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What Is a Hydroponic Drip System?

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  • Written By: Paul Scott
  • Edited By: R. Halprin
  • Last Modified Date: 24 September 2016
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A hydroponic drip system is one of the many soil-less gardening techniques used to cultivate plants in inert growing mediums exposed to waterborne nutrients. Drip systems function by pumping nutrient solutions from a holding tank through a series of tubes to individual drip points at each plant location. The nutrient solution drips onto the growing medium, thereby saturating the plant roots at regular intervals. The control for the drip cycle duration and frequency is achieved with a programmed timer which, in turn, controls the pump. There are two basic hydroponic drip system types, recovery and non-recovery, which either reuse runoff from the growing medium or not.

Hydroponics is the science of growing plants without traditional soil bases. The technology has presented a wealth of opportunities for the cultivation of a wide range of food plant species in locations never before associated with any sort of horticultural activity. The basic principle which lies at the heart of hydroponics is the fact that all plants absorb their nutrients from water whether they are planted in soil or not. Hydroponic growing sees plants absorb nutrients from solutions circulated through various growing mediums or even through the air with the plant roots completely exposed. One of the most basic and most commonly used of these soil-less gardening methods is the hydroponic drip system.

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One of the most attractive characteristics of the hydroponic drip system is its simplicity; it can either be built from scratch or with a ready manufactured, modular kit. The system consists of a growing tray or trays, a nutrient solution tank, a water pump and timer, an air pump and diffuser, and a series of thin plastic tubes terminated with drip points. Plants are placed in the trays in a growing medium such as perlite, rock wool, or clay pellets. The nutrient tank is filled with a plant food solution suitable for the relevant plant species. A water pump is then submerged in the tank along with an air diffuser such as an air stone.

The water pump is connected to a manifold which feeds a number of thin plastic tubes, one for each plant location. The tubes are terminated in specially designed drip fittings which are positioned so that the nutrient pumped through the tubes drips in a controlled fashion into the growing medium around the plant roots. The hydroponic drip system nutrient pump is controlled by a preprogrammed timer which ensures that the drip cycle duration and frequency deliver an optimal amount of plant food solution to the plant roots. The air pump, which is located outside the nutrient tank, pumps air through the diffuser to aerate the nutrient solution, thereby ensuring that adequate oxygen levels are maintained.

Although the basic principles of hydroponic drip systems remain the same, they are divided into two categories depending on runoff use. These are recovery and non-recovery systems which either capture runoff nutrient after it has passed through the growing medium or discard it. Recovery systems are obviously more cost effective as they save on wasted nutrient solution. They do, however, tend to require more maintenance because the pH and nutrient levels of the solution require constantly monitoring due to the inflow of diluted solution from the growing tray.

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