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The two main types of hydroponics are solution culture and medium culture. Solution culture does not use a solid medium for the roots, just the nutrient solution. The three main types of solution cultures are static solution culture, continuous-flow solution culture and aeroponics. The medium culture method has a solid medium for the roots and is named for the type of medium, e.g., sand culture, gravel culture, or rockwool culture.
There are two main variations for each medium, sub-irrigation and top irrigation. For all techniques, most hydroponic reservoirs are now built of plastic, but other materials have been used including concrete, glass, metal, vegetable solids, and wood. The containers should exclude light to prevent algae growth in the nutrient solution.
Static solution culture
In static solution culture, plants are grown in containers of nutrient solution, such as glass Mason jars (typically, in-home applications), plastic buckets, tubs, or tanks. The solution is usually gently aerated but may be un-aerated. If un-aerated, the solution level is kept low enough that enough roots are above the solution so they get adequate oxygen. A hole is cut in the lid of the reservoir for each plant. There can be one to many plants per reservoir. Reservoir size can be increased as plant size increases. A home made system can be constructed from plastic food containers or glass canning jars with aeration provided by an aquarium pump, aquarium airline tubing and aquarium valves. Clear containers are covered with aluminium foil, butcher paper, black plastic, or other material to exclude light, thus helping to eliminate the formation of algae. The nutrient solution is changed either on a schedule, such as once per week, or when the concentration drops below a certain level as determined with an electrical conductivity meter. Whenever the solution is depleted below a certain level, either water or fresh nutrient solution is added, A Mariotte's bottle, or a float valve, can be used to automatically maintain the solution level. In raft solution culture, plants are placed in a sheet of buoyant plastic that is floated on the surface of the nutrient solution. That way, the solution level never drops below the roots.
Continuous-flow solution culture
In continuous-flow solution culture, the nutrient solution constantly flows past the roots. It is much easier to automate than the static solution culture because sampling and adjustments to the temperature and nutrient concentrations can be made in a large storage tank that has potential to serve thousands of plants. A popular variation is the nutrient film technique or NFT, whereby a very shallow stream of water containing all the dissolved nutrients required for plant growth is recirculated past the bare roots of plants in a watertight thick root mat, which develops in the bottom of the channel, has an upper surface that, although moist, is in the air. Subsequent to this, an abundant supply of oxygen is provided to the roots of the plants. A properly designed NFT system is based on using the right channel slope, the right flow rate, and the right channel length. The main advantage of the NFT system over other forms of hydroponics is that the plant roots are exposed to adequate supplies of water, oxygen, and nutrients. In all other forms of production, there is a conflict between the supply of these requirements, since excessive or deficient amounts of one results in an imbalance of one or both of the others. NFT, because of its design, provides a system where all three requirements for healthy plant growth can be met at the same time, provided that the simple concept of NFT is always remembered and practised. The result of these advantages is that higher yields of high-quality produce are obtained over an extended period of cropping. A downside of NFT is that it has very little buffering against interruptions in the flow, e.g., power outages. But, overall, it is probably one of the more productive techniques.
The same design characteristics apply to all conventional NFT systems. While slopes along channels of 1:100 have been recommended, in practice it is difficult to build a base for channels that is sufficiently true to enable nutrient films to flow without ponding in locally depressed areas. As a consequence, it is recommended that slopes of 1:30 to 1:40 are used. This allows for minor irregularities in the surface, but, even with these slopes, ponding and water logging may occur. The slope may be provided by the floor, or benches or racks may hold the channels and provide the required slope. Both methods are used and depend on local requirements, often determined by the site and crop requirements.
As a general guide, flow rates for each gully should be 1 liter per minute. At planting, rates may be half this and the upper limit of 2 L/min appears about the maximum. Flow rates beyond these extremes are often associated with nutritional problems. Depressed growth rates of many crops have been observed when channels exceed 12 metres in length. On rapidly growing crops, tests have indicated that, while oxygen levels remain adequate, nitrogen may be depleted over the length of the gully. As a consequence, channel length should not exceed 10–15 metres. In situations where this is not possible, the reductions in growth can be eliminated by placing another nutrient feed halfway along the gully and reducing flow rates to 1 L/min through each outlet.
Aeroponics is a system wherein roots are continuously or discontinuously kept in an environment saturated with fine drops (a mist or aerosol) of nutrient solution. The method requires no substrate and entails growing plants with their roots suspended in a deep air or growth chamber with the roots periodically wetted with a fine mist of atomized nutrients. Excellent aeration is the main advantage of aeroponics.
Aeroponic techniques have proved to be commercially successful for propagation, seed germination, seed potato production, tomato production, leaf crops, and micro-greens. Since inventor Richard Stoner commercialized aeroponic technology in 1983, aeroponics has been implemented as an alternative to water intensive hydroponic systems worldwide. The limitation of hydroponics is the fact that 1 kg of water can only hold 8 mg of air, no matter whether aerators are utilized or not.
Another distinct advantage of aeroponics over hydroponics is that any species of plants can be grown in a true aeroponic system because the micro environment of an aeroponic can be finely controlled. The limitation of hydroponics is that only certain species of plants can survive for so long in water before they become water logged. The advantage of aeroponics is that suspended aeroponic plants receive 100% of the available oxygen and carbon dioxide to the roots zone, stems, and leaves, thus accelerating biomass growth and reducing rooting times. NASA research has shown that aeroponically grown plants have an 80% increase in dry weight biomass (essential minerals) compared to hydroponically grown plants. Aeroponics used 65% less water than hydroponics. NASA also concluded that aeroponically grown plants requires ¼ the nutrient input compared to hydroponics. Unlike hydroponically grown plants, aeroponically grown plants will not suffer transplant shock when transplanted to soil, and offers growers the ability to reduce the spread of disease and pathogens. Aeroponics is also widely used in laboratory studies of plant physiology and plant pathology. Aeroponic techniques have been given special attention from NASA since a mist is easier to handle than a liquid in a zero gravity environment.
Ebb and flow or flood and drain sub-irrigation
In its simplest form, there is a tray above a reservoir of nutrient solution. Either the tray is filled with growing medium (clay granules being the most common) and planted directly or pots of medium stand in the tray. At regular intervals, a simple timer causes a pump to fill the upper tray with nutrient solution, after which the solution drains back down into the reservoir. This keeps the medium regularly flushed with nutrients and air. Once the upper tray fills past the drain stop, it begins recirculating the water until the pump is turned off, and the water in the upper tray drains back into the reservoirs.
Run to waste
In a run to waste system, nutrient and water solution is periodically applied to the medium surface. This may be done in its simplest form, by manually applying a nutrient-and-water solution one or more times per day in a container of inert growing media, such as rockwool, perlite, vermiculite, coco fibre, or sand. In a slightly more complex system, it is automated with a delivery pump, a timer and irrigation tubing to deliver nutrient solution with a delivery frequency that is governed by the key parameters of plant size, plant growing stage, climate, substrate, and substrate conductivity, pH, and water content.
In a commercial setting, watering frequency is multi factorial and governed by computers or PLCs.
Commercial hydroponics production of large plants like tomatoes, cucumber, and peppers use one form or another of run to waste hydroponics.
In environmentally responsible uses, the nutrient rich waste is collected and processed through an on site filtration system to be used many times, making the system very productive.
Deep water culture
"Bubbleponics" is the art of delivering highly oxygenated nutrient solution direct to the root zone of plants. While Deep Water Culture involves the plant roots hanging down into a reservoir of water below, the term Bubbleponics describes a top-fed Deep Water Culture (DWC) hydroponic system. In this method, the water is pumped from the reservoir up to the roots (top feeding). The water is released over the plant's roots and then runs back into the reservoir below in a constantly recirculating system. As with Deep Water Culture, there is an airstone in the reservoir that pumps air into the water via a hose from outside the reservoir. The airstone helps add oxygen to the water. Both the airstone and the water pump run 24 hours a day.
The biggest advantages with Bubbleponics over Deep Water Culture involve increased growth during the first few weeks. With Deep Water Culture, there is a time where the roots have not reached the water yet. With Bubbleponics, the roots get easy access to water from the beginning and will grow to the reservoir below much more quickly than with a Deep Water Culture system. Once the roots have reached the reservoir below, there is not a huge advantage with Bubbleponics over Deep Water Culture. However, due to the quicker growth in the beginning, a few weeks of grow time can be shaved off.