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Fluid Mechanics - Manometers

Expressing fluid pressure in terms of a vertical liquid column makes perfect sense when we use a very simple kind of motion-balance pressure instrument called a manometer. A manometer is nothing more than a piece of clear (glass or plastic) tubing filled with a liquid of known density, situated next to a scale for measuring distance. The most basic form of manometer is the U-tube manometer, shown here:


Pressure is read on the scale as the difference in height (h) between the two liquid columns. One nice feature of a manometer is it really cannot become “uncalibrated” so long as the fluid is pure and the assembly is maintained in an upright position. If the fluid used is water, the manometer may be filled and emptied at will, and even rolled up for storage if the tubes are made of flexible plastic.

We may build even more sensitive manometers by purposely inclining one or more of the tubes, so that distance read along the tube length is a fractional proportion of distance measured along the vertical:

This way, a greater motion of liquid is required to generate the same hydrostatic pressure (vertical liquid displacement) than in an upright manometer, making the inclined manometer more sensitive. If even more sensitivity is desired, we may build something called a micromanometer, consisting of a gas bubble trapped in a clear horizontal tube between two large vertical manometer chambers:

Pressure applied to the top of either vertical chamber will cause the vertical liquid columns to shift just the same as any U-tube manometer. However, the bubble trapped in the clear horizontal tube will move much further than the vertical displacement of either liquid column, owing to the huge difference in cross-sectional area between the vertical chambers and the horizontal tube. This amplification of motion makes the micromanometer exceptionally sensitive to small pressures.

Using water as the working liquid in a standard U-tube manometer, 1 PSI of applied gas pressure results in approximately 27.7 inches of vertical liquid column displacement (i.e. 27.7 inches of height difference between the two water columns). This relatively large range of motion limits the usefulness of water manometers to modest pressures only. If we wished to use a water manometer to measure the pressure of compressed air in an industrial pneumatic supply system at approximately 100 PSI, the manometer would have to be in excess of 230 feet tall! Clearly, a water manometer would not be the proper instrument to use for such an application.

However, water is not the only viable liquid for use in manometers. We could take the exact same clear U-tube and fill it partially full of liquid mercury instead, which is substantially denser than water. In a mercury manometer, 1 PSI of applied gas pressure results in very slightly more than 2 inches of liquid column displacement. A mercury manometer applied to the task of measuring air pressure in an industrial pneumatic system would only have to be 17 feet tall – still quite large and cumbersome1 for a measuring instrument, but not impossible to construct or to use.

A common form of manometer seen in calibration laboratories is the well type, consisting of a single vertical tube and a relatively large reservoir (called the “well”) acting as the second column:

Due to the well’s much larger cross-sectional area, liquid motion inside of it is negligible compared to the motion of liquid inside the clear viewing tube. For all practical purposes, the only liquid motion is inside the smaller tube. Thus, the well manometer provides an easier means of reading pressure: no longer does one have to measure the difference of height between two liquid columns, only the height of a single column.


1A colleague of mine told me once of working in an industrial facility with a very old steam boiler, where boiler steam pressure was actually indicated by tall mercury manometers reaching from floor to ceiling. Operations personnel had to climb a ladder to accurately read pressure indicated by these manometers!

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Comments (2)Add Comment
written by Nisar, March 13, 2012
A good introduction of manometers.
I would like to know that name of liquid, is it water or mecury being used in all types of manmeters.
Please clarify.
Sam Earle
written by Sam Earle, March 20, 2012
hello nasir!

most manometers u-tube manometers use water. but other liquids can be used also as long as you know the specific weight and density of the said liquid being used. Then you can apply the formula for that which is:

pd = γ h

= ρ g h (1)


pd = pressure

γ = specific weight of the fluid in the tube (kN/m3, lb/ft3 )

ρ = density (kg/m3, lb/ft3)

g = acceleration of gravity (9.81 m/s2, 32.174 ft/s2)

h = liquid height (m, ft)

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