Drip System? 

The best growing medium for home drip system is a blend of one part each perlite, coco coir or peat, and vermiculite. These three components work together in concert to provide a near perfect balance of drainage, water retention and nutrient retention. It’s also easy to use – lightweight, easy to scale and economic.

Once you get the feel for the basics you can experiment with other media. Pure perlite is tricky but very productive. Wood shavings are apparently spectacular for growing strawberries in commercial hydroponic farms, and parboiled rice hulls are a promising alternative to coir or peat. 

How Deep Should a Drip System Be?

The depth of your growing container comes down to how large your plant will grow. Small plants like lettuce don’t need a deep container. They have shallow roots and won’t dive into the bottom of the pot. In fact, too much stagnant moisture in the medium can cause root disease. 

Larger plants need a bigger container. For example, hydroponic blueberries are grown commercially in large plastic bags. They are a perennial shrub and need enough room to really get their roots down. Hydroponic carrots will also grow well in a deeper container with lots of space for their delectable tap roots.

How do you add nutrients to drip systems?

a deeper container with lots of space for their delectable tap roots.
How do you add nutrients to drip systems?
Drip systems use the same sorts of nutrient solution as any other type of hydroponic system. The nutrients are added to the reservoir tank along with the water. As a result, this system is an efficient way to deliver nutrients quite precisely with little waste. It results in crops that grow faster and are ready to harvest earlier than those in conventional garden beds.

Final Thoughts

The versatility of drip hydroponics makes it perfect for just about any growing operation. Using drip allows me to supply my plants with just the water and nutrients they need, zero waste every time. My hydroponic garden has never been more lush!



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