Correctly measure flows and interpret the measurement data

With the Pewatron business unit, the Angst+Pfister Group is able to offer a wide product range in the fields of sensors and power. For example, they create customer-specific sensor solutions in the realm of flow measurement for virtually all measuring tasks (gas, liquid) with various technologies (thermal, pressure, ultrasound, direct). 

With the Pewatron business unit, the Angst+Pfister Group is able to offer a wide product range in the fields of sensors and power. For example, they create customer-specific sensor solutions in the realm of flow measurement for virtually all measuring tasks (gas, liquid) with various technologies (thermal, pressure, ultrasound, direct). 

A common measurement task in medical or industrial  sectors  is  measuring  volume  or  mass flow. These tasks vary according to the application and how the measurement data is interpreted. As is often the case in technology and even daily life, tasks can be performed in various different ways. The example of flow measurement shows how important it is to choose the right approach from the beginning. We offer  the two most widespread  processes for flow measurement: measuring via differential pressure and flow measurement according to the thermal principle. Other valid processes exist but are more niche. This article primarily focuses on gaseous media. Many aspects of this also apply to liquids, while others must be considered separately. The first consideration is the difference between volume flow and mass flow. For the mass flow, the number of molecules is measured – whereas the space taken up by the molecules is measured for volume flow. Gases can be compressed, so a volume flow can change in the event of temperature or pressure changes. The thermal state equation of ideal gases (pV = nRT) describes this relationship. It can be well illustrated through an example with two flasks.


Why mass flow is the most precise

In order to make a statement about a mass flow,  the  direct measurement of the mass flow is generally the most precise option. In other processes, the flow is derived by means of differential pressure, volume flow or flow velocity. These  methods, however, depend on pressure and temperature, and must be corrected accordingly. If the mass flow is the variable to be measured, an immediate measurement is usually more accurate. This direct measurement is performed by means of  the  thermal principle. What exactly  is the thermal  principle? In simple terms, theenergy transport is measured. This refers to energy generated through the heater and discharged through the flow. In this case, it is plain that it’s not volume but the number of molecules that is crucial for energy transport.


The differential pressure measurement via measuring orifice.


These relationships make it clear that a mass flow should actually be expressed in units of weight such as mg/s or g/h. In practice, however, volume units are often used. This is not wrong as long as the pressure and temperature are specified. There are two prepared conditions for this. A pressure of 1013 mbar and a temperature of 0°C was defined as a normal condition. This volume unit is indicated by the subscript letter n: ln/min. A second common definition for mass to volume conversion is the standard condition. This is based on 20°C instead of 0°C and is accordingly marked with an s instead of the n: ls/min. These indications of temperature and pressure are  absolutely mandatory. If the difference between ln/min and ls/min is disregarded, the result is an error of about 7%. If the pressure conditions also deviate from the 1013 mbar, the measured value can deviate even more from the true figure. Volumetric measuring equipment such as impeller counters, rotameters or turbine flow meters do not detect temperature and pressure changes. For a mass flow measurement, additional sensors for the variables as well as an arithmetic unit would be needed, which calculates the true mass flow from all the raw measurement data. However, this is avoided and the measurement principles are usually used when an approximate measured value (not high accuracy) is required or when the volume flow is the quantity desired. Whether a volume flow or a mass flow should be measured is defined by the application itself. This is often historically limited or dependent on the industries. If purchases or  sales  are made  by volume, volumetric  measurements should be made. If, as in the case of petrol, the price factor is weight, then the mass flow should be measured.


Application-specific environmental conditions

In addition to the measured variable, which also depends on the application,  the  ambient conditions contribute to which sensor or which measuring principle is used. A good example is a volumetric flow controller for HVAC ventilation. There are two main factorsto consider: pollution and long-term offset drift. Dust naturally accumulates in the ventilation units within homes and commercial buildings over time. When comparing a MEMS differential pressure sensor with a thermal flow sensor, it can be seen that dust has a completely different effect on the two measurement principles. Typically, a measuring orifice produces a differential pressure that varies with the flow. The pressure difference is measured with a MEMS low pressure sensor. These are usually a few mbar. Dust is not a major problem here. There is no connection between the two measuring points due to the membrane. There is no flow through the sensor, i.e. the sensor cannot become clogged by dust. Thermal flow sensors work differently. These can be configured as differential  pressure sensors and used in the same setup. However, they have the disadvantage that there must always be a small flow through the sensor. If the sensor is clogged by dust or dirt, the flow is interrupted and the sensor becomes defective. Despite the specified disadvantages, thermal flow sensors also offer a number of benefits. Due to the principle, the offset hardly drifts over the years. As a result, no offset adjustment is necessary in the application. Due to their physical construction, pressure sensors have an offset drift – especially low-pressure sensors, some of which are even dependent on the position. In a design with a pressure sensor, it is always advisable to adjust the offset during production or commissioning and, if possible, during the entire service life. If there is a known, defined state during operation, it should be used to correct the offset via software. If that is possible in an application, the pressure sensor is usually the best solution as it is more accurate and cost effective. If an adjustment is not possible, the offset drift must be taken into account in the accuracy calculations.



Comparing different measurement principles

As with any measurement  task, the various measurement principles that come into question should be compared and the advantages and disadvantages considered. Depending on the application, very different concepts can be used. The price is often a deciding factor, whereby the most commercially promising solution is chosen instead of the best technical solution. It is important to consider these aspects and boundary conditions as early as possible during development and during the designin phase. We also offer similar approaches and solutions in the field of fluid flow measurements. Our ultrasound technology is often used for this purpose, and we would  like  to personally introduce you to it. Contact:


A principle illustration of MEMS pressure sensors.


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published: Jul 30, 2020, 4:07:00 PM  by: Angst+Pfister Group