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Posts from the ‘Plant Genetics’ Category

Chalk Talk: Intensive vs. Extensive Variables

Learn the difference between intensive and extensive variables and how they relate to soil water potential vs. soil water content in our new Chalk Talk whiteboard series. In this video series, Dr. Colin S. Campbell teaches basic principles of environmental biophysics and how they relate to measuring different parameters of the soil-plant-atmosphere continuum.

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To learn more about measuring water potential vs. water content read: Why soil moisture sensors can’t tell you everything.

Download the “Researcher’s complete guide to water potential”—>

Download the “Researcher’s complete guide to soil moisture”—>

Video transcript

Hello, my name is Colin Campbell. I’m a senior research scientist here at METER group. And I teach a class on environmental biophysics. Today I wanted to talk about something we teach in the class: the difference between extensive and intensive variables. I’d like to do this with the goal of relating it to the difference between volumetric water content and water potential. 

Here, I have a picture of a ship moving through the ice and some metal that’s been heated in a furnace. I think we would agree the ship has the highest amount of heat in it compared to this very small piece of metal. And if we placed that piece of metal onto the outside of the ship, despite the fact that there is more heat in the metal, we know the heat would not move from the high amount of heat (ship) to the low amount of heat (metal). It would actually move from the highest temperature to the lowest temperature. Why is that?

The reason is that heat moves because of temperature and not because of heat content or the amount of heat in something. Heat content defines an amount or an extent. And we generally term something that defines an extent or an amount as an extensive variable.An extensive variable depends broadly on the size of something or how much of something there is. 

This differs for temperature. Temperature doesn’t depend on size. The temperature could be the same in a very small room or a very large room, but the amount of heat or heat content in those rooms would be quite different. When we describe temperature, we talk about intensity, which is why we call these types of variables intensive variables. This is because they don’t depend on size or amount. 

Let’s talk about another example. Here’s your heating bill. Maybe it’s natural gas. What you’re paying for is the amount of heat you put into the house. But the question is, are you comfortable in the house? And from this bill, we can’t tell. Maybe you put in 200 heat units, whatever those might be. We can’t tell if that’s comfortable because we don’t know the size of the house or the type of insulation. All those things would influence whether you were comfortable. 

Alternatively, if the temperature is 71 F that’s quite comfortable. That’s equivalent to about 22 degrees Celsius. So the intensive variable, temperature, is different than the extensive variable, heat content, that tells us how much heat we put in. And that’s important because at the end of the day, that leads to cost. 

On this side, we don’t know how much we paid to keep it at 22 C because heat content doesn’t tell us anything about that. But the intensive variable temperature does tell us something about comfort. So both of these variables are critical to really understanding something about our comfort in the house. 

Now let’s talk about the natural environment. Specifically, we’re going to talk about soils. We’ll start with the extensive variable. When we talk about water in soil, the extensive variable is, of course, water content. Water content defines the amount of water. Why would we care about water content? Well, for irrigation or a water balance.

The intensive variable is called water potential. What does water potential tell us? It tells us if soil water is available and also predicts water movement. If this soil had a water content of 25% VWC and another soil was at 20% VWC, would the water move from the higher water content to the lower water content? Well, that would be like our example of the ship and the heated piece of metal. We don’t know if it would move. It may move. And if the soil on either side was exactly the same, we might presume that it would move from the higher water content to the lower water content, but we actually don’t know. Because the water content is an extensive variable, it only tells us how much there is. It won’t tell us if it will move. 

Now, if we knew that this soil water potential was -20 kPa and this soil water potential over here was -15 kPa, we would know something about where the water would move, and it would do something different than we might think. It would move from the higher water potential to the lower water potential against the gradient in water content, which is pretty interesting but nonetheless true. Water always moves from the highest water potential to the lowest water potential.

This helps us understand these variables in terms of plant comfort. We talked about the temperature being related to human comfort. We know at what temperatures we are most comfortable. With plants, we know exactly the same thing, and we always turn to the intensive variable, water potential, to define plant comfort.

For example, if we have an absolute scale like water potential for a particular plant, let’s say -15 kPa is the upper level for plant comfort, and -100 kPa is the lower level of comfort, we could keep our water potential in this range. And the plant would be happy all the time. Just like if we kept our temperature between 21 and 23 Celsius, that would be comfortable for humans. But of course, we humans are different. Some people think that temperature is warm, and some think it’s cold. And it’s the same for plants. So this isn’t a hard and fast rule. But we can’t say the same thing with water content. There’s no scale where we can say at 15% water content up to 25% water content you’ll have a happy plant That’s not true.If we know something about the soil, we can infer it. But soil is unique. And we’d have to derive this relationship between the water content and the water potential to know that. 

So why would we ever think about using water content when we measure water in the soil? One reason is it’s the most familiar to people. And it’s the simplest to understand. It’s easy to understand an amount. But more importantly, when we talk about things like how much we’re going to irrigate, we might need to put on 10 millimeters of water to make the plants happy. And we’d need to measure that. Also if we want to know the fate of the water in the system, how much precipitation and irrigation we put on versus how much is moving down through the soil into the groundwater, that also relates to an amount.  

But when we want to understand more about plant happiness or how water moves, it’s going to be this intensive variable, water potential that makes the biggest difference. And so with that, I’ll close. I’d love for you to go check out our website www.metergroup.com to learn a little bit more about these measurements in our knowledge base. And you’re also welcome to email me about this at colin.campbell@meter group.com.

Data collection: 8 best practices to avoid costly surprises

Every researcher’s goal is to obtain usable field data for the entire duration of a study. A good data set is one a scientist can use to draw conclusions or learn something about the behavior of environmental factors in a particular application. However, as many researchers have painfully discovered, getting good data is not as simple as installing sensors, leaving them in the field, and returning to find an accurate record. Those who don’t plan ahead, check the data often, and troubleshoot regularly often come back to find unpleasant surprises such as unplugged data logger cables, soil moisture sensor cables damaged by rodents, or worse: that they don’t have enough data to interpret their results. Fortunately, most data collection mishaps are avoidable with quality equipment, some careful forethought, and a small amount of preparation.

Before selecting a site, scientists should clearly define their goals for gathering data.

Make no mistake, it will cost you

Below are some common mistakes people make when designing a study that cost them time and money and may prevent their data from being usable.

  • Site characterization: Not enough is known about the site, its variability, or other influential environmental factors that guide data interpretation
  • Sensor location: Sensors are installed in a location that doesn’t address the goals of the study (i.e., in soils, both the geographic location of the sensors and the location in the soil profile must be applicable to the research question)
  • Sensor installation: Sensors are not installed correctly, causing inaccurate readings
  • Data collection: Sensors and logger are not protected, and data are not checked regularly to maintain a continuous and accurate data record
  • Data dissemination: Data cannot be understood or replicated by other scientists

When designing a study, use the following best practices to simplify data collection and avoid oversights that keep data from being usable and ultimately, publishable.

Read more

Download the “Researcher’s complete guide to soil moisture”—>

Download the “Researcher’s complete guide to water potential”—>

IoT Technologies for Irrigation Water Management (Part 2)

Dr. Yossi Osroosh, Precision Ag Engineer in the Department of Biological Systems Engineering at Washington State University, continues (see part 1) to discuss the strengths and limitations of  IoT technologies for irrigation water management.

Informed irrigation decisions require real-time data from networks of soil and weather sensors at desired resolution and a reasonable cost.

LoRaWAN (a vendor-managed solution see part 1) is ideal for monitoring applications where sensors need to send data only a couple of times per day with very high battery life at very low cost. Cellular IoT, on the other hand, works best for agricultural applications where sensors are required to send data more frequently and irrigation valves need to be turned on/off. Low-Power Wide-Area Networking (LPWAN) technologies need gateways or base stations for functioning. The gateway uploads data to a cloud server through traditional cellular networks like 4G. Symphony Link has an architecture very similar to LoRaWAN with higher degree of reliability appropriate for industrial applications. The power budget of LTE Cat-M1 9 (a network operator LPWAN) is 30% higher per bit than technologies like SigFox or LoRaWAN, which means more expensive batteries are required. Some IoT technologies like LoRa and SigFox only support uplink suited for monitoring while cellular IoT allows for both monitoring and control. LTE-M is a better option for agricultural weather and soil moisture sensor applications where more data usage is expected.

NB-IoT is more popular in EU and China and LTE Cat-M1 in the U.S. and Japan. T-Mobile is planning to deploy NB-IoT network in the U.S. by mid-2018 following a pilot project in Las Vegas. Verizon and AT&T launched LTE Cat-M1 networks last year and their IoT-specific data plans are available for purchase. Verizon and AT&T IoT networks cover a much greater area than LoRa or Sigfox. An IoT device can be connected to AT&T’s network for close to $1.00 per month, and to Verizon’s for as low as $2 per month for 1MB of data. A typical sensor message generally falls into 10-200 bytes range. With the overhead associated with protocols to send the data to the cloud, this may reach to 1KB. This can be used as a general guide to determine how much data to buy from a network operator.

Studies show there is a potential for over 50% water savings using sensor-based irrigation scheduling methods.

What the future holds

Many startup companies are currently focused on the software aspect of IoT, and their products lack the sensor technology. The main problem they have is that developing good sensors is hard. Most of these companies will fail before batteries of their sensors die. Few will survive or prevail in the very competitive IoT market. Larger companies who own sensor technologies are more concerned with the compatibility and interoperability of these IoT technologies and will be hesitant to adopt them until they have a clear picture. It is going to take time to see both IoT and accurate soil/plant sensors in one package in the market.  

With the rapid growth of IoT in other areas, there will be an opportunity to evaluate different IoT technologies before adopting them in agriculture. As a company, you may be forced to choose specific IoT technology. Growers and consultants should not worry about what solution is employed to transfer data from their field to the cloud and to their computer or smart phones, as long as quality data is collected and costs and services are reasonable. Currently, some companies are using traditional cellular networks. It is highly likely that they will finally switch to cellular IoT like LTE Cat-M1. This, however, may potentially increase the costs in some designs due to the higher cost of cellular IoT data plans.

Download the “Researcher’s complete guide to water potential”—>

Download the “Researcher’s complete guide to soil moisture”—>

Get more info on applied environmental research in our

3 Insider Strategies for a More Accurate Soil Moisture Picture (Part 1)

How Do you Know You’re Getting Accurate Soil Moisture?

Researchers and irrigators may wonder if their soil moisture sensors are accurate because probes at different locations in the same field have different water content readings. Different readings in soil moisture sensors are caused by spatial variation in water content. These readings provide researchers valuable information about soil texture, watering patterns, and water use. Here are some ideas and strategies to keep in mind when trying to understand the varying patterns of soil moisture at your research or irrigation site. Click the links for more in-depth information about accurate soil moisture.

accurate soil moisture

One irrigator noticed a few sensors indicating low water content after a heavy rain that had uniformly wetted his vineyard.

Horizontal vs. Vertical Variation

It’s helpful to distinguish variation in the vertical from variation in the horizontal. Most people expect strong vertical variation due to wetting and drying patterns, soil horizonation, and compaction. Water content can vary drastically over distances of only a few centimeters, especially near the soil surface. Horizontal variation is typically less pronounced in a bare or uniformly planted field, and at a given depth, it might be quite small. But surprisingly large variations can exist, indicating isolated patches of sand or clay or differences in topography. One irrigator noticed a few sensors indicating low water content after a heavy rain that had uniformly wetted his vineyard. Knowing that sand has a low field capacity water content, he surmised (correctly) that he had found the sandy areas in the vineyard.

Soil moisture sensors sometimes measure unexpected things.

Unexpected Readings

Because properly installed dielectric soil moisture sensors lie in undisturbed (and therefore unanalyzed) soil, they sometimes measure unexpected things. One researcher buried a probe in what appeared to be a very dry location and was startled to measure 25 to 30% volumetric water content. Those readings made the soil appear saturated, but obviously it wasn’t. She dug down to the sensor and found a pocket of clay. As she discovered, it is impossible to get much information from an absolute water content measurement without knowing what type of soil the sensor is in.

Since we expect variation, how do we account for it? How many probes are needed to adequately characterize the water content in an application or experiment? There is no simple answer to this question. The answer will be affected by your site, your goals, and how you plan to analyze your data. Here are some things you might consider as you plan.

Accurate soil moisture

If a field will be irrigated as a unit, it should be monitored as a unit at one representative spot.

Strategy #1: Irrigation—Use Soil Moisture as an Indicator

What information do you have when you know a field’s volumetric water content? That number independently tells an irrigator very little. Soil moisture can be used like a gauge to show when a field is full and when it needs to be refilled, but the “full” and “empty” are only meaningful in context.

The goals of irrigation are to keep root zone water within prescribed limits and to minimize deep drainage. Understanding and monitoring the vertical variation lets you correlate a real-time graph of water use data with above-ground field conditions and plant water needs. It makes sense to place probes both within and below the root zone.

By contrast, measuring horizontal variation—placing sensors at different spots in the field—is not very helpful. If a field will be irrigated as a unit, it should be monitored as a unit at one representative spot. Because there’s no way to adjust water application in specific spots, there’s no benefit to quantifying spatial variation in the horizontal. Like a float in a gas tank, a set of soil moisture sensors in the right spot will adequately represent the changing soil moisture condition of the whole field.

We recommend a single probe location in each irrigation zone with a minimum of one probe in the root zone and one probe below it. Additional probes at that site, within and below the root zone, will increase the reliability of the information for the irrigation manager, at minimal additional cost.

In two weeks: Learn two more techniques researchers use in crop studies and ecology studies to account for variability in order to obtain an accurate soil moisture picture.

Get more info on applied environmental research in our

Download the “Researcher’s complete guide to soil moisture”—>

A comparison of water potential instrument ranges

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.

water potential instrument ranges

A comparison of water potential instrument ranges

To learn more about measuring water potential, see the articles or videos below:

How to Create a Full Soil Moisture Release Curve

Two Old Problems

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.

Soil moisture release curve

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.

New Technology Closes the Gap

Read more

Download the “Researcher’s complete guide to water potential”—>

Download the “Researcher’s complete guide to soil moisture”—>

Stop Hiding Behind a Shield

Get better air temperature accuracy with this new method

Accurate air temperature is crucial for microclimate monitoring

The accuracy of air temperature measurement in microclimate monitoring is crucial because the quality of so many other measurements depend on it. But accurate air temperature is more complicated than it looks, and higher accuracy costs money. Most people know if you expose an air temperature sensor to the sun, the resulting radiative heating will introduce large errors. So how can the economical ATMOS 41’s new, non-radiation-shielded air temperature sensor technology be more accurate than typical radiation-shielded sensors?

We performed a series of tests to see how the ATMOS 41’s air temperature measurement compared to other sensors, and the results were surprising, even to us. Learn the results of our experiments and the new science behind the extraordinary accuracy of the ATMOS 41’s breakthrough air temperature sensor technology.

In this brief 30-minute webinar, find out:

  • Why you should care about air temperature accuracy
  • Where errors in air temperature measurement originate
  • The first principles energy balance equation and why it matters
  • Results of experiments comparing shielded sensor accuracy against the ATMOS 41 weather station
  • The science behind the ATMOS 41 and why its unshielded measurement actually works

Soil Moisture Sensors: Which Installation Method is Best?

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.

How to avoid measurement errors

Three common challenges to making high-quality volumetric water content measurements are:

  1. making sure the probe is installed in undisturbed soil,
  2. minimizing disturbance to roots and biopores in the measurement volume, and
  3. 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.  (NOTE: The new TEROS Borehole Installation Tool eliminates preferential flow and reduces site disturbance while allowing you to install sensors at depths you choose.)

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.

soil moisture sensors

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.

An augered borehole disturbs the soil layers, but the relative size of the impact to the site is a fraction of what it would be with a trench installation. A trench may be about 60 to 90 cm long by 40 cm wide. A borehole installation performed using a small hand auger and the TEROS Borehole Installation Tool creates a hole only 10 cm in diameter—just 2-3% of the area of a trench. Because the scale of the site disturbance is minimized, fewer macropores, roots, and plants are disturbed, and the site can return to its natural state much faster. Additionally, when the installation tool is used inside a small borehole, good soil-to-sensor contact is ensured, and it is much easier to separate the horizon layers and repack to the correct soil density because there is less soil to separate.

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.

Reference

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.

Read more soil moisture sensor installation tips.

Download the “Researcher’s complete guide to soil moisture”—>

Download the “Researcher’s complete guide to water potential”—>

Soil Moisture Sensors: Why TDR VS. Capacitance May Be Missing the Point (Part 2)

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.

capacitance

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.

capacitance

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 sidewall. 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.

capacitance

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.

For an in-depth comparison of TDR versus capacitance technology, read: Dielectric Probes Vs. Time Domain Reflectometers

Watch the webinar

In this webinar, Dr. Colin Campbell discusses the details regarding different ways to measure soil moisture and the theory behind the measurements.  In addition, he provides examples of field research and what technology might apply in each situation. The measurement methods covered are gravimetric sampling, dielectric methods including TDR and FDR/capacitance, neutron probe, and dual needle heat pulse.

 

Download the “Researcher’s complete guide to soil moisture”—>

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.

Watch the webinar

In this webinar, Dr. Colin Campbell discusses the details regarding different ways to measure soil moisture and the theory behind the measurements.  In addition, he provides examples of field research and what technology might apply in each situation. The measurement methods covered are gravimetric sampling, dielectric methods including TDR and FDR/capacitance, neutron probe, and dual needle heat pulse.

 

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