Laboratory calibration and performance evaluation of low-cost capacitive and very low-cost resistive soil moisture sensors

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Soil volumetric water content (VWC) is a vital parameter to understand several ecohydrological and environmental processes. Its cost-effective measurement can potentially drive various technological tools to promote data-driven sustainable agriculture through supplemental irrigation solutions, the lack of which has contributed to severe agricultural distress, particularly for smallholder farmers. The cost of commercially available VWC sensors varies over four orders of magnitude. A laboratory study characterizing and testing sensors from this wide range of cost categories, which is a prerequisite to explore their applicability for irrigation management, has not been conducted. Within this context, two low-cost capacitive sensors—SMEC300 and SM100—manufactured by Spectrum Technologies Inc. (Aurora, IL, USA), and two very low-cost resistive sensors—the Soil Hygrometer Detection Module Soil Moisture Sensor (YL100) by Electronicfans and the Generic Soil Moisture Sensor Module (YL69) by KitsGuru—were tested for performance in laboratory conditions. Each sensor was calibrated in different repacked soils, and tested to evaluate accuracy, precision and sensitivity to variations in temperature and salinity. The capacitive sensors were additionally tested for their performance in liquids of known dielectric constants, and a comparative analysis of the calibration equations developed in-house and provided by the manufacturer was carried out. The value for money of the sensors is reflected in their precision performance, i.e., the precision performance largely follows sensor costs. The other aspects of sensor performance do not necessarily follow sensor costs. The low-cost capacitive sensors were more accurate than manufacturer specifications, and could match the performance of the secondary standard sensor, after soil specific calibration. SMEC300 is accurate (MAE, RMSE, and RAE of 2.12%, 2.88% and 0.28 respectively), precise, and performed well considering its price as well as multi-purpose sensing capabilities. The less-expensive SM100 sensor had a better accuracy (MAE, RMSE, and RAE of 1.67%, 2.36% and 0.21 respectively) but poorer precision than the SMEC300. However, it was established as a robust, field ready, low-cost sensor due to its more consistent performance in soils (particularly the field soil) and superior performance in fluids. Both the capacitive sensors responded reasonably to variations in temperature and salinity conditions. Though the resistive sensors were less accurate and precise compared to the capacitive sensors, they performed well considering their cost category. The YL100 was more accurate (MAE, RMSE, and RAE of 3.51%, 5.21% and 0.37 respectively) than YL69 (MAE, RMSE, and RAE of 4.13%, 5.54%, and 0.41, respectively). However, YL69 outperformed YL100 in terms of precision, and response to temperature and salinity variations, to emerge as a more robust resistive sensor. These very low-cost sensors may be used in combination with more accurate sensors to better characterize the spatiotemporal variability of field scale soil moisture. The laboratory characterization conducted in this study is a prerequisite to estimate the effect of low-and very low-cost sensor measurements on the efficiency of soil moisture based irrigation scheduling systems.