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Sampling Procedures for Testing Water and Fertilizer Solution

Testing water and fertilizer is important as they directly influence the pH and nutrient levels in the growing medium. As a result, they both have a significant impact on crop quality. It is important to periodically test the water to verify that the fertilizer you are using is appropriate for your water and if acid injection is correct or needed. The fertilizer solution analysis verifies that the fertilizer you are using is formulated correctly and also indicates the application rate.

Now we will discuss why testing the water and fertilizer is important and how to collect the samples.

 

Why Test Your Water?

Testing your water is the single most important test. Consider that the alkalinity of the water (composed mostly of bicarbonates and carbonates) directly affects the pH of the growing medium. Knowing the alkalinity makes it easy to select the proper fertilizer. It makes it possible to determine the fertilizing solution that can offset the pH changing influence of the water alkalinity and to determine if acid injection is necessary and at what rate. The water may also provide sufficient beneficial nutrients such as calcium, magnesium and sulfate, which are often missing from most fertilizers. A disadvantage is that water can also provide high levels of waste elements such as chloride, fluoride and sodium, which can interfere with plant uptake of fertilizer elements. Lastly, water also contains dissolved salts, measured as electrical conductivity (E.C.), which if they are high may mean that frequent leaching of the growing medium is required or the water will have to be treated with a reverse osmosis unit.

Boom misting unrooted cuttings on floor bobs market

“Do you know what is in your water and how it will impact your crops? Have your water tested! Source: Premier Tech Horticulture.”


Collecting the Water Sample:

When collecting a water sample for testing, it should be taken from the same source that is applied to the crop. If acid is injected, it is best to test the raw water and also the acidified water for comparison. If more than one water source is used to irrigate your crops, then each source should be tested separately. Water should be collected from the spigot or hose end (make sure to flush out stagnant water, fertilizer residues and chemical residues from the hose prior to taking the sample). If unsure, run the water for 2 minutes.

Fill up a clean plastic bottle to the top and leave no air space. Air left in the bottle can alter the pH of the water and have a slight influence on nutrient levels. Most laboratories require anywhere from 4-16 ounces of water for testing. Contact the laboratory and ask for a water test kit. Most laboratories provide the kit free of charge and it includes the appropriate size bottle.

Once you receive the results of the water test from the laboratory, please refer to the Grower Services portion of our website or contact your Premier Tech Horticulture Grower Services Representative for help interpreting the results.

 

Fertilizer solution sampling:

Fertilizer solution should be tested several times per growing season, especially if multiple fertilizers are used. The fertilizer solution can be tested using two different methods: sending a sample off to a laboratory or in-house testing with an electrical conductivity (E.C.) meter. Laboratory testing determines the amount of each fertilizer element in the fertilizer solution and the application rate. This is helpful if you receive pre-mixed fertilizers to verify whether they were properly blended. In-house testing with an E.C. meter can be used to test the fertilizer application rate coming out the end of the hose. In-house testing should be done every time a new batch of fertilizer concentrate is mixed.

Fertilizer injector set with plumbing (County Farm)

“Fertilizer injectors are very reliable for delivering fertilizer to your crops. The fertilizer solution they deliver should be tested to verify whether the nitrogen application rate is correct. Sometimes injectors need maintenance, but mistakes are often made when mixing fertilizer or setting the injection ratio. Source: Premier Tech Horticulture.”


Collecting fertilizer solution sample for laboratory testing:

Collecting a fertilizer solution sample is similar to collecting a water sample. The fertilizer solution should be collected from the spigot or hose end (make sure to flush out stagnant water, fertilizer residues and chemical residues from the hose prior to taking the sample). It is best to run the irrigation system for 2 minutes to be sure that fertilizer is a thoroughly blended sample. Fill a clean plastic bottle almost all the way to the top and leave some air space. Contact your laboratory and ask for a fertilizer solution analysis test kit.  Again, most laboratories require anywhere from 4-16 ounces of fertilizer solution for testing.

It is best to test every new batch of fertilizer with different analyses. This is to verify that the fertilizer formula posted on the packaging closely matches what the fertilizer solution analysis test indicates. This is also very helpful if you blend individual fertilizer elements to make your own fertilizer. Keep in mind that when the injector injects fertilizer into the water line, the fertilizer may not mix uniformly within the water. If so, collect the fertilizer solution coming out the end of the hose in a bucket, mix it and then take the sample.

When you receive the results of a fertilizer solution analysis, note that the designation for phosphorus and potassium in the analysis are not the same as the designation on the fertilizer packaging. Phosphorus is tested as “P”, but is listed on the fertilizer bag as P2O5; likewise potassium is tested as “K”, but is listed on the fertilizer bag as K2O (see chart below). Total nitrogen as listed on the fertilizer packaging is the summation of ammonium, nitrate and urea. Ammonium and nitrate are tested in the same form as listed on the fertilizer packaging. However, urea is not tested unless specifically requested.  All other fertilizer elements as seen on the fertilizer solution analysis are expressed the same as on the fertilizer packaging, with possible exception to sulfate.

Below is a listing of the conversion factors when comparing the data from a fertilizer solution analysis with the guaranteed analysis listed on the fertilizer packaging:

listing of the conversion factors when comparing the data from a fertilizer solution analysis with the guaranteed analysis listed on the fertilizer packaging

Using the conversion factors from the chart above, let’s use an example to show how to cross-reference laboratory analyses with the guaranteed analyses on the fertilizer bag. Let’s say that we want to verify that 20-10-20 was mixed properly by the manufacturer. A sample of the 20-10-20 fertilizer solution is sent to a laboratory and the analysis of this fertilizer solution shows the results in the table below. Let’s convert the laboratory numbers into the numbers represented on the fertilizer packaging:

Let’s convert the laboratory numbers into the numbers represented on the fertilizer packaging:

If we add nitrate and ammonium values together, it is equal to 100 ppm nitrogen (60 ppm + 40 ppm), which is also the fertilizer application rate. If we take the ratio N-P-K, then the ratio using the above numbers is 100-50-100. Divide each of the numbers by 5 and we have a ratio of 20-10-20, which is the accurate analysis of the fertilizer. Therefore, this fertilizer was correctly made by the manufacturer and it is being applied at 100 ppm nitrogen. If the fertilizer contains urea, this is also part of the total nitrogen on the fertilizer packaging and it must be taken into consideration when determining the fertilizer application rate.

 

Collecting fertilizer solution sample for in-house testing:

In-house testing of the fertilizer solution with an E.C. meter can be used to verify the fertilizer application rate; it will not provide the levels of each nutrient. To collect a fertilizer solution sample, follow the same procedure as above.

To determine the fertilizer application rate, start by calibrating the E.C. meter with a conductivity standard solution. Then test the E.C. of the fertilizer solution coming out the end of the hose. Next, test the E.C. of the water and record the value. Substract the water E.C. from the fertilizer solution E.C. and this will provide the E.C. of the fertilizer only. Refer to the fertilizer packaging or the manufacturer’s website that can cross-reference fertilizer E.C. to ppm nitrogen (see example below).

Example: How much 20-10-20 is being applied as tested below?

E.C. of fertilizer solution =  2.10 mmhos/cm

(minus) - E.C. of water = 0.80 mmhos/cm

E.C. of added fertilizer =  1.30 mmhos/cm (2.10 - 0.80)

Chart used to cross-reference E.C. to ppm nitrogen:

Chart used to cross-reference E.C. to ppm nitrogen

"Answer: 200 ppm Nitrogen"

 

If the fertilizer application rate coming out the end of the hose is not correct, remember that the fertilizer concentrate may have been improperly mixed, the injector may be set at the wrong  ratio or the fertilizer injector needs maintenance.

In the next article in this series on laboratory testing we will discuss how to take growing media and tissue samples for laboratory analysis.

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

PRO-MIX® is a registered trademark of PREMIER TECH Ltd.

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