A capacitive soil humidity sensor: Part 1

An automated plant/garden watering system is a popular application for  the Arduino and other microcontrollers. The humidity sensor that is often used is  often a resistance meter: 2 probes in the soil form a resistor and as part of a voltage divider that gives info on the amount of water in the soil.
The major shortcoming of these sensors is that since there is a current flowing, the probe is sensitive to electrolytic corrosion. Another shortcoming is that it doesnt really give information on the soil humidity, but more on the  ion concentration in the soil. Remember: pure water is a bad conductor, It are the ions in the water that make it a conductor.

To get around the corrosion, people have started to feed the probe with AC rather than DC current, but at best the circuits for this supply a pulsating DC current. Another  possibility to minimize corrosion is to  switch off  the current to the probe and only switch it on when a measurement is taken, say every 5  minutes.

All these measures help but even then, just due to the contact with moist soil, the metal on the probe will corrode and weather.
Another method is to encase the probes in plaster. Some people swear by it but I  think it is bothersome. Also the plaster encased probe has a lag as it will retain water  for some time after the  soil is already dry and it will still be dry for some time after the soil is already moist.

Capacitive measuring is a way to avoid these problems. With capacitive measurement the ‘plates’ of the capacitor can be electrically isolated from the soil and the soil in fact forms the dielectrum of the capacitor. Water makes a good dielectrum, whereas ions dont. Capacitive measuring therefore will have a better correlation with the actual amount of water in the soil than resistive measuring and, as said, ideally there will not be any corrosion.

Although the Arduino can measure capacity, it needs 3 pins for that. Also, it isnt really practical to have a long wire as part of your soil probe capacitor go to your Arduino as the wire and whether it is  straight or curly or in a loop, will act as a parasitic capacity and affect the measurement.
Putting your Arduino right onto your plantbed might also not be the best solution.

RC Oscillator With 74HCT14

A better way to do this is to introduce an RC oscillator in which the soil functions as a capacitor and the Arduino measures the frequency that comes out of the oscillator. More water  will increase the value of the ‘capacitor’ which usually will lower the frequency (or increase the cycle time) and that can be measured with the arduino.

An easy RC oscillator can be seen in the figure to the right. A 74HC14 or 74HCT14 Inverter Schmitt-trigger is all you need. For the HC version the Frequency is:
for the HCT version it is:

But in fact the frequency isn’t really that important because we are not making a frequency meter. We are only interested in changes of the frequency that relate to  dry, moist or wet soil. The workings of this type of Oscillator are explained here. and here. The theory behind the frequency calculation is explained here.

leydenjarI tested my set-up initially with a sort of Leyden Jar as a capacitor. Simply put I taped two pieces of alufoil on the outside of a glass jar, attached wires to it and tried if I could measure a change between an empty and a full jar. I started out using a 100k resistor, but only got a decent range after using a 2M2 resistor: an empty jar gave me 1uSec (maybe less, but I guess that was my lower limit) a half full jar around 50uS and a full jar about 100uS (measured with PulseIn). From using a known capacitor I knew I had to use the formula f=1/T=1/(0.67*R*C), but as said, neither the frequency or the actual capacitor value are of much importance as we are just looking for  changes.

Nevertheless the capacity of this jar (when full) could be calculated from
Now ofcourse this isn’t entirely correct as with PulseIn We only measured half a cycle, so in fact the Capacity is more likely to be 136pF, provided the dutycycle is 50% (some sources say it is 50% others say it is 33% with the space  2*mark).

byte pin = 8;
unsigned long duration;

void setup()
  pinMode(pin, INPUT);

void loop()
  duration = pulseIn(pin, HIGH);
  Serial.print("Time ");
  Serial.print(" usec ");
  Serial.print(" kHz ");
  Serial.println(" Hz");

Then it was time to do some garden field tests. There are several ways to construct a probe: two pieces of PCB at a distance from eachother, One piece of PCB with two plates etched onto it, or a piece of double sided PCB. With regerd to the latter, we tend to think of a capacitor as two plates with a dielectrum in between, but in fact it can also be two  plates with a dielectrum around it.

capacitive probe-textMy garden field test, using two insulated plates of PCB (picture) kinda gave similar results as with the Leyden Jar so I knew I had a decent design.

Yet, two plates is not really very handy: you have a loose wire connecting the plates and as that forms part of the capacitor it introduces stray capacitance, so I decided to go for either a double sided PCB, or a single sided PCB with two plates etched onto it and then place the oscillator on that PCB as well. Frankly, that idea isnt new as many of the (semi)DIY (e.g. the ‘Chirp’) or commercial capacitive probes follow that design as well.

Now it is always good  that before you make a PCB to think through what you want. As I was using only 1/6th of the 74HCT14, I was thinking maybe I could use the other gates as RC oscillators as well  for e.g. an LDR or NTC. Now ofcourse I immediately dismissed that again as I could just as well use an analog read of those and I would have to run extra cables that would all carry a frequency signal, no doubt those would interfere, but it got me thinking. The ‘Chirp’ has a big brother that has an I2C interface, if I would add that, I could add some other sensors (light, temperature)  to my probe. With just the capacitive sensor I would have to run 3 wires (+Vcc, signal, ground). With I2C 4 wires (+Vcc, SDA, SCL, Ground) would be enough for a number of sensors on my probe. Also, as I have various plantbeds, having a number of I2C probes wouldnt require  more inputs on my Arduino.

Obviously, adding I2C meant adding a microcontroller, preferably a cheap one, which easily brings one to the attiny25/45/85 series. If you have good eye sight and a steady hand, you could consider the soic version that is available from 30-70 cts. If you go for a DIP version, that is around 0.9-1 euro. Considering one can get an entire Pro Mini for about 1.20, obviously that is a narrow gap and I (or you) could consider giving each plantbed a totally dedicated  Pro Mini microprocessor that could take care of the irrigation as well.
Having said that, in the past, I have made a self contained system for plantbeds, just using 1 Opamp, so maybe I should just consider this I2C excercise a ‘learning excercise’

capacitive74HC14_attinyI came up with the following circuit. It is easy to recognise the RC oscillator. The cycle signal is fed to PB1 whereas the analog inputs on PB3 and PB4
A3= PB3=physical pin2;A2=PB4=physical pin3.
Pin PB2 is used as SCL signal and PB0 as SDA signal for the I2C interface.

If for any reason you do not have a 74HCx14 in your toolbox, there are other ways of constructing an RC generator. E.g. a 555 or a 74HC00. Even a single transistor could be used. With this type of oscillator the dutycycle approaches 50%


In a next article I will discuss how to implement the I2C software.

4 thoughts on “A capacitive soil humidity sensor: Part 1

    1. Thaks Jeroen, indeed, I sort of do that standard with the Attiny’ s though in this case I had briefly considered to use it as an input as I could use an extra pin. May do that later.
      Have had an experimental capacitive sensor for some time, but as summer is comming I thought I’ d better make it solid state and then I got the idea to implement the I2C, basically to see if I could. Spend today testing the code, Seems to work fine. It is just a bit over 2k, otherwise I could put it in a 25. Would love to shrink it a bit more and see if I could implement I2C in an attiny13, not because that is smart, but just to see if I could.
      As I didnt have doubel sided PCB I just put two pieces back to back, although just one pice of single sided PCB is possible as well

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