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. Read more…
Modern technology has made it possible to sample Normalized Difference Vegetation Index (NDVI) across a range of scales both in space and in time, from satellites sampling the entire earth’s surface to handheld small sensors that measure individual plants or even leaves. Read more…
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. Read more…
Weather data, used for flight safety, disaster relief, crop and property insurance, and emergency services, contributes over $30 billion in direct value to U.S. consumers annually. Since the 1990’s in Africa, however, there’s been a consistent decline in the availability of weather observations. Read more…
Plants require nutrients to grow, and if we fail to supply the proper nutrients in the proper concentrations, plant function is affected. Fertilizer in too high concentration can also affect plant function, and sometimes is fatal. Read more…
Estimating the relative humidity in soil? Most people do it wrong…every time. Dr. Gaylon S. Campbell shares a lesson on how to correctly estimate soil relative humidity from his new book, Soil Physics with Python, which he recently co-authored with Dr. Marco Bittelli. Read more…
We were inspired by this Freakonomics podcast, which highlights the book, This Idea Must Die: Scientific Problems that are Blocking Progress, to come up with our own answers to the question: Which scientific ideas are ready for retirement? We asked scientist, Dr. Gaylon S. Campbell, which scientific idea he thinks impedes progress. Here’s what he had to say about the standards for field capacity and permanent wilting point. Read more…
This week, guest author Dr. Michael Forster, of Edaphic Scientific Pty Ltd & The University of Queensland, writes about new research using irrigation curves as a novel technique for irrigation scheduling.
Growers do not have the time or resources to investigate optimal hydration for their crop. Thus, a new, rapid assessment is needed.
Measuring the hydration level of plants is a significant challenge for growers. Hydration is directly quantified via plant water potential or indirectly inferred via soil water potential. However, there is no universal point of dehydration with species and crop varieties showing varying tolerance to dryness. What is tolerable to one plant can be detrimental to another. Therefore, growers will benefit from any simple and rapid technique that can determine the dehydration point of their crop.
New research by scientists at Edaphic Scientific, an Australian-based scientific instrumentation company, and the University of Queensland, Australia, has found a technique that can simply and rapidly determine when a plant requires irrigation. The technique builds on the strong correlation between transpiration and plant water potential that is found across all plant species. However, new research applied this knowledge into a technique that is simple, rapid, and cost-effective, for growers to implement.
Current textbook knowledge of plant dehydration
The classic textbook values of plant hydration are field capacity and permanent wilting point, defined as -33 kPa (1/3 Bar) and -1500 kPa (15 Bar) respectively. It is widely recognized that there are considerable limitations with these general values. For example, the dehydration point for many crops is significantly less than 15 Bar.
Furthermore, values are only available for a limited number of widely planted crops. New crop varieties are constantly developed, and these may have varying dehydration points. There are also many crops that have no, or limited, research into their optimal hydration level. Lastly, textbook values are generated following years of intensive scientific research. Growers do not have the time, or resources, to completely investigate optimal hydration for their crop. Therefore, a new technique that provides a rapid assessment is required.
How transpiration varies with water potential
There is a strong correlation between transpiration and plant water potential: as plant water potential becomes more negative, transpiration decreases. Some species are sensitive and show a rapid decrease in transpiration; other species exhibit a slower decrease.
Plant physiologist refer to P50 as a value that clearly defines a species’ tolerance to dehydration. One definition of P50 is the plant water potential value at which transpiration is 50% of its maximum rate. P50 is also defined as the point at which hydraulic conductance is 50% of its maximum rate. Klein (2014) summarized the relationship between transpiration and plant water potential for 70 plant species (Figure 1). Klein’s research found that there is not a single P50 for all species, rather there is a broad spectrum of P50 values (Figure 1).
Figure 1. The relationship between transpiration (stomatal conductance) and leaf water potential for 70 plant species. The dashed red lines indicate the P80 and P50 values. The irrigation refill point can be determined where the dashed red lines intersect with the data on the graph. Image has been adapted from Klein (2014), Figure 1b.
Taking advantage of P50
The strong, and universal, relationship between transpiration and water potential is vital information for growers. A transpiration versus water potential relationship can be quickly, and easily, established by any grower for their specific crop. However, as growers need to maintain optimum plant hydration levels for growth and yield, the P50 value should not be used as this is too dry. Rather, research has shown a more appropriate value is possibly the P80 value. That is, the water potential value at the point that transpiration is 80% of its maximum.
Irrigation Curves – a rapid assessment of plant hydration
Research by Edaphic Scientific and University of Queensland has established a technique that can rapidly determine the P80 value for plants. This is called an “Irrigation Curve” which is the relationship between transpiration and hydration that indicates an optimal hydration point for a specific species or variety.
Once P80 is known, this becomes the set point at which plant hydration should not go beyond. For example, a P80 for leaf water potential may be -250 kPa. Therefore, when a plant approaches, or reaches, -250 kPa, then irrigation should commence.
P80 is also strongly correlated with soil water potential and, even, soil volumetric water content. Soil water potential and/or content sensors are affordable, easy to install and maintain, and can connect to automated irrigation systems. Therefore, establishing an Irrigation Curve with soil hydration levels, rather than plant water potential, may be more practical for growers.
Example irrigation curves
Irrigation curves were created for a citrus (Citrus sinensis) and macadamia (Macadamia integrifolia). Approximately 1.5m tall saplings were grown in pots with a potting mixture substrate. Transpiration was measured daily, between 11am and 12pm, with a SC-1 Leaf Porometer. Soil water potential was measured by combining data from an MPS-6 Matric Potential Sensor and WP4 Dewpoint Potentiometer. Soil water content was measured with a GS3 Water Content, Temperature and EC Sensor. Data from the GS3 and MPS-6 sensors were recorded continuously at 15-minute intervals on an Em50 Data Logger. When transpiration was measured, soil water content and potential were noted. At the start of the measurement period, plants were watered beyond field capacity. No further irrigation was applied, and the plants were left to reach wilting point over subsequent days.
Figure 2. Irrigation Curves for citrus and macadamia based on soil water potential measurements. The dashed red line indicates P80 value for citrus (-386 kPa) and macadamia (-58 kPa).
Figure 2 displays the soil water potential Irrigation Curves, with a fitted regression line, for citrus and macadamia. The P80 values are highlighted in Figure 2 by a dashed red line. P80 was -386 kPa and -58 kPa for citrus and macadamia, respectively. Figure 3 shows the results for the soil water content Irrigation Curves where P80 was 13.2 % and 21.7 % for citrus and macadamia, respectively.
Figure 3. Irrigation Curves for citrus and macadamia based on soil volumetric water content measurements. The dashed red line indicates P80 value for citrus (13.2 %) and macadamia (21.7 %).
From these results, a grower should consider maintaining soil moisture (i.e. hydration) above these values as they can be considered the refill points for irrigation scheduling.
Further research is required
Preliminary research has shown that an Irrigation Curve can be successfully established for any plant species with soil water content and water potential sensors. Ongoing research is currently determining the variability of generating an Irrigation Curve with soil water potential or content. Other ongoing research includes determining the effect of using a P80 value on growth and yield versus other methods of establishing a refill point. At this stage, it is unclear whether there is a single P80 value for the entire growing season, or whether P80 shifts depending on growth or fruiting stage. Further research is also required to determine how P80 affects plants during extreme weather events such as heatwaves. Other ideas are also being investigated.
For more information on Irrigation Curves, or to become involved, please contact Dr. Michael Forster: firstname.lastname@example.org
Klein, T. (2014). The variability of stomatal sensitivity to leaf water potential across tree species indicates a continuum between isohydric and anisohydric behaviours. Functional Ecology, 28, 1313-1320. doi: 10.1111/1365-2435.12289
Get more information on applied environmental research in our
Dr. Colin Campbell, METER soil scientist, explains soil sensor differences, pros, cons, and things to consider when choosing which sensor will best accomplish your research goals. Use the following considerations to help identify the perfect sensor for your research. Explore the links for a more in-depth look at each topic.
Scientists often measure soil moisture at different depths to understand the effects of soil variability and to observe how water is moving through the soil profile.
CHOOSE THE RIGHT MEASUREMENT
Volumetric Water Content: If a researcher wants to measure the rise and fall of the amount (or percentage) of water in the soil, they will need soil moisture sensors. Soil is made up of water, air, minerals, organic matter, and sometimes ice. As a component, water makes up a percentage of the total. To directly measure soil water content, one can calculate the percentage on a mass basis (gravimetric water content) by comparing the amount of water, as a mass, to the total mass of everything else. However, since this method is labor-intensive, most researchers use soil moisture sensors to make an automated volume-based measurement called Volumetric Water Content (VWC). METER soil moisture sensors use high-frequency capacitance technology to measure the Volumetric Water Content of the soil, meaning they measure the quantity of water on a volume basis compared to the total volume of the soil. Applications that typically need soil moisture sensors are watershed characterization, irrigation scheduling, greenhouse management, fertigation management, plant ecology, water balance studies, microbial ecology, plant disease forecasting, soil respiration, hydrology, and soil health monitoring.
Water potential: If you need an understanding of plant-available water, plant water stress, or water movement (if water will move and where it will go), a water potential measurement is required in addition to soil moisture. Water potential is a measure of the energy state of the water in the soil, or in other words, how tightly water is bound to soil surfaces. This tension determines whether or not water is available for uptake by roots and provides a range that tells whether or not water will be available for plant growth. In addition, water always moves from a high water potential to a low water potential, thus researchers can use water potential to understand and predict the dynamics of water movement.
Understand your soil type and texture
In soil, the void spaces (pores) between soil particles can be simplistically thought of as a system of capillary tubes, with a diameter determined by the size of the associated particles and their spatial association. The smaller the size of those tubes, the more tightly water is held because of the surface association.
Clay holds water more tightly than a sand at the same water content because clay contains smaller pores and thus has more surface area for the water to bind to. But even sand can eventually dry to a point where there is only a thin film of water on its surfaces, and water will be bound tightly. In principle, the closer water is to a surface, the tighter it will be bound. Because water is loosely bound in a sandy soil, the amount of water will deplete and replenish quickly. Clay soils hold water so tightly that water movement is slow. However, there is still available water.
Note: Use the PARIO soil texture analyzer to automate soil texture identification.
Two measurements are better than one
In all soil types and textures, soil moisture sensors are effective at measuring the percentage of water. Dual measurements—using a water potential sensor in addition to a soil moisture sensor—gives researchers the total soil moisture picture and are much more effective at determining when, and how much, to water. Water content data show subtle changes due to daily water uptake and also indicate how much water needs to be applied to maintain the root zone at an optimal level. Water potential data determine what that optimal level is for a particular soil type and texture.
Water potential is the most fundamental and essential measurement in soil physics because it describes the force that drives water movement.
Water potential helps researchers determine how much water is available to plants.
Making good water potential measurements is largely a function of choosing the right instrument and using it skillfully. In an ideal world, there would be one instrument that simply and accurately measured water potential over its entire range from wet to dry. In the real world, there is an assortment of instruments, each with its unique personality. Each has its quirks, advantages, and disadvantages. Each has a well-defined range.
Below is a comparison of water potential instruments and the ranges they measure.
A comparison of water potential instrument ranges
To learn more about measuring water potential, see the articles or videos below:
Soil moisture release curves have always had two weak areas: a span of limited data between 0 and -100 kPa and a gap around field capacity where no instrument could make accurate measurements.
Using HYPROP with the redesigned WP4C, a skilled experimenter can now make complete high resolution moisture release curves.
Between 0 and -100 kPa, soil loses half or more of its water content. If you use pressure plates to create data points for this section of a soil moisture release curve, the curve will be based on only five data points.
And then there’s the gap. The lowest tensiometer readings cut out at -0.85 MPa, while historically the highest WP4 water potential meter range barely reached -1 MPa. That left a hole in the curve right in the middle of plant-available range.
Patterns of water replenishment and use give rise to large spatial variations in soil moisture over the depth of the soil profile. Accurate measurements of profile water content are therefore the basis of any water budget study. When monitored accurately, profile measurements show the rates of water use, amounts of deep percolation, and amounts of water stored for plant use.
Three common challenges to making high-quality volumetric water content measurements are:
making sure the probe is installed in undisturbed soil,
minimizing disturbance to roots and biopores in the measurement volume, and
eliminating preferential water flow to, and around, the probe.
All dielectric probes are most sensitive at the surface of the probe. Any loss of contact between the probe and the soil or compaction of soil at the probe surface can result in large measurement errors. Water ponding on the surface and running in preferential paths down probe installation holes can also cause large measurement errors.
Installing soil moisture sensors will always involve some digging. How do you accurately sample the profile while disturbing the soil as little as possible? Consider the pros and cons of five different profile sampling strategies.
Preferential flow is a common issue with commercial profile probes
Profile probes are a one-stop solution for profile water content measurements. One probe installed in a single hole can give readings at many depths. Profile probes can work well, but proper installation can be tricky, and the tolerances are tight. It’s hard to drill a single, deep hole precisely enough to ensure contact along the entire surface of the probe. Backfilling to improve contact results in repacking and measurement errors. The profile probe is also especially susceptible to preferential-flow problems down the long surface of the access tube.
Trench installation is arduous
Installing sensors at different depths through the side wall of a trench is an easy and precise method, but the actual digging of the trench is a lot of work. This method puts the probes in undisturbed soil without packing or preferential water-flow problems, but because it involves excavation, it’s typically only used when the trench is dug for other reasons or when the soil is so stony or full of gravel that no other method will work. The excavated area should be filled and repacked to about the same density as the original soil to avoid undue edge effects.
Digging a trench is a lot of work.
Augur side-wall installation is less work
Installing probes through the side wall of a single augur hole has many of the advantages of the trench method without the heavy equipment. This method was used by Bogena et al. with EC-5 probes. They made an apparatus to install probes at several depths simultaneously. As with trench installation, the hole should be filled and repacked to approximately the pre-sampling density to avoid edge effects.
Multiple-hole installation protects against failures
Digging a separate access hole for each depth ensures that each probe is installed into undisturbed soil at the bottom of its own hole. As with all methods, take care to assure that there is no preferential water flow into the refilled augur holes, but a failure on a single hole doesn’t jeopardize all the data, as it would if all the measurements were made in a single hole.
The main drawback to this method is that a hole must be dug for each depth in the profile. The holes are small, however, so they are usually easy to dig.
Single-hole installation is least desirable
It is possible to measure profile moisture by auguring a single hole, installing one sensor at the bottom, then repacking the hole, while installing sensors into the repacked soil at the desired depths as you go. However, because the repacked soil can have a different bulk density than it had in its undisturbed state and because the profile has been completely altered as the soil is excavated, mixed, and repacked, this is the least desirable of the methods discussed. Still, single-hole installation may be entirely satisfactory for some purposes. If the installation is allowed to equilibrate with the surrounding soil and roots are allowed to grow into the soil, relative changes in the disturbed soil should mirror those in the surroundings.
Bogena, H. R., A. Weuthen, U. Rosenbaum, J. A. Huisman, and H. Vereecken. “SoilNet-A Zigbee-based soil moisture sensor network.” In AGU Fall Meeting Abstracts. 2007. Article link.
Salt in soil comes from the fertilizer we apply but also from irrigation water and dissolving soil minerals. If more salt is applied in the irrigation water than is leached or taken off in harvested plants, the soil becomes more saline and eventually ceases to support agricultural production (see part 1). This week, learn an effective way to measure electrical conductivity (EC) in soil.
How to Measure Electrical Conductivity of the Soil Solution
As mentioned above, the earliest measurements of solution conductivity were made on soil samples, but it was found to be more reliable to extract the soil solution and make the measurements on it. When values for unsaturated soils are needed, those are calculated based on the saturation numbers and conjecture about how the soil dried to its present state. Obviously a direct measurement of the soil solution conductivity would be better if it could be made reliably.
Two approaches have been made to this measurement. The first uses platinum electrodes embedded in ceramic with a bubbling pressure of 15 bars. Over the plant growth range the ceramic remains saturated, even though the soil is not saturated, allowing a measurement of the solution in the ceramic. As long as there is adequate exchange between the ceramic and the soil solution, this measurement will be the EC of the soil solution, pore water EC.
Salt in soil comes from the fertilizer we apply, irrigation water and dissolving soil minerals.
The other method measures the conductivity of the bulk soil and then uses empirical or theoretical equations to determine the pore water EC. The ECH2O 5TE uses the second method. It requires no exchange of salt between soil and sensor and is therefore more likely to indicate the actual solution electrical conductivity. The following analysis shows one of several methods for determining the electrical conductivity of the saturation extract from measurements of the bulk soil electrical conductivity.
Mualem and Friedman (1991) proposed a model based on soil hydraulic properties. It assumes two parallel conduction paths: one along the surface of soil particles and the other through the soil water. The model is
Here σb is the bulk conductivity which is measured by the probe, σs is the bulk surface conductivity, σw is the conductivity of the pore water, θ is the volumetric water content, θs is the saturation water content of the soil and n is an empirical parameter with a suggested value around 0.5. If, for the moment, we ignore surface conductivity, and use eq. 1 to compute the electrical conductivity of a saturated paste (assuming n = 0.5 and θs = 0.5) we obtain σb = 0.35σw. Obviously, if no soil were there, the bulk reading would equal the electrical conductivity of the water. But when soil is there, the bulk conductivity is about a third of the solution conductivity. This happens because soil particles take up some of the space, decreasing the cross section for ion flow and increasing the distance ions must travel (around particles) to move from one electrode of the probe to the other. In unsaturated soil these same concepts apply, but here both soil particles and empty pores interfere with ion transport, so the bulk conductivity becomes an even smaller fraction of pore water conductivity.
When water evaporates at the soil surface, or from leaves, it is pure, containing no salt, so evapotranspiration concentrates the salts in the soil.
Our interest, of course, is in the pore water conductivity. Inverting eq. 1 we obtain
In order to know pore water conductivity from measurements in the soil we must also know the soil water content, the saturation water content, and the surface conductivity. The 5TE measures the water content. The saturation water content can be computed from the bulk density of the soil
Where ρb is the soil bulk density and ρs is the density of the solid particles, which in mineral soils is taken to be around 2.65 Mg/m3 . The surface conductivity is assumed to be zero for coarse textured soil. Therefore, using the 5TE allows us to quantify pore water EC through the use of the above assumptions. This knowledge has the potential to be a very useful tool in fertilizer scheduling.
Electrical Conductivity is Temperature Dependent
Electrical conductivity of solutions or soils changes by about 2% per Celsius degree. Because of this, measurements must be corrected for temperature in order to be useful. Richards (1954) provides a table for correcting the readings taken at any temperature to readings at 25 °C. The following polynomial summarizes the table
where t is the Celsius temperature. This equation is programmed into the 5TE, so temperature corrections are automatic.
Soil salinity has been measured using electrical conductivity for more than 100 years.
Units of Electrical Conductivity
The SI unit for electrical conductance is the Siemen, so electrical conductivity has units of S/m. Units used in older literature are mho/cm (mho is reciprocal ohm), which have the same value as S/cm. Soil electrical conductivities were typically reported in mmho/cm so 1 mmho/cm equals 1 mS/cm. Since SI discourages the use of submultiples in the denominator, this unit is changed to deciSiemen per meter (dS/m), which is numerically the same as mmho/cm or mS/cm. Occasionally, EC is reported as mS/m or µS/m. 1 dS/m is 100 mS/m or 105 µS/m.
Richards, L. A. (Ed.) 1954. Diagnosis and Improvement of Saline and Alkali Soils. USDA Agriculture Handbook 60, Washington D. C.
Rhoades, J. D. and J. Loveday. 1990. Salinity in irrigated agriculture. In Irrigation of Agricultural Crops. Agronomy Monograph 30:1089-1142. Americal Society of Agronomy, Madison, WI.
Get more information on applied environmental research in our
Dr. Colin S. Campbell discusses whether TDR vs. capacitance (see part 1) is the right question, the challenges facing soil moisture sensor technology, and the correct questions to ask before investing in a sensor system.
It’s easy to overlook the obvious question: what is being measured?
What are You Trying to Measure?
When considering which soil water content sensor will work best for any application, it’s easy to overlook the obvious question: what is being measured? Time Domain Reflectometry (TDR) vs. capacitance is the right question for a researcher who is looking at the dielectric permittivity across a wide measurement frequency spectrum (called dielectric spectroscopy). There is important information in these data, like the ability to measure bulk density along with water content and electrical conductivity. If this is the desired measurement, currently only one technology will do: TDR. The reflectance of the electrical pulse that moves down the conducting rods contains a wide range of frequencies. When digitized, these frequencies can be separated by fast fourier transform and analyzed for additional information.
The objective for the majority of scientists, however, is to simply monitor soil water content instantaneously or over time, with good accuracy. There are more options if this is the goal, yet there are still pitfalls to consider.
Considerable research has been devoted to determining which soil moisture sensors meet expectation.
Each Technology Has Challenges
Why would a scientist pay $100+ for a soil volumetric water content (VWC) sensor, when there are hundreds of soil moisture sensors online costing between $5 and $15? This is where knowing HOW water content is measured by a sensor is critical.
Most sensors on home and garden websites work based on electrical resistivity or conductivity. The principle is simple: more water will allow more electrons to flow. So conductivity will change with soil water content. But, while it’s possible to determine whether water content has changed with this method, absolute calibration is impossible to achieve as salts in the soil water will change as the water content changes. A careful reading of sensor specs will sometimes uncover the measurement method, but sometimes, price is the only indication.
Somewhere between dielectric spectroscopy and electrical resistance are the sensors that provide simple, accurate water content measurement. Considerable research has been devoted to determining which of these meet expectation, and the results suggest that Campbell Scientific, Delta-T, Stevens, Acclima, Sentek, and METER (formerly Decagon Devices), provide accurate sensors vetted by soil scientists. The real challenge is installing the sensors correctly and connecting them to a system that meets data-collection and analysis needs.
Installation Techniques Affect Accuracy
Studies show there is a difference between mid-priced sensor accuracy when tested in laboratory conditions. But, in the field, sensor accuracy is shown to be similar for all good quality probes, and all sensors benefit from site specific soil calibration. Why? The reason is associated with the principle upon which they function. The electromagnetic field these sensors produce falls off exponentially with distance from the sensor surface because the majority of the field is near the electrodes. So, in the lab, where test solutions form easily around sensor rods, there are differences in probe performance. In a natural medium like soil, air gaps, rocks, and other detritus reduce the electrode-to-soil contact and tend to reduce sensor to sensor differences. Thus, picking an accurate sensor is important, but a high quality installation is even more critical.
Improper installation is the largest barrier to accuracy.
Which Capacitance Sensor Works Best?
Sensor choice should be based on how sensors will be installed, the nature of the research site, and the intended collection method. Some researchers prefer a profile sensor, which allows instruments to be placed at multiple depths in a single hole. This may facilitate fast installation, but air gaps in the auger pilot hole can occur, especially in rocky soils. Fixing this problem requires filling the hole with a slurry, resulting in disturbed soil measurements. Still, profile sensor installation must be evaluated against the typical method of digging a pit and installing sensors into a side-wall. This method is time consuming and makes it more difficult to retrieve sensors.
New technology that allows sensor installation in the side of a 10 cm borehole may give the best of both worlds, but still requires backfill and has the challenge of probe removal at the end of the experiment.
The research site must also be a consideration. If the installation is close to main power or easily reached with batteries and solar panels, your options are open: all sensors will work. But, if the site is remote, picking a sensor and logging system with low power requirements will save time hauling in solar panels or the frustration of data loggers running out of batteries.
Often times it comes down to convenience.
Data Loggers Can Be a Limitation
Many manufacturers design data loggers that only connect to the sensors they make. This can cause problems if the logging system doesn’t meet site needs. All manufacturers mentioned above have sensors that will connect to general data loggers such as Campbell Scientific’s CR series. It often comes down to convenience: the types of sensor needed to monitor a site, the resources needed to collect and analyze the data, and site maintenance. Cost is an issue too, as sensors range from $100 to more than $3000.
Successfully Measure Water Content
The challenge of setting up and monitoring soil water content is not trivial, with many choices and little explanation of how each type of sensor will affect the final results. There are a wealth of papers that review the critical performance aspects of all the sensors discussed, and we encourage you to read them. But, if soil water content is the goal, using one of the sensors from the manufacturers named above, a careful installation, and a soil-specific calibration, will ensure a successful, accurate water content measurement.
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 began as a technology the power industry used to determine the distance to a break in broken power lines.
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 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.
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.
Get more information on applied environmental research in our
In Haiti, untreated human waste contaminating urban areas and water sources has led to widespread waterborne illness. Sustainable Organic Integrated Livelihoods (SOIL) has been working to turn human waste into a resource for nutrient management by turning solid waste into compost. Read more…
Estimating the relative humidity in soil? Most people do it wrong…every time. Dr. Gaylon S. Campbell shares a lesson on how to correctly estimate soil relative humidity from his new book, Soil Physics with Python, which he recently co-authored with Dr. Marco Bittelli. Read more.…
“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.
Globally, the number one reason for data loggers to fail is flooding. Yet, scientists continue to try to find ways to bury their data loggers to avoid constantly removing them for cultivation, spraying, and harvest. Chris Chambers, head of Sales and Support at Decagon Devices always advises against it. Read more…
During a recent semester at Washington State University a film crew recorded all of the lectures given in the Environmental Biophysics course. The videos from each Environmental Biophysics lecture are posted here for your viewing and educational pleasure. Read more…
Soil moisture sensors belong in the soil. Unless, of course you are feeling creative, curious, or bored. Then maybe the crazy idea strikes you that if soil moisture sensors measure water content in the soil, why couldn’t they be used to measure water content in a tree? Read more…
Get more information on applied environmental research in our