Wednesday, 4 November 2015

My Soil Moisture Sensors Are Spot On – Yeah Right!

There is a misconception that all soil (moisture) sensors are precise and tell you the exact soil moisture content.  Not so.  HydroServices runs a trial site where a number of soil moisture sensors are installed for comparison – for both the “calibrated” soil moisture content and any long term trends.  A boring looking trial site because the sensors are installed toward the small gap in the trees.  In all there are 8 sensors – neutron probe, Decagon 5TM and GS1, Acclima, AquaCheck and two (2) Aquaflex.  The Decagon 5TM, GS1 and Acclima sensors are installed at 10cm, the shallow Aquaflex on a slope from 10-25cm, and the neutron probe and AquaCheck can measure at 15 and 10cm respectively.

Sensors are provided with a factory calibration, usually one for silt loam, clay loam and sandy loam soil types.  These are generic and may or may not truly measure the soil moisture content at your location because (for example):
a)    Your soil is unlikely to be the same as the generic soil type;
b)    The sensor is poorly installed (especially if there is not perfect contact between the sensor and the soil); and
c)    The soil is loose (cultivated) and perfect contact is not possible

While the traces of soil moisture content are sort of similar, none (with their generic calibration) read the same soil moisture content, as shown in the plot of all sensors.  (Note the GS1 Sensor is a recent addition and no data is available for the dates compared).

The only sensor that has been calibrated against true soil moisture content (gravimetric laboratory analysis) is the neutron probe.  Knowing that Field Capacity at this location and soil type should be about 40%; only the neutron probe and Aquaflex measure soil moisture content at this level.  The other three sensors measure field capacity 10% less than the true field capacity. Disconcertedly two sensors measure soil moisture content between irrigation events (the vertical rise in the traces) at or very close to wilting point – approximately 17-18%.  This is not the case; the pasture never died nor showed any sign of being close to wilting point.

What is to be taken home from the comparison?  If you want sensible and realistic soil moisture measurements the sensors must be field calibrated.  The simplest and easiest way to field calibrate is by neutron probe – click on for more details.