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. Read more…
Modern technology has made it possible to sample Normalized Difference Vegetation Index (NDVI) across a range of scales both in space and in time, from satellites sampling the entire earth’s surface to handheld small sensors that measure individual plants or even leaves. Read more…
Globally, the gap between the energy production and consumption is growing wider. To promote sustainability, University of California San Diego PhD candidate and ASCE GI Sustainability in Geotechnical Engineering committee member, Tugce Baser, Dr. John McCartney, Associate Professor, and their research team, Dr. Ning Lu, Professor at Colorado School of Mines and Dr. Yi Dong, Postdoctoral Researcher at Colorado School of Mines, are working on improving methods for borehole thermal energy storage (BTES), a system which stores solar heat in the soil during the summer months for reuse in homes during the winter. Read more…
Weather data, used for flight safety, disaster relief, crop and property insurance, and emergency services, contributes over $30 billion in direct value to U.S. consumers annually. Since the 1990’s in Africa, however, there’s been a consistent decline in the availability of weather observations. Read more…
Plants require nutrients to grow, and if we fail to supply the proper nutrients in the proper concentrations, plant function is affected. Fertilizer in too high concentration can also affect plant function, and sometimes is fatal. Read more…
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…
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 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…
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.
TDR began as a technology the power industry used to determine the distance to a break in broken power lines.
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 sensors consume a lot of power. They may require solar panels and larger batteries for permanent installations.
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.
Many modern capacitance sensors use high frequencies to minimize effects of soil salinity on readings.
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.
NASA used capacitance technology to measure water content on Mars.
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.
Watch the webinar
In this webinar, Dr. Colin Campbell discusses the details regarding different ways to measure soil moisture and the theory behind the measurements. In addition, he provides examples of field research and what technology might apply in each situation. The measurement methods covered are gravimetric sampling, dielectric methods including TDR and FDR/capacitance, neutron probe, and dual needle heat pulse.
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Six short videos teach you everything you need to know about soil water content and soil water potential—and why you should measure them together. Plus, master the basics of soil hydraulic conductivity.