Standard tensiometers are used to measure matric potential as low as -870 cm of water in the unsaturated zone by creating a saturated hydraulic link between the soil water and a pressure sensor. The direction and, in some cases, quantity of water flux can be determined using multiple installations.
A variety of commercial and fabricated tensiometers are commonly used. Saturated porous ceramic materials, which form an interface between the soil water and the bulk water inside the instrument, are available in many shapes, sizes, and pore diameters. A gage, manometer, or electronic pressure transducer is connected to the porous material with small- or large-diameter tubing. Selection of these components allows the user to optimize one or more characteristics, such as accuracy, versatility, response time, durability, maintenance, extent of data collection, and cost.
Special 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.
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, a first step in characterizing unsaturated flow.