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How to Calibrate Fertilizer Injectors

Plants require essential elements to maximize their genetic potential. These elements are supplied by air, water, substrates and fertilizers. For water soluble fertilizers, it is important to make sure your fertilizer injector is working properly and that it is calibrated for accuracy.

About 90% of the weight of the plant is water and the remaining 10% constitute the dry weight of the essential elements. They are called essential elements because plants cannot grow properly without one of them. There are three non-mineral elements: Carbon (C), Hydrogen (H) and Oxygen (O); they constitute 90% of the plant’s dry weight and are obtained from water and air. In addition, there are 14 mineral elements: Nitrogen (N), Phosphorus (P), Potassium (K), Calcium (Ca), Magnesium (Mg), Sulphur (S), Iron (Fe), Manganese (Mn), Boron (B), Zinc (Zn), Copper (Cu), Nickel (Ni) and Chloride (Cl); those are primarily provided by the fertilizer, but they can also come from water and the substrate. Moreover, they are divided into macronutrients (plants require these elements in high amounts) and micronutrients (plants require these elements in low amounts).

In the greenhouse and nursery industry, most of the mineral nutrients come from water soluble fertilizers. It is very important to know the actual injection ratio and if the injector is working properly. If the injector is not working properly, it is highly likely that nutrient deficiencies or toxicities will occur. There are several companies that sell injectors (Dosatron, DosMatic, Anderson, Smith and others); each company has different injection technologies, but the end result is similar from one to the other. There are different models with different minimum and maximum water flows and injection rates. For example, a small grower would need a medium injection rate (1:50 to 1:500) with a low water flow (0.5 to 20 gpm).

 

Typical fertilizer injector for greenhouses.

"Typical fertilizer injector for greenhouses."

 

Understanding the Injection Ratio

The injection rate can be expressed as a ratio (1:50, 1:100, 1:200, etc.) or as a percentage (2%, 1%, 0.5%, etc.). The equivalence between those two are 1:50 = (1 unit/50 units)*100 = 2%; 1:100 = (1 unit/100 units)*100 = 1%; and 1:200 = (1 unit/200 units)*100 = 0.5%. The ratio of 1:50 means that there is one unit of stock solution injected into fifty units of water. A fertilizer stock solution that is injected at a ratio of 1:50 is more concentrated coming out the end of the hose than the same stock solution injected at 1:200. In contrast, if a grower is applying a final concentration of 200 ppm of N using an injection ratio of 1:200, and then decides to change the injection ratio to 1:100, the final fertilizer solution would be twice as concentrated or 400 ppm N.

 

Fertilizer injection ratio.

"Fertilizer injection ratio."

 

Keep in mind that each fertilizer has a maximum solubility and that it is affected by water temperature (low temperature, low solubility). If fertilizer is added beyond its maximum solubility, it will slow the dissolution process and precipitates will form in the stock tank. Also, there are fertilizers that cannot be mixed in the same stock solution container (sulfates and calcium, phosphates and calcium, and phosphates and iron) since they will react forming precipitates in the bottom of the stock tank. And finally, stir, stir and stir until all the fertilizer is completely dissolved and stir every half hour while watering plants.

There are two methods to verify the proper operation of injectors. Before starting with the procedure, it is necessary to calibrate scales for weight, get a graduated cup in millilitres (or a beaker), get a 20 L (5 gal) bucket and the fertilizers that are used. The first method consists in calculating the actual injection ratio, and the second method estimates the EC of the fertilizer solution.

 

Actual Injection Ratio Method:

  • Place the suction tube from the injector into a measuring cup or beaker and fill it up with stock solution to a known level.
  • Turn on the irrigation system and collect the fertilizer solution in the 20-litre bucket.
  • Stop the irrigation system once you have obtained 20 litres of fertilizer solution.
  • Calculate the amount of stock solution depleted from the measuring cup and the volume of fertilizer solution in the 20-litre bucket.


Example of Injection Ratio Calculations:

 

Measuring the injector’s injection ratio

A grower is using an injector to fertigate plants; the desirable ratio is 1:100. He/She wanted to know the actual injection ratio; thus, he/she followed the above procedure. The grower collected 20 litres of fertilizer solution. The measuring cup at the beginning of the experiment was 0.50 litre and at the end was 0.32 litre.

Example of Injection Ratio CalculationsExample of Injection Ratio Calculations

The actual injection ratio is 1:110, not 1:100. Therefore, he/she is not feeding the plants at the desired rate; the fertilizer solution is less concentrated than it is supposed to be. Now, it is necessary to add more fertilizer to the stock solution to account for the injection ratio.

 

Determining how much fertilizer to add to stock solution

Now that the injector has been calibrated, let’s determine how much fertilizer to add to a stock tank to achieve a desired application rate. The variables are:

Application rate of 150 ppm nitrogen
Injector’s actual injection ratio is 1:110
Fertilizer is 20-20-20 or 20% N
Stock tank size: 30 gallons

The formula needed to calculate the amount of fertilizer to add to the stock tank is:

Determining how much fertilizer to add to stock solution

Thus, in order to make 30 gallons of stock solution, it is necessary to mix 20.6 pounds of 20-20-20 fertilizer.

*Other conversion factors used for different units:
Desired result in ounces per US gallon, use conversion factor of 75 (as above)
Desired result in pounds per US gallon, use conversion factor of 1,200
Desired result in grams per litre, use conversion factor of 10

 

The EC Method

This method consists in measuring the electrical conductivity (EC) of the fertilizer solution. To start, find out your injector’s injection ratio and the nitrogen concentration. Then, look up the EC of the fertilizer applied. All fertilizers come with a table illustrating these variables. For example, Peter’s 20-10-20 has an EC of 1.24 dS/m (or mmhos/cm) at the injection rate of 1:100 and at 200 ppm of N.

 

Example of EC Method

In order to check the proper use of the injector, measure the EC of the water source before adding fertilizer. Next, collect 0.1 litre from the stock solution and mix it with 10 litres of water; in other words, it is a ratio of 1:100. If the nutrient stock solution was properly mixed to provide 200 ppm of N from 20-10-20, the result should be 1.24 dS/m plus the EC from the water source. If the water source has an EC of 0.5 dS/m, the EC of the final fertilizer solution should be 1.74 dS/m. If it is more or less than that, it is necessary to calculate the difference as a percentage and then add or subtract that percentage from the weight of the fertilizer added to the stock tank.

If the result is different from what was expected, the problem could be:

1. The stock solution was mixed improperly; it is either more concentrated or less concentrated.
2. The injector could be drawing too little or too much solution from the stock tank.

It is required that you calibrate the injector before each season starts and that you check the EC of the fertilizer solution at least once a month during the crop season. For both methods, it is necessary to bleed the injectors before calibrating them to get rid of all the air inside. Also, it is necessary to eliminate all the air from the suction tube (flush it). And finally, these tests have to be done at least three times in order to confirm a tendency (if it is good, no more actions need to be taken; if it is bad, further actions need to be taken). Keep in mind fertilizers are highly corrosive and that there will probably be some wear and tear on the injectors, year after year. All injectors need maintenance. Do not wait until there is a problem with plant nutrition to calibrate them.

 

For more information, contact your Premier Tech Horticulture Grower Services Representative:

BLOE         PEEJ             LAWL

Ed Bloodnick
Horticulture Director
US-South East

JoAnn Peery
Horticulture Specialist
US-Central, Canada-Central

Lance Lawnson
Horticulture Specialist
US-West, Canada-West

     
BUET PARS      CHEJ

Troy Buechel
Horticulture Specialist
US-North East

Susan Parent
Horticulture Specialist
Canada-East, US-New England

Jose Chen Lopez
Horticulture Specialist
Mexico, Latin & South America

Conversions
3.78 litres = 1 gallon
1 litre = 1,000 millilitres
1 kilogram = 35.27 oz
1 kilogram = 1,000 grams
1 kilogram = 2.2 pounds

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