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Analog Electronics Instrumentation - Current Loops

Controller output current loops

The simplest form of 4-20 mA current loop is the type used to represent the output of a process controller, sending a command signal to a final control element. Here, the controller both supplies the electrical power and regulates the DC current to the final control element, which acts as an electrical load. To illustrate, consider the example of a controller sending a 4-20 mA signal to an I/P (current-to-pressure) signal converter, which then pneumatically drives a control valve:



This particular controller has two digital displays, one for process variable (PV) and one for setpoint (SP), with a bargraph for displaying the output value (Out). One pushbutton provides the operator with a way to switch between Automatic and Manual modes (A/M), while two other pushbuttons provide means to decrement and increment either the setpoint value (in Automatic mode) or the Output value (in Manual mode).

Inside the controller, a dependent current source provides the 4-20 mA DC current signal to the I/P transducer. Like all current sources, its purpose is to maintain current in the “loop” circuit regardless of circuit resistance or any external voltage sources. Unlike a constant current source, a “dependent” current source (represented by a diamond shape instead of a circle shape) varies its current value according to the dictates of some external stimulus. In this case, either the mathematical function of the controller (Automatic mode) or the arbitrary setting of the human operator (Manual mode) tells the current source how much DC current it should maintain in the circuit.

For example, if the operator happened to switch the controller into Manual mode and set the output value at 50%, the proper amount of DC current for this signal percentage would be 12 mA (exactly half-way between 4 mA and 20 mA). If everything is working properly, the current in the “loop” circuit to the I/P transducer should remain exactly at 12 mA regardless of slight changes in wire resistance, I/P coil resistance, or anything else: the current source inside the controller will “fight” as hard as it has to in order to maintain this set amount of current. This current, as it flows through the wire coil of the I/P transducer mechanism, creates a magnetic field inside the I/P to actuate the pneumatic mechanism and produce a 9 PSI pressure signal output to the control valve (9 PSI being exactly half-way between 3 PSI and 15 PSI in the 3-15 PSI signal standard range). This should move the control valve to the half-way position.

The details of the controller’s internal current source are not terribly important. Usually, it takes the form of an operational amplifier circuit driven by the voltage output of a DAC (Digital-to-Analog Converter). The DAC converts a binary number (either from the controller’s automatic calculations, or from the human operator’s manual setting) into a small DC voltage, which then commands the op-amp circuit to regulate output current at a proportional value.

The scenario is much the same if we replace the I/P and control valve with a variable-speed motor drive. From the controller’s perspective, the only difference it sees is a resistive load instead of an inductive load. The input resistance of the motor drive circuit converts the 4-20 mA signal into an analog voltage signal (typically 1-5 V, but not always). This voltage signal then constitutes a command to the rest of the drive circuitry, telling it to modulate the power going to the electric motor in order to drive it at the desired speed:




4-wire (“self-powered”) transmitter current loops

DC electric current signals may also be used to communicate process measurement information from transmitters to controllers, indicators, recorders, alarms, and other input devices. The simplest form of 4-20 mA measurement loop is one where the transmitter has two terminals for the 4-20 mA signal wires to connect, and two more terminals where a power source connects. These transmitters arecalled “4-wire” or self-powered. The current signal from the transmitter connects to the process variable input terminals of the controller to complete the loop:



Typically, process controllers are not equipped to directly accept milliamp input signals, but rather voltage signals. For this reason we must connect a precision resistor across the input terminals to convert the 4-20 mA signal into a standardized analog voltage signal that the controller can understand. A voltage signal range of 1 to 5 volts is standard, although some models of controller use different voltage ranges and therefore require different precision resistor values. If the voltage range is 1-5 volts and the current range is 4-20 mA, the precision resistor value must be 250 ohms. Since this is a digital controller, the input voltage at the controller terminals is interpreted by an analog-to-digital converter (ADC) circuit, which converts the measured voltage into a digital number that the controller’s microprocessor can work with.

In some installations, transmitter power is supplied through additional wires in the cable from a power source located in the same panel as the controller:



The obvious disadvantage of this scheme is the requirement of two more conductors in the cable. More conductors means the cable will be larger-diameter and more expensive for a given length. Cables with more conductors will require larger electrical conduit to fit in to, and all field wiring panels will have to contain more terminal blocks to marshal the additional conductors. If no suitable electrical power source exists at the transmitter location, though, a 4-wire cable is necessary to service a 4-wire transmitter.


2-wire (“loop-powered”) transmitter current loops

It is possible to convey electrical power and communicate analog information over the same two wires using 4 to 20 milliamps DC, if we design the transmitter to be loop-powered. A loop-powered transmitter connects to a process controller in the following manner:


Here, the transmitter is not really a current source in the sense that a 4-wire transmitter is. Instead, a 2-wire transmitter’s circuitry is designed to act as a current regulator, limiting current in the series loop to a value representing the process measurement, while relying on a remote source of power to motivate current to flow. Please note the direction of the arrow in the transmitter’s dependent current source symbol, and how it relates to the voltage polarity marks. Refer back to the illustration of a 4-wire transmitter circuit for comparison. The current “source” in this loop-powered transmitter actually behaves as an electrical load, while the current source in the 4-wire transmitter functions as a true electrical source.

A loop-powered transmitter gets its operating power from the minimum terminal voltage and current available at its two terminals. With the typical source voltage being 24 volts DC, and the maximum voltage dropped across the controller’s 250 ohm resistor being 5 volts DC, the transmitter should always have at least 19 volts available at its terminals. Given the lower end of the 4-20 mA signal range, the transmitter should always have at least 4 mA of current to run on. Thus, the transmitter will always have a certain minimum amount of electrical power available on which to operate, while regulating current to signal the process measurement.

Internally, the loop-powered transmitter circuitry looks something like this:


All sensing, scaling, and output conditioning circuitry inside the transmitter must be designed to run on less then 4 mA of DC current, and at a modest terminal voltage. In order to create loop currents exceeding 4 mA – as the transmitter must do in order to span the entire 4 to 20 milliamp signal range – the transmitter circuitry uses a transistor to shunt (bypass) extra current from one terminal to the other as needed to make the total current indicative of the process measurement. For example, if the transmitter’s internal operating current is only 3.8 mA, and it must regulate loop current at a value of 16 mA to represent a condition of 75% process measurement, the transistor will bypass 12.2 mA of current.

Early current-based industrial transmitters were not capable of operating on such low levels of electrical power, and so used a different current signal standard: 10 to 50 milliamps DC. Loop power supplies for these transmitters ranged upwards of 90 volts to provide enough power for the transmitter. Safety concerns made the 10-50 mA standard unsuitable for some industrial installations, and modern microelectronic circuitry with its reduced power consumption made the 4-20 mA standard practical for nearly all types of process transmitters.


Continue reading to the next page, Troubleshooting Current Loops

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Comments (1)Add Comment
Siemens VFD setting problem
written by shaiful, March 21, 2012
Dear Sir,

I have a problem with my blower to run in auto system. The problem is the transmitter cannot regulate the pressure. For your information, i want my gas pressure after the blower consistent at 200mb for my gas engine operation. the scenario is when my engine start :-

Pressure after blower:still 200mb
Blower Frequency:30Hz min. set point
Engine performance:30%


When i want to increase my engine performance to 50%

Pressure become : 170Mb(want to maintain 200mb)
Blower frequency : still 30Hz(the transmitter must increase the Frequency to achieve 200mb)

Can u advice what is the min/max set point and the % set point for 200mb. and please advice whether any setting of the VFD.

for your information:-

our transmitter 0-1bar, 4-20mA, VFD Siemens

Thank You

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