In this post, I will show you how to make a $600 Hydroponic system for less than $275. The materials and hardware suggested for this system is top notch. The price also includes ALL the materials you will need to grow plants (most expensive out-of-the-box systems often do not come with all the small pieces necessary to start growing). This tutorial assumes you have all the tools to make it yourself and have a basic understanding of hydroponic systems.
Video Tour of “Drip and Drain with Buckets” Hydroponic System
Types of Hydroponic Systems
Before we go through my system, let me introduce you to the different types of hydroponic system setups. They all have their pros and cons, and depending on what is being grown some may work better than others for certain applications.
With a cascade system, you need to maintain a constant, high water level to ensure all roots in all the grow tube receives adequate water. This is tricky and can cause leaks and spills. For cascade, the water pump needs to run almost constantly and usually multiple air bubblers need to run constantly too so the roots are oxygenated.
This system looks okay, but I see many flaws. It doesn’t keep a standard level of water for the roots in the beginning of growing and in the end, the roots serve to clog up the flow of water, resulting in overflow and/or and less water movement in some areas of the system.
Vertical towers is another design type that uses a “rain” type system. The roots usually grow in a mesh inside the vertical grow space. The water is rained down through the roots, either from a constant pump or from a reservoir held above the grow towers that is filled at intervals so that the water can continually rain through the grow towers. For commercial growing, this system has its advantages as far as space goes. As a hobbiest, growing at home, I don’t see many advantages to a vertical system. In some ways, it is more complex and expensive because of the need to replace the internal mesh regularly and design a raised water reservoir to rain over the roots. For the small home or apartment dweller, this system may be worth a try, if there is a place you can put the system so that all sides receive adequate sunlight. It is defiantly appealing and beautiful to look at!
The float system is simple because it uses a flat tray with floating Styrofoam or similar material and net cups suspended in the floating mat. The roots are bathed in nutrient water for the duration of the grow cycle and then the water is changed before the next grow cycle. There are some designs that circulate the water with a pump. This method is great for large scale hydro farming, because it is easier to harvest the entire float mat at the same time.
An air bubbler is commonly used for this system to aerate the roots. The water tends to go bad after the 28 day grow cycle is over and needs to be changed (unless the water is circulated using a water pump).
Lettuces and similar types of plants tend to do well in this submerged-root system.
Flood/Drip and Drain System
For a flood and drain (also known as ebb and flow system) water is pumped into the grow tube or tray, then runs off back to the reservoir. The pump is run once about every two hours for 5-10 minutes to flood the grow tubes, then the water drains out slowly over the course of an hour, allowing the roots to get some oxygen between cycles.
I really like the “U Gro” system design that uses a flood and drain system, but don’t like that it would be more difficult to shield from the rain when growing outside. We solved this problem by making just one “side” of the A frame so it can be propped up against the sunny side of the house and benefit from the overhang of the roof to shield the rain. The U-Gro design has end caps on each grow line (so they don’t drain into each other like a cascade system) and the pump line is split so that each grow line gets it’s own input water line.
Our Flood and Drain or Drip and Drain System:
Through trial and error, we discovered that the flood and drain system worked very well, but it was a lot of work to get the timing right for how much time the pump was on to flood the system. Because the tubes are elevated, at different heights, some tubes would fill up faster than others, resulting in overflow of some and not enough water in others. This system would work excellent for a grow system where all the tubes were at the same elevation.
Thus, the drip and drain system worked much better and guaranteed equal water access for all grow cups. It was more finicky to setup because each drip line needed to be carefully placed and secured over each grow cup. So in a way, this system is a cross between the flood and drain and the vertical spray towers.
“Add a Bucket” Feature
The buckets are by far my favorite part of the system. They each have a line from the 6-line air pump with an air stone. The bigger the plants get, the more often its bucket needs water replenishment. Because tomatoes seem to require so much more water, it is nice to have them separate from the rest of the hydro system so they don’t use up all the water from the main reservoir at a drastic rate.
We tied string from the pallets to a beam in the roof above them. The plant is secured to the string trellis using Tomato Trellis Clips, which are a very handy tool for every gardener to have around.
How it’s Done
We decided to skip the starter trays and simply start the seeds in rock wool, right in the hydroponic system. The wool is nestled in the clay substrate so that it can reach and soak up water easily. The results were really great, with less lead time needed for the starter plants to get going.
Make Your Own System
The supplies listed are for a modified 4-grow tube, one sided system. The estimates for Gallons Per Hour (GPH) on the water and air pump would easily accommodate adding another grow frame to the system later on, without detriment to the system performance. Total cost comes out to $275, and most of what is purchased would be enough to make a second grow tower with only the additional cost of a second set of PVC tubing and wood for the frames.
- 2 3”x10’ PVC pipe ($5 each) $10 (cut the flange end off and then cut remainder in half)
- 8 PVC end caps ($2 each) $16
- 4 to 5 2×4 wood ($3 each) $15
- (Screws, tools, etc to build the wooden frame and cut/drill holes in the PVC and buckets)
- You will need a 2″ hole saw for the net cup holes
- 1 water reservoir tank $10 (we used a heavy duty storage container)
- 100 pack 2” net cups $12
- Pump (at least 100 GPH, $33: Little Giant is a good brand)
- Air pump ($16 Two outlet pump would handle a grow system and one bucket)
- $35 Higher quality air pump with splitter and capacity to add the Bucket system
- 10 air stones $5
- Air and water tubing $15 (check your sizes for 1/4 and 1/2 inch so you know what you need)
- Watering Manifold $6
- Barbed Elbows (1/4″) $8
- Elbows (1/2″) $7
- Barbed T (1/2″) $7
- Pipe tap $6
- Banjo Barbed Hose fittings (need 18 per system) $30
- Rain drip control valve $12
- 1/2 inch Barbed Hose fitting $4
- 1 Timer $12
- Rock wool cubes (for seed start) $17
- Nutrients (these are optimized for lettuce growing) $12
- Seeds $Variable
- Substrate (clay pebble substrate) $8
Bonus 5 Bucket system (for Tomatoes, Peppers and Vining Plants)
- 3 5-gallon buckets at your local hardware store $3.50 each
- 3 Bucket Baskets ($7 each) $21
- OR cut holes in your bucket lids and fit these 6″ net cups: (Pack of 20 for $15)
- Tomato Trellis Clips (optional, but useful) $18