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Aeroponics, NFT, Ebb & Flow, and Other “Hydroponics” Systems Explained Featured

Aeroponics roots hang in misty mid-air. Aeroponics roots hang in misty mid-air.

One of the most persistent types of questions I get from hydroponics growers is about all the different types of systems that are called hydroponics. The question makes sense because the term “hydroponics growing” is used to describe aeroponics, drip irrigation, aquaponics, nutrient film technique, ebb and flow and other types of growing systems...but these systems are not similar in how you run them, in their set-up, and even in their operating costs. And yet these systems are called “hydroponics” because they’re most often indoors with the plants usually fed with “synthetic” hydroponics nutrients and because they’re not growing plants in soil. The significant differences between these systems make it important for you to understand them so you know what your options are.

The easiest difference to see is when you compare aeroponics to systems such as drip irrigation, or ebb and flow (sometimes referred to as flood and drain), because in almost all circumstances the aeroponics system isn’t holding your hydroponics roots in any significant amount of solid root zone media such as rockwool or coco coir.

Some aeroponics systems include a small basket directly under each plant’s stalk and in this basket some growers put rockwool, volcanic rock, coco coir or other neutral material to give stability for the root ball. But otherwise, aeroponics usually has your roots hanging all by themselves in nutrient-misted air.

Aeroponics has a reputation for being especially good at rooting cuttings and creating faster-growing plants. The main reasons for aeroponics' advantages are that the roots are getting more oxygenation and more efficient nutrients delivery than they’d get from hydroponics systems that use solid root zone media.

These advantages are partially offset by the reliance on precision nutrients mist delivery devices, pumps and electricity that aeroponics requires. If your aeroponics nutrients delivery system fails for any reason (especially due to electricity outages), your plants can die within a few hours because there’s no solid root zone media like rockwool to protect their roots.

Some aeroponics growers or aeroponics system manufacturers modify their aeroponics systems so their system partially resembles NFT. They provide standing nutrient water at the bottom of their aeroponics root chambers. They hope that plants’ roots will extend into the water, so that a failure of the misting system doesn’t mean total depletion of water and nutrients.

In NFT, there are no aeroponics misters. There’s only a trough with nutrients water running through it. Sometimes an NFT system will have solid root zone media that’s in contact with the water sluicing through the bottom of the trough.

Pretty soon, this type of NFT system begins to resemble a “sub-irrigation” system in which hydroponics roots grow in solid media with nutrients water provided from the bottom, rather than from the top. When nutrients water is provided from the top, we call it drip irrigation.

The Grodan rockwool company has been paying attention to root oxygenation and nutrients availability issues and thus created rockwool products that offer significant oxygenation that isn’t quite as intense as what you get from aeroponics but is a lot more than you used to get from soil mixes, coco coir or old school rockwool.

You want to consult hydroponics retailers and other growers who are familiar with aeroponics and solid media systems to see the trade-offs of good and bad you get from each type of system. In a majority of hydroponics situations, I see hydroponics growers going for aeroponics rooting machines while continuing to grow their rooted plants in solid media systems.

One thing for sure: how you apply nutrients is specific to the system you’re using. In a drip irrigation garden that drains back to the reservoir, you want to empty your reservoir every week, put reverse osmosis water in it, run several irrigation cycles with the fresh water, and then mix a new batch of ppm-appropriate nutrients. This prevents a lot of problems that happen when nutrients build up in solid root zone media or when hydroponics plants suck individual nutrients out of solution, which obviously affects how much of an individual nutrient is available over time.

Take a look at a combined aeroponics/NFT system.


In aeroponics, you monitor root health and plant growth to ensure that you’re not overfertilizing. The direct application of nutrients to roots via aeroponics misting can damage root unless your hydroponics nutrients are of the highest quality and are mixed with the proper ppm.

Please feel free to post your questions, experiences or comments about “hydroponics” systems here in our comments section. And as I always say, consider yourself fortunate if you have a friendly, knowledgeable hydroponics retailer nearby, especially if the retailer has floor models of aeroponics, drip irrigation, aeroponics cloners and other so-called hydroponics equipment for you to handle in person. Only when you see these systems in person can you really get a feel for how well they’ll give you bigger hydroponics yields.

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Last modified on Wednesday, 17 October 2012 17:41

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