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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 side-wall. This method is time consuming and makes it more difficult to retrieve sensors.

New technology that allows sensor installation in the side of a 10 cm borehole may give the best of both worlds, but still requires backfill and has the challenge of probe removal at the end of the experiment.

The research site must also be a consideration. If the installation is close to main power or easily reached with batteries and solar panels, your options are open: all sensors will work. But, if the site is remote, picking a sensor and logging system with low power requirements will save time hauling in solar panels or the frustration of data loggers running out of batteries.

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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.

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