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Getting started with your first deep water culture hydroponics setup is a bit trickier than planning a traditional garden (in the soil), but it isn’t REALLY as complicated as it seems.
Take the DWC hydroponics system we made for this article, for example – Hydroponic gardening doesn’t get much easier for beginners than starting with something like the easy-to-build DIY DWC system we share in this post.
Read on below and discover everything you need to know about deep water culture hydroponics, including what DWC hydroponics is, how to build, use, and maintain a DWC system, and more!
What is Deep Water Culture Hydroponics?
Deep water culture hydroponics, commonly referred to as DWC hydroponics, is a basic hydroponic growing method wherein plants are anchored in place with their roots submerged in a container filled with “deep” water. The water of the system contains oxygen supplied by an air pump and air stone, as well as liquid nutrients that are manually introduced to the system by you.
Further, DWC systems work both inside, and outside. That said, using a DWC hydroponic system indoors calls for grow lights and other possible add-ons to the system like grow tents and ventilators.
There are also space availability, temperature regulation, humidity levels, and other factors to take into consideration before you invest in a DWC hydroponics system.
How to Build a Simple DIY DWC Hydroponics System
Building a DIY DWC hydroponics system at home, with your own two hands isn’t nearly as complicated as you might think – I know, because I’ve built more of these homemade DWC systems than any other DIY hydroponics systems over the years.
You don’t need any previous experience or knowledge about hydroponics to put together a deep water culture system. All you need to do is research, plan, and follow through (and if you are reading this, you’re already well on the way).
Here are several easy-to-follow instructions that explain step-by-step with pictures how to build your own simple DWC hydroponics grow system:
Step One – Gather Proper Supplies and Take Measurements
Before you start building a basic DWC hydroponics system there are a handful of supplies to gather and measurements to take.
Aside from a utility knife and the possibility of a drill, you need the following supplies:
1. A lidded bucket, tote, or another suitable container with a lid
Pro tip: An old paint bucket works fine for a DIY DWC setup. Regardless of what other experts say, we know that all it takes is a bit of soap, scrubbing, and elbow grease to clean up old paint buckets and prepare them as hydroponic reservoirs. Don’t take advice from “experts” who base advice on their ideas rather than experience – this DIY DWC system is proof that an old paint bucket can and does work just fine for hydroponics (despite the priceless advice of so-called hydroponics experts whose blogs state otherwise).
2. An air pump
However, you don’t need an air pump with two outlets, one air hose, and stone is all you need for a single-reservoir DWC growing system.
Update: we built this DWC system, using this then brand new RS-390, around two years ago, and as of the last update of this guide on March 3rd, 2023 it is still working just as well as it did on day one! We definitely recommend it for dual dutch buckets and larger single-container DWC hydroponics.
3. Air hose
For the best price on your air hose, we recommend shopping online.
But, if you think you’ll make more than one DWC system, or plan to make it an RDWC system (recirculating DWC hydroponic system), try visiting a local department store like Walmart or Home Depot and purchasing a bulk hose. Once you get it home you can cut it into smaller pieces.
5. Netted pots
If you prefer to use the “real” things, check out our guide on choosing the right netted pots for your hydroponic gardening needs.
6. Liquid nutrients
All you have to do is practice setting the timer, and then plug your system into the device to automate the whole system.
We recommend plugging all of your electrical components into a surge protector and then plugging the surge protector itself into the timer – this simplifies the entire automation process.
8. Surge protector (optional)
Pro tip: Plug your surge protector into a second individual surge protector plug (a box-type unit that plugs directly into the wall outlet). That way, all your bases are covered and no components are destroyed in the case of emergencies – and your DWC system stays fully protected while on autopilot mode.
9. Lights (optional)
Step Two – Set up the Primary Reservoir (and Add Water)
For this step, you need to:
- Take your bucket, tote, or container and clean it with hot soapy water as well as disinfect it, sanitize it, and otherwise prepare it for being used as a hydroponic reservoir.
- Cut a hole(s) in the lid to match the outer rim of the netted pots or cups you plan to use so they sit in place rather than fall through the hole.
- Use a sharp knife, razor, or utility tool to cut a rough circle out of the lid, keeping in mind it doesn’t need to be perfect, the growing site will cover the eyesore.
- Add fresh clean water to the reservoir and leave it to sit for a day, keeping an eye out for leaks or other issues.
Once your reservoir is prepared, it’s time to add in the other components – and you are just a few more steps away from having a working DWC hydroponic bucket!
Step Three – Set Up Grow Sites (Including Air Pump, Hose, and Stone)
Creating grow sites may be as easy as ordering netted cups from Amazon or eBay. We chose to make our own, and so can you if you have plastic flower pots and a drill.
The parts of this step require you to:
- Set your air pump up by attaching the air hose to the output and plugging the device into a power outlet.
- Feed your airline through a hole in the grow site (as shown in the picture above).
- Connect the other end of the air hose to the air stone(s), but only after you’ve fed it through the grow site. That way the growing medium goes in that much easier.
- Prep your preferred growing medium, soaking it and rinsing it thoroughly to remove all dirt and debris before adding it to your DWC DIY system in the next step.
Once everything is in place, you’re ready for step number four.
Step Four – Prepare Growing Mediums
Whatever growing medium you decided to work with, now is the time to prepare it. If you picked LECA, or something similar, you may soak it for up to 24 hours before adding it to the grow sites – if you didn’t already do so in the previous step.
Some growing mediums also need sanitizing, like LECA. To do so, simply boil them for several minutes. Afterward, soak them for a few minutes, rinse them off, and you’re good to go.
With your grow site in place, including air hose and air stone, add in a growing medium up to an inch or so from the top of the pot or cup.
Step Five – Connect All the Electronic Components to a Timer
At this point in the project, your DWC system is almost complete. More or less, all you need to do now is plug it in.
We suggest using a power bar (with built-in surge protection) and a timer. Your equipment will be safe in a power outage or lightning strike.
That way your components are safe in the case of some other sort of electrical malfunction, and your system may run on auto-pilot, including the lights as well.
Step Six – Test and Tweak the System
Once it’s all set up, your new DIY DWC hydroponics system is ready for growing anything from lettuce, tomatoes, and peppers, to small dwarf fruit trees and blueberry bushes.
But, you may discover a few bugs that need to be addressed once the system is up and running.
If you need to redo something, don’t fret. Just tweak the system as needed and move on!
Using a Deep Water Culture Hydroponic System
Now that you know the steps for building a DIY deep water culture hydroponics grow system of your own, let’s discuss further considerations regarding finalizing the setup, getting started, and how to actually use it:
Choose a Good Location
For a hydroponics system of any sort, location is key. The system needs to be placed somewhere it is easy to access but is protected from the elements (and children and pets).
Depending on whether or not your system receives natural sunlight or not, you may or may not need to consider a location that includes lights for your system.
As a general rule of thumb, outside hydroponic systems don’t need grow lights (they have the sun). Likewise, indoor hydroponic gardening almost always requires additional light, even if it gets a bit of natural light from windows.
Set Up Lights if Necessary
Believe it or not, this LED grow light consumes less than 50W and gives off the equivalent of 8000W.
If your plants receive little to no natural light, proper grow lights will be an absolute necessity if you want anything to grow.
Thankfully, the internet is ripe with various types of grow lights. Thankfully, the internet is ripe with various types of grow lights to research, read reviews about, and order.
Alternatively, you may also find a good deal on a proper grow light for indoor hydroponics at a local gardening center or hydroponics supplier.
You shouldn’t have much issue finding the right sort of lights for whatever species it is that you plan on growing.
Test the Water Regularly
A TDS and EC reader we use to monitor our DIY DWC hydroponic systems daily.
Once you’re up and running with a DWC system, its water needs checked daily (as it is with all hydroponic systems).
For this, you need a pH meter with an EC function or possibly two meters. You can find a combo meter online for less than $15.
Practice makes perfect, and growing things hydroponically is a lot different than growing them in the soil.
You will need to practice germinating seeds, transplanting them into your grow sites, or starting seeds directly in the grow sites.
We suggest learning about starting seeds in sponges, for your hydroponic seed-starting needs.
At any rate, plant crops and grow them, and then plant them again, and again, and again. Eventually, it’ll feel just as natural as gardening outside.
Try and Try Again
It isn’t just the planting you’ll need to try again and again, at first. There are many aspects to the hydroponic gardening technique that you will learn through a series of trial and error – so, don’t give up.
You may need to research and practice with proper lighting or get used to dealing with nutrients and testing the water with meters.
Whatever it is that challenges you the most about hydroponic gardening, practice it and just keep trying. Eventually, you’ll get the hang of it!
Deep Water Culture Hydroponic Maintenance
Test pH Levels of the Water Daily
The pH level of your DWC hydroponic system needs testing daily.
This reading gives you an accurate account of how many nutrients the water contains, and more importantly how much it needs to be added to it.
Don’t just take the reading though, act on it – address pH issues as they arise.
Test the EC Level of the Water Daily
As with the pH level, the EC level of the water in your DWC system also needs testing each day.
This reading lets you know how easy (or hard) it is for the plant’s roots to absorb nutrients from the water.
Further, as with pH readings, don’t just take them – make sure that you take appropriate action as well.
Top Off Nutrients in the Hydroponic Reservoir Regularly
Depending on your daily pH and EC readings, you may or may not need to adjust the pH levels much between water changes (which should happen every two weeks).
When you do need to add mix and add nutrients, do it carefully, and then take readings again and adjust until it is where you want/need it to be.
Don’t be afraid to make mistakes, they can allow being adjusted or otherwise fixed.
Keep the Reservoir’s Water Topped Off
Aside from taking readings from the water each day, keep an eye on the actual water levels themselves as you may need to add a splash of water to the reservoir sometimes.
The water level is set at the root zones of plants, so don’t let it drop down or the water roots will become exposed to direct air and begin to rot.
Depending on factors like sunlight, airflow, humidity, and temperatures of the space your system occupies, water may need to be topped off barely every few days to every single day.
Change the Reservoir Water Out Every Two to Three Weeks
Every 14 to 21 days the water in your deep water culture system needs changed (sorry folks, that’s just the way it goes!).
Even if the water is clean, and has nutrients and a decent EC level, you should highly consider changing it out with freshwater anyhow.
It doesn’t pay to slack on changing the water, your plants suffer and you spend more time trying to tweak pH and EC levels than necessary, to say the least.
Scrub, Clean, and Flush the System Regularly
When it’s time to change the water, it is also time to scrub, clean, and flush the system out.
This includes cleaning the air hoses, air stones, reservoir (and lid), as well as any other components of the system.
If the part is removable, it needs to be removed, cleaned, sanitized, and replaced period – otherwise, bacteria and dreaded algae will set up shop and wreak havoc on your system.
Quick Tips for Deep Water Culture Hydroponics
So, now that we’ve covered the topic of deep water culture hydroponics, including how to build, use and maintain it, we offer you a few important tips for succeeding with your new DIY DWC hydroponic growing system
- Keep An Eye on the Light. Otherwise, not only may your plants struggle to thrive, or die, from lack of ability to transfer light into energy, but algae may take over your reservoir and steal all your nutrients as well as throw off EC and pH levels.
- Regulate the Temperature. Your deep water culture system needs a stable temperature in order to support a stable environment for your crops. Fluctuating temperatures, in hydroponics, are an easy way to sabotage the successful outcome of your operations. Use heaters, fans, and even an AC unit if necessary.
- Provide Constant Airflow. A steady airflow is required for any healthy growing system, including your DIY DWC bucket. Not only does the top side need air, such as from a fan or ventilator, but the plant’s roots also need a steady supply of air (hence the air pump, air stone, and air hose).
- Check Plants for Signs of Nutrient Deficiency and Pests. Perform troubleshooting of your system daily. Issues arise quickly in hydroponic systems that are neglected. Further, unlike outdoor plants that are both more adaptable and slower growing, even easily fixable issues, left unchecked for a day or two can ruin your entire crop.
- Don’t Skip Water Changes or Cleaning. Never, ever, skip water changing day (every 2 to 3 weeks). Likewise, never forget to clean the system before refilling it with fresh water. Failure to maintain your hydroponics system isn’t like letting weeds grow amongst the plants in your garden – you have to stay on top of things, or you will fail at hydroponics.
Frequently Asked Questions About DWC Hydroponics
How Many DWC Hydroponic Variations Are There?
There are countless variations of deep water culture hydroponic systems, including mini-bubblers, dutch buckets, RDWC (recirculating deep water culture), and any number of hybrid and experimental DIY DWC systems. A quick YouTube or a Pinterest search yields thousands of results, hundreds with how-to instructions for building a simple DWC hydroponic system (like those found above).
Are Deep Water Culture Hydroponic Systems Expensive?
Depending on the type and size of the deep water culture hydroponic system, they may cost anywhere from $50 or $100 for a small system all the way up to several thousands of dollars for larger setups.
How Hard Are DIY DWC Hydroponic Systems To Build?
DIY deep water culture hydroponic systems come in all ranges of skill levels, meaning, it’s up to you how simple or complex a DIY DWC hydroponic system you attempt to build is. Some systems are as basic as the one in this article (above), or even simpler (think mini DWC in mason jars). However, plenty of DIY DWC and RWDC systems do require quite a bit of detail and attention, if not a bit of skill with hand tools like a measuring tape, razor knife, drill, and power saw.
Suggested Reading: THE HYDROPONIC GARDENING AT HOME GUIDE
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Awesome! I really like the idea of having a dual airpump rather than needing to worry about having a water pump and recirculating water in order to have two functional buckets on this DWC system!
Awesome! I really like the dual air pump instead of having to fool with a water pump and hoses or tubes for recirculating water through the buckets in this DWC setup! Nice!