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4/15/2018 3 Types of Soil Moisture Sensors - Which is Best For You?

— Trellis



December 11, 2017
by Elizabeth Buchen

5 minute read 1/8
4/15/2018 3 Types of Soil Moisture Sensors - Which is Best For You? — Trellis

In this day and age, technology plays an integral role in many aspects of our
lives. While it seems agriculture would be exempt from that — for it’s just
putting seeds in the ground and growing plants — this is far from the case.
Farming is not simple. As the population grows at an exponential rate it creates
really dynamic problems in terms of feeding people. More people means more
food needs to be produced. But more people also means more homes will be
built and more water will be consumed, taking away valuable land and water
resources needed for food production. In order to feed this growing population
with fewer resources, the agricultural industry has to rely on technological
improvements. Advancements such as genetic engineering, GPS technology,
herbicide tolerance, aerial imagery, robots, soil sensors, and precision

agriculture have turned farming into a sophisticated business.

Currently there are more than 55 million acres of cropland irrigated in the
United States. Growers rely heavily on their irrigation systems to provide the
right amount of water to their crops at the proper time. Drought stress on
plants can easily and quickly reduce yields. Because of technology, soil moisture
sensors can provide growers a detailed, comprehensive picture of their
irrigation systems. Watching sensor readings allows them to turn on water
when the moisture levels drop below a certain threshold, and then shut it off
when eld capacity is reached. In turn growers are only applying water when
needed, reducing over application of water. This becomes both a nancial and
environmental win. They aren’t wasting water and money, nor are they leaching
nutrients and chemical pesticides into groundwater. Using soil moisture
sensors decreases input management costs while maximizing yields and pro t.

There are three main types of soil moisture sensors, each differing in how they
take eld measurements and determine soil moisture levels. Each type has their 2/8
4/15/2018 3 Types of Soil Moisture Sensors - Which is Best For You? — Trellis

own set of pros and cons, lling speci c needs in the market.

Volumetric sensors

Volumetric soil moisture sensors directly measure the amount of water in the
soil. This category has the most sensor types: neutron moisture probes, heat
dissipation sensors, and the common, di-electric sensors. The di-electric
sensors measure the di-electric constant of the soil, an electrical property
dependent on soil moisture content, and can be purchased in 3 variations: Time
Domain Refractometry (TDR) sensors, Time Domain Transmissiometry (TDT)
sensors, and capacitance or Frequency Domain Refractometry (FDR) sensors.

Decagon ECH2O 5TM GroPoint Pro TDT

FDR Sensor Sensor

Due to the technology used, volumetric sensors are the most expensive soil

moisture sensors to purchase ($100+ per sensor, $400–1200 for an electronic

reader). When installing them in elds they also require calibration to the
individual soil type, making installation more cumbersome. On the ip side,
they are incredibly accurate and provide instant data to growers. They are 3/8
4/15/2018 3 Types of Soil Moisture Sensors - Which is Best For You? — Trellis

commonly used in research settings and in high-value crops where speed and
accuracy justify the higher equipment cost.


Soil particles hold water through either tension or adhesion. Tensiometers are
soil moisture sensors that measure this tension between soil particles and
water molecules. In order for plants to access this water they must overcome
the tension to draw water molecules away from the soil particles and into their
roots. The soil matric potential or soil moisture tension reading tells how hard
the plant must work to extract water. A tensiometer is a vertical, water- lled
tube with a porous tip that is inserted into the soil at recommended depths; the
soil draws water out of the porous tip of the sealed tube, creating a vacuum.
Drier soils create a stronger vacuum since water molecules are harder to pull
off soil particles.

Overall, tensiometers are relatively simple

and inexpensive equipment (sensors cost
about $80–160 per unit1) to incorporate
into your irrigation system; they are easy-
to-use since the data collected is
Irrometer SR
straightforward and doesn’t need to be Tensiometer

interpreted. These sensors do however

require higher maintenance throughout the
growing season. The water in the sealed
tubes needs to be re lled and cleaned, and
they cannot stay in the eld through the
winter in colder climate zones. 4/8
4/15/2018 3 Types of Soil Moisture Sensors - Which is Best For You? — Trellis

Tensiometers work best when installed in

elds that maintain fairly adequate moisture
content. They can only operate within
certain levels of suction, rendering them
useless in drier conditions.

Solid state sensors

The most inexpensive option for measuring soil moisture content is solid state
sensors which cost about $35–60 per sensor unit1. Common types of solid
state soil moisture sensors are gypsum blocks and granular matrix sensors.
They work by using two electrodes to measure the electrical resistance in the
soil. More water in the soil will reduce electrical resistance because the
electrical current can pass through the water easier; less water will increase
the resistance. After the electrical resistance is measured the water tension is
calculated to determine the plant available soil moisture. In gypsum blocks the
electrodes are embedded in a porous block of gypsum that has to maintain
contact with soil. Granular matrix sensors have a granular matrix inside a metal
case. The electrical sensors are embedded in the granular matrix above a
gypsum wafer.

Solid state sensors are the least expensive option

for soil moisture sensors and do not require
calibration for soil texture. However, they do need
to be installed correctly and replaced periodically
as the gypsum dissipates. They are much slower to
measure eld conditions, and are slightly less 5/8
4/15/2018 3 Types of Soil Moisture Sensors - Which is Best For You? — Trellis

accurate in very sandy soils due to the larger soil

Irrometer's Watermark Solid State
Soil Moisture Sensor particles. The biggest drawback to solid state
sensors is that they do not work accurately in high
salinity soils as readings are skewed by the
elevated salt content. Because of their drawbacks,
they do not work well in extremely arid conditions,
or crops that are highly sensitive to water stress.

Increasing populations continue to put a strain on the agriculture industry. As

communities continue to grow, more food needs to be produced on less
acreage and with less water available for crop production. In order to meet
these demands, it’s become necessary to incorporate technological advances in
farming. Irrigation is no exception. In the last decade, monitoring the soil

moisture content of elds using remote sensors has become a critical

management tool for many producers. It helps to irrigate exactly when elds
need water, limits nutrients runoff from over-saturation, and reduces input
costs through precision techniques. Soil moisture sensors vary in the
technology used to measure soil moisture, as well as their advantages and cost.

Methods to Monitor Soil Moisture

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4/15/2018 3 Types of Soil Moisture Sensors - Which is Best For You? — Trellis

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