in hydroponics, plants uptake nutrients that are dissolved in water rather than nutrients available in soil. Most of the time, these nutrients are provided to the plant in an ionic or inorganic form. In order to grow healthy hydroponic crops, it is essential that growers maintain proper electrical conductivity (EC) and pH levels.
For most hydroponic crops, the ideal range of EC for most crops is between 1.5 and 2.5 dS/m. A higher EC could prevent the plant from absorbing nutrients due to increased (more negative) osmotic pressure, and EC levels that are too low could adversely impact yield.
What is EC?
In hydroponics, electrical conductivity (EC) is a measure of how easily electricity can pass through your nutrient solution. Similarly, the conductivity factor (CF) is a measure of EC with units of millisiemens per centimeter (mS/cm).
Most plant nutrients are available as soluble ionic compounds. Ions are charged particles. Adding more of these charged particles will increase the EC of a nutrient solution.
Units of EC
In order to be able to read and interpret EC readings taken from your nutrient solution, it is important to understand the units used to measure EC.
EC is typically expressed as siemens per unit area (e.g., mS/cm, dS/m, S/m). For a nutrient with a conductivity of one S/m, the electric current through a nutrient solution will increase by one ampere for every increase of one volt of electric potential across one meter of solution.
Various metric prefixes are used when expressing EC readings. The table below lists some of the common prefixes used for EC.
Converting EC to ppm
As previously discussed, EC is a direct measurement of the electric conductivity of a substance. Because the nutrients dissolved in the water used for hydroponics are ions, EC can also be used as an indirect measurement of total dissolved solids (TDS). TDS is measured in parts per millions (ppm) and represents the concentration of nutrients in the solution.
EC Ranges By Hydroponic Crop
Not every plant has the same optimum EC value. There are a number of reasons for this. First, different plant species have different nutritional needs. The amount of nutrients in the nutrient solution impacts EC levels.
The optimal EC also depends on the plants’ stage of growth. Seedlings prefer nutrient solutions with a lower concentration of nutrients (lower EC) because they can burn easily. In contrast, more mature plants should be grown in nutrient solution with a higher EC.
In addition, environmental factors such as the ambient air temperature are important in determining the optimum EC. For example, when the ambient air temperature is above 86°F (30°C), EC levels should be reduced to account for the reduction in the plant’s rate of photosynthesis.
The optimum range of EC values for different hydroponic crops is listed in the following table.
|Asparagus||1.4 to 1.8|
|African Violet||1.2 to 1.5|
|Basil||1.0 to 1.6|
|Beans||2.0 to 4.0|
|Bananas||1.8 to 2.2|
|Broccoli||2.8 to 3.5|
|Cabbage||2.5 to 3.0|
|Celery||1.8 to 2.4|
|Carnation||2.0 to 3.5|
|Cucumber||1.7 to 2.0|
|Eggplant||2.5 to 3.5|
|Ficus||1.6 to 2.4|
|Leek||1.4 to 1.8|
|Lettuce||1.2 to 1.8|
|Pak Choi||1.5 to 2.0|
|Peppers||0.8 to 1.8|
|Parsley||1.8 to 2.2|
|Rhubarb||1.6 to 2.0|
|Rose||1.5 to 2.5|
|Sage||1.0 to 1.6|
|Spinach||1.8 to 2.3|
|Strawberry||1.8 to 2.2|
|Tomato||2.0 to 4.0|
|Zucchini||1.8 to 2.4|
The Impact of EC On Plant Yield
So what is the impact of growing plants in a nutrient solution with EC levels that are above or below the optimum range?
A research study that examined the effects of EC on tomato yield found that yield increased as the EC of the nutrient solution increased from 0 to 3 However, the yield decreased when the EC was further increased from 3 to 5 . Researchers found that EC levels between 1 and 3 , depending on the stage of growth, resulted in higher tomato yields.
Symptoms of Excessive EC
Ironically, signs of excess nutrients are similar to the symptoms of nutrient deficiencies in conventional growing systems. For example, excess magnesium in a hydroponic system looks just like calcium/magnesium deficiencies in growing media.
In general, here are some signs that the EC of your nutrient solution is too high.
- Leaf and stem wilting
- Tip burn
- Stunted growth
- Dropping leaves
Note that many of these symptoms may also indicate other problems such as disease, lack of water, too much heat, or excessive light.
If you suspect that the EC of your nutrient solution is too high, dilute it with distilled water. As you are adding distilled water, take measurements intermittently until the EC is back to appropriate levels.
The average daily water loss in a hydroponics system ranges from 5% to 30% depending on the size of the system and the type of plants you are growing (. This water loss results in a nutrient solution with a high EC. This means you should be measuring the EC of your system on a regular basis.
There are a variety of EC meters available at different price ranges. So what should you look for when searching for an EC meter? Depending on your budget, you will want an EC meter that is waterproof, has a battery life indicator, is easy to use, has an automatic shutoff, is shockproof and is easy to calibrate.
The most popular brands of EC meters are Bluelab, Hanna & Essentials,. starting at $180
Keep in mind that cheap TDS meters tend to be less accurate than some of the more expensive EC meters. starting at $50
Larger grow rooms require higher-quality EC meters. An example of such meter is the Bluelab BLU27100 Guardian Monitor. This monitor costs between $550 and $650 and has alarms that alert you if your EC gets too high or too low.
Calibration and Cleaning EC Meters
If you consistently use your EC meter, salts will build up on the meter. This salt buildup can skew your readings and shorten the life of the EC meter. For this reason, it is important to calibrate your EC meter before taking readings. You should also clean your meter after every us