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Posts from the ‘Water Potential sensors’ Category

Lab versus in situ soil water characteristic curves—a comparison

The HYPROP and WP4C provide the ability to make fast, accurate soil moisture release curves (soil water characteristic curves-SWCCs), but lab measurements have some limitations: sample throughput limits the number of curves that can be produced, and curves generated in a laboratory do not represent their in situ behavior. Lab-produced soil water retention curves can be paired with information from in situ moisture release curves for deeper insight into real world variability.

soil water characteristic curves

Soil water characteristic curves help determine soil type, soil hydraulic properties, and mechanical performance and stability

Moisture release curves in the field? Yes, it’s possible.

Colocating matric potential sensors and water content sensors in situ add many more moisture release curves to a researcher’s knowledge base. And, since it is primarily the in-place performance of unsaturated soils that is the chief concern to geotechnical engineers and irrigation scientists, adding in situ measurements to lab-produced curves would be ideal.

In this brief 20-minute webinar, Dr. Colin Campbell, METER research scientist, summarizes a recent paper given at the Pan American Conference of Unsaturated Soils. The paper, “Comparing in situ soil water characteristic curves to those generated in the lab” by Campbell et al. (2018), illustrates how well in situ generated SWCCs using the TEROS 21 calibrated matric potential sensor and METER’s GS3 water content sensor compare to those created in the lab.

Watch the webinar below:

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IoT Technologies for Irrigation Water Management

Dr. Yossi Osroosh, Precision Ag Engineer in the Department of Biological Systems Engineering at Washington State University, discusses where and why IoT fits into irrigation water management. In addition, he explores possible price, range, power, and infrastructure road blocks.

Wireless sensor networks collect detailed data on plants in areas of the field that behave differently.

Studies show there is a potential for water savings of over 50% with sensor-based irrigation scheduling methods. Informed irrigation decisions require real-time data from networks of soil and weather sensors at desired resolution and a reasonable cost. Wireless sensor networks can collect data on plants in a lot of detail in areas of the field that behave differently. The need for wireless sensors and actuators has led to the development of IoT (Internet of Things) solutions referred to as Low-Power Wide-Area Networking or LPWAN. IoT simply means wireless communication and connecting to some data management system for further analysis. LPWAN technologies are intended to connect low-cost, low-power sensors to cloud-based services. Today, there are a wide range of wireless and IoT connectivity solutions available raising the question of which LPWAN technology best suits the application?

IoT Irrigation Management Scenarios

The following are scenarios for implementing IoT:

  1. buying a sensor that is going to connect to a wireless network that you own (i.e., customer supplied like Wi-Fi, Bluetooth),
  2. buying the infrastructure or at least pieces of it to install on site (i.e., vendor managed LPWAN such as LoRaWAN, Symphony Link), and
  3. relying on the infrastructure from a network operator LPWAN (e.g., LTE Cat-M1, NB-IOT, Sigfox, Ingenu, LoRWAN).

This is how cellular network operators or cellular IoT works. LPWAN technology fits well into agricultural settings where sensors need to send small data over a wide area while relying on batteries for many years. This distinguishes LPWAN from Bluetooth, ZigBee, or traditional cellular networks with limited range and higher power requirements. However, like any emerging technology, certain limitations still exist with LPWAN.

Individual sensor subscription fees in cellular IoT may add up and make it very expensive where many sensors are needed.

IoT Strengths and Limitations

The average data rate in cellular IoT can be 20 times faster than LoRa or Symphony Link, making it ideal for applications that require higher data rates. LTE Cat-M1 (aka LTE-M), for example, is like a Ferrari in terms of speed compared to other IoT technologies. At the same time, sensor data usage is the most important driver of the cost in using cellular IoT. Individual sensor subscription fee in cellular IoT may add up and make it very expensive where many sensors are needed. This means using existing wireless technologies like traditional cellular or ZigBee to complement LPWAN. One-to-many architecture is a common approach with respect to wireless communication and can help save the most money. Existing wireless technologies like Bluetooth LE, WiFi or ZigBee can be exploited to collect in-field data. In this case, data could be transmitted in-and-out of the field through existing communication infrastructure like a traditional cellular network (e.g., 3G, 4G) or LAN. Alternatively, private or public LPWAN solutions such as LoRaWAN gateways or cellular IoT can be used to push data to the cloud. Combination of Bluetooth, radio or WiFi with cellular IoT means you will have fewer bills to pay. It is anticipated that, with more integrations, the IoT market will mature, and costs will drop further.

Many of LPWAN technologies currently have a very limited network coverage in the U.S. LTE Cat-M1 by far has the largest coverage. Ingenu, which is a legacy technology, Sigfox and NB-IOT have very limited U.S. coverage. Some private companies are currently using subscription-free, crowd-funded LoRaWAN networks to provide service to U.S. growers: however, with a very limited network footprint. Currently, cellular IoT does not perform well in rural areas without strong cellular data coverage.

In two weeks: Dr. Osroosh continues to discuss IoT strengths and limitations in part 2.

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Lab vs. field instruments—when to use both

Whether researchers measure soil hydraulic properties in the lab or in the field, they’re only getting part of the picture. Laboratory systems are highly accurate due to controlled conditions, but lab measurements don’t take into account site variability such as roots, cracks, or wormholes that might affect soil hydrology. In addition, when researchers take a sample from the field to the lab, they often compress soil macropores during the sampling process, altering the hydraulic properties of the soil.

Field sensors

Roots, cracks, and wormholes all affect soil hydrology

Field experiments help researchers understand variability and real time conditions, but they have the opposite set of problems. The field is an uncontrolled system. Water moves through the soil profile by evaporation, plant uptake, capillary rise, or deep drainage, requiring many measurements at different depths and locations. Field researchers also have to deal with the unpredictability of the weather. Precipitation may cause a field drydown experiment to take an entire summer, whereas in the lab it takes only a week.

The big picture—supersized

Researchers who use both lab and field techniques while understanding each method’s strengths and limitations can exponentially increase their understanding of what’s happening in the soil profile. For example, in the laboratory, a researcher might use the PARIO soil texture analyzer to obtain accurate soil texture data, including a complete particle size distribution. They could then combine those data with a HYPROP-generated soil moisture release curve to understand the hydraulic properties of that soil type. If that researcher then adds high-quality field data in order to understand real world field conditions, then suddenly they’re seeing the larger picture.

Field instruments

Table 1. Lab and field instrument strengths and limitations

Below is an exploration of lab versus field instrumentation and how researchers can combine these instruments for an increased understanding of their soil profile. Click the links for more in-depth information about each topic.

Particle size distribution and why it matters

Soil type and particle size analysis are the first window into the soil and its unique characteristics. Every researcher should identify the type of soil that they’re working with in order to benchmark their data.

Field instruments

Particle size analysis defines the percentage of coarse to fine material that makes up a soil

If researchers don’t understand their soil type, they can’t make assumptions about the state of soil water based on water content (i.e., if they work with plants, they won’t be able to predict whether there will be plant available water). In addition, differing soil types in the soil’s horizons may influence a researcher’s measurement selection, sensor choice, and sensor placement.

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Irrigation Curves—A Novel Irrigation Scheduling Technique

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: michael@edaphic.com.au

Reference

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

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Which Soil Sensor Should I Choose?

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 schedulinggreenhouse 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 contendata 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.

Get the big picture with moisture release curves  

Dual measurements of both water content and water potential also enable the creation of in situ soil moisture release curves (or soil water characteristic curves) like the one below (Figure 1), which detail the relationship between water potential and water content.  Scientists and engineers can evaluate these curves in the lab or the field and understand many things about the soil, such as hydraulic conductivity and total water availability.

Figure 1. Turfgrass soil moisture release curve (black). Other colors are examples of moisture release curves for different types of soil.

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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:

 

Best Research Instrument Hacks

We wanted to highlight innovative ways people have modified their instrumentation to fit their research needs.  Here, Georg von Unold, founder and president of UMS (now METER) illustrates ingenuity in a story that inspired the invention of the first UMS tensiometer and what could be one of the greatest scientific instrument hacks of all time.

Instrument hacks

The Bavarian Alps

An Early Penchant for Ingenuity

In 1986, graduating German students were required to join the military or perform civil service.  Von Unold chose to do a civil service project investigating tree mortality in the alpine region of the Bavarian Mountains.  He explains, “We were trying to understand pine tree water stress in a forest decline study related to storms in certain altitudes where trees were inexplicably falling over. The hypothesis was that changing precipitation patterns had induced water stress.”  

To investigate the problem, von Unold’s research team needed to find tensiometers that could measure the water stress of plants in the soil, which was not easy. The tensiometers von Unold found were not able to reach the required water potential without cavitating, so he decided to design a new type of tensiometer.  He says, “I showed my former boss the critical points. It must be glued perfectly, the ceramic needed defined porosity, a reliable air reference access, and water protection of the pressure transducer. I explained it with a transparent acrylic glass prototype to make it easier to understand. At a certain point my boss said, “Okay, please stop. I don’t understand much about these things, but you can make those on your own.”

Instrument hacks

Two snorkels protected a data logger predecessor from relative humidity.

Snorkels Solve a Research Crisis

The research team used those tensiometers (along with other chemical and microbial monitoring) to investigate why trees only in the precise altitude of 800 to 1100 meters were dying. One challenge facing the team was that they didn’t have access to anything we might call a data logger today.  Von Unold says, “We did have a big process machine from Schlumberger that could record the sensors, but it wasn’t designed to be placed in alpine regions where maximum winter temperatures reached -30℃ or below. We had to figure out how to protect this extremely expensive machine, which back then cost more than my annual salary.“

Von Unold’s advisor let him use the machine, cautioning him that the humidity it was exposed to could not exceed 80%, and the temperature must not fall below 0℃.  As von Unold pondered how to do this, he had an idea. Since the forest floor often accumulated more than a meter of snow, he designed an aluminum box with two snorkels that would reach above the snow.  The snorkels were guided to a height of two meters.  Using these air vents, he sucked a small amount of cold, dry air into the box. Then, he took his mother’s hot iron, bought a terminal switch to replace the existing one (so it turned on in the range of 0-30℃), and mounted a large aluminum plate on the iron’s metal plate to better distribute the heat.

Von Unold says, “Pulling in the outside air and heating it worked well. The simple technique reduced the relative humidity and controlled the temperature inside the box. Looking back, we were fortunate there wasn’t condensing water and that we’d selected a proper fan and hot iron. We didn’t succeed entirely, as on hot summer days it was a bit moist inside the box, but luckily, the circuit boards took no damage.”

Instrument hacks

Tree mortality factors were only found at the precise altitude where fog accumulated.

Finding Answers

Interestingly, the research team discovered there was more to the forest decline story than they thought. Fog interception in this range was extremely high, and when it condensed on the needles, the trees absorbed more than moisture.  Von Unold explains, “In those days people of the Czech Republic and former East Germany burned a lot of brown coal for heat. The high load of sulphur dioxide from the coal reduced frost resistivity and damaged the strength of the trees, producing water stress.  These combined factors were only found at the precise altitude where the fog accumulated, and the weakened trees were no match for the intense storms that are sometimes found in the Alps.”  Von Unold says once the East German countries became more industrialized, the problem resolved itself because the people stopped burning brown coal.

Share Your Hacks with Us

Do you have an instrument hack that might benefit other scientists?  Send your idea to kcampbell@metergroup.com.

How to Measure Water Potential

In the conclusion of our 3-part water potential  series (see part 1), we discuss how to measure water potential—different methods, their strengths, and their limitations.

How to measure water potential

Vapor pressure methods work in the dry range.

How to measure water potential

Essentially, there are only two primary measurement methods for water potential—tensiometers and vapor pressure methods. Tensiometers work in the wet range—special tensiometers that retard the boiling point of water (UMS) have a range from 0 to about -0.2 MPa. Vapor pressure methods work in the dry range—from about -0.1 MPa to -300 MPa (0.1 MPa is 99.93% RH; -300 MPa is 11%).

Historically, these ranges did not overlap, but recent advances in tensiometer and temperature sensing technology have changed that. Now, a skilled user with excellent methods and the best equipment can measure the full water potential range in the lab.   

There are reasons to look at secondary measurement methods, though. Vapor pressure methods are not useful in situ, and the accuracy of the tensiometer must be paid for with constant, careful maintenance (although a self-filling version of the tensiometer is available).

Here, we briefly cover the strengths and limitations of each method.

Vapor Pressure Methods:

The WP4C Dew Point Hygrometer is one of the few commercially available instruments that currently uses this technique. Like traditional thermocouple psychrometers, the dew point hygrometer equilibrates a sample in a sealed chamber.

How to Measure Water Potential

WP4C Dew Point Hygrometer

A small mirror in the chamber is chilled until dew just starts to form on it. At the dew point, the WP4C measures both mirror and sample temperatures with 0.001◦C accuracy to determine the relative humidity of the vapor above the sample.

Advantages

The most current version of this dew point hygrometer has an accuracy of ±1% from -5 to -300 MPa and is also relatively easy to use. Many sample types can be analyzed in five to ten minutes, although wet samples take longer.

Limitations

At high water potentials, the temperature differences between saturated vapor pressure and the vapor pressure inside the sample chamber become vanishingly small.

Limitations to the resolution of the temperature measurement mean that vapor pressure methods will probably never supplant tensiometers.

The dew point hygrometer has a range of -0.1 to -300 MPa, though readings can be made beyond -0.1 MPa using special techniques. Tensiometers remain the best option for readings in the 0 to-0.1 MPa range.

Secondary Methods

Water content tends to be easier to measure than water potential, and since the two values are related, it’s possible to use a water content measurement to find water potential.

A graph showing how water potential changes as water is adsorbed into and desorbed from a specific soil matrix is called a moisture characteristic or a moisture release curve.

download

Example of a moisture release curve.

Every matrix that can hold water has a unique moisture characteristic, as unique and distinctive as a fingerprint. In soils, even small differences in composition and texture have a significant effect on the moisture characteristic.

Some researchers develop a moisture characteristic for a specific soil type and use that characteristic to determine water potential from water content readings. Matric potential sensors take a simpler approach by taking advantage of the second law of thermodynamics.

Matric Potential Sensors

Matric potential sensors use a porous material with known moisture characteristic. Because all energy systems tend toward equilibrium, the porous material will come to water potential equilibrium with the soil around it.

Using the moisture characteristic for the porous material, you can then measure the water content of the porous material and determine the water potential of both the porous material and the surrounding soil. Matric potential sensors use a variety of porous materials and several different methods for determining water content.

Accuracy Depends on Custom Calibration

At its best, matric potential sensors have good but not excellent accuracy. At its worst, the method can only tell you whether the soil is getting wetter or drier. A sensor’s accuracy depends on the quality of the moisture characteristic developed for the porous material and the uniformity of the material used. For good accuracy, the specific material used should be calibrated using a primary measurement method. The sensitivity of this method depends on how fast water content changes as water potential changes. Precision is determined by the quality of the moisture content measurement.

Accuracy can also be affected by temperature sensitivity. This method relies on isothermal conditions, which can be difficult to achieve. Differences in temperature between the sensor and the soil can cause significant errors.

Limited Range

All matric potential sensors are limited by hydraulic conductivity: as the soil gets drier, the porous material takes longer to equilibrate. The change in water content also becomes small and difficult to measure. On the wet end, the sensor’s range is limited by the air entry potential of the porous material being used.

How to Measure Water Potential

TS1 Smart Tensiometer

Tensiometers and Traditional Methods

Read about the strengths and limitations of tensiometers and other traditional methods such as gypsum blocks, pressure plates, and filter paper here.

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Secrets of Water Potential: Learn the Science Behind the Measurement

This month in a 3 part series, we will explore water potential –the science behind it and how to measure it effectively.

water potential

To understand water potential, compare the water in a soil sample to water in a drinking glass.

Definition of Water Potential

Water potential is the energy required, per quantity of water, to transport an infinitesimal quantity of water from the sample to a reference pool of pure free water. To understand what that means, compare the water in a soil sample to water in a drinking glass. The water in the glass is relatively free and available; the water in the soil is bound to surfaces, diluted by solutes, and under pressure or tension. In fact, the soil water has a different energy state from “free” water. The free water can be accessed without exerting any energy. The soil water can only be extracted by expending energy. Water potential expresses how much energy you would need to expend to pull that water out of the soil sample.

Water potential is a differential property. For the measurement to have meaning, a reference must be specified. The reference typically specified is pure, free water at the soil surface. The water potential of this reference is zero. Water potential in the environment is almost always less than zero, because you have to add energy to get the water out.

water potential

You can’t tell by measuring heat content whether or not heat will be transferred to another object if the two touch each other.

Extensive vs. Intensive Variables

Water movement in the environment is really a physics problem, and to understand it, we have to distinguish between intensive and extensive variables. The extensive variable describes the extent or amount of matter or energy. The intensive variable describes the intensity or quality of matter or energy. For example, the thermal state of a substance can be described in terms of both heat content and temperature.

The two variables are related, but they are not the same. Heat content depends on mass, specific heat, and temperature. You can’t tell by measuring heat content whether or not heat will be transferred to another object if the two touch each other. So you also don’t know if the object is hot or cold, or whether it will be safe to touch.

These questions are much easier to answer if you know the intensive variable–temperature. In fact, though it can be important to measure both intensive and extensive variables, often the intensive variable gives you more useful information.

In terms of water, the extensive variable is water content, and it tells you the extent, or amount, of water in plant tissue or soil. The intensive variable is water potential, and it describes the intensity or quality of water in plant tissue or soil.  Water content can only tell you how much water you have. If you want to know how fast it can move, you need to measure hydraulic conductivity. If you want to know whether it will move and where it’s going to go, you need water potential.

water potential

If you want to know whether water will move and where it’s going to go, you need water potential.

Two Key Water Potential Questions:

1. Where will water move? Water will always flow from high potential to low potential. This is the second law of thermodynamics—energy flows along the gradient of the intensive variable.

2. What is the availability of water to plants? Liquid water moves from soil to and through roots, through the xylem of plants, to the leaves, and eventually evaporates in the substomatal cavities of the leaf. The driving force for this flow is a water potential gradient. In order for water to flow, therefore, the leaf water potential must be lower than the soil water potential.

Next week learn about the four components of water potential– osmotic potential, gravitational potential, matric potential, and pressure potential.

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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: visitsassuolo.it)

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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