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Posts tagged ‘Infiltrometer’

Double Ring vs. SATURO: Two Infiltrometers Go Head to Head

The SATURO and the double-ring infiltrometer are both ring infiltrometers that infiltrate water from the surface into soils. Overall, they compare fairly well (see comparison). The main difference is how they deal with three-dimensional flow in the Kfs calculation. The SATURO uses the multiple-ponded head analysis approach to get a more direct estimation of alpha, which is used to determine how the soil pulls the water laterally. The double-ring infiltrometer uses a larger outer ring to act as a buffer from three-dimensional flow. This requires more water, and literature suggests that it doesn’t perform well. Also, with a double-ring infiltrometer, there is still a need to estimate alpha in the equations. This is typically done from a look-up table based on soil type and often results in error.

SATURO Infiltrometer which uses multiple-ponded head analysis approach

The SATURO is an automated infiltrometer which uses the multiple-ponded head analysis approach.

How do SATURO readings compare to double-ring infiltrometer readings?

We compared the SATURO with a 6-inch (15.24 cm) inner ring diameter against a double-ring infiltrometer with a 6-inch (15.24 cm) inner ring diameter and an outer ring with a 12-inch (30.48 cm) diameter.

New Infiltrometer Helps City of Pittsburgh Limit Traditional Stormwater Infrastructure (Part 2)

To save the aesthetics of Dellrose Street, an aging, 900 ft. long, brick road, the city of Pittsburgh wanted to limit traditional stormwater infrastructure (see part 1). Jason Borne, a stormwater engineer for ms consultants and his team decided permeable pavers was a viable option, and used two different types of infiltrometers to determine soil infiltration potential.  Here’s how they compared.

Looking down the street where researchers are doing their installation

Setting up the infiltrometers.

Shortened Test Times Allow Design Changes on the Fly

Though most of the subsoil was a clay urban fill, there was a distinct transition between that clay material to a broken shale/clay mixture.  Borne says, “After excavation, it rained, and we saw that the water was disappearing through the broken shale/clay material.  When we did the infiltration tests, the broken shale/clay showed a higher infiltration potential than the clay fill material.  That led us to modify the design of the subsurface flow barriers based on specific observed infiltration rates of the subsoils. Where the tests showed higher hydraulic conductivity values, we were able to rely on infiltration entirely to remove the water from behind the check dams.”  Borne adds that in the areas where infiltration was poor, they augmented infiltration with a slow release concept. “We put some weep holes in the flow barrier and let the water trickle out down to the next barrier and so on.  Basically, the automated SATURO infiltrometer allowed us to do many tests in a short amount of time to establish a threshold of where good infiltrating soils and poor infiltrating soils were located.  This enabled us to change the design on the fly.  The double ring infiltrometer takes significantly more time to do a test, and time is of the essence when the contractor wants to backfill the area and get things moving. It was nice to have a tool that got us the information we needed more rapidly.”

Image of a SATURO double ring infiltrometer

SATURO Infiltrometer

How did the Double Ring and SATURO Compare?

Borne says the SATURO Infiltrometer was faster and reduced the possibility of human error.  He adds, “We liked the idea of it being very standardized. The automated plot of flux over time was also of great interest to us, because we could see a trend, or anomalies that might invalidate the results we were getting. The double ring infiltrometer takes a long time to achieve a state of equilibrium, and it’s hard to know when that occurs. You’re following the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection suggested guidelines, but they’re very generalized.  To me it doesn’t suit all situations.  What we found with the SATURO infiltrometer is it records information at very discreet intervals, plots a curve of the flux over time, and when it levels out, you basically achieve equilibrium.  You get to that state of equilibrium faster.  There’s a water savings, but there’s also a time savings.  And there’s the satisfaction of getting standardized results rather than the possibility of each technician applying the principles in a slightly different way, as they might with the double ring infiltrometer.”

Borne and his team were ultimately able to prepare a permeable paver street design which allowed for the exclusion of traditional storm sewer infrastructure, reducing both capital costs and long-term maintenance life cycle costs. The permeable paver concept is intended to provide a template for the city of Pittsburgh to apply to the future reconstruction of other city streets.

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New Infiltrometer Helps City of Pittsburgh Limit Traditional Stormwater Infrastructure

Though difficult and expensive to restore, the brick-paved streets that still exist in some Pennsylvania neighborhoods are a treasure worth preserving, according to the City of Pittsburgh. Dellrose Street, an aging, 900 ft. long, brick road, was in need of repair, but the city of Pittsburgh wanted to limit traditional stormwater infrastructure, such as pipes and catch basins.

Pennsylvania brick road

Dellrose Street permeable paver system

To save the aesthetics of the neighborhood, they hired ms consultants, inc. to design a permeable paver solution for controlling stormwater runoff volumes and peak runoff rates that would traditionally be routed off-site via storm sewers.  Jason Borne, a stormwater engineer for ms consultants who worked on the project says, “What we try to do is understand the in situ infiltration potential of the subsoils to determine the most efficient natural processes for attenuating flows; either through infiltrating excess water volume back into the soil or through slow-release off-site.”  He used the SATURO Infiltrometer to get an idea of how urban fill material would infiltrate water.

Green Infrastructure Aids Natural Infiltration

As Borne and his team investigated what they could do to slow down the runoff, they decided permeable pavers would be a viable solution.  He says, “There’s not much you can do once you put in a hardened surface like a pavement.  Traditional pavement surfaces accelerate the runoff which requires catch basins and large diameter pipes to carry the runoff off-site. We were interested in investigating what some of the urban subsoils or urban fill would allow us to do from an infiltration perspective.  As we started looking at some of these subsoils, we decided a permeable paver system would be ideal for this particular street.”

Researchers install a subsurface flow barrier

Subsurface flow barrier installation

Infiltrometers Determine Natural Infiltration Potential

Once the water flowed into the aggregate, the team began to figure out ways to slow it down and promote infiltration.  Borne says, “Basically we came up with a tiered subsurface flow barrier system.  We had about 60 concrete flow barriers across the subgrade within the aggregate base of the road. We needed so many because the longitudinal slope of the road was fairly significant. Behind each of these barriers we stored a portion of the stormwater that would typically run off the site.  The ideal was to remove the stored water through infiltration—to get it down to the subgrade and away, so we used infiltrometers to help us establish where we could maximize infiltration and where we might need to rely on other management methods.”

A Need for Faster Test Times Inspires a Comparison

Borne says that USDA soil surveys are too generalized for green infrastructure applications in urban areas and only give crude approximations of the soil hydraulic conductivity. Understanding the best way to promote natural infiltration requires a very specific infiltration rate or hydraulic conductivity for the location of interest.  He says, “The goal is to excavate down to the desired elevation before construction and find out, through some kind of device what the infiltration potential of the subsoil is.  Typically we use a double ring infiltrometer, but it’s a very manual device. We’re constantly refilling water, and it requires us to be on-site and attentive to what’s happening.  We can’t really multitask, especially in areas of decently infiltrating soils where the device might run out of water in 30 minutes or less. So, in the interest of saving water and time, we used the automated SATURO infiltrometer and the manual double ring infiltrometer concurrently for comparison purposes.”

Next week:  Find out how the two infiltrometers compared.

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Can Wastewater Save The United Arab Emirates’ Groundwater? (Part II)

With very little recharge and irrigation comprising 75% of groundwater use, natural water resources in the United Arab Emirates region are disappearing fast (see part I).  Wafa Al Yamani and her PhD advisor, Dr. Brent Clothier, are investigating using treated sewage effluent and groundwater for irrigating the desert forests along UAE motorways.

Abu Dhabi from the ocean looking at the city

Abu Dhabi

Infiltrometers Predict Dripper Behavior:

Wafa and her team used what they call, “the Ankeny twin head method” for site evaluation with infiltrometers, and they’ve been able to use it to predict dripper behavior.  They begin with the head at -60 mm, do a series of measurements to measure steady infiltration, and repeat the process at -5 mm.  They use those measurements to solve Woodings equation which has two unknowns: saturated hydraulic conductivity and capillarity.  Dr. Clothier says, “We’ve done it at two heads, and we can use Woodings equation to solve for the slope of the exponential conductivity curve.  Hence, I can predict with time, the movement of the wetting front away from the dripper.   That’s been very useful to work out what volume of soil we’re wetting.  It tells us if we should have one or two drippers.  In this forest, we think we can get away with two drippers because if they irrigate for two hours, the radius of the wet front will be 20 cm, and the depth will be about 40 cm, which is a sufficient volume of water for the tree roots.”  Dr. Clothier says they also constructed a small dyke around the drippers so they could contain the water inside the drip zone in case of hydrophobicity or uneven sand.  

researcher recording data while sitting on the floor

Wafa on site, using the twin head method.

Treated Effluent Resolves Salinity Issues

Historically, the UAE pumped their sewage effluent into the Arabian Gulf, but recently, there has been a shift toward seeing it as a valuable water resource, not only for the desert forest, but for irrigation of fruit crops and date palms.  Dr. Clothier says, “Once we started getting our results we realized we were irrigating with groundwater that had high salinity, about 10 dS/m, and that treated sewage effluent had only 0.5 dS/m.  This was an important discovery because with the high salinity groundwater, you have to over-irrigate to maintain a salt leaching fraction.  However, when we apply the treated sewage effluent, we immediately see a response in the trees because it has 1/20th of the salt load.”

Dr. Clothier says that there is one problem with the trees responding so well to the sewage effluent.  The treated sewage effluent makes the trees grow taller and faster, so if the ecosystem service you want from the desert forest is that they’re 4-6 meters high, it becomes an issue.  He adds,”This is actually a positive problem, because we can now induce deficit irrigation, thereby creating a larger resource of treated sewage effluent in order to irrigate far more forests.”

Large white irrigation tanks sitting in sand in the desert

Researchers irrigated with water from these tanks which stored groundwater and treated sewage effluent.

What’s The Future?

Dr. Clothier says they started with a pilot study in the UAE in 2014, and it was so successful that they ended up with two fully-funded four-year projects, one on treated sewage effluent, and one investigating the irrigation of date palms. He says they have another 3 ½ years of work in the UAE on these projects, and in the end, their goal is to develop a model for forestry irrigation and soil salinity management, along with developing capability for the measurement and modeling of irrigation impacts on sustainable forestry.  They have recently developed a prototype of a computerized decision support tool for irrigation which will provide sustainable irrigation advice to optimize water use.  The support tool takes into account the need to maintain salt leaching, and actual irrigation records can be entered to enable real-time use.

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Can Wastewater Save The United Arab Emirates’ Groundwater?

The hyper-arid United Arab Emirates (UAE) has a rapidly dwindling supply of groundwater, and that water is becoming increasingly saline.

Image of the city of Dubai at night on the coast of the UAE

Dubai is situated on the coast of the UAE.

With very little recharge and irrigation comprising 75% of groundwater use, natural water resources in this region are disappearing fast.  PhD candidate Wafa Al Yamani works for the Environmental Agency of Abu Dhabi, which has contracted with Plant and Food Research in New Zealand to investigate using treated sewage effluent and groundwater for irrigating the desert forests along their motorways.  

Sidr tree plantation in the UAE forest in the sand

Sidr trees in the UAE forest.

The Desert Forests

The UAE desalinates all the water for their cities, so the tertiary treated sewage effluent from these cities could be a viable resource, replacing some groundwater for irrigation of the desert forests. These forests perform a wide range of ecosystem services from sand stabilization along all UAE motorways to harboring a great deal of biodiversity.  There is also a cultural association with the forests.  The original ruler of the UAE, Sheikh Zayed, embarked on a program in the 1970s of “greening the desert,” so the people see the desert forests as a legacy of their founder.

Infiltrometer pushing sand and being measured

Infiltrometers were used to examine how the drip irrigation system worked.

Measuring Water Use:

Wafa and her PhD advisor, Dr. Brent Clothier, had a goal to minimize groundwater use and maximize value by quantifying the irrigation needs of the UAE’s five most important desert-forestry species.  They also wanted to determine the impact of treated sewage effluent on forest growth and health.  They used infiltrometers to examine how the drip irrigation system worked.  Dr. Clothier says, “These soils have hydraulic conductivities of between 2 and 5 meters an hour.  They are highly permeable desert sands.  We can find out how wide the bulb (the wetted area underneath an irrigation dripper) is and how deep the water will travel by using an infiltrometer to look at the hydraulic properties of the soil.”  Dr. Clothier has also developed software to predict water movement radially, with depth and with the time that the drippers are on.  He comments, “We’ve now got a setup of two drippers per tree, and we will use that in the future for modeling how the trees are taking up water from the root zone.”

Tree with 20cm dykes accessing the dripper water

Researchers built dykes of 20 cm to stop surface redistribution of dripper water.

The scientists used a heat pulse method to measure tree water-use by comparing sap flow with evaporative demand (ETo).  They used Time Domain Reflectometry (TDR) to measure soil water content, and they have developed a “light stick” using light sensors to detect the shadow area of the trees to measure trees’ leaf area in order to predict the crop factor that will enable prediction of tree water-use from ETo.

Next week:  Find out how Wafa and her team use infiltrometers to predict dripper behavior and how the treated effluent resolves salinity issues.

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What is the Future of Sensor Technology?

Dr. John Selker, hydrologist at Oregon State University and one of the scientists behind the Trans African Hydro and Meteorological Observatory (TAHMO) project, gives his perspective on the future of sensor technology.

Researcher Pointing to Something while Walking through a Forest

Dr. John Selker (Image:

What sparked your interest in science?

I was kind of an accidental scientist in a sense. I went into water resources having experienced the 1985 drought in Kenya. I saw that water was transformative in the lives of people there. I thought there were lots of things we could do to make a difference, so I wanted to become a water resource engineer. It was during my graduate degree process that I got excited about science.

What was the first sensor you developed?

I’ve been developing sensors for a long time.  I worked at some national labs on teams developing sensors for physics experiments. The first one I developed myself was as an undergraduate student in physics. I was the lab instructor for the class, and I wanted to do something on my own while the students were busy. I made a non-contact bicycle speedometer which was much like an anemometer. I took an ultrasonic emitter, trained it on the tire, and I could get the beat frequency between emitted sound and the backscatter to get the bicycle speed.

What’s the future of sensor technology?


Right now one of the very exciting advances in technology is communication. Having sensors that can communicate back to the scientists immediately makes a huge difference in terms of knowing how things are going, making decisions on the fly, and getting good quality data.  Oftentimes in the past, a sensor would fail and you wouldn’t know about it for months.  Cell phone technology and the ability to run a station on a few AA batteries for years has been the most transformative aspect of technological development.  The sensors themselves also continue to improve: getting smaller and using less energy, and that’s excellent progress as well.

A Picture of a Orange Maple Leaf in the middle of Fall

What often happens is that you install a solar sensor, and then a leaf or a dust grain falls on it, and you lose your accuracy.


I think the next big thing in sensing technology is how to use what we might call “semi-redundant” sensing.  What often happens is that you install a solar sensor, and then a leaf or a dust grain falls on it, and you lose your accuracy.  However, if you had a solar panel and a solar sensor, you could then do comparisons.  Or if you were using a wind sensor and an accelerometer you could also compare data. We now have the computing capability to look at these things synergistically.


What I would say in science is that if we can get a few more zeros: a hundred times more accurate, or ten times more frequent measurements, then it would change our total vision of the world.  So, what I think we’re going to have in the next few years, is another zero in accuracy.  I think we’re going to go from being plus or minus five percent to plus or minus 0.5 percent, and we are going to do that through much more sophisticated intercomparisons of sensors.  As sensors get cheaper, we can afford to have more and more related sensors to make those comparisons.  I think we’re going to see this whole field of data assimilation become a critical part of the proliferation of sensors.

What are your thoughts on the future of sensor technology?

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Double Ring Infiltrometers Versus DualHead Infiltrometers

Several years ago I had the chance to work at the USDA ARS Research Watershed in Riesel, Texas. The goal of my research was to look at the effects of land use and landscape position on water infiltration.  Within the research watershed there is preserved and maintained native prairie, improved pasture, and conventional tilled areas, which have been in existence for 75 years. Thus we were able to use infiltrometers to study the long-term effects of those different land uses, along with the effect of landscape position within the same soil type.

Double Ring Lysimeters

Texas Infiltrometer setup

My research focused on the Houston Black Soil Series, which is a clay-rich soil with a high shrink-swell capacity. This soil type has key economic importance, as it is present in much of Texas’ USDA prime farmland.  To achieve our objectives, we began by mapping soil bulk electrical conductivity using an EM38 device (electromagnetic geo-surveying instrument).  The maps we created allowed us to look for areas of variability in water content, depth to parent material, clay content, and salinity.  Then we randomly selected three zones within the catinas (full hill slope including summit, back slope, and front slope) and flagged them with GPS points.  Our goal was to make infiltration measurements at all of the landscape positions on the slope and compare them to the same landscape positions within each land use type.

We found that the native prairie had the highest infiltration rates because the soil maintained its strong structure and macropores which allowed water to conduct well through the soil.  We also found some differences by landscape position that were consistent within the different catinas.  As water would run down the catina, erosion would transport soil and organic matter off the shoulder and back slope and deposit it on the foot slopes.  Even though they were mapped as the same soil type, the differences in erosion and reduction of organic matter affected the ability of these different positions to transport water.

Double ring infiltrometer chart

We chose to customize existing double ring infiltrometers to make these measurements because there wasn’t anything automated on the market.  If I was going to conduct my research in a reasonable amount of time, I had to come up with a system where I could run a lot of measurements relatively easily.  As a result, we bought three double-ring infiltrometers and modified them with pressure sensors and some larger controlled ports.  The resulting setup was huge; the outer ring on each infiltrometer was 60 cm in diameter and the entire instrument was very heavy.  We were constantly refilling the instrument water reservoirs. In fact, this setup required so much water that we had to pull a 1,900-liter water tank on a trailer wherever we were taking measurements.

Our goal was to save time by running all three infiltrometers concurrently, but it still took a LONG time.  Even though we had automated the instruments, they required a lot of monitoring; sometimes I had to fill our 1,900-liter water tank twice in a day. One measurement at one site took anywhere from 1.5 hours to 3 hours depending on when we reached steady state. We spent so much time out in the field that we were actually caught on film in one of the Google Maps picture flyovers!   Even after all this field time, the data analysis was overwhelming, despite a relatively seamless approach to handle it all.

One huge infiltrometer setup

Our huge setup caught on google maps

I often dreamed of making a tool that would be a lot easier for me and others to use. When I joined Decagon (now METER), it gave me an opportunity to do just that.  Our design goals were to make an infiltrometer that required less water and simplified the data analysis.  We rejected the double ring design in favor of a single ring approach because research has shown that the outer ring doesn’t buffer three-dimensional flow like it’s supposed to. (Swartzendruber D. and T.C. Olson.  “Sand-model study of buffer effects in the double-ring infiltrometer” Soil Sci. Soc. Am. Proc. 25 (1961), 5-8)

We also wanted to simplify the analysis of three-dimensional flow.  With a constant head control in a single ring, there are equations that you use to correct for it.  But you have to guess at things like soil type and structure which leads to inaccuracies.  Multi-head analysis has been around for decades. It involves establishing constant water heights (heads) at multiple levels and looking at the difference in the infiltration rates to calculate the sorptivity. Thus, parameters that are normally estimated from a table can actually be measured, and infiltration results will be independent of users.

Still, there can be problems with the multiple head approach. Increasing the water height when infiltrating into a really low conductivity soil may take 1 to 2 hours to drain back to the original height. We didn’t want to make this measurement take longer than necessary, so instead of using additional water, we used air pressure to simulate higher water levels which can be added or removed very quickly.

So, thanks to the instrument hardships I endured in my past efforts to obtain infiltration measurements, we now have an easy-to-use dual-head infiltrometer (now called the SATURO), that can do the analysis of infiltration rates and saturated hydraulic conductivity on the instrument itself (it gives sorptivity and alpha, based on the soil type and structure, and makes the correction onboard).  Thus, if a scientist needs a value right away, it’s there. But, if like me, they wanted to dig deeper through the data, all the measured values can still be downloaded for more careful analysis.  Together, it’s a simple tool for both scientists and consultants who need to make these measurements.  And they won’t get caught on Google Maps like me, because they’ve had to spend their whole life in the field taking measurements.

Below is a video of the dual-head infiltrometer in action.

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