Which soil sensor is perfect for you?

Which soil sensor is perfect for you?

When choosing between METER’s soil sensors, the first thing to know is that all METER soil sensors have the same research-grade accuracy with minimum sensitivity to salts (<10 dS/m bulk EC), temperature gradients, and soil texture. Among the thousands of peer-reviewed publications using METER soil sensors, no type emerges as the favorite. Thus sensor choice should be based on your needs and application. 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.

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 scheduling, greenhouse 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 content data 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.

CHOOSE THE RIGHT SOIL MOISTURE SENSOR

Life expectancy matters  

It’s important for researchers to know how long an experiment is going to run so they can choose a soil moisture sensor that will meet their expectations.  METER’s 10HS and EC-5 have an overmolding technology that lasts approximately 3-5 years in the field with typical use (less in warm/wet conditions). The 5TE, 5TM, and the ruggedized GS1 and GS3 are made to last twice as long as our standard sensors due to an upgraded polyurethane (epoxy) fill. Lab tests indicate these sensors last 10+ years before water intrudes to the circuit board. If the research environment is tropical—warm and typically wet—always choose a long-life sensor such as the 5TE, 5TM, GS1, or GS3.

Which sensor for what purpose?

METER’s soil moisture sensors have minimal sensitivity to temperature, but if the installation depth is shallow and the location is exposed, temperature effects need to be considered. The 5TM, 5TE, and GS3 soil moisture sensors have an on-board thermistor that measures temperature along with soil moisture. This eliminates the need for extra temperature sensors at every measurement site.

Researchers who want to measure bulk electrical conductivity (EC) in addition to water content should choose the 5TE or GS3. These sensors enable users to measure the bulk EC response to salts and fertilizers in the soil. EC measurements will require good contact between the stainless steel electrodes on the sensor and the soil.

For soil moisture measurements only, many scientists prefer the EC-5.  It’s easy to install, inexpensive, and reliable—perfect for big projects where sensors are needed in quantity. In difficult (hard or rocky) soils, potting soil, and soilless medias, we recommend using the GS3 to maintain good soil contact and compensate for air gaps in the soil or substrate.

All METER soil moisture sensors are plug and play with METER data loggers. They also integrate with third-party loggers using SDI-12 protocol. Use the cellular-enabled Em50G and EM60G for easy data collection from remote sites, or manually download data with the Em50 data logger.

Understanding variability can be difficult

Within the area of a study site, soil moisture variability arises from differences in soil texture, amount and type of vegetation cover, topography, precipitation and other weather factors, management practices, and soil hydraulic properties (how fast water moves through the soil). Researchers should consider the variability in landscape features to get a sense of how many sample locations are necessary to capture the diversity in soil moisture. 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. Large research areas or sites with high variability often require a large number of soil moisture sensors.  The EC-5 is an economical choice for scientists who need a large sensor network. The 10HS is a longer soil moisture sensor with a larger volume of influence, which can help smooth variability. However, because it’s larger, it’s a little more difficult to install.

Installation impacts data

METER’s high-quality, research-grade sensors produce excellent data, but users must understand the site situation as they prepare to install. All dielectric probes are most sensitive between the prongs.

Figure 2. Idealized measurement volume of METER’s 5TM and 5TE sensor

Any loss of contact between the probe and the soil or compaction of soil within the sensor measurement volume can result in measurement errors. Water ponding on the surface and running in preferential paths down probe installation holes can also cause measurement errors.  These are issues to consider when choosing the best installation method for a particular site or soil type, and it means the needle shape, size, and durability of a soil moisture sensor will matter in difficult soils.  If a soil is too rocky or hard for good soil to sensor contact, think about using the TEROS 21 water potential sensor. Water content can be calculated from water potential data using a soil moisture release curve, and the TEROS 21 can be backfilled or packed in. The GS3 soil moisture sensor with its ruggedized form factor is also an effective choice for hard or rocky soils but can’t be installed in deep boreholes and requires a trench for installations below one meter. Creating a pilot hole or moistening the soil before insertion will prevent bending of the prongs.

Need higher accuracy?

For higher accuracy, consider a soil-specific calibration. METER’s soil moisture sensors measure the volumetric water content of the soil by measuring the dielectric constant of the soil, which is a strong function of water content. However, not all soils have identical electrical properties. Due to variations in soil bulk density, mineralogy, texture, and salinity, the generic mineral calibration for current METER sensors results in approximately ± 3 – 4% accuracy for most mineral soils and approximately ± 5% for soilless growth substrates (potting soil, stone wool, coco coir, etc.). However, accuracy increases to ± 1 – 2% for soils and soilless substrates with soil-specific calibration. METER recommends that soil moisture sensor users conduct a soil-specific calibration or use our Soil-Specific Calibration Service for best possible accuracy in volumetric water content measurements.

 EC-510HSGS15TM5TEGS3
Measuresvolumetric water content, dielectric permittivityvolumetric water content, dielectric permittivityvolumetric water content, dielectric permittivityvolumetric water content, dielectric permittivity, temperaturevolumetric water content, dielectric permittivity, temperature, electrical conductivityvolumetric water content, dielectric permittivity, temperature, electrical conductivity
Volume of Influence240 mL1320 mL1430 mL715 mL715 mL160 mL
Data logger compatibilityEm5b, Em50/60 series, ProCheck, ECH2O Check, Campbell ScientificEm5b, Em50/60 series, ProCheck, ECH2O Check, Campbell ScientificEm5b, Em50/60 series, ProCheck, ECH2O Check, Campbell ScientificEm50/60 series, ProCheck, Campbell Scientific, SDI-12 capableEm50/60 series, ProCheck, SDI-12 capableEm50/60 series, ProCheck, SDI-12 capable
Measurement range0 to 100% VWC0 to 57% VWC0 to 57% VWC0 to 100% VWC
-40 to 60 °C


0 to 23 dS/m
0 to 100% VWC
-40 to 60 °C
0 to 23 dS/m
0 to 100% VWC
-40 to 60 °C
0 to 25 dS/m

Best if...-VWC is all that you need.
-You're establishing a large sensor network.
-You want a large measurement volume.-VWC is all that you need.
-You're establishing a large sensor network.
-You're installing in the side wall of a trench.
-You need the most rugged sensor available.
-Measure high temperature variability.
-Data must be corrected for temperature effects.
-Using SDI-12.

-You are managing salts in your system.
-You want to use SDI-12.
-You are measuring VWC of soil and want a robust, long-lasting sensor.
-You are installing in hard or rocky soil.
-You are measuring water content of soilless substrates.
But not if...You cannot apply a regulated voltage (only applies to non-METER data loggers).

Life expectancy is a concern or if field conditions are typically warm and wet.
You are measuring in nursery pots.
You are installing in rocky soil.
Life expectancy is a concern or if field conditions are typically warm and wet.
You are installing sensors down bore holes.-You are installing in hard or rocky soils.-You want to monitor soilless substrates or potting soils.
-You are installing in hard or rocky soils.
-You are installing sensors down bore holes.
Table 1. Soil moisture sensor comparison chart

 

CHOOSE THE RIGHT FIELD WATER POTENTIAL SENSOR

Making good water potential measurements is largely a function of choosing the right instrument and using it skillfully.  In an ideal world, there would be one instrument that simply and accurately measured water potential over its entire range from wet to dry.  In the real world, there is an assortment of instruments, each with a well-defined range. Figure 2 illustrates that METER’s TEROS 21 matric potential sensor is useful for measuring water potential in the plant available water range (field capacity to air dry). Lab and field tests indicate that it can make  water potential measurements with acceptable accuracy at least as dry as permanent wilting point. The tensiometer has a much higher accuracy for measuring water potential in the wet range, which is where most water movement occurs. Only tensiometers have the ability to measure high water potential ranges directly.

Figure 3. A range comparison of various water potential instruments

Matric potential sensors

METER’s TEROS 21 matric potential sensor is composed of a moisture content sensor and a porous substrate with a known moisture release curve. After the porous material has equilibrated with the surrounding soil, the moisture sensor measures the water content of the porous material, and the sensor uses the moisture release curve to translate moisture content into water potential.

  • Range vs. accuracy: A matric potential sensor’s range depends on the variation in the pore sizes in the porous substrate; the wider the range of pore sizes, the bigger the measurement range.  Commercially available ceramics are designed to have a uniform pore size, which limits their range.  The TEROS 21 uses a ceramic specifically designed with a wide pore size distribution for wider measurement range.  However, a sensor’s accuracy depends on how well the moisture release curve characterizes the porous substrate in that particular sensor.  The more consistent the substrate is from sensor to sensor, the more accurate each sensor will be.  Widely varied pore sizes lead to inconsistency from sensor to sensor, putting these two critical sensor goals in conflict.
  • Calibration solution: This conflict can be resolved with a factory calibration of each individual sensor.  However, this has always been a time-consuming and expensive process. The TEROS 21’s accuracy comes from breakthrough factory calibration methods that allow sensors to be individually calibrated using an automated calibration apparatus.  These new techniques make the TEROS 21 the first low-cost matric potential sensor with research-grade accuracy.

Tensiometers

Water potential, by definition, is a measure of the difference in potential energy between the water in a sample and the water in a reference pool of pure, free water. The tensiometer is an actualization of this definition.

The tensiometer tube contains a pool of (theoretically) pure, free water. This reservoir is connected (through a permeable membrane) to a soil sample. Thanks to the second law of thermodynamics, water moves from the reservoir to the soil until its energy is equal on both sides of the membrane. That creates a vacuum in the tube. The tensiometer uses a negative pressure gauge (pressure transducer) to measures the strength of that vacuum and describes water potential in terms of pressure.

Tensiometers are probably the oldest type of water potential instrument (the initial concept dates at least to Livingston in 1908), but they can be quite useful. In fact, in the wet range, a high-quality tensiometer, used skillfully, can have excellent accuracy. And, as previously mentioned, a tensiometer is unaffected by soil heterogeneity.

The tensiometer’s range is limited by the ability of water inside the tube to withstand a vacuum. Although water is essentially incompressible, discontinuities in the water surface such as edges or grit provide nucleation points where water’s strong bonds are disrupted and cavitation (low-pressure boiling) occurs. Most tensiometers cavitate around -80 kPa, right in the middle of the plant-available range. However, METER builds tensiometers that are modern classics thanks to precision German engineering, meticulous construction, and fanatical attention to detail.  These tensiometers have terrific accuracy and a range of up to -85 kPa.

Which tensiometer for what purpose?

Tensiometer choice should be based on application.  The T5 is a small laboratory tensiometer used for spot measurements or column experiments.  It’s possible to use the T5 in the field for spot checks but inconvenient because if it cavitates, it must be refilled in the lab.  The T4 and T8 are field tensiometers. They’re equipped with external refilling tubes which eliminate the need to remove the tensiometer from the ground for refilling.

Sensor choice will also depend on data collection requirements. The T8 is designed to plug and play with all METER data loggers and the ProCheck handheld reader, making it the best choice for a large sensor network. The T5 and T4 only interface with a Campbell Scientific (or similar) data logger and the Infield 7 handheld reader.

Understand shaft, cable, and refill tube lengths

The T4 and T8 tensiometers are typically installed at an angle in the field.  We recommend using a METER field auger that is specifically sized to install these tensiometers.  We also recommend using an irrigation valve cover box to protect the tensiometer shafts.

The shaft length needed will be based on installation depth.  If, for example, you want to measure at a one-meter depth and are installing at an angle, you’ll need to know what that angle is in order to calculate how long the shaft should be.  Typically, it will be 10-20 cm longer than the desired installation depth.  In addition, the refill tubes need to be accessible.  The deeper the tensiometer is buried, the longer the tubes should be in order to reach the surface. Lastly, the tensiometer cable length will depend on proximity to the data logger.

 TEROS 21 / MPS-6T5/T5X TensiometerT4 TensiometerT8 Tensiometer
Cost$$$$$$$$$$$$
Accuracy± 10% of reading + 2 kPa from -9 to -100 kPa±0.5 kPa±0.5 kPa±0.5 kPa
Range-9 to -100,000 kPa+100 kPa to -85 kPa (-250 kPa T5X*)
*depends on the degassing of the tensiometer
+100 kPa to -85 kPa+100 kPa to -85 kPa
Power requirements3.6-15 V, 10 mA5-15 VDC5-15 VDC3.6 V-15 VDC
Measurement outputDigital SDI-12AnalogAnalogDigital SDI-12, RS-485
Method used for determining water potentialCapacitance of a ceramic matrix, six-point calibrationPiezoelectric pressure sensor, Wheatstone full bridgePiezoelectric pressure sensor, Wheatstone full bridgePiezoelectric pressure sensor, Wheatstone full bridge
Best for...- Long term research studies
- Natural environment monitoring
- Column & spot measurements in the laboratory
- Small point measurements
- Long term field studies
- Vadose zone hydrology
- Long term field studies
- Vadose zone hydrology
Table 2. Water potential sensor comparison chart

Simply accurate. Simply fast. Simple to use.

With the WP4C, moisture release curves in the dry range have never been easier.

Control irrigation and fertilization simultaneously

The 5TE’s smaller soil moisture sensor size ensures fast, easy installation and provides three measurements in one.