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