Becoming a Tensiometer and HYPROP Wizard

In this webinar, Leo Rivera explores refill techniques for METER tensiometers and the HYPROP.

In this webinar, Leo Rivera covers syringe filling of tensiometers: how to fill the sensors and the base.  He also discusses vacuum system refilling, and he teaches how to assemble and refill the HYPROP.  The webinar ends with a quick look at the HYPROP VIEW software.

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Our scientists have decades of experience helping researchers and growers measure the soil-plant-atmosphere continuum.


Leo Rivera operates as a research scientist and Hydrology Product Manager at METER Group, the world leader in soil moisture measurement. He earned his undergraduate degree in Agriculture Systems Management at Texas A&M University, where he also got his Master’s degree in Soil Science. There he helped develop an infiltration system for measuring hydraulic conductivity used by the NRCS in Texas. Currently, Leo is the force behind application development in METER’s hydrology instrumentation including HYPROP and WP4C. He also works in R&D to explore new instrumentation for water and nutrient movement in soil.


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All right, thank you, everybody for joining today’s virtual seminar. My name is Leo Rivera. I’m the Hydrology Product Manager here at Decagon Devices. I’m also the person that works with the HYPROP and have quite a bit of experience with the HYPROP and running the HYPROP, so today I’m going to go over some refilling techniques and also answer any questions that you guys might have. So if you do have any questions, please feel free to use the Questions function on the GoToWebinar control panel. And I will try and get to them throughout the virtual seminar. So please feel free to ask questions anytime and I will do my best to get to them when I can and try and keep an eye out for them. So we’ll go ahead and just get going.

There we go. All right. So in today’s virtual seminar, first I’m going to cover— we’re gonna go through refilling techniques, and gonna start out covering the syringe filling of tensiometers. And then I’m going to talk about vacuum system options for refilling, some things to consider when you’re assembling the HYPROP after you’ve finished filling, and then also we’re going to preview the new HYPROP-VIEW software. And so we’ll get into that too. All right. So syringe filling option is what comes basic, or what comes with the HYPROP. And it’s what a lot of people have started out with. It is a little more complicated, it takes a little more attention to detail and a little more time as well. But really the key to a good fill using the syringes, especially if you’re trying to achieve the maximum level of the tensiometers, which is well beyond 850 hectopascals, the key is achieving full vacuum. And one of the things that prevents us from getting full vacuum with the syringes is when we have air bubbles in the syringe, similar to what you see in this picture here. Those air bubbles prevent us from being able to achieve the full vacuum level when we’re applying vacuum with the syringes. And so what you have to do when you’re applying vacuum with the syringes, or when you’re filling with the syringes, you have to make sure that you go through the process of applying vacuum and releasing the vacuum and making sure there’s no air bubbles when you release the vacuum. And if there is, removing the air bubbles. So you have to make sure that you go through that process, it takes usually a few times of applying the vacuum, reconnecting it, and then removing the air bubbles. So you really want to make sure that you take your time to do that, and when you do that, it gives you the ability to go beyond the normal measuring range of a tensiometer. Another thing that helps when you’re filling tensiometer shafts is positioning them upright to allow the bubbles to escape more easily. So here, what you see in this picture here, I have a clip set up in the lab that allows me to hold the tensiometers upright, so essentially with the ceramic pointing down, and this allows the air bubbles to escape easily. And usually what I’ll do is I’ll set these up and I will leave them overnight to allow the degassing process to happen and get the water as well degassed as possible. Now, some other things to consider when you’re starting to fill with the syringes is it does help to degas the water previously whether you’re using a vacuum system to do it, or you can degas water by boiling it. When you do that though, of course, you want to let it cool down. But you want to make sure that, you know, when you do start out, if you degas the water previously it does help. It doesn’t take care of all of it because even you’ll notice after degassing that when you start, when you start degassing on the tensiometer shafts themselves, they do, sorry, that there will be air bubbles forming. I did have a question about the audio. There is, as far as we can tell, the audio should be working. If you can check to make sure you have the audio output to the right speakers on your system, that would be helpful. But as far as we can tell, everything’s working. Okay. Let’s keep going. Here we go. So, in my opinion, when you’re filling, either with the syringes or with the vacuum system, the most important step to pay attention to is filling the sensor base itself. For many reasons, one, this is probably the most sensitive part of the instrument. So when you’re filling, you want to make sure you don’t suddenly release the vacuum. You don’t want to tap the instrument base too hard. Because you can damage the pressure transducers very easily. So you really want to be careful with this. But also, this is another, it’s important here because if you don’t degas the sensor base, well, no matter how well you degas the tensiometer shafts, you’re not going to get a good fill with the tensiometers, and you’re not going to reach the maximum achievable range of the tensiometers. So again, here, achieving full vacuum is really critical when you’re trying to degas the sensor base. And what you see here in this image is, just started degassing, and you can see a lot of air bubbles starting to come out and oxygen starting to be released from the water. So when I talk about achieving the full vacuum, the best thing to do is connect the HYPROP to the computer and watch it in the refilling window in tensioVIEW to see how full of vacuum you’re actually applying. And typically, what you have to do again here is you have to go through that process I talked about of applying the vacuum, and then carefully releasing the vacuum to then take the syringe off and remove any air bubbles that might be in the syringe when there’s no vacuum, and then going through this process again. And again, this is one of those things that may take two or three times of applying and releasing the vacuum, sometimes a few more, depending on how much water you have in your sensor and the acrylic reservoir and in your syringe. Usually it’s good to— I fill the syringe up with about 10 mils of water. And then you’d want to fill your acrylic adapter up as full as possible because the less airspace you have in there, the more likely you’re going to be able to achieve full vacuum. So here, after I’ve removed air from the syringe and reapplied the vacuum a few times, now I can see that I’m reaching 879 hectopascals in the software. And that is, for us, that’s close to full vacuum up here at our elevation. And so we’re really happy with that. And that’s what’s going to allow us to get a really good degassing of the water and get a good filling on the tensiometers and allows to extend that range. And again, just like with tensiometer shafts, it’s good to leave the sensor base under vacuum for several hours. I typically recommend starting this in the afternoon, and then just leaving it overnight and coming back in the morning. And you’ll have everything ready to go and start assembling the HYPROP. So it does take time for this to degas well, and so it’s just good to be patient with it and let it do its thing.

So another option for refilling the HYPROPs, so refilling the tensiometers and the sensor base is using a vacuum system to do your refilling. This option is easier than syringe filling—by far it’s quite a bit easier. And it’s really, if you’re working in a lab and you’re running more than one HYPROP, if you’re running two or three or four HYPROPs or even more, a vacuum system really simplifies the filling process for degassing and filling the HYPROPs. And the nice thing about this is it’s a much faster setup. Essentially, you would typically just connect the tensiometers to whatever setup you have. In this image here, I have the system from UMS that allows us to just connect the tensiometer shafts to an acrylic adapter, and then connect everything to a vacuum system and put the tensiometers in a beaker full of degassed DI water, and put that under vacuum. And it’s really a much simpler setup. Some precautions that you want to take when using a vacuum system for refilling. You want to make sure you don’t get too powerful of a vacuum because again, with the pressure transducers on the HYPROP, you want to be careful not to damage them because they are sensitive. So I have seen some cases where some people had really just strong vacuum systems and they would very easily damage the pressure sensors. And so that’s something you want to be careful with. So when you’re looking at your specs, you want to make sure it’s not as strong of a vacuum system, because if you give it time it’ll pull full vacuum. For example, the system that we have, it usually takes about 30 to 45 seconds, maybe a minute to achieve full vacuum. If it’s something that can achieve full vacuum in a faster time than that, then you’ll want to be careful. So there are some off the shelf options. Or there is an off the shelf option from UAMS for a vacuum refilling system. So they have a full package that includes a vacuum pump, a buffer bottle, and the beaker mount assembly that you saw on the previous image. And this is a really good system, it’s easy to use. And if you’re just looking for something that’s straightforward and you don’t want to have to go through the hassle of trying to put your own vacuum system together, this is a good option. Now you can set up your own vacuum system. And there’s some things that you want to consider when going to do that. So again, we talked about the strength of the vacuum pump. You want to be careful not to select a vacuum pump that’s going to damage the pressure sensors. And so you want to be careful for that. Depending on the type of pump that you pick, if for example, in the image here, this is an oil type pump, you’re going to want to use desiccant in line to keep moisture out of the oil. If you don’t do that, you’ll notice that the oil goes from clear to white very quickly, or opaque. And you’d have to change the oil very regularly on those pumps. If you use desiccant in the line, it’ll protect the pump and it’ll last much longer. And so that’s something you’ll have to consider when looking at different vacuum pumps. Some people have vacuum in their lab that’s just plumbed in. Again, you’ll want to be careful with that vacuum just to make sure that you’re not applying the vacuum too fast to prevent yourself from damaging the pressure sensors. So another thing that helps to protect the pressure transducers, and this is something that you really need to have in the system is a buffer bottle. I recommend at least a one liter buffer bottle if not larger, especially depending on your vacuum pump and how strong it is. This one, the buffer bottle not only helps for maintaining the vacuum, but it helps to protect the pressure transducers. It’s also good to have a vacuum gauge in your system, just so you can see what level of vacuum you’re at and when you need to come back and put it under vacuum again, those types of things. Then the other things that you’ll have to look for are connections for the tensiometer shafts in the HYPROP. So the fitting on that acrylic adapter for the HYPROP has a six millimeter inside diameter. So typically tubing you’re going to want to go with is tubing with the six millimeter inside diameter. Polyethylene tubing is good. It’s usually, I think polyurethane is usually fine as well. You just want to pick tubing that is going to be rigid and hold up to vacuum. You don’t want tubing that’s going to collapse under vacuum because then you won’t get vacuum throughout the full system. In this picture in the bottom right hand corner here, I have little push-to-connect fittings, and then we have some little silicone tubing that we use to connect the tensiometer shafts to that. So if you’re going about setting up your own system, these are really good fittings for that. There’s various places here in the US, there’s various places you can buy them. McMaster-Carr is a place that I go to quite regularly to buy these types of fittings. The silicone tubing that we used here, I believe has a four millimeter inside diameter and a seven millimeter outside diameter. And that fits tight enough around that tensiometer shafts to not leak and maintain the vacuum. So those are some some of the things that you’re going to want consider. Of course, you’re going to need some beakers and degassed water to the beakers to put tensiometers in for the— when you’re filling them. Some other things to consider. I think that’s about the bulk of that. You can also if you wanted to buy your own vacuum pump, the beaker mount assembly from UMS is also an option. So if you just wanted to get your own vacuum pump and buy that assembly, that’s also an option, just depends. The vacuum pump is probably the most expensive part of the system from UMS. So yeah, again, those are just some of the options that are out there.

So now I wanted to go into kind of some things that you want to consider when you’re assembling the HYPROP, getting ready to start a measurement. So of course when you start out, you want to carefully release the vacuum on the systems. That way you don’t damage the pressure transducers, again. And once you have the vacuum released and you have all the tubing disconnected and you’re ready to start going, you want to remove the acrylic adapter. When you remove the acrylic adapter, would leave the water on the HYPROP base because that water just helps when you’re trying to go through and connect the tensiometers and do the assembly. Once you have that ready to go, you’ll prep tensiometers. This is all stuff that you’ve probably seen in the manual, but I’m just kind of going through it anyways. When you prep tensiometers whether you’re disconnecting them from the syringes or from that threaded adapter in the vacuum system, you want to make sure you leave a nice bulb of water, kind of like what you see in the picture here. This just helps prevent you from getting an air bubble inside of the tensiometer shafts when you go to connect to the sensor unit. If for some reason you lose that air bubble, you can use the needle tip syringe that comes with the HYPROP refilling kit. When you do that, you want to degas the water inside of that syringe first, just to help because you don’t want to be adding non degassed water to something that you’ve already degassed. And then you can go in and once it’s degassed you can use this needle and go in and add water to the end of the tensiometer shaft to re add that bulb of water if for some reason you lost it. When you do this, of course, make sure you have no air in the syringe itself or in the needle tip of the syringe because you don’t want to add air bubbles to the system. But this is an easy thing to do to redo that. When you’re connecting the tensiometers to the sensor head, it’s always good to come in at an angle. And then once you are in contact with the water, try not to pull the sensor back again. If you do, you’re probably going to have to re add that bulb of water. But yeah, so you’ll want to come in at an angle. Once you do, just, once you connect it in, then you can just start threading it in. Usually, you don’t have an issue with the pressure until you’ve come in contact with the O ring inside the sensor head. But once you do come in contact with the O ring, you’re gonna want to be careful to not exceed 2000 hectopascals. So of course, while you’re doing this connection, you should be monitoring the pressure inside of the refilling window on the software. Now, once you come in contact with the O ring, it’s good to do at least a quarter to a half turn, after you’ve come in contact with the O ring. You want to make sure that you get that fairly tight on there.

As long as you do it slowly and don’t exceed the pressure, you’re not going to damage the sensors. And just ensuring that you have that tight in there helps make sure that you’re going to actually be able to achieve that full range of the tensiometers. Because sometimes what happens if you don’t get that threaded down tight enough, when you’re making a measurement, is the suction or the water potential lowers as the suction goes up. Sometimes it can pull in air from where that connection is. And it makes the measurements look really bad. And I’m going to show an example of that here shortly. But again, just make sure when you’re doing this, that you get it decently tight. As long as you’re not trying to make it too tight, you’re gonna be fine. So those are just some of the things that you want to make sure that you’re doing. So again, this was a good example of a good fill, we were able to achieve well beyond normal measurement range up to 1800 hectopascals. Those are the types of things that we want to be looking for.

So now our next example is of an okay fill. We didn’t really achieve the full capabilities of these tensiometers. We went just shy of 900 hectopascals in the top tensiometer before cavitation. So when you see — let’s see if I can show the mouse here — so when you see this sloping like this, where it’s starting to slope off like that, it means we’re already starting to cavitate and so pretty much once we get past this, about this point right here, you’re gonna want to stop your measurement right there just because this data beyond that is not representative of what the actual water potential is. So those are some types of things that you want to look for. This is okay, I mean, this is a normal operating range of tensiometer. But with these tensiometers and the HYPROP, you can go well beyond that, with good degassing and a good fill. So that’s something to look for and to achieve to go beyond this because it is very possible. and with good filling practices, you can do this.

Now I wanted to show something we typically don’t want to see. So in this, I call this a bad fill, but really, it’s not indicative of the filling of the tensiometers. Although in the top tensiometer, you’ll see that it did not go, it again cavitated before reaching 900 hectopascals. But with the bottom tensiometer, what you see is right as it reached about 180 hectopascals, it started dropping, and you get this kind of noisy, bouncing back up and down as it kind of just slowly decreases. What this indicates is that there’s two things that could have gone wrong here. One, either the O ring inside tensiometer is bad, has either or tear in it or something along those lines. Or two, you didn’t tighten the tensiometers down tight enough. And the reason you see this bouncing up and down is you’re applying suction and then once you reach a certain point, air comes in, and you apply suction and then air comes in and the true pressure drops back down. So when you see this, you’ll want to check both. You can check the O ring. But before pulling the O ring out, you may want to try just refilling again and testing the tensiometers after you fill and, you can just do this by once you have tensiometers connected to the HYPROP, just use a paper towel, dry the ceramic end of the paper towel, and see if they reach 800 hectopascals in a short amount of time, usually within 30 seconds. Once you come close to that, you can reapply water, and you can assume that you’re in good shape. If it does start having this issue, if it doesn’t go beyond two or three hundred hectopascals, then you might want to look at replacing the O ring.

So, all right. Now I’ve kind of covered some of the filling stuff. Now I wanted to preview the new HYPROP-VIEW software. And this is something that I’m really looking forward to coming out. And I know that the guys at UMS have been working hard on this and are trying to get this out. And so here’s the homescreen, or the main view of the HYPROP-VIEW software. You can see it looks a little different than tensioVIEW. The software is purely dedicated to running the HYPROPs. But kind of wanted to point out some new things. One of the good things about this new software is it supports the new HYPROP scale in a way that it’s meant to be supported. So for those of you that have the new HYPROP scale, you’ll notice that there’s a connection in the back of it, and then a magnetic adapter that allows you to connect the HYPROP directly through the scale. And currently this connection isn’t supported in tensioVIEW, but it will be supported in the HYPROP-VIEW software, which I’m really excited about because it just reduces the amount of cables that you have to have connected to a computer, and I think it just helps simplify things. And so you can see here in this example, we have two HYPROPs connected via the HYPROP balance. And so it’s connected through their individual connectors. Another thing that it also supports, it’ll still support connecting with the older system with the old current scales and the tensioLINK USB adapter. And what’s nice is it supports both. So you can connect multiple HYPROPs and multiple HYPROP balances or the old current scales all to one window and run them all through one window. And so it just really helps for a lot of those people that have multiple HYPROPs. Let’s see. So another thing you’ll also notice, in this example, we have the HYPROPs connected, but they don’t have a scale yet connected associated with it. And it gives you an error message showing that, and that’s what these little flag indicators are right here, that you don’t have a scale connected, you need to select a scale to associate it with these HYPROPs. And you can have multiple scales connected and multiple HYPROPs connected all through the software, as long as there’s enough connections on the computer, of course. But that’s another nice feature that’s included in the software. Another nice addition that they’ve included is the software also now has additional units. So we also have— it now supports units of centimeters, kilopascals, and hectopascals. And this will also be eventually integrated over into HYPROP-FIT as well, where HYPROP-FIT will also support different units. So that’s something I really like. Especially just because, you know, there are people that work in different units. Some people prefer centimeters, some people prefer hectopascals, some people prefer kilopascals. So hopefully we can, it’ll help us just with some of those people.

So another nice feature that they’re adding. Some people may have noticed that eventually sometimes your HYPROPs tend to drift from zero a little bit, whether it is due to sediment buildup on the pressure transducers, which can happen if the HYPROPs aren’t cleaned thoroughly before removing the tensiometer shafts. And sometimes what that sediment buildup will do will actually cause an offset in the zero point for the pressure sensors. And so what they have now is an offset recalibration. So what you can do is place your HYPROP on its side and go into this offset recalibration window. And just reset the zero points on the pressure transducers. So that’s going to be really nice for the users. And just really, it’ll be nice down the road when HYPROPs start to age a little bit.

One last view of the HYPROP-VIEW software. This is what it would look like in the measurement windows. And so what you can see here is there’s actually multiple HYPROP measurement windows right here. And you can see the measurement from this HYPROP. Another thing that I didn’t point out earlier is, what’s really nice is you can start a measurement with multiple HYPROPs, all running at the same time, and if one HYPROP finishes early, you can just stop the measurement for that HYPROP, and then disconnect it, go and get it refilled, and if it’s ready to go before the other measurements are not completed, you can actually connect it back to the software and start the measurement again on that HYPROP while other measurements are going, which is really nice, because different soil types finish at different rates just due to their their conductivity and how much water they hold. So that’s going to be a really nice feature. There’s not much else to point out here. I mean, the measurement windows look fairly similar to what you’ve seen in tensioVIEW. It’s maybe just a little cleaned up. But this is kind of what the new software is gonna look like. The plan is to have a pre release version of the software, after it goes through some testing, ready by the end of October. And so we’ll have that available then. And then after it goes through a little more testing, they’ll have a full released version by the end of November, along with a new user manual to go along with that. So that’s pretty much all we have on that. I don’t know if there are any more questions out there about HYPROP filling or anything along those lines. Again, if you have any questions, you can send them in the GoToWebinar question bar. So we’ll just wait a second, see if any new questions come in.

So one of the questions that just came in is, what is the air entry value of the ceramic tips? That’s a really good question. And that’s actually something I didn’t point out is that you can use the air entry point of the ceramic tips to get a additional measurement. So I’ll actually go back to that really quick. If you look in this measurement here, you can see air entry for both the bottom and top tensiometers. When they dropped down to zero kPa, that’s when you’ve reached the air entry point. When they come from UMS, the air entry is 8800 hectopascals so 880 kilopascals. And so that’s how they come. Now one thing to consider that as the tensiometers are used, as the ceramic is used, sometimes the air entry can slightly change. There is a way to test the air entry. I believe it’s in the manual, but essentially you apply pressure to the threaded end of the tensiometer with it in water, and you have slowly increased the pressure, and when you see air bubbles starting to come out from the ceramic, whatever pressure that is, that’s your air entry for the ceramic, so that’s something to test as they’re getting used. Yeah, so the air entry is 880 kilopascals or 8800 hectopascals.

So I have a question here about the time it takes to refill using the vacuum system. And so this again, when using the vacuum system, it takes only a few minutes to get things set up. But I personally like to leave it overnight under vacuum. So, again, I’ll start these in the afternoon, and then come back in the morning and have everything ready to go and start assembling the HYPROP. So it is good to leave it overnight, you don’t have to do it for that long, you may not achieve the full vacuum level, or the full measurement ranges tensiometer shafts, but at least doing it for a couple hours is what I would recommend. But if you leave it overnight, in my opinion, that just helps increase your measurement range of the tensiometers. So what you should see here is, so another showing an example of our measurement. So early on in the measurement, what you’ll notice is that there’s not really much of a difference between the bottom and top tensiometers. When it’s like that, we can’t really make a hydraulic conductivity measurement. So we can’t really start making it until we start to get at least a little bit of a deviation between the two, you kind of start getting one on Friday, you’ll notice right here. So you kind of start getting a deviation right here. And then we can start using that to make a hydraulic conductivity measurement. Now the software is pretty conservative in the level of data that it uses for — And this is the HYPROP-FIT software I’m talking about — but it’s pretty conservative in the level of deviation expects to make a hydraulic conductivity measurement. Now, you can go through and adjust that. And that’s something that I only recommend for people who really understand the measurement that they’re making. But so really, I think maybe just to go back and answer this question. On the wet end, it varies depending on soil type, depending on when you start getting that deviation, but on the dry end, it goes all the way until the tensiometers cavitate. So we can actually get a measurement of hydraulic conductivity, all the way even at the air entry point of the ceramic. So for different soils ranges, for the average water potential it ranges between about 300 to 700 hectopascals depending on the soil type — or sorry, kilopascals, not hectopascals — between 300 and 700 kilopascals.

So I guess one last question that we have. This new software that’s coming out is going to be free. So people that already have the HYPROP will be able to just download the software. The person is also asking about the price of the HYPROP. It depends on where you’re at and where you’re purchasing from. I would just contact your local distributor. Of course here in the US, Decagon Devices is the distributor for UMS but and they have distributors all over the world. So I would just get in contact with them and ask them about that. So anyways. Looks like somebody wants me to repeat the answer to a question. I think it had to do with when we lost audio about the amount of time for refilling with a vacuum. I’ll just again say that I recommend typically starting in the afternoon and leaving it under vacuum overnight. But at least leaving in under vacuum for a couple hours is ideal. But if you really want to get the water degassed well and push the measurement range for the HYPROP, leaving degassing overnight is the best option. So, at minimum two hours, but ideally, overnight is the best. It’s the best option. So.

It looks like we’re all through the questions unless there’s any other questions that need to come in. Oh, sorry, actually, I missed this question. Here we go. So using the syringe method, is it necessary to reassemble the systems a few times, leaving the vacuum for several hours during each time? My concern is the the air that slowing comes out of the ceramic tips as the air comes out vacuum is lost. Oh, okay. Yes, that’s a good question. Yeah, if you’re using the syringes, and you’re putting it into a vacuum…

Sounds like we’re still having audio problems. Hopefully you guys can hear me. I’ll answer this last question and call it a day. When you’re using the syringes for refilling, it is good to go through and reapply the vacuum periodically, especially if you’re leaving them overtime. With the syringes, you don’t have the full big buffer volume like you do in the vacuum system. So they will lose vacuum over time. So hopefully that takes care of everybody. If you do have any other questions, feel free to get back with us. Contact us anytime. You can email myself, you can email us at [email protected]. Or you can contact the folks at UMS.

We will have hopefully an archived version of this virtual seminar available later. We will try and include that in the follow up email for this. We’ll also include a link for that. And we’ll include some contact information. But we’ll also include a sign up for people that want to be notified when the new software is available and when there’s a download available. So we’ll include that in the follow up email. So just keep an eye out for that. Thanks for attending, and we apologize for some of the technical glitches that we’ve had. Hopefully we’ll get those squared away in the future. Thanks again and have a good Thursday.

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