Electrical Resistivity Test of Soil

This method depends on differences in the electrical resistance of different soil (and rock) types. The flow of current through a soil is mainly due to electrolytic action and therefore depends on the concentration of dissolved salts in the pores. The mineral particles of soil are poor conductors of current. The resistivity of soil, therefore, decreases as both water content and concentration of salts increase.

Dense clean sand above the water table, for example, would exhibit a high resistivity due to its low degree of saturation and virtual absence of dissolved salts. Saturated clay of high void ratio, on the other hand, would exhibit a low resistivity due to the relative abundance of pore water and the free ions in that water.

There are several methods by which the field resistivity measurements are made. The most popular of the methods is the Wenner Method.

Wenner Method

The Wenner arrangement consists of four equally spaced (A) electrodes driven approximately 20 cm into the ground as shown in the following figure.

Wenner's Arrangement for Electrical Resistivity Test of Soil
Wenner’s Arrangement for Electrical Resistivity Test of Soil

In this method a dc current of known magnitude (I) is passed between the two outer (current) electrodes, thereby producing an electric field within the soil, whose pattern can be determined by the resistivities of the soils present within the field and the boundary conditions. By means of the inner electrodes the potential drop ‘E’ for the surface current flow lines is measured. The apparent resistivity ‘R’, is calculated using the following equation

 Electrical Resistivity test equation




A in centimeters,

E in volts,

I in amperes, and

R in ohm-cm

The apparent resistivity represents a weighted average of true resistivity to a depth A in a large volume of soil, the soil close to the surface being more heavily weighted than the soil at greater depths. The presence of a stratum of low resistivity forces the current to flow closer to the surface resulting in a higher voltage drop and hence a higher value of apparent resistivity. The opposite is true if a stratum of low resistivity lies below a stratum of high resistivity.

The method known as electrical sounding is used when the variation of resistivity with depth is required. This enables rough estimates to be made of the types and depths of strata. A series of readings are taken, the (equal) spacing of the electrodes being increased for each successive reading. However, the center of the four electrodes remains at a fixed point. As the spacing is increased, the apparent resistivity is influenced by a greater depth of soil. If the resistivity increases with the increasing electrode spacing, it can be concluded that an underlying stratum of higher resistivity is beginning to influence the readings. If increased separation produces decreasing resistivity, on the other hand, a lower resistivity is beginning to influence the readings.

Apparent resistivity is plotted against spacing, preferably, on log paper. Characteristic curves for a two layer structure are shown in the following figure.

Electrical Resistivity Test - Schematic Representation
Electrical Resistivity Test – Schematic Representation

For curve C1 the resistivity of layer 1 is lower than that of layer 2; for curve C2, layer 1 has a higher resistivity than that of layer 2. The curves become asymptotic to lines representing the true resistance R1 and R2 of the respective layers. Approximate layer thickness can be obtained by comparing the observed curves of resistivity versus electrode spacing with a set of standard curves. The procedure known as electrical profiling is used in the investigation of lateral variation of soil types. A series of readings is taken, the four electrodes being moved laterally as a unit for each successive reading; the electrode spacing remains constant for each reading of the series. Apparent resistivity is plotted against the center position of the four electrodes, to natural scale; such a plot can be used to locate the position of a soil of high or low resistivity. Contours of resistivity can be plotted over a given area. The electrical method of exploration has been found to be not as reliable as the seismic method as the apparent resistivity of a particular soil or rock can vary over a wide range of values. Representative values of resistivity are given in the following table.

Representative values of resistivity. The values are expressed in units of 103 ohm-cm(after Peck et al, 1974)
Material Resistivity (ohm-cm)
Clay and saturated silt 0 – 10
Sandy clay and wet silty sand 10 – 25
Clayey sand and saturated sand 25 – 50
Sand 50 – 150
Gravel 150 – 500
Weathered rock 100 – 200
Sound rock 150 – 4000


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