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Posts from the ‘Geophysics’ Category

Improved Methods Save Money in Future Borehole Thermal Energy Storage Design

Globally, the gap between the energy production and consumption is growing wider. To promote sustainability, University of California San Diego PhD candidate and ASCE GI Sustainability in Geotechnical Engineering committee member, Tugce Baser, Dr. John McCartney, Associate Professor, and their research team, Dr. Ning Lu, Professor at Colorado School of Mines and Dr. Yi Dong, Postdoctoral Researcher at Colorado School of Mines, are working on improving methods for borehole thermal energy storage (BTES), a system which stores solar heat in the soil during the summer months for reuse in homes during the winter. Baser says, “We are running out of finite energy resources. We need to come up with new strategies to use free and renewable energy resources such as solar energy for a sustainable future.”

borehole thermal energy storage

Baser’s BTES design.

How it works

BTES systems are an approach to provide efficient renewable resource-based thermal energy to heat buildings. They are configured to store thermal energy collected from solar thermal panels during the summer and discharge the heat to buildings during the winter. They function by circulating a fluid within a closed-loop pipe network installed in vertical boreholes to inject heat collected from solar thermal panels. During winter, cold fluid is circulated through the heat exchangers to recover the heat from the subsurface and distribute it to the buildings. Baser explains, “The subsurface provides an excellent medium to store this heat due to the relatively lower thermal conductivity and lower specific heat capacity especially when the soil layer is in the vadose zone. Lower thermal properties allow us to concentrate the heat in a specific array and the heat losses to the environment are potentially low. These systems typically include an insulation layer and a hydraulic barrier near the ground surface to reduce heat and vapor losses to the atmosphere.”

borehole thermal energy storage

BTES construction.

Why do we need improved methods?

Baser and her team are trying to improve the understanding of heat storage mechanisms and evaluate changes in the rate of heat transfer and heat storage in the vadose zone where the soil is unsaturated. The goal of the project is improve conventional methods by generating models to fit different soil types and situations.  She says, “The European community introduced us to the borehole thermal energy storage systems to provide heat specifically for domestic use, but there is still a chance for us to design them more efficiently by having a full understanding of the thermal response of these systems that is specific to the ground material and subsurface conditions. The primary objective of this research is to understand the mechanisms of coupled heat transfer and water flow in unsaturated soil profiles during the heat injection and subsequent heat extraction into these different arrays and different dimensions of borehole heat exchangers.”

borehole thermal energy storage

Solar panels.

Baser and her team working on designing numerical models based on finite element method which improve some of the numerical models in the literature used to characterize the thermal response of the systems. The new models add new considerations, such as the heat pipe effect in different soil types. Baser explains, “Because thermal and hydraulic properties of soils are highly coupled and are specific to soils, the thermal response of a BTES system will be different when it is installed in different types of soils. For example, you see the heat pipe effect where there is evaporation and subsequent condensation in fine grained soils rather than coarse soils because in coarse grain soils the pore characteristics are different. The duration of the heat pipe effect (or convective cycle) is longer in fine grain soils. We conclude that considering coupled heat transfer and water flow in the thermal response of Borehole Thermal Energy Storage system is important.”

borehole thermal energy storage

In-ground heat exchanger

Experiments in the field and in the lab help verify the new models

To fully understand heat transfer mechanisms and water flow in unsaturated soils, the research team installed two different SBTS systems at different scales, one in Golden, Colorado School of Mines campus, and the other at the UC San Diego research campus.  Baser says, “The subsurface characteristics of both sites are different, and this gives us the opportunity to investigate the impact of the different soil layers on the thermal response experimentally in a full scale. In addition, the scales of each Borehole Thermal Energy Storage system are different, and we also apply different heat injection rates. We have used these data to further validate our coupled heat transfer and water flow model so that we can use it for design purposes.”

borehole thermal energy storage

Soil moisture sensor locations.

Baser started with laboratory heating experiments, in which soil in a large tank is heated by heat exchangers. She installed soil moisture sensors to measure volumetric water content and the temperature and then used the KD2 pro thermal property analyzer to monitor thermal properties during heating experiments to characterize the coupled thermo-hydraulic relationships. For the field experiments the team uses soil moisture sensors equipped with temperature sensors and the KD2 pro to monitor subsurface temperature fluctuation because during the summertime the air temperature is higher, thus ambient air temperature fluctuation and penetration may become significant.

Baser also uses thermistor strings that include six thermistors at different depths and thermistor pipe plugs, voltage input modules, and flow meters.  She says, “Thermistor pipe plugs and flow meters are used in the manifold to monitor the inlet and outlet fluid temperatures and flow rates in each loop to calculate heat transfer rate into the ground. Flow meters were installed to control flow in each loop because you don’t want to over or underload the borehole loops. The amount of energy that you collect from the solar loop and the amount of energy that you inject into the ground can be used to define the efficiency of the system.” Baser says thermistor strings help monitor the ground temperature during the summer heat loading at different depths. They’re also used to monitor borehole wall temperature over time. The team installed one thermistor string 9 meters away from the heat storage array to see if far field is affected by the heat transfer within the array.

borehole thermal energy storage

Insulation prevents heat loss to the environment.

The new models will save money in future Borehole Thermal Energy Storage design

Baser says building numerical models and solving them was very complicated and time consuming, but they’ve had good results. She explains, “We’ve recently proved, both experimentally and numerically, that considering coupled thermal and hydraulic relationships are very important for thermal response analysis. Thus, our recommendation is that it’s fine to use the analytical models and user-friendly numerical models that consider constant thermal properties in the design analyses for saturated soils. However, in unsaturated soils, there is a very high possibility that the contribution of heat transfer evaporation and condensation would be missing and the Borehole Thermal Energy Storage system would be oversized, costing a significant amount of money. When dealing with soils in the vadose zone, coupled thermo-hydraulic constitutive relationships in the modeling efforts need to be considered.”

You can learn more about Tugce Baser’s research here.

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Soil Moisture Sensors: Why TDR vs. Capacitance May Be Missing the Point

Time Domain Reflectometry (TDR) vs. capacitance is a common question for scientists who want to measure volumetric water content (VWC) of soil, but is it the right question?  Dr. Colin S. Campbell, soil scientist, explains some of the history and technology behind TDR vs. capacitance and the most important questions scientists need to ask before investing in a sensor system.

TDR vs. Capacitance

TDR began as a technology the power industry used to determine the distance to a break in broken power lines.

Clarke Topp

In the late 1970s, Clarke Topp and two colleagues began working with a technology the power industry used to determine the distance to a break in broken power lines.  Time Domain Reflectometers (TDR) generated a voltage pulse which traveled down a cable, reflected from the end, and returned to the transmitter. The time required for the pulse to travel to the end of the cable directed repair crews to the correct trouble spot. The travel time depended on the distance to the break where the voltage was reflected, but also on the dielectric constant of the cable environment.  Topp realized that water has a high dielectric constant (80) compared to soil minerals (4) and air (1).  If bare conductors were buried in soil and the travel time measured with the TDR, he could determine the dielectric constant of the soil, and from that, its water content.  He was thus able to correlate the time it took for an electromagnetic pulse to travel the length of steel sensor rods inserted into the soil to volumetric water content. Despite his colleagues’ skepticism, he proved that the measurement was consistent for several soil types.

TDR vs. Capacitance

TDR sensors consume a lot of power. They may require solar panels and larger batteries for permanent installations.

TDR Technology is Accurate, but Costly

In the years since Topp et al.’s (1980) seminal paper, TDR probes have proven to be accurate for measuring water content in many soils. So why doesn’t everyone use them? The main reason is that these systems are expensive, limiting the number of measurements that can be made across a field. In addition, TDR systems can be complex, and setting them up and maintaining them can be difficult.  Finally, TDR sensors consume a lot of power.  They may require solar panels and larger batteries for permanent installations. Still TDR has great qualities that make these types of sensors a good choice.  For one thing, the reading is almost independent of electrical conductivity (EC) until the soil becomes salty enough to absorb the reflection.  For another, the probes themselves contain no electronics and are therefore good for long-term monitoring installations since the electronics are not buried and can be accessed for servicing, as needed.  Probes can be multiplexed, so several relatively inexpensive probes can be read by one set of expensive electronics, reducing cost for installations requiring multiple probes.

Many modern capacitance sensors use high frequencies to minimize effects of soil salinity on readings.

Advances in Electronics Enable Capacitance Technology

Dielectric constant of soil can also be measured by making the soil the dielectric in a capacitor.  One could use parallel plates, as in a conventional capacitor, but the measurement can also be made in the fringe field around steel sensor rods, similar to those used for TDR.  The fact that capacitance of soil varies with water content was known well before Topp and colleagues did their experiments with TDR.  So, why did the first attempt at capacitance technology fail, while TDR technology succeeded? It all comes down to the frequency at which the measurements are made.  The voltage pulse used for TDR has a very fast rise time.  It contains a range of frequencies, but the main ones are around 500 MHz to 1 GHz.  At this high frequency, the salinity of the soil does not affect the measurement in soils capable of growing most plants.  

Like TDR, capacitance sensors use a voltage source to produce an electromagnetic field between metal electrodes (usually stainless steel), but instead of a pulse traveling down the rods, positive and negative charges are briefly applied to them. The charge stored is measured and related to volumetric water content. Scientists soon realized that how quickly the electromagnetic field was charged and discharged was critical to success.  Low frequencies led to large soil salinity effects on the readings.  This new understanding, combined with advances in the speed of electronics, meant the original capacitance approach could be resurrected. Many modern capacitance sensors use high frequencies to minimize effects of soil salinity on readings.  

TDR vs. Capacitance

NASA used capacitance technology to measure water content on Mars.

Capacitance Today is Highly Accurate

With this frequency increase, most capacitance sensors available on the market show good accuracy. In addition, the circuitry in them can be designed to resolve extremely small changes in volumetric water content, so much so, that NASA used capacitance technology to measure water content on Mars. Capacitance sensors are lower cost because they don’t require a lot of circuitry, allowing more measurements per dollar. Like TDR, capacitance sensors are reasonably easy to install. The measurement prongs tend to be shorter than TDR probes so they can be less difficult to insert into a hole. Capacitance sensors also tend to have lower energy requirements and may last for years in the field powered by a small battery pack in a data logger.   

In two weeks: Learn about challenges facing both types of technology and why the question of TDR vs. Capacitance may not be the right question.

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New Infiltrometer Helps City of Pittsburgh Limit Traditional Stormwater Infrastructure (Part 2)

To save the aesthetics of Dellrose Street, an aging, 900 ft. long, brick road, the city of Pittsburgh wanted to limit traditional stormwater infrastructure (see part 1). Jason Borne, a stormwater engineer for ms consultants and his team decided permeable pavers was a viable option, and used two different types of infiltrometers to determine soil infiltration potential.  Here’s how they compared.

double ring infiltrometer

Setting up the infiltrometers.

Shortened Test Times Allow Design Changes on the Fly

Though most of the subsoil was a clay urban fill, there was a distinct transition between that clay material to a broken shale/clay mixture.  Borne says, “After excavation, it rained, and we saw that the water was disappearing through the broken shale/clay material.  When we did the infiltration tests, the broken shale/clay showed a higher infiltration potential than the clay fill material.  That led us to modify the design of the subsurface flow barriers based on specific observed infiltration rates of the subsoils. Where the tests showed higher hydraulic conductivity values, we were able to rely on infiltration entirely to remove the water from behind the check dams.”  Borne adds that in the areas where infiltration was poor, they augmented infiltration with a slow release concept. “We put some weep holes in the flow barrier and let the water trickle out down to the next barrier and so on.  Basically, the automated SATURO infiltrometer allowed us to do many tests in a short amount of time to establish a threshold of where good infiltrating soils and poor infiltrating soils were located.  This enabled us to change the design on the fly.  The double ring infiltrometer takes significantly more time to do a test, and time is of the essence when the contractor wants to backfill the area and get things moving. It was nice to have a tool that got us the information we needed more rapidly.”

double ring infiltrometer

SATURO Infiltrometer

How did the Double Ring and SATURO Compare?

Borne says the SATURO Infiltrometer was faster and reduced the possibility of human error.  He adds, “We liked the idea of it being very standardized. The automated plot of flux over time was also of great interest to us, because we could see a trend, or anomalies that might invalidate the results we were getting. The double ring infiltrometer takes a long time to achieve a state of equilibrium, and it’s hard to know when that occurs. You’re following the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection suggested guidelines, but they’re very generalized.  To me it doesn’t suit all situations.  What we found with the SATURO infiltrometer is it records information at very discreet intervals, plots a curve of the flux over time, and when it levels out, you basically achieve equilibrium.  You get to that state of equilibrium faster.  There’s a water savings, but there’s also a time savings.  And there’s the satisfaction of getting standardized results rather than the possibility of each technician applying the principles in a slightly different way, as they might with the double ring infiltrometer.”

Borne and his team were ultimately able to prepare a permeable paver street design which allowed for the exclusion of traditional storm sewer infrastructure, reducing both capital costs and long-term maintenance life cycle costs. The permeable paver concept is intended to provide a template for the city of Pittsburgh to apply to the future reconstruction of other city streets.

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New Infiltrometer Helps City of Pittsburgh Limit Traditional Stormwater Infrastructure

Though difficult and expensive to repair, the brick-paved streets that still exist in some Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania neighborhoods are worth saving. Dellrose Street, an aging, 900 ft. long, brick road, was in need of repair, but the city of Pittsburgh wanted to limit traditional stormwater infrastructure, such as pipes and catch basins.


Dellrose Street permeable paver system

To save the aesthetics of the neighborhood, they hired ms consultants, inc. to design a permeable paver solution for controlling stormwater runoff volumes and peak runoff rates that would traditionally be routed off-site via storm sewers.  Jason Borne, a stormwater engineer for ms consultants who worked on the project says, “What we try to do is understand the in situ infiltration potential of the subsoils to determine the most efficient natural processes for attenuating flows; either through infiltrating excess water volume back into the soil or through slow-release off-site.”  He used the SATURO Infiltrometer to get an idea of how urban fill material would infiltrate water.

Green Infrastructure Aids Natural Infiltration

As Borne and his team investigated what they could do to slow down the runoff, they decided permeable pavers would be a viable solution.  He says, “There’s not much you can do once you put in a hardened surface like a pavement.  Traditional pavement surfaces accelerate the runoff which requires catch basins and large diameter pipes to carry the runoff off-site. We were interested in investigating what some of the urban subsoils, or urban fill would allow us to do from an infiltration perspective.  As we started looking at some of these subsoils, we decided a permeable paver system would be ideal for this particular street.”


Subsurface flow barrier installation

Infiltrometers Determine Natural Infiltration Potential

Once the water flowed into the aggregate, the team began to figure out ways to slow it down and promote infiltration.  Borne says, “Basically we came up with a tiered subsurface flow barrier system.  We had about 60 concrete flow barriers across the subgrade within the aggregate base of the road. We needed so many because the longitudinal slope of the road was fairly significant. Behind each of these barriers we stored a portion of the stormwater that would typically run off the site.  The ideal was to remove the stored water through infiltration–to get it down to the subgrade and away, so we used infiltrometers to help us establish where we could maximize infiltration and where we might need to rely on other management methods.”

A Need for Faster Test Times Inspires a Comparison

Borne says that USDA soil surveys are too generalized for green infrastructure applications in urban areas and only give crude approximations of the soil hydraulic conductivity. Understanding the best way to promote natural infiltration requires a very specific infiltration rate or hydraulic conductivity for the location of interest.  He says, “The goal is to excavate down to the desired elevation before construction and find out, through some kind of device what the infiltration potential of the subsoil is.  Typically we use a double ring infiltrometer, but it’s a very manual device. We’re constantly refilling water, and it requires us to be on-site and attentive to what’s happening.  We can’t really multitask, especially in areas of decently infiltrating soils where the device might run out of water in 30 minutes or less. So, in the interest of saving water and time, we used the automated SATURO infiltrometer and the manual double ring infiltrometer concurrently for comparison purposes.”

Next week:  Find out how the two infiltrometers compared.

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Soil Sensors Help Thousand-Year-Old Levees Protect Residents of the Secchia River Valley

In Italy, on January of 2014, one of the Secchia river levees failed, causing millions of dollars in flood damage and two fatalities. Concerned with preventing similar disasters, scientists and geotechnical engineers are using soil sensors to investigate solutions in a project called, INFRASAFE (Intelligent monitoring for safe infrastructures) funded by the Emilia Romagna Region (Italy) on European Funds.  

Secchia river in Italy.

Secchia river in Italy (Image:

Professor Alberto Lamberti, Professor Guido Gottardi, Department of Civil, Chemical, Environmental, and Materials Engineering, University of Bologna, along with Prof. Marco Bittelli, University of Bologna professor of Soil and Environmental Physics, installed soil sensors along some transects of the Secchia river to monitor water potential and piezometric pressure.  They want to study properties of the compacted levee “soil”, during intense flooding.  Bittelli comments, “Rainfall patterns are changing due to climate change, and we are seeing more intense floods. There is a concern about monitoring levees so that we can, through studying the process, eventually create a warning system.”  

soil sensors

Trench for burying sensor cables.

What Are The Levees Made Of?

Amazingly, some of these levees are very old, built at the beginning of the second millennium to protect the Secchia valley population from floods. “These rudimentary barrages were the starting point of the huge undertakings, aiming at the regulation and stabilization of the river, which were gradually developed and expanded in the following centuries…building up a continuous chain all along the river.” (Marchii et. al., 1995)

soil sensors

Vegetation in the Secchia River flood plain.

Unlike natural soil with horizons, the soil that makes up the levees is made up of extremely compact clay and other materials, which will pose challenges to the research team in terms of sensor installation.  The team will use soil sensors to determine when the compacted material that makes up the levees gets so saturated it becomes weak.  Bittelli says, “We are looking at the mechanical properties of the levees, but mechanical properties are strongly dependent on hydraulic properties, particularly soil water potential (or soil suction).  A change in water potential changes the mechanical properties and weakens the structure.”  This can happen either when a soil dries below an optimal limit or wets above it; the result is a weakened barrier that can fail under load.

soil sensors

Here the team uses an installation tool to install water content sensors.

Soil Sensors Present Installation Challenges

To solve the installation problems, the team will use a specialized installation tool to insert their water content sensors.  Bittelli says, “Our main challenge is to install sensors deep into the levees without disturbing the soil too much.  It’s very important to have this tool because clearly we cannot dig out a levee; we might be the instigator of a flood. So it was necessary for us to be able to install the sensors in a relatively small borehole.”  The researchers will install the sensors farther down than the current tool allows, so they are modifying it to go down to eight or ten meters.  Bittelli explains, “We used a prototype installation tool which is two meters long. We modified it in the shop and extended it to six meters to be able to install water content sensors at further depths.”

Another challenge facing the research team is how to install water potential sensors without disturbing the levee.  Marco explains, “We placed an MPS-6 into a cylinder of local soil prepared in the lab. A sort of a muffin made of soil with an MPS-6 inside. Then we lowered the cylinder into the borehole, installed the sensor inside, and then slid it down into the hole.  Our goal is to try and keep the structure of the soil intact. Since the cylinder is made of the same local soil, and it is in good contact with the borehole walls, hydraulic continuity will be established.”

soil sensors

Researchers placed a MPS-6 into a cylinder of local soil prepared in the lab.

Unlike installing water content sensors, matric potential sensors don’t need to be installed in undisturbed soil but only require good contact between the sensor and the bulk soil so liquid water can easily equilibrate between the two. The researchers are also contemplating using a small camera with a light so they can see from above if the installation is successful.  

Find Out More

The researchers will collect data at two experimental stations, one on the Po river, and one on the Secchia River. So far, the first installation was successfully performed, and data are collected from the website. Bitteli says the first installation included water content, temperature, and electrical conductivity sensors, water potential sensors, and tensiometers connected to a wireless network that will transmit all the data to a central office for analysis.

You can read more about this project and how it’s progressing here.

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How Many Soil Moisture Sensors Do You Need?

“How many soil moisture sensors do I need?” is a question that we get from time to time. Fortunately, this is a topic that has received substantial attention by the research community over the past several years. So, we decided to consult the recent literature for insights. Here is what we learned.

soil moisture sensors

In the spatial domain, soil moisture variability arises from differences in soil texture.

Other than the fact that most situations call for more than a single sensor if you are working in the field, it turns out that there are few hard and fast rules that can be applied universally. In fact, one study that attempted to answer this question found that the optimum number of samples ranged from four to 250 (Loescher et al., 2014). Obviously, study objectives, accuracy requirements, scale, and site-specific characteristics must be taken into account on a case-by-case basis. Although no single answer can capture all scenarios, there are some generalities that you can rely on for guidance.

Keep in mind that soil moisture is dynamic in both temporal and spatial domains. Having an understanding of the driving forces of variability in both of these domains provides insight into how to go about sampling.

Spatial Variability

In the spatial domain, soil moisture variability arises from differences in soil texture (Baroni et al., 2013; Vereecken et al. 2014), amount and type of vegetation cover (Baroni et al., 2013; Loescher et al., 2014; Tueling & Troch, 2005), topography (Brocca et al., 2010; Jacobs et al., 2004; Tueling & Troch, 2005), precipitation and other meteorological factors (Vereecken et al., 2014), management practices (Bogena et al., 2010; Korres et al., 2015; Vereecken et al., 2014), and soil hydraulic properties (García et al., 2014). As you plan your study, consider the variability in these landscape features to get a sense of how many sample locations you will need to capture the heterogeneity in soil moisture across your study domain.

soil moisture sensors

Soil moisture changes in predictable patterns associated with seasonal weather and vegetation dynamics.

Temporal Variability

Soil water content can be highly variable in the temporal domain as well. This is no big surprise since we expect soil moisture to change with precipitation, drought, irrigation, and evapotranspiration, and in predictable patterns associated with seasonal weather and vegetation dynamics (Wilson et al., 2004). While this is an easy concept to grasp for any given location, it becomes more complex when we consider the variability that arises from the interaction between temporal and spatial dynamics.

Although studies have found conflicting results (primarily due to differences in spatial and temporal sampling scales), there is growing consensus that spatiotemporal variability in soil moisture content behaves in the following predictable manners. The standard deviation of soil moisture is lowest under extreme wet and dry conditions and highest under intermediate soil moisture conditions (Famiglietti et al., 2008). At the same time, the coefficient of variation (CV) is negatively related to soil moisture (Bogena et al., 2010; Brocca et al., 2007; Famiglietti et al., 2008; Korres et al., 2015). In other words, soil moisture CV is highest under dry conditions and lowest under wet conditions. Finally, the probability distribution of soil moisture content values is negatively skewed under wet conditions and positively skewed under dry conditions (Bogena et al., 2010; Famiglietti et al., 2008). All of the above characteristics appear to be scale-independent (see Fig. 10 in Famiglietti et al., 2008).

soil moisture sensors

The standard deviation of soil moisture is lowest under extreme wet and dry conditions.

Two Examples

The following examples use simulated data to help illustrate the effects of spatial and temporal heterogeneity on soil moisture content. In the first example, we simulated soil moisture content for the same study site under wet and dry conditions and calculated the probability density functions (PDF). Under wet conditions (blue line in Fig. 1) the standard deviation was low and the PDF was negatively skewed. In contrast, dry conditions resulted in a larger standard deviation and a positively skewed PDF. This example demonstrates that the parameters describing the soil moisture PDFs are not static, but instead change through time depending on soil moisture conditions.

soil moisture sensors

Figure 1. Probability density function (PDF) of soil moisture content from the same field under dry (red) and wet (blue) conditions.

In the second example, we simulated soil water content for a single point in time when conditions were neither wet or dry. The resulting PDF is bimodal, indicating that there is more than one “population” of soil moisture content within the study site (Fig. 2). There are several reasons that soil moisture content can exhibit this type of multimodal distribution. It may be that there are areas with different soil textures (e.g., drier sandy and wetter silt loam areas), that the study area includes low-lying topography and adjacent hillslopes, or that the study area has heterogeneous vegetation cover.

soil moisture sensors

Figure 2. PDF for a snapshot in time at a location that has a heterogenous landscape.

The two simple examples above demonstrate the complex nature of soil moisture across time and space. Both examples suggest that parametric statistics and an assumption of normality may not always be valid when working with soil water content in field conditions (Brocca et al., 2007; Vereecken et al., 2014).

How Many Soil Moisture Sensors?

If your objective is to determine the “true” mean soil water content for your study area, then your sampling scheme will need to account for the sources of variability described above. If your study area has substantial topographical relief, heterogeneous canopy cover, and strong seasonality in precipitation, then you are likely going to need sensors located in areas that represent the major sources of heterogeneity. If instead, your study site is fairly homogenous or you are simply interested in the temporal pattern of soil water content (e.g., for irrigation scheduling), then you can likely get away with fewer soil moisture sensors due to temporal autocorrelation in the data (Brocca et al. 2010; Loescher et al., 2014).

It is labor intensive and difficult to capture all soil moisture dynamics using spot sampling.

It is clear that soil water content is highly dynamic in time and space. It is labor intensive and difficult to capture all of these dynamics using spot sampling, although some people do choose to go this route. Like so many other areas of environmental science, some of the deepest insights into soil moisture behavior are emerging from studies using networks of in-situ sensors (Bogena et al., 2010; Brocca et al., 2010). We believe that for most applications, the use of in-situ, continuous measurements will provide you with a superior understanding of soil water content.

For a more in-depth treatment of this topic, read the articles listed below. We recommend the review by Vereecken et al. (2014) as a good place to start.


Baroni G, Ortuani B, Facchi A, Gandolfi C. (2013) The role of vegetation and soil properties on the spatio-temporal variability of the surface soil moisture in a maize-cropped field. Journal of Hydrology, 489:148-159.

Brocca L, Melone F, Moramarco T, Morbidelli R. (2010) Spatial‐temporal variability of soil moisture and its estimation across scales. Water Resources Research, 46, doi:10.1029/2009WR008016.

Brocca L, Morbidelli R, Melone F, Maramarco T. (2007) Soil moisture spatial variability in experimental areas of central Italy. Journal of Hydrology, 333:356-373.

Bogena HR, Herbst M, Huisman JA, Rosenbaum U, Weuthen A, Vereecken H. (2010) Potential of wireless sensor networks for measuring soil water content variability. Vadose Zone Journal, 9:1002-1013.

Famiglietti JS, Dongryeol R, Berg AA, Rodell M, Jackson TJ. (2008) Field observations of soil moisture variability across scales. Water Resources Research, 44, doi:10.1029/2006WR005804.

García GM, Pachepsky YA, Vereecken H. (2014) Effect of soil hydraulic properties on the relationship between the spatial mean and variability of soil moisture. Journal of Hydrology, 516:154-160.

Korres W, Reichenau TG, Fiener P, Koyama CN, Bogena HR, Cornelissen T, Baatz R, Herbst M, Diekkrüger B, Vereecken H, Schneider K. (2015) Spatio-temporal soil moisture patterns – A meta-analysis using plot to catchment scale data. Journal of Hydrology 520:326-341.

Loescher H, Ayres E, Duffy P, Luo H, Brunke M. (2014) Spatial variation in soil properties among North American Ecosystems and Guidelines for Sampling Designs. PLoS ONE 9, doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0083216

Tueling AJ, Troch PA. (2005) Improved understanding of soil moisture variability dynamics. Geophysical Research Letters, 32, doi:10.1029/2004GL021935

Vereecken H, Huisman JA, Pachepsky Y, Montzka C, van der Kruk J, Bogena H, Weihermüller L, Herbst M, Martinez G, Vanderborght J. (2014) On the spatio-temporal dynamics of soil moisture at the field scale. Journal of Hydrology, 516:76-96.

Wilson DJ, Western AW, Grayson RB. (2004) Identifying and quantifying sources of variability in temporal and spatial soil moisture observations. Water Resources Research, 40, doi:10.1029/2003WR002306.

Learn more about soil moisture sensors and installation best practices.

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Measuring Moisture in Concrete

Trevor Dragon, a Decagon Research and Development Engineer, was pouring concrete at his Beeville, Texas, farm one day and wondered if he could measure moisture in concrete with a matric potential sensor (MPS) instead of the more traditionally-used volumetric water content sensor (VWC) to get more accurate readings.  Dragon says, “We had about five concrete trucks come in that day, and we poured five different slabs.  Every truck had a different amount of water added.  One particular batch of concrete was really wet and soupy, and I became curious to measure it and compare it to the other slabs.”

Concrete slab drying down at Trevor's Texas farm.

Concrete slab drying down at Trevor’s Texas farm.

Why Measure Moisture in Concrete?

As concrete hardens, portland cement reacts with water to form new bonds between the components of the concrete.  This chemical process, known as hydration, gives concrete its characteristic rock-like structure.  Too much or too little water can reduce the strength of the concrete.  Adding excess water can lead to excessive voids in concrete, while providing too little water can inhibit the cement hydration reaction.  Thus, when you pour a slab in south Texas, where it’s exposed to high wind and intense heat, sufficient water must be added, and precautions must be taken to minimize evaporation of water from the slab surface as the concrete hardens.

Better Readings:

Dragon chose the matric potential sensor because he wondered if it would be more accurate than a VWC measurement.  He says, “I knew that VWC sensors were calibrated for soil, and because of that they would lack accuracy.  But the MPS is calibrated for the ceramic it contains.  I figured it would be closer to the real thing without having to do a custom calibration.”

Moisture in concrete has been difficult to measure because the high electrical conductivity early in the hydration process throws off water content sensor calibration. So, Dragon was surprised when his data turned out to be really good.  He comments, “The dry down curve of the matric potential sensor was a perfect curve. There was a nice knee (drop from saturation) after about 200 minutes, and it just went down from there.  We’re kind of stumped because we are trying to understand why the data came out so well and why the curve looks so good.”  

MPS2 Water Potential in Concrete

MPS2 Water Potential in Concrete

The scientists at Decagon sent the dry down curve to Dr. Spencer Guthrie, a civil engineering professor, to see what he thought.  He explains, “I suspect that the concrete is experiencing initial set at around 200 minutes.  This is a very normal time frame by which finishing operations need to be complete.  At this stage in cement hydration, the concrete becomes no longer moldable.  A rigid capillary structure is forming, and individual pores are taking shape.  As hydration continues, the pores become smaller and smaller, which may explain the decrease in matric potential.”

New Methods:

One theory Dragon and his colleague Dr. Colin Campbell came up with was that perhaps Dragon’s unique method of inserting the sensors made a difference in the measurements.  He explains, “The first thing I did was look for the rebar in the concrete, and I placed the sensors in the exact center of one of the squares to avoid the influence of metal on the sensor electromagnetic field.  Also, I didn’t insert the sensors the same way you would insert them into soil.  In soil you put the sensors in vertically; I placed the MPS sensor horizontally, because in this case I was not interested in how water was moving in the slab but how it was being used over time.

What Does It Mean for the Future?

The behavior of the water potential sensor embedded in the concrete clearly indicated a drying process where water becomes less available over time. However, the implications are still unknown.  Can the quality of the concrete be determined from the speed or extent of water becoming less available?  Hopefully this opportunistic experiment by Dragon will lead to more tests to show whether this approach is useful to others.  Dr. Guthrie agrees the idea should be explored further and comments, “The matric potential measurements were not redundant with the water content measurements.  Instead, they offered additional, interesting information about the early hydration characteristics of the concrete.  In the context of construction operations, the MPS data indicated what is normally determined by observing the impression left in the concrete surface from the touch of a finger.  In the context of research, however, the use of an MPS may yield helpful information about how certain admixtures, for example, influence the development of hydration products in concrete over time.

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This Idea Must Die: Using Filter Paper as a Primary Method for Water Potential

In a continuation of our popular series inspired by the book, This Idea Must Die:  Scientific Problems that are Blocking Progress,  Dr. Gaylon S. Campbell relates a story to illustrate the filter paper method, a scientific concept he thinks impedes progress:

filter paper method

There are times when our independent verification turns out to be like the clock and the whistle, and we end up inadvertently chasing our tail.

I remember listening to a story about a jeweler who displayed a big clock in the front window of his store. He noticed that every day a man would stop in front of the store window, pull out a pocket watch, set the watch to the time that was on the large clock, and then continue on.  One day, the jeweler decided to meet the man in order to see why he did that.  He went out to the front of the store, intercepted the man, and said, “I noticed you stop here every day to set your watch.”

The man replied, “Yes, I’m in charge of blowing the whistle at the factory, and I want to make sure that I get the time exactly right.  I check my watch every day so I know I’m blowing the whistle precisely at noon.”

Taken aback, the jeweler replied, “Oh, that’s interesting.  I set my clock by the factory whistle.”

The Wrong Idea:

In science we like to have independent verification for the measurements we make in order to have confidence that they are made correctly, but there are times when our independent verification turns out to be like the clock and the whistle, and we end up inadvertently chasing our tail. I’ve seen this happen to people measuring water potential (soil suction). They measure using a fundamental method like dewpoint or thermocouple psychrometry, but then they verify the method using filter paper. Filter paper is a secondary method–it was originally calibrated against the psychometric method. It’s ridiculous to use a secondary method to verify an instrument based on fundamental thermodynamics.

filter paper method

Geotechnical engineers use natural material such as soil and rock in combination with engineered material to design dams, tunnels, and foundations for all kinds of structures.

Where the Filter Paper Method Came From:

Before the development of modern vapor pressure measurements, field scientists needed an inexpensive, easy method to measure water potential. I.S. McQueen in the U.S. Geological Survey and some others worked out relationships between the water content of filter paper and water potential by equilibrating them over salt solutions. Later, other scientists standardized this method using thermocouple psychrometers so that there was a calibration. Filter paper was acceptable as a kind of a poor man’s method for measuring water potential because it was inexpensive, assuming you already had a drying oven and a balance. The thermocouple psychrometer and later the dewpoint sensor quickly supplanted filter paper in the field of soil physics. However, somewhere along the line, the filter paper technique was written into standards in the geotechnical area and the change to vapor methods never occurred. Consequently, a new generation of geotechnical engineers came to rely on the filter paper method. Humorously, when vapor pressure methods finally took hold, filter paper users became focused on verifying these new fundamental methods with the filter paper technique to see whether they were accurate enough to be used for water potential measurement of samples.

What Do We Do Now?

Certainly there’s no need to get rid of the filter paper method. If I didn’t have anything else, I would use it. It will give you a rough idea of what the water potential or soil suction is. But the idea that I think has to die is that you would ever check your fundamental methods (dewpoint or psychrometer) against the filter paper method to see if the they were accurate. Of course they’re accurate. They are based on first principles. The dewpoint or psychrometer methods are a check to see if your filter paper technique is working, which it quite often isn’t (watch this video to learn why).

Which scientific ideas do you think need to be revised?

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