Thanks so much to Ray for sending in his great reverse engineering project! Check out more on his blog rayshobby.net.
At the Maker Faire this year I got lots of questions about soil moisture sensors, which I knew little about. So I started seriously researching the subject. I found a few different soil sensors, learned about their principles, and also learned about how to make my own. In this blog post, I will talk about a cheap wireless soil moisture sensor I found on Amazon.com for about $10, and how to use an Arduino or Raspberry Pi to decode the signal from the sensor, so you can use it directly in your own garden projects.
What is this?
A soil moisture sensor (or meter) measures the water content in soil. With it, you can easily tell when the soil needs more water or when it’s over-watered. The simplest soil sensor doesn’t even need battery. For example, this Rapitest Soil Meter, which I bought a few years ago, consists of simply a probe and a volt meter panel. The way it works is by using the Galvanic cell principle — essentially how a lemon battery or potato battery works. The probe is made of two electrodes of different metals. In the left picture below, the tip (dark silver color) is made of one type of metal (likely zinc), and the rest of the probe is made of another type of metal (likely copper, steel, or aluminum). When the probe is inserted into soil, it generates a small amount of voltage (typically a few hundred milli-volts to a couple of volts). The more water in the soil, the higher the generated voltage. This meter is pretty easy to use manually; but to automate the reading you need a microcontroller to read the value.
Resistive Soil Moisture Sensor
Another type of simple soil sensor is a resistive sensor (picture on the right above). It’s made of two exposed electrodes, and uses the fact that the more water the soil contains, the lower the resistance between the two electrodes. The resistance can be measured using a simple voltage dividier and an analog pin. While it’s very simple to construct, resistive sensors are not extremely reliable, because the exposed electrodes can degrade and get oxidized over time.
Capacitive Soil Moisture Sensor
Capativie soil sensors are also made of two electrodes, but insulated (i.e. not exposed). The two electrodes, together with the soil as a dielectric material, form a capacitor. The higher the water content, the higher the capacitance. So by measuring the capacitance, we can infer the water content in soil. There are many ways to measure capacitance, for example, by using the capacitor’s reactance to form a voltage divider, similar to the resistor counterpart. Another way is to create an RC oscillator where the frequency is determined by the capacitance. By counting the oscillation frequency, we can calculate the capacitance. The Chirp (picture below), which is an open-source capacitive soil sensor, measures capacitance by charging the capacitor and detecting the charge time. The faster it charges, the smaller the capacitance, and vice versa. Capacitive sensors are not too difficult to make, and are more reliable than resistive ones, so they are quite popular.
More Complex Soil Sensors
There are other, more complex soil sensors, such as Frequency Domain Reflectometry (FDR), Time Domain Reflectometry (TDR), and neutron sensors. These are more accurate but also will cost a fortunate to make.
Wireless Soil Moisture Sensor
Because soil sensor is usually left outdoors, it’s ideal to have it transmit signals wirelessly. In addition, because soil moisture can vary from spot to spot, it’s a probably good idea to use multiple sensors distributed at different locations to get a good average reading. Wireless would make it more convenient to set up multiple sensors.
Recently I found this 433MHz wireless soil sensor from Amazon, for only $10, very cheap. It comes with a transmitter unit and a receiver display unit. The transmitter unit has a soil probe. The receiver unit has a LCD — it displays soil moisture level (10 bars) and additionally indoor / outdoor temperature. Let me open up the transmitter to see what’s inside:
There is a soil probe, a 433MHz transmitter, a microcontroller at the center, a thermistor, and a SGM358 op-amp. Pretty straightforward. The soil probe looks quite similar to the battery-free soil meter probe that I mentioned above. So I am pretty sure this is not a resistive or capacitive probe, but rather a Galvanic probe. Again, the way it works is by outputting a variable voltage depending on the water content in soil. By checking the PCB traces, it looks like the op-amp is configured as a voltage follower, which allows the microcontroller to reliably read the voltage generated by the Galvanic probe.
Read the full post here.