Determination of Moisture Content in Soil-Soil Analysis

Determination of Moisture content in the soil, often referred to as soil analysis or soil moisture testing, is a process that quantifies the amount of water in the soil.

This analysis is essential in understanding soil behavior and its suitability for various applications. Scientists, engineers, and agriculturists gain valuable insights into soil health, fertility, and overall performance by measuring moisture content.

Soil moisture content analysis provides necessary information for effective water management in agriculture, evaluating soil stability in engineering projects, and assessing environmental conditions. This data enables informed decision-making and aids in optimizing practices to ensure sustainable and efficient use of soil resources.

Methods for Determining Moisture Content in Soil

  1. Oven-Drying Method: The oven-drying method is a traditional and widely used technique for determining moisture content in the soil. In this method, a soil sample is weighed, dried in an oven at a specified temperature, and reweighed until a constant weight is achieved. The difference in weight before and after drying is used to calculate the moisture content. This method is time-consuming but provides accurate results, making it suitable for various applications. However, it may alter some soil properties due to high temperatures during the drying process.
  2. Calcium Carbide Method: MethodThe calcium carbide method, also known as the speedily extractable moisture (SEM) method, utilizes the reaction between calcium carbide and water in the soil. A soil sample is mixed with calcium carbide in a sealed container, and the moisture content is determined by measuring the pressure generated due to the reaction. This method offers quick results and is often used for field-based analysis. However, it is less accurate than the oven-drying method and may be influenced by soil composition and temperature factors.
  3. Torsion Balance Method: The torsion balance method, also called the pycnometer method, involves weighing a known volume of soil and measuring the change in weight as it dries. A soil sample is placed in a pycnometer, and the weight loss over time indicates the moisture content. This method is suitable for fine-grained soils and offers accurate results. However, it requires specialized equipment and is time-consuming.
  4. Microwave Oven Method: The microwave oven method involves heating a soil sample in a microwave oven and measuring the weight loss as it dries. This technique provides rapid results and is suitable for quick on-site analysis. However, it may not be as accurate as other methods and can be influenced by soil heterogeneity.
  5. Time-Domain Reflectometry (TDR) Method: The time-domain reflectometry method utilizes electromagnetic waves to measure soil moisture content. It involves inserting TDR probes into the soil and analyzing the reflected waves to determine moisture content. This method provides real-time data, is non-destructive, and is suitable for continuous monitoring. However, it requires specialized equipment and expertise.
  6. Neutron Moisture Gauge Method: The neutron moisture gauge method uses a neutron source and detector to measure soil moisture content. The neutrons interact with hydrogen atoms in the soil, and the detector records the emitted radiation correlated to moisture content. This method offers quick and accurate results and is suitable for field measurements. However, it requires proper training and adherence to safety protocols due to using radioactive materials.
  7. Electrical Resistance Blocks Method: The method involves burying resistance blocks in the soil, which measures the electrical resistance based on moisture content. The resistance is then converted into moisture content using calibration curves. This method provides continuous measurements and is suitable for long-term monitoring. However, it requires regular calibration and may be influenced by factors like soil salinity.
  8. Infrared Moisture Balance Method: The infrared moisture balance method utilizes infrared radiation to measure moisture content. A soil sample is heated, and the loss in weight due to moisture evaporation is measured using an infrared sensor. This method provides quick results and is suitable for on-site analysis. However, it may not be as accurate as other methods and can be influenced by factors like soil composition and temperature.

Tools and Equipment Used for Moisture Content Analysis

  1. Oven: An oven, typically with temperature control and good ventilation, is used for the oven-drying method. It should have a suitable capacity to accommodate the soil samples.
  2. Calcium Carbide Moisture Meter: A calcium carbide moisture meter is essential for the calcium carbide method. It consists of a pressure gauge or transducer that measures the pressure generated by the reaction between calcium carbide and soil moisture.
  3. Torsion Balance: A torsion balance or a pycnometer is used for the torsion balance method. It should be capable of accurately measuring the weight of the soil sample.
  4. Microwave Oven: A standard microwave oven is used for the microwave oven method. It should have sufficient power and appropriate settings for drying the soil samples.
  5. Time-Domain Reflectometer (TDR): A TDR device consisting of probes and a data logger is used for the TDR method. The probes are inserted into the soil, and the data logger records the reflected waves.
  6. Neutron Moisture Gauge: A neutron moisture gauge, which includes a neutron source, detector, and data recording unit, is used for the neutron moisture gauge method. Proper safety measures and protocols must be followed while using this equipment.
  7. Electrical Resistance Blocks: Electrical resistance blocks and a data logger or monitoring system are used for the electrical resistance blocks method. The data logger records the electrical resistance readings, which are then converted into moisture content using calibration curves.
  8. Infrared Moisture Balance: An infrared moisture balance, equipped with an infrared sensor and suitable controls, is used for the infrared moisture balance method. It should be capable of accurately measuring the weight loss of the soil sample due to moisture evaporation.

The Importance of Moisture Content in Agriculture

  1. Enhancing Crop Productivity: Adequate soil moisture content is important for optimal plant growth and crop productivity. Farmers can determine when and how much to irrigate by analyzing soil moisture, ensuring that plants receive sufficient water for healthy development.
  2. Optimizing Irrigation Practices: Moisture content analysis helps farmers determine the irrigation requirements of their crops. Understanding the soil’s water-holding capacity and moisture retention characteristics can avoid over- or under-irrigation, leading to efficient water usage and cost savings.
  3. Preventing Soil Erosion: Maintaining appropriate soil moisture content plays a significant role in preventing soil erosion. Proper moisture levels contribute to soil stability, minimizing the risk of erosion caused by wind or water runoff.
  4. Managing Soil Fertility: Soil moisture content directly affects nutrient availability and uptake by plants. Analyzing moisture content assists in managing soil fertility, providing insights into nutrient leaching, nutrient retention capacity, and the efficiency of fertilizers.
  5. Conservation of Water Resources: Farmers can implement water conservation practices by accurately determining soil moisture content. They can adopt strategies such as mulching, crop rotation, and precision irrigation techniques, which optimize water usage and contribute to sustainable agriculture.
  6. Monitoring Drought Conditions: Moisture content analysis is essential for monitoring and assessing drought conditions. Farmers can take proactive measures to mitigate the effects of drought by regularly measuring soil moisture levels, such as adjusting crop selection, implementing water-saving technologies, or seeking alternative irrigation sources.
person watering plant
Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash

Moisture Content Analysis in Engineering Projects

  1. Determining Soil Stability: Moisture content analysis is vital in assessing soil stability for engineering projects. The moisture content affects soil strength, cohesion, and shear resistance, essential factors in determining the stability of slopes, embankments, and retaining walls.
  2. Assessing Foundation Conditions: In construction projects, analyzing soil moisture content helps engineers assess foundation conditions. Excessive moisture content can lead to soil settlement, differential settlement, or foundation failure. Appropriate foundation designs and soil stabilization measures can be implemented by understanding the moisture content.
  3. Analyzing Soil Compaction: Soil compaction is a essential consideration in engineering projects. Moisture content significantly influences the compatibility of soil. Engineers can optimize compaction efforts by conducting moisture content analysis, ensuring adequate soil density, and reducing the risk of settlement or structural damage.
  4. Monitoring Construction Materials: Moisture content analysis is essential for quality control in construction materials. Soil moisture affects the properties of materials such as concrete, asphalt, and compacted fill. By monitoring moisture content, engineers can ensure proper material preparation and placement of moisture conditions, enhancing project durability and performance.

Environmental Studies and Moisture Content Analysis

  1. Evaluating Groundwater Contamination: Moisture content analysis is valuable in assessing groundwater contamination. By analyzing soil moisture, scientists can understand the movement of contaminants through the soil and determine the potential for groundwater pollution. This information aids in designing effective remediation strategies.
  2. Assessing Soil Pollution: Soil moisture content analysis plays a role in assessing soil pollution levels. Certain pollutants may alter the moisture characteristics of soil, impacting its water retention capacity. By analyzing moisture content, scientists can identify areas of potential contamination and evaluate the extent of soil pollution.
  3. Studying Hydrological Processes: Moisture content analysis is important in studying hydrological processes such as infiltration, evaporation, and runoff. By understanding soil moisture dynamics, researchers can model and predict water movement, assess watershed behavior, and contribute to effective water resource management.
  4. Monitoring Environmental Remediation: Soil moisture content analysis is valuable during environmental remediation projects. By continuously monitoring moisture levels, engineers and environmental scientists can assess the effectiveness of remediation techniques, track changes in soil conditions, and ensure the successful restoration of contaminated sites.


As water is the most limiting factor in arid to semi-arid areas, soil moisture determination is significant. Soil moisture influences crop growth not only by affecting nutrient availability,
but also nutrient transformations and soil biological behavior.

Therefore, at ICARDA, soil moisture is routinely measured in most field trials. While the neutron probe can assess it in the field, the gravimetric approach is more flexible, as samples can be readily taken from any soil situation.

All analyses in the laboratory are related to an air- or oven-dry basis and, therefore, must consider the actual soil moisture content (Sparks et al., 1966).


Electric oven, with thermostat Desiccator, Soil samples, etc.


1. Weigh 10 g air-dry soil (< 2 mm) into a previously dried (105 °C) and weighed metal can with
2. Dry in an oven, with the lid unfitted, at 105 °C overnight (generally for 24 hours).
3. Next day, when the soil has dried, remove the container from the oven using tongs; fit the lid, cool in a desiccator for at least 30 minutes, and re-weigh.

4. Using the formula, find the Moisture contents of the soil.


Technical Remarks

  1. Care should be taken to avoid over-heating of the soil sample by maintaining the oven
    the temperature at 105-110 °C.
  2. Moisture content in air-dry is called hygroscopic moisture. It varies from less than 0.2% for sand to more than 8% for leaf litter.
  3. The water content at field capacity, wilting point, and hygroscopic coefficient are all based on the oven-dry reference mass.

FAQs about the Determination of Moisture Content in Soil

What is the significance of moisture content analysis in agriculture?

Moisture content analysis in agriculture is significant as it helps farmers optimize irrigation practices, prevent soil erosion, manage soil fertility, and conserve water resources. It ensures efficient water usage, improving crop productivity and sustainable farming practices.

How does moisture content affect soil stability in engineering projects?

Moisture content affects soil stability in engineering projects by influencing soil strength, cohesion, and shear resistance. Excessive moisture can lead to slope instability, embankment failure, or foundation settlement. Proper moisture content analysis enables engineers to design and construct stable and durable structures.

Can moisture content analysis helps in detecting soil pollution?

Moisture content analysis can indirectly help detect soil pollution by identifying changes in soil moisture characteristics caused by certain pollutants. Deviations in moisture content can indicate potential contamination areas, prompting further investigation and assessment.

Which method is commonly used for determining moisture content in soil?

The oven-drying method is commonly used for determining moisture content in soil due to its accuracy and reliability. It provides consistent results and is widely accepted in various fields of soil analysis.

What are the potential errors in moisture content analysis?

Potential errors in moisture content analysis can arise from factors such as incomplete drying, contamination, sample heterogeneity, equipment calibration, and human error. Proper protocols, standardized procedures, and careful attention to these factors minimize errors and ensure accurate results.

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