Understanding PH Control

What is pH?

pH is a measure of the relative concentration of hydrogen ions (H+) to hydroxide ions (OH-). The greater the number of H+ ions in relation to OH- the more acidic the solution becomes. The greater the ratio of OH- ions to H+, the more basic the solution becomes. PH is measured on a scale of 1-14. A reading below 7 means that there are more H+ ions and a reading above 7 indicates more OH- ions. At pH 7 there are the same number of H+ ions as OH- ions so the pH is neutral, neither acid nor base.










Acids and Bases

Any substance that increases the concentration of hydrogen ions (lowers the pH) when added to water is called an acid. A substance that reduces the concentration of hydrogen ions (raises the pH) when added to water is called a base or an alkali. Some substances enable solutions to resist pH changes when an acid or base is added. These substances are called buffers. Buffers are very important in helping to maintain a relatively constant pH in a feeding solution and in the root zone after the water has been applied to the crop. Most greenhouse water supplies have sufficient alkalinity that they require routine acid addition to correct the pH to the normal 5.8-6.2 feeding range. At this level, the irrigation water tends to have a neutral effect on media pH, although this depends on the buffering capacity of the media. Some growers use very pure water from rain and surface sources. In these situations, they may need to apply a combination of acid and base materials to stabilize and buffer the pH.

Why does pH Matter?

Improper management of media pH can result in poor growth and reduced plant quality in greenhouses and nurseries. The pH or soil reaction has a primary influence on the solubility and availability of plant nutrients. Many crops have a narrow range of pH tolerance. If the pH of the soil medium falls above or below this tolerance zone, they may not grow properly due to nutrient deficiency or toxicity.

The availability of most fertilizer elements is affected to some extent by the media pH. Calcium and magnesium become more available as the pH increases, while iron, manganese, and phosphorus become less available. A one-unit pH drop can increase the solubility of manganese by as much as 100 times, and the solubility of iron by as much as 1000 times.

Why Adjust Irrigation pH?

By carefully modifying the pH and alkalinity of your irrigation and feed solutions, you can help maintain the desired plant growth and quality. There are other reasons to monitor and control pH in your irrigation water and nutrient solutions: 1) Solution pH affects the availability of nutrients. 2) Correct pH helps ensure dissolved fertilizer concentrates remain in solution when mixed in the water supply. 3) Acid injection can be used to neutralize excess alkalinity in water supplies.

Understanding The pH Scale

The pH scale measures the relative concentration of Hydrogen Ions (H+) and Hydroxyl ions (OH-) in a solution. Technically, the pH of a solution is defined as a negative logarithm of the hydrogen ion concentration. The "P" is the mathematical symbol for a negative logarithm and the "H" is the symbol for hydrogen. The pH scale measures this, and places a value on it ranging from 0 to 14. Since it is a log scale, each number on the scale is 10 times greater (or smaller) than the next. A lower pH number corresponds to a higher concentration of hydrogen ions (H+) relative to hydroxyl ions (OH-). A higher pH number corresponds to a relatively lower concentration of hydrogen ions

Measuring pH

There are several methods available for measuring pH, but the most useful and practical is an accurate pH meter. Follow the instructions included to preserve the accuracy and life of your instrument. These meters typically use a liquid filled glass probe, although some are now using flat sensor technology.

Water and nutrient solution samples can be measured directly or preferably after a few hours of settling time. Dissolved CO2 in water supplies can cause slightly lower readings until the sample has come to equilibrium with the air. When testing media, freshly mixed samples of media should be watered and allowed to stand for 24 hours before a reading is taken to release some of the lime and fertilizers. The preferred method for testing media pH is to obtain several representative samples of a crop and to measure each separately. Multiple measurements give greater accuracy in reading, and shows the degree of variability of pH across several locations. A saturated media extract or a 1:1 soil to distilled water ratio is fine for measuring media pH.

Factors Affecting pH

These variables can affect the final pH, the rate of pH change, and the amount of modifying action required. They include the effects of:

  • Soil temperature
  • Fertilizer materials (may raise, lower or buffer pH)
  • Soil amendments such as gypsum, sulfur and lime
  • Root volume & metabolic activity
  • Soil microorganisms
  • pH and alkalinity of the irrigation water
  • Leaching fraction
  • Buffering capacity of both the soil medium and the irrigation source
  • Media cation exchange capacity
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