Hydroponic Equipment Explained: Beginners Guide to Everything!

Many people like the idea of having a hydroponic garden, although they may be unsure what equipment they need, or which is the best equipment for their garden. Either way, it is better they have a good understanding of all the equipment that will be required at some stage of their hydroponic journey.

Here is all of the major equipment and an overview of how they fit into hydroponic systems. Not all are required for every gardener, but it is good to know what options there are for equipment, and it can help when it comes to purchasing, and build time of a system.

Water Pumps

Water is the soul of any system, and without it, no plants would be able to survive. It is the function of the water pump to circulate water to the parts of the system where plants are located. There are a couple of methods which don’t need a water pump because of the way they work. These are deep water culture systems and wicking systems.

Both of these have a stationary reservoir where the plant roots take the nutrients directly from the water.

When you have a system which needs a pump, there are some differences which you can use to meet your needs.

Submersible

This sits directly inside the nutrient reservoir and is fully covered by the water. This type is the most common one in use because of a few different factors.

Submersible pumps are cheaper, quicker to install and use, and also they are quiet. The most significant downside of this type of pump is they generate heat, and this heat in some systems could make the mix too warm. This does depend on where the system is situated, and what the ambient temperature is like.

Another point to note is these pumps are not really suitable for much larger systems where there needs to be over 1200 gallons pumped per hour. GPH is a  measure of a submersible pumps power. These GPH’s are measured at different heights as it takes more energy for a pump to move water to higher elevations.

Inline Pumps

These differ to submersibles because they sit outside the water, and are more often used in Aquaponic systems or larger hydroponic systems such as commercial farms.

These pumps are not as easy to use as a submersible and are much noisier while being more expensive. These do have the benefits of having more power to pump water and will be more durable. Inline pumps also don’t generate as much heat that can pass into the reservoir. Inline pumps are also rated by their horsepower and not by how many gallons of water per hour they can move.

Water pump criteria

When choosing water pumps, there is a list of things you need to check. These are as follows:

Head height – this is the distance from the bottom of the reservoir to the height of water you wish to reach. This is why manufacturers give head heights so you can adjust table height of your pot height to fit. The maximum head height will be the water level which takes the maximum pressure to reach.

As finding the right pump from the measurements, can be difficult, it is advisable to choose a larger pump than you require. This also gives you the chance to expand your system with no need for a second pump.

Water pump efficiency should also be checked because not all pumps are as efficient as others. Check pumps at similar head heights, and the one who reads a higher number of gallons per hour means it is more efficient.

Air Pumps and Air Stones for Hydroponics Systems

After water, one of the most crucial elements for plants is oxygen. If water becomes stagnant, there is no oxygen, and your plants can drown. With air pumps and good air stones, you can diffuse air into the water. Another advantage is that these bubbles continually, mix your solution.

Like water pumps, it is crucial to have the right size air pump. As a guide, it is good to have a pump which delivers at least 500-600 cc per minute, although, even cheaper models are capable of producing this amount.

As air pumps on most occasions sit outside of the reservoir, they can produce a continual hum which becomes annoying. To find the quietest one, you can check the decibel levels that are supplied by manufacturers.

Although you may only have a small hydroponic system, it is still advisable to have an air pump which comes with multiple nozzles. This not only spreads air across your reservoir but if you have a multi- growing units, you can easily place an air stone in another tank without having to split your tubes.

One thing worth noting is your tubing. You may receive clear tubing, but this isn’t very good as light can seep into your reservoir where there is the chance of algae growth from moisture buildup.

When it comes to choosing your air stones, you are better having one that produces smaller bubbles. With these, there is a much larger surface area exposed to the water, and because of their smaller size, the bubbles will travel slower, so the water becomes even more oxygenated.

Hydroponic Reservoirs, Trays and Flood Tables

Reservoirs are vital, and depending on the type of system being run, these reservoirs are using in different manners. When growers purchase systems, these often come with a reservoir, however, these don’t allow for expansion, and this reservoir is matched to the system

A suitably sized reservoir will be required because there are some variables which need consideration. Humidity is one variable that is often overlooked. Plants like levels of around 60 – 80 percent humidity, and if this falls to 50 or even 40 percent, then this means plants need to take up more water and nutrients.

There is a simple formula you can follow for determining the size of the reservoir for your system. Here are the water requirements for each plant size:

  • Small plants – at least 1/2 gallon
  • Medium plants – at least 1 to 1 1/2 gallons for each plant
  • Large plants – at least 2 1/2 gallons for each plant

There are a lot of growers who err on the side of caution and double the amount of water their reservoir can hold.

Reservoir Considerations

  • Lids – a lid is essential to limit evaporation and also prevent algae growth. These lids do need to stop any light from entering into your nutrient mix.
  • Water temps – a range of 65 to 75 degrees should be maintained. A larger reservoir can hold its temperature more reliably compared to a smaller reservoir that might fluctuate in the nutrient mix.
  • Cleaning – regular cleaning is another way of preventing mold growth, or bacteria build up.

How Systems Use Reservoirs

DWC (Deep Water Culture)

In this system, the root tips are suspended into the water and nutrient mix inside the reservoir. They can receive oxygen from the oxygenated water and also from the space above the water to the bottom of the growing medium. In this system, if any light were to penetrate, the roots would stop growing due to air pruning.

Drip Systems

These feed from the top in drips, so the reservoir sits underneath. Your water pump delivers the water to the top of the pots where it makes its way to the roots before passing back through the container. All the excess runs back into the reservoir for recirculation.

Ebb and Flow (Flood and Drain)

A timer is used to control the pump which then floods a deep sided grow bed or flood table. After a specific period, the pump turns off, and the solution runs back into the reservoir. This reservoir usually sits below the grow bed.

NFT (Nutrient Film Technique)

A stream of nutrients are continually pumped around the system. This usually consists of tunes or channels where the plants are suspended. The root tips drag in this solution to receive nutrients and oxygen while the above roots are exposed to the air. For this system, there are no criteria for reservoir position as long as the exiting part of the pipe leads back to the reservoir. In this system, the water pump might not need to be powerful, but it does need to be reliable as it will be in operation 24 hours per day.

Wicking Systems

This is the most basic of all hydroponic systems. There is a section of fabric type material which sucks water (wicks) water into the growing medium. The roots will be continually fed from the moist growing medium. This system can significantly benefit from an air stone to prevent water stagnation. This method is more suited to smaller gardens, and many growers make these small systems using small net pots to hold the wick, and two buckets which sit inside each other. One to create the lower water reservoir, and a second to contain the growing media and the plants.

Grow Trays and Flood Tables

These are similar in construction and are made from durable plastic. Some are pre-drilled to allow water to drain back to the reservoir. The differences are usually in flood and drain systems where the sides are high enough to accommodate a substantial amount of water. When flooded, this soaks the growing medium before draining at the end of the timing cycle.

When used to build these flood and drain systems, they can be made very cheaply, and do require very little equipment, or experience to build and to run.

Shallower trays are ideal for seedlings and smaller plants as they are not able to accommodate large root systems. To a certain degree, even NFT uses a grow tray, but a very long one. These run-to-waste systems do differ from all other system types because the pipe where the plants sit is at a slight angle, all other systems in most cases are flat to ensure peak operation and efficiency.

Hydroponic Lighting System Basics

After water and oxygen, light is the next most crucial thing plants need to survive. For indoor growing systems, there are countless options available to growers. Rather than delving too far into what these types of light deliver, this will be a rough guide of the differences.

Lighting can be one of the hardest elements to control because each type of light delivers benefits, while coming with its own set of downsides.

One thing all new growers need to know is that any lighting system needs to replicate what the sun delivers through the seasons, and also for each stage of a plants growth.

Note: The size of an indoor growing space will dictate the type of lighting system, as will the variety of plants you are looking to grow.

HID (High-Intensity Discharge)

These fall under two sections and can be either Metal Halide (MH) or High-Pressure Sodium (HPS).

MH – Metal Halide Bulbs

These bulbs are used during the growth phase as they produce wavelengths which are toward the blue/ white end of the spectrum and simulate the hotter summer sun. Some plants such as herbs and more commonly leafy vegetables can reach maturity with just this type of bulb.

Many plants are able to flower under this light, but the yields you can obtain will be very much reduced, so they are commonly used in conjunction with HPS lights.

HPS – High-Pressure Sodium Bulbs 

The light wavelengths this produce are in the redder end of the spectrum, so these high pressure sodium lights have a reddish-orange tint which simulates the warmer colors of the harvesting period. These lights need using as soon as plants begin to flower.

This light combination is highly effective as it can replicate a full growing season for the majority of plants.

These lights can be cheap to purchase, but they do come with one significant downside. They produce lots of heat and use a lot of energy while running. With this information, two other areas come with these types of lights which will be discussed later. There are lighting hoods and ballast.

Fluorescent Lights

Fluorescent bulbs emit a cool light that is perfect for cuttings or seedlings and throws out low heat levels while delivering a wide angle of light. The smaller version, the CFL (Compact fluorescent lights) often comes in combinations of a few bulbs rather than just one. With this lighting system, the ballast comes as part of the system. This makes them ideal for growers who have smaller systems.

Another significant advantage is, these are very cost effective to run. While they might lack power when plants are more abundant, they are the only lights which are suitable for stimulation seedling growth.

LED Lighting Systems 

These lights are slowly gaining popularity, and although they cost significantly more than other lighting systems, to begin with, they are very energy efficient without the need to change bulbs for a good number of years.

LED lighting systems are cool in operation, so for small growing spaces, they will hardly affect the ambient temperature., and can be placed closer to the plants without the worry of drying them out or burning them.

LED’s can be purchased that produce different spectrums, or growers can buy multi-colored systems that cover all of the spectrum necessary for plant growth. This makes it more straightforward, and there is no need to change bulbs as with HID and HPS.

Sulphur Plasma

Just like LED lights, these are new to the world of hydroponics and can come with adjustable output. Ranges that they can operate can be from 100w up to 1300w, and what this means for growers is they can use them for multiple plant types in different sizes of grow rooms.

At present, the full effects of these lamps on hydroponic growing are not yet known, but their manufacturers are claiming they are highly energy efficient and can replicate natural light to a higher degree of accuracy as other lighting systems.

Ballast

While many growers use fluorescent bulbs, they will not see this component of hydroponic lighting systems as a separate unit. These do though play an integral role in lighting systems and making sure the lights function as they should. Their functions are:

  • To start the bulb
  • To control the flow of electricity through the lamp

Every gas-discharge bulb, regardless of the type needs this ballast to start. Fluorescent has a built-in unit which is usually a small round unit that twists into the side, while larger lights require a separate unit.

Ballast comes in two varieties, and are either electronic or magnetic.

Magnetic is the most basic and use a coil around a core to deliver the minimum required electric to start the bulb. This is why lights flicker when starting, or the buzzing sound you can hear as they are running.

Electronic ballasts use PCB’s and deliver many more benefits over magnetic. They are smaller, quieter and are more efficient. This allows them to pass a consistent flow of electricity through the bulb. Additionally to this, this kind of ballast can be sued to control multiple bulbs.

Lighting Hoods

Many growers have their favorite grow light reflectors, this can be because of price, so may look cool, or some outperform other designs altogether.

There are a few types of reflectors, but in essence, they are there to reflect light onto your plants. Here is a quick run through of the models.

  • Wing reflectors – one of the more popular because they deliver a wide spread of light, although still focused.
  • Umbrellas – these are not able to penetrate deep inside plants leaves to deliver light. They do however fill many gaps that your other lights can’t reach. They are often used as supplemental lighting systems.
  • Hood reflectors – these deliver the best intensity out of any reflector. This means your plants can receive the very best light possible. There are two types you can choose wide and squat, or the other option narrow but tall.
  • Air cooled reflectors – bulbs will generate a lot of heat, but this can be reduced by using air cooled reflectors. It also has the benefit of keeping your growing area cooler as the lights have little effect on warming the air.

Grow Room Ventilation

There are two factors when it comes to growing room ventilation because circulating air isn’t sufficient. This is because plants which are grown in an outdoor environment are continually blown by the wind. This helps the stems become stronger, and as a result, plants grow stronger.

When air is only circulated, this does nothing to rid a growing space of humidity and moisture, and as a result, it can be the ideal conditions for mold or algae growth. Although oscillating fans are required, a grow room does need fresh air carried into the area.

This outside ventilation reduces the risk of mold, spider mites, and other pests and disease. All this is on top of plants growing much stronger. Grow rooms need a combination of both oscillating fans and external ventilation to bring in fresh air while the old air is expelled.

These systems are often seen in indoor grow tents where there are both inlet and outlet vents to perform this air exchange, and there is an oscillating fan to help circuit the air and buffet the plants. Fans are measured by CFM (Cubic Foot Per Minute), and to calculate what you need, you must use the size of your grow room and the exhaust efficiency of your ventilation system.

There is a quick formula to calculate this:

Grow room length x width x height = volume

Exhaust efficiency takes into account the length of ducting from the fan to the filter. Next, you multiply the volume of your grow room by 25%. Many growers make a much easier calculation and multiply the volume by two for short ducting, or by three for longer ducting.

This gives you the cubic foot per minute, so you need a fan which delivers a higher CFM than your result.

Climate Control

This might not be something a small grower controls using these methods, and to some extent, this can be carried out by the ventilation as mentioned earlier. When gardens start using heat-generating light combinations, both the mix of nutrients and the humidity need controlling. On top of this, there are regional conditions to consider, because some climates are too hot even before any lights are used.

For larger gardens, some growers use automated systems to keep their grow rooms at the ideal temperatures and humidity. Although these are more common in commercial hydroponic farms, there are cut down versions that are ideal for smaller contained gardens.

The more basic models monitor and control one aspect of the grow rooms environment, such as temperature. At the other end of the scale are the electronic control systems which monitor all variables such as temperature, humidity and CO2 (Carbon Dioxide). When these are in operation, they will control all the fans, ventilation, air conditioners, dehumidifiers and many other pieces of equipment.

As useful as these systems are, there is no replacement for fully understanding how all these variables affect your plants, and how you can control them manually.

Indoor Grow Tents

Hydroponic system gardens can be split into two avenues. There are the growers who utilize spare space to set up a system and run it as is. There is also the second group of people who want to create an ideal environment for their plants.

These are the ones who opt for using an indoor grow tent. These do come with benefits, and one of the first is plants are being grown in a controllable microenvironment. Many suppliers sell indoor grow tents as kits. These will include all of the above elements and can be a great way for growers to get started.

These ready-made environments will have the right levels of air ventilation, lighting and grow beds, as well as the correct sized reservoir. But, there are significant numbers of growers who are keener on constructing their own hydroponic system rather than relying on a kit from a supplier.

Additional Components

Aside from these larger components, there are many other smaller ones which are as crucial. Nutrients, growing medium, starter plugs, thermometers, and digital pH testers and chemical adjusters all play their place, and without many of these, your garden will fail.

Conclusion

Out of all of the above equipment, there are cheap versions and the more expensive versions. Many growers may never use some of the above parts, but it is still worthy to see what is available in case a grower has a hydroponic system they want to expand.

It is also like the grow kits which can be quickly erected in a spare room or basement. Many growers want to pick and choose their components, so they know what they are dealing with. In some cases, this could be the more difficult approach, but when growers want the best for their plants, they don’t want to rely on a readymade kit, that is promising certain degrees of success.

Some of the fun for the more adventurous growers is choosing your own equipment. It can cost a little more, but in the end, you will be able to reap the benefits of learning about every little detail.

You may be interested in

About the Author

Oscar Stephens
Oscar Stephens
I am a gardening and tech enthusiast! Stumbling across the world of Hydroponics, Aquaponics and Aeroponics by accident I've decided to create TheHydroponicsPlanet to put all of the best information I can find in one easy to navigate place. I'll continue to add more content as I discover new things!