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Posts tagged ‘Permanent Wilting Point’

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.

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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.

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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.

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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

For an understanding of how capacitance sensors compare to other major contemporary sensor technologies, watch our Soil Moisture 201 webinar.

Top Five Blog Posts in 2016

In case you missed them the first time around, here are the most popular Environmental Biophysics.org blog posts in 2016.

Lysimeters Determine if Human Waste Composting can be More Efficient

Top five blog posts Environmental biophysics

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 Relative Humidity in Soil: How to Stop Doing it Wrong

Top five blog posts Environmental biophysics

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 You Need?

Top five blog posts Environmental biophysics

“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.

Data loggers: To Bury, or Not To Bury

Top five blog posts Environmental biophysics

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

Founders of Environmental Biophysics:  Champ Tanner

Top five blog posts Environmental biophysics

Image: http://soils.wisc.edu/people/history/champ-tanner/

We interviewed Gaylon Campbell, Ph.D. about his association with one of the founders of environmental biophysics, Champ Tanner.  Read more

And our three most popular blogs of all time:

Do the Standards for Field Capacity and Permanent Wilting Point Need to Be Reexamined?

Top five blog posts Environmental biophysics

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

Environmental Biophysics Lectures

Top five blog posts Environmental biophysics

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 In a Tree?

Top five blog posts Environmental biophysics

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

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Can Wastewater Save The United Arab Emirates’ Groundwater?

The hyper-arid United Arab Emirates (UAE) has a rapidly dwindling supply of groundwater, and that water is becoming increasingly saline.

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Dubai is situated on the coast of the UAE.

With very little recharge and irrigation comprising 75% of groundwater use, natural water resources in this region are disappearing fast.  PhD candidate Wafa Al Yamani works for the Environmental Agency of Abu Dhabi, which has contracted with Plant and Food Research in New Zealand to investigate using treated sewage effluent and groundwater for irrigating the desert forests along their motorways.  

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Sidr trees in the UAE forest.

The Desert Forests

The UAE desalinates all the water for their cities, so the tertiary treated sewage effluent from these cities could be a viable resource, replacing some groundwater for irrigation of the desert forests. These forests perform a wide range of ecosystem services from sand stabilization along all UAE motorways to harboring a great deal of biodiversity.  There is also a cultural association with the forests.  The original ruler of the UAE, Sheikh Zayed, embarked on a program in the 1970s of “greening the desert,” so the people see the desert forests as a legacy of their founder.

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Infiltrometers were used to examine how the drip irrigation system worked.

Measuring Water Use:

Wafa and her PhD advisor, Dr. Brent Clothier, had a goal to minimize groundwater use and maximize value by quantifying the irrigation needs of the UAE’s five most important desert-forestry species.  They also wanted to determine the impact of treated sewage effluent on forest growth and health.  They used infiltrometers to examine how the drip irrigation system worked.  Dr. Clothier says, “These soils have hydraulic conductivities of between 2 and 5 meters an hour.  They are highly permeable desert sands.  We can find out how wide the bulb (the wetted area underneath an irrigation dripper) is and how deep the water will travel by using an infiltrometer to look at the hydraulic properties of the soil.”  Dr. Clothier has also developed software to predict water movement radially, with depth and with the time that the drippers are on.  He comments, “We’ve now got a setup of two drippers per tree, and we will use that in the future for modeling how the trees are taking up water from the root zone.”

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Researchers built dykes of 20 cm to stop surface redistribution of dripper water.

The scientists used a heat pulse method to measure tree water-use by comparing sap flow with evaporative demand (ETo).  They used Time Domain Reflectometry (TDR) to measure soil water content, and they have developed a “light stick” using light sensors to detect the shadow area of the trees to measure trees’ leaf area in order to predict the crop factor that will enable prediction of tree water-use from ETo.

Next week:  Find out how Wafa and her team use infiltrometers to predict dripper behavior and how the treated effluent resolves salinity issues.

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Water Potential/Water Content:  When to Use Dual Measurements

In a previous post, we discussed water potential as a better indicator of plant stress than water content.  However, in most situations, it’s useful to take dual measurements and measure both water content and water potential.  In a recent email, one of our scientist colleagues explains why: “The earlier article on water potential was excellent.  But what should be added is an explanation that the intensity measurement doesn’t translate directly into the quantity of water stored or needed. That information is also required when managing water through irrigation.  This is why I really like the dual measurement approach. I am excited about the possibilities of information that can be gleaned from the combined set of water content, water potential, and spectral reflectance data.”

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Potato field irrigation

Managing Irrigation

The value of combined data can be illustrated by what’s been happening at the Brigham Young University Turf Farm, where we’ve been trying to optimize irrigation of turfgrass (read about it here). As we were thinking about how to control irrigation, we decided the best way was to measure water potential.  However, because we were in a sandy soil where water was freely available, we also guessed we might need water content. Figure 1 illustrates why.

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Figure 1: Turf farm data: water potential only

Early water potential data looks uninteresting; it tells us there’s plenty of water most of the time, but doesn’t indicate if we’re applying too much.  In addition, if we zoom in to times when water potential begins to change, we see that it reaches a stress condition quickly.  Within a couple of days, it is into the stress region and in danger of causing our grass to go into dormancy.  Water potential data is critical to be able to understand when we absolutely need to water again, but because the data doesn’t change until it’s almost too late, we don’t have everything we need.

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Figure 2: Turf farm data, volumetric water content only

Unlike water potential, the water content data (Figure 2) are much more dynamic. The sensors not only show the subtle changes due to daily water uptake but also indicate how much water needs to be applied to maintain the root zone at an optimal level. However, with water content data alone, we don’t know where that optimal level is. For example, early in the season, we observe large changes in water content over four or five days and may assume, based upon onsite observations, that it’s time to irrigate. But, in reality, we know little about the availability of water to the plant. Thus, we need to put the two graphs together (Figure 3).

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Figure 3: Turfgrass data: both water potential and volumetric water content together.

In Figure 3, we have the total picture of what’s going on in the soil at the BYU turf farm. We see the water content going down and can tell at what percentage the plants begin to stress.  We also see when we’ve got too much water: when the water content is well above where our water potential sensors start to sense plant stress. With this information, we can tell that the turfgrass has an optimal range of 12% to 17% volumetric water content. Anything below or above that range will be too little or too much water.  

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Figure 4: Turfgrass soil moisture release curve (black). Other colors are examples of moisture release curves for different types of soil.

Dual measurements will also allow you to make in situ soil moisture release curves like the one above (Figure 4), which detail the relationship between water potential and water content.  Scientists can evaluate these curves and understand many things about the soil, such as hydraulic conductivity and total water availability.

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Do the Standards for Field Capacity and Permanent Wilting Point Need to Be Reexamined?

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 METER 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:

field capacity

A layered soil, a soil that has a fine-textured horizon on top of a coarse-textured soil, will hold twice as much water as you’ll predict from the -⅓ bar value.

Idea:

The phrase, “this idea must die,” is probably too strong a phrase, but certainly some scientific ideas need to be reexamined, for instance the standard of -⅓ bar (-33 kPa) water potential for field capacity and -15 bars (-1500 kPa or -1.5 MPa) for permanent wilting point.

Where it came from:

In the early days of soil physics, a lot of work was done in order to establish the upper and lower limit for plant available water.  The earliest publication on the lower limit experiments was by Briggs and Shantz in 1913. They planted sunflowers in small pots under greenhouse conditions, letting the plants use the water until they couldn’t recover overnight, after which they carefully measured the water content (WC).  The ability to measure water potential came along quite a bit later in the 1930s using pressure plates.  As those measurements started to become available, a correlation was found between the 15 bar pressure plate WCs and the WCs that were determined by Briggs and Shantz’s earlier work.  Thus -15 bars (-1.5 MPa) was established as the lower limit of plant available water.  The source of the field capacity WC data that established a fixed water potential for the upper limit is less clear, but the process, apparently, was similar to that for the lower limit, and -⅓ bar was established as the drained upper limit water potential in soil.

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Briggs and Shantz planted sunflowers in small pots under greenhouse conditions, letting the plants use the water until they couldn’t recover overnight, after which they carefully measured the water content (WC).

Damage it does:  

In practice, using -15 bars to calculate permanent wilting point probably isn’t a bad starting point, but in principle, it’s horrible. Over the years we have set up experiments like Briggs and Shantz did and measured water potential. We have also measured field soils after plants have extracted all the water they can.  Permanent wilting point never once came out at -15 bars or -1.5 MPa.  For things like potatoes, it was approximately -10 bars (-1 MPa), and for wheat it was approximately -30 bars (-3 MPa).  We found that the permanent wilting point varies with the species and even with soil texture to some extent.

Of course, in the end it doesn’t matter much as the moisture release curve is pretty steep on the dry end, and whether you predict it to be 10 or 12% WC, it doesn’t make a huge difference in the size of the soil water reservoir that you compute.

However, on the field capacity end of the scale, it matters a lot.  If you went out and made measurements of the water potentials in soils a few days after a rain, it would be an absolute accident if any of them were ever -⅓ bar (-33 kPa).  I’ve never seen it.  A layered soil, a soil that has a fine-textured horizon on top of a coarse-textured soil, will hold twice as much water as you’ll predict from the -⅓ bar value.  On the other hand, if you’re getting pretty frequent rains or irrigation, that field capacity number becomes irrelevant. Thus, -⅓ bar may be a useful starting point for determining field capacity, but it’s only a starting point.

Why it’s wrong:

Field capacity and permanent wilting point are dynamic properties.  They depend on the rate at which the water is being extracted or the rate at which it’s being applied.  They also depend on the time you wait to sample after irrigation. Think of the soil as a leaky bucket.  If you were trying to carry water in a leaky bucket and you walked slowly, the bucket would be empty by the time you get the water where you want it. However, if you run fast, there will still be some water left in the bucket.  Similarly, if a plant can use water up rapidly, most of it will be intercepted, but if a plant is using water slowly, the water will move down past the root zone and out the bottom of the soil profile before the plant can use it.  These are dynamic phenomena that you are trying to describe with static variables.  And that’s where part of the problem comes.  We need a number to do our calculations with, but it’s important to understand the factors that affect that number.

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Rye field

What do we do now:

What I hope we can do is better educate people. We should teach that we need a value we call field capacity or permanent wilting point, but it’s going to be a dynamic property.  We can start out by saying: our best guess is that it will be -⅓ bar for finer-textured soils and -1/10 bar (-10 kPa) for coarser-textured soils. But when we dig a hole and find out there is layering in the profile or textural discontinuities, we’d better adjust our number.  If we’re dealing with irrigated farmland, the adjustment will always be up, and if we’re dealing with dryland or rain-fed agriculture where the time between water additions is longer, we’ll use a lower number.

Some Ideas Never Die:

One of the contributors to the book, This Idea Must Die, Dr. Steve Levitt, had this to say about outdated scientific ideas, and we agree:  “I love the idea of killing off bad ideas because if there’s one thing that I know in my own life, it’s that ideas that I’ve been told a long time ago stick with me,  and you often forget whether they have good sources or whether they’re real. You just live by them. They make sense. The worst kind of old ideas are the ones that are intuitive. The ones that fit with your worldview, and so, unless you have something really strong to challenge them, you hang on to them forever.”

What scientific ideas do you think need to be reexamined?

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