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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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