Standard Historical Last Updated: Jul 01, 2013
ASTM D3404-91(2004)

Standard Guide for Measuring Matric Potential in Vadose Zone Using Tensiometers

Significance and Use

Movement of water in the unsaturated zone is of considerable interest in studies of hazardous-waste sites (1, 2, 3, 4) ; recharge studies (5, 6); irrigation management (7, 8, 9); and civil-engineering projects (10, 11). Matric-potential data alone can be used to determine direction of flow (11) and, in some cases, quantity of water flux can be determined using multiple tensiometer installations. In theory, this technique can be applied to almost any unsaturated-flow situation whether it is recharge, discharge, lateral flow, or combinations of these situations.

If the moisture-characteristic curve is known for a soil, matric-potential data can be used to determine the approximate water content of the soil (10). The standard tensiometer is used to measure matric potential between the values of 0 and -867 cm of water; this range includes most values of saturation for many soils (12).

Tensiometers directly and effectively measure soil-water tension, but they require care and attention to detail. In particular, installation needs to establish a continuous hydraulic connection between the porous material and soil, and minimal disturbance of the natural infiltration pattern are necessary for successful installation. Avoidance of errors caused by air invasion, nonequilibrium of the instrument, or pressure-sensor inaccuracy will produce reliable values of matric potential.

Special tensiometer designs have extended the normal capabilities of tensiometers, allowing measurement in cold or remote areas, measurement of matric potential as low as -153 m of water (-15 bars), measurement at depths as deep as 6 m (recorded at land surface), and automatic measurement using as many as 22 tensiometers connected to a single pressure transducer, but these require a substantial investment of effort and money.

Pressure sensors commonly used in tensiometers include vacuum gages, mercury manometers, and pressure transducers. Only tensiometers equipped with pressure transducers allow for the automated collection of large quantities of data. However, the user needs to be aware of the pressure-transducer specifications, particularly temperature sensitivity and long-term drift. Onsite measurement of known zero and full-scale readings probably is the best calibration procedure; however, onsite temperature measurement or periodic recalibration in the laboratory may be sufficient.


1.1 This guide covers the measurement of matric potential in the vadose zone using tensiometers. The theoretical and practical considerations pertaining to successful onsite use of commercial and fabricated tensiometers are described. Measurement theory and onsite objectives are used to develop guidelines for tensiometer selection, installation, and operation.

1.2 The values stated in SI units are to be regarded as the standard. The inch-pound units given in parentheses are for information only.

1.3 This standard does not purport to address all of the safety concerns, if any, associated with its use. It is the responsibility of the user of this standard to establish appropriate safety and health practices and determine the applicability of regulatory limitations prior to use.

1.4 This guide offers an organized collection of information or a series of options and does not recommend a specific course of action. This document cannot replace education or experience and should be used in conjunction with professional judgment. Not all aspects of this guide may be applicable in all circumstances. This ASTM standard is not intended to represent or replace the standard of care by which the adequacy of a given professional service must be judged, nor should this document be applied without consideration of a project's many unique aspects. The word Standard in the title of this document means only that the document has been approved through the ASTM consensus process.

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Book of Standards Volume: 04.08
Developed by Subcommittee: D18.21
Pages: 11
DOI: 10.1520/D3404-91R04