How Hydroponics can be done - DIY Guide to your NFT System

6 easy steps to building your own hydroponics system with pvc pipes

Tim Gutsche 08.02.2021

Today we learn how to build an advances hydroponic system in 7 Steps. At the end you also get a shopping list of all the stuff you need in order to build the system. If you have the feeling that you are more of a beginner, and you want to start with a simpler system, you can also check out this guide of building a Deep Water Culture system. In this article we build a nutrient film technique system. It’s a good system for beginners and Advanced as well, it also gives the possibility to automate hydroponics easily and is a good system for hydroponics at home. With this system you can easily apply hydroponics outdoors.

We will build the system in 6 Steps:

  1. Setting up PVC Pipes
  2. Building the system structure
  3. Setting up the Reservoir
  4. Transplant the seedlings
  5. Prepare Nutrient Solution and Timer
  6. Let the Hydroponic System run

Let’s start!

Step 1: Setting up PVC Pipes

The first step for the system is drilling holes into pvc pipess to hold the netcups. This can be done using a simple hole drill. Most of the netcups wew know are conical, so their upper diameter is bigger than the lower. This is a good precondition in order to drill holes which hold the netcup and submerge most of it into the pvc pipe without the netcup falling into it. You should of course find the right size of netcups for the right size of pipe. the goal should be that, the netcup can fully hang in the pipe without leaving too much space between the bottom of the cup and the pipe. Keep in mind that later, you want your netcup to get wet from the water flow, at least in the first weeks of growing. Later you can lower the water level. For our last system we used netcups which are in total 68 mm (2.7 in) high for a pvc pipe with the diameter of 90mm (3.5 in) Another important factor is the distance of the cups. It’s important that plants have space next to each other in order to grow properly. This also depends on the type of plant. If you have short but broad plants, you might need more space between them than if you plan to plant long plants. Also important if you drill the holes and calculate the distances, keep in mind that you need to close the pipe on its endings, and the necessary muffle also takes space, so before you plan your holes, measure what place is left when the muffle is on.

Here are some measurements from our last system:

  • For a 90mm (3.5 in) diameter pvc pipe
  • We used netcups with a height of 65mm (2.7 in)
  • And put 7 cups on 1 meter (39 in) of pipe
  • we planned with plants not needing too much space, and would rather make less netcups per 1 meter than 7.

Step 1.1: Drill holes in PVC Pipe, take care of the size and distance of the holes to accomodate your netcups and keep space for the plants

Step 1.1: Drill holes in PVC Pipe, take care of the size and distance of the holes to accomodate your netcups and keep space for the plants

The next step is to put on the Lids/muffles for the pvc pipe, the muffles are usually glued and the glue usually takes about 24 hours to dry. Of course you should take the fitting lids for the pipe. Make sure that the glue is water proof and also suitable for drinking water. Even if your nutrient solution won’t be drinking water, at the end you plan to eat your harvest. The same is of course true for the pvc pipes themselves.

Step 1.2: Put on PVC Pipe Lids

Step 1.2: Put on PVC Pipe Lids

To finalize the pvc pipes, you also need to drill inflow and outflow holes for the hoses. the inflow hole is on the top of the pipe, where the holes for the netcups are, while the outflow is on the bottom. Make sure that the outflow hole fits exactly to the used hose, if not you need also seal the connection of pipe and hose in order to not loose nutrient solution, but it is also very handy if you can manage to change the height a hose protrudes into the pipe. You can use this to adjust the water level in the pipe later. In our system the first inflow from the pump to the first pvc pipe is a smaller hose than alls the pipe connecting hoses, this is a safety precaution in order to make it harder to flood the pipe and potentially loose nutrient solution. Your hole should incorporate the correct size of the hoses you are using, also because you might want to regulate the precise height of the hoses within the pipe later.

Step 1.3: Drill Tube Holes in PVC Pipe

Step 1.3: Drill Tube Holes in PVC Pipe

Pro Tip: If you can buy white pipes you should do so, if you can’t get your hands on white once we recommend painting them white. This helps in keeping the internals cool, most pipes are black which can accelerate heating up all the roots, which might damage them.

Step 2: Build the Structure for the System

After you finished with the pipes you want to start with the overall structure which makes up your system. In our example we propose building a ladder like rack, which is easy to build and you can lean it towards a wall and have both a vertical and horizontal spacing.

Step 2.1: Build a Wooden Pipe Rack

Step 2.1: Build Wooden Pipe Rack

Step 2.1: Build Wooden Pipe Rack

There are different builds possible. You can use a ladder like structure like the one proposed which you can easily lean against a wall. Also you can create something like a pyramid, which is free standing and can have pipes on both sides of the pyramid giving you more growth space. All imaginable structures you can build follow certain requirements:

1. Distance between the pipes

Leave a certain distance between the pipes horizontal and vertical, your plants need space to grow and you give it to them. Unlike a usual farming/gardening technique you can build your system vertically which already gives you lot more space. But the kind of hydroponics system we are building here is also easily adapted to spreadd both horizontally and vertically. In our example we use primarily a vertical spacing and through the ladder shape also a bit of horizontal distance between the plants. This of course is ultimately dependent on the type of plants you want to grow. Do you want to grow tomates which grow high, or just salad which stays small?

2. Build the structure to support weight

The system will hold pvc pipes, and those pipes will contain the plant, the roots, the growth medium and water. All of it can get quite heavy, depending on the plants and growth medium and the length of the pipe. Also if there is remaining water in the pipe, this might be heaviest. So build your structure to support those loads. Moreover you want to scale later, so plan a rack which supports scaling and which supports also the new loads. In the beginning you want to ask yourself with how many pipes you want to start but also how many you want to attach later on.

3. The reservoir must be the lowest point

In order to create a natural water outflow of your system back into the reservoir it’s important, that the reservoir is lower than the lowest pipe. So you cannot start on ground level with your first pipe if you cannot dig in the reservoir in the ground. Also if you plan to scale your reservoir on a later point this should be reflected in your structure.

Step 2.2: Attach PVC Pipes to Rack

This is pretty straight forward, you have now the pipes and the rack, now you must attach the pipes to the rack. The simplest form is using pipe clamps which you attach to the rack and then you attach the pipes to the pipe clamps.

Step 2.2: Add Pipe Clamps to Rack

Step 2.2: Add Pipe Clamps to Rack

There is only one thing to consider when doing this: Because you want the water to flow down the whole system you should attach the clamps in a way to create an angle for the pipes. Overall the water should flow in a zick-zack way down the system. The size of the angle depends on one thing: Do you want to just have a natural flow of water, or do you also want the pipes to contain water all the time independent of the flow. If you want to have your pump active all the time, a flow is sufficient so you should add more angle, if you also want to combine the system with the idea of an ebb-flow system you can increase the water level using the hoses and therefore you might not need that much angle at all.

NFT vs. NFT combined with ebb-flow

NFT vs. NFT combined with ebb-flow

Our recommendation is to have a small angle, and raise the hoses inside the pipe to create a steady water level inside the pipes. This prevents root burn damange on hot days, and also saves energy because the pump must not be active all the time.

If you have decided what angle you want for your system, you can attach the pipes to the rack

Step 2.3: Attach Pipes to Rack

Step 2.3: Attach Pipes to Rack

Step 3: Setting Up The Reservoir

After you build the pipes and the structure. It’s now time to talk about the reservoir itself. The reservoir is one of the things which is more or less the same for a lot of different hydroponics systems. You need a container which lets no light through, to prevent algae growth, it should also be big to contain enough water which keeps the system running for a while, and you need a submersible pump which is capable of pumping the water to the height of the entrypoint to your system. If you create a system of 2 meters height, your pump should have enough power to be able to pump that distance.

Step 3.1: Set up Reservoir

Step 3.1: Set up Reservoir

After setting up the reservoir, we can now take care of all the hoses within the system. Create a zick-zack flow to really have flowing water and prevent standing water. Water flow is very important for you system as the splashes from dropping water also bring oxygen in your system. Also as covered before stick the hoses a little bit higher to create a constant level of water in the pipes.

Step 3.2: Connect Pipes with Hoses

Step 3.2: Connect Pipes with Hoses

Now as we already covered in the previous steps, when connecting the pump to the system itself we highly recommend to use a thinner inflow hose than all the out- or throughflow hoses. This is a natural preventer for overflows. However it does not guarentee an overflow situation it might help mitigating it.

Step 3.3: Connect Reservoir to System

Step 3.3: Connect Reservoir to System

Step 4: Transplant the Seedlings

So now your system is setup and all it takes is some plants to grow in it. All the previous steps must be done only once, while the following steps might repeat every season or everytime you add new plants to your system.

One of the most asked questions is “When to transplant seedlings?”, essentially, there is one simple answer to that, after the seedling is transplanted, it must be able to reach the nutrient solution in your new system. So depending on how your system works, it comes down to the root length developed in the seedlings phase.

“When to transplant seedlings?”

You can transplant the seedling as soon as it has a root which is long enough that it can reach the water through the growth medium and the netcup.

Next to the seedling you also need a growth medium and clay pebbles to transplant your seedlings. Of course you can use and experiment with a wide variety of growth media. We made good experience with sponge, because you can also by them with a cut inside which helps in transplanting the seedlings, because you can easily wrap the medium around the root. Also your plant should not be too low in the netcup and sometimes you don’t have a lot of medium, so you can fill the netcup with pebbles which also absorb and save nutrient solution. After you combined, the seedling, the medium, the clay pebbles and the netcup, you are ready to put them into the pipes

Step 4: Transplantation of Seedlings

Step 4: Transplantation of Seedlings

After you transplanted your seedlings you can assemble the whole system, so now you have everything from the structure, the pipes, the reservoir and also the seedlings.

The finished system

The finished system

Step 5: Prepare Nutrient Solution and Timer

Now it’s time to take care of your plants food. As we learned in a previous post the two essential metrics for a hydroponics system are pH and TDS. In order to learn what values are applicable for the plants in your system use the Hydroplanner which helps you deriving thoses values for your plants. If you have planned your system accordingly, you know what values to aim for. So now your reservoir and contained nutrient solution must reflect those values. In order to do so, use first hydroponics fertilizer to set the right TDS value and after that use a pH meter to measure the pH of your solution and adjust it using pH Down or pH up to the desired level.

Once your nutrient solution is finished monitor it regularly in terms of pH and TDS. It’s vital to your plants growth, that those value are aligned with they preferences.

Now apart from the nutrient solution itself, you also need to manage proper flow of the solution in your system. The easiest way of doing this, is a timer which switches the pump on and off.

Step 6: Add Nutrients and plug in Timer

Step 6: Add Nutrients and plug in Timer

We recommend short intervals with short pumping durations to prevent overflow. Plants will grow bigger roots which will maybe clog your hoses. This is not easy to prevent, so if you pump often for a short time, the water may still be able to flow through your system completely. Explicitly spoken, pumping for 2 minutes every 20 minutes, might be a good starting point to supply your plants with sufficient nutrients and prevent overflow and water loss. This is also depending on the size of your system.

Step 6: Let the Hydroponic system run

You completed now all the steps, and your system is completed, you can start growing all sorts of different plants, vegetable, herbs and fruit. Let the system run, make experiments with dfferent plants, grow mediums, structures, pipes, sizes etc. Start growing and start learning. Also check your vitals regularly, to maximize the yield and the happiness of your plants.

Step 7: Finished System

Step 7: Finished System

Here are also 2 photos of our system we build following this guide

A nutrient-film-technique system on a wooden rack based on pvc pipes

A nutrient-film-technique system on a wooden rack based on pvc pipes

A nutrient-film-technique system on a pyramid shaped rack based on pvc pipes

A nutrient-film-technique system on a pyramid shaped rack based on pvc pipes

Shopping List

This was a long DIY guide to build this system, we want to provide you a list of all the things which appeared here in order for you to have a starting point to start shopping all those things! Throughout this guide we used the following materials and things:

  • Hole - Drill
  • PVC Pipes
  • PVC Pipe Lids with glue
  • Wooden Rack
  • Pipe Clamps
  • Reservoir - intransparent container with Lid
  • Submersible pump
  • Thin Hose
  • Thick Hose
  • Net cups
  • Growth Medium
  • Clay Pebbles
  • Timer
  • Nutrients / Hydroponic Fertilizer
  • pH Down / ph Up