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Final Control Elements - Control Valves

Article Index
Final Control Elements - Control Valves
Dampers and Louvres
Valve Packing
Valve Positioners
Control Valve Sizing, continued
Control Valve Problems
One of the most common final control elements in industrial control systems is the control valve. A “control valve” works to restrict the flow of fluid through a pipe at the command of an automated signal, such as the signal from a loop controller or logic device (such as a PLC). Some control valve designs are intended for discrete (on/off) control of fluid flow, while others are designed to throttle fluid flow somewhere between fully open and fully closed (shut), inclusive. The electrical equivalent of an on/off valve is a switch, while the electrical equivalent of a throttling valve is a variable resistor.

Control valves are comprised of two major parts: the valve body, which contains all the mechanical components necessary to influence fluid flow; and the valve actuator, which provides the mechanical power necessary to move the components within the valve body. Often times, the major difference between an on/off control valve and a throttling control valve is the type of actuator applied to the valve1: on/off actuators need only position a valve mechanism two one of two extreme positions (fully open or fully closed). Throttling actuators must be able to accurately position a valve mechanism anywhere between those extremes.

Within a control valve body, the specific components performing the work of throttling (or completely shutting off) of fluid flow are collectively referred to as the valve trim. For each major type of control valve, there are usually many variations of trim design. The choice of valve type, and of specific trim for any type of valve, is a decision dictated by the type of fluid being controlled, the nature of the control action (on/off versus throttling), the process conditions (expected flow rate, temperature, pressures, etc.), and economics.

1To be honest, there are some valve body designs that work far better in on/off service (e.g. ball valves and plug valves) while other designs do a better job at throttling (e.g. double-ported globe valves). Many valve designs, however, may be pressed into either type of service merely by attaching the appropriate actuator.

Sliding-stem valves

A sliding-stem valve body is one that actuates with a linear motion. Some examples of sliding-stem valve body designs are shown here:



Most sliding-stem control valves are direct acting, which means the valve opens up wider as the stem is drawn out of the body. Conversely, a direct-acting valve shuts off (closes) when the stem is pushed into the body. Of course, a reverse-acting valve body would behave just the opposite: opening up as the stem is pushed in and closing off as the stem is drawn out.


Globe valves

Globe valves restrict the flow of fluid by altering the distance between a movable plug and a stationary seat (in some cases, a pair of plugs and matching seats). Fluid flows through a hole in the center of the seat, and is more or less restricted by how close the plug is to that hole. The globe valve design is one of the most popular sliding-stem valve designs used in throttling service. A photograph of a small (2 inch) globe valve body appears here:



A set of three photographs showing a cut-away Masoneilan model 21000 globe valve body illustrates just how the moving plug and stationary seat work together to throttle flow in a direct-acting globe valve. The left-hand photo shows the valve body in the fully closed position, while the middle photo shows the valve half-open, and the right-hand photo shows the valve fully open:



As you can see from these photographs, the valve plug is guided by the stem so it always lines up with the centerline of the seat. For this reason, this particular style of globe valve is called a stem-guided globe valve.

A variation on the stem-guided globe valve design is the needle valve, where the plug is extremely small in diameter and usually fits well into the seat hole rather than merely sitting on top of it. Needle valves are very common as manually-actuated valves used to control low flow rates of air or oil. A set of three photographs shows a needle valve in the fully-closed, mid-open, and fully-open positions (left-to-right):



Yet another variation on the globe valve is the port-guided valve, where the plug has an unusual shape that projects into the seat. Thus, the seat ring acts as a guide for the plug to keep the centerlines of the plug and seat always aligned, minimizing guiding stresses that would otherwise be placed on the stem. This means that the stem may be made smaller in diameter than if the valve trim were stem-guided, minimizing sliding friction and improving control behavior.


Some globe valves use a pair of plugs (on the same stem) and a matching pair of seats to throttle fluid flow. These are called double-ported globe valves. The purpose of a double-ported globe valve is to minimize the force applied to the stem by process fluid pressure across the plugs:


Differential pressure of the process fluid (P1 P2) across a valve plug will generate a force parallel to the stem as described by the formula F = PA, with A being the plug’s effective area presented for the pressure to act upon. In a single-ported globe valve, there will only be one force generated by the process pressure. In a double-ported globe valve, there will be two opposed force vectors, one generated at the upper plug and another generated at the lower plug. If the plug areas are approximately equal, then the forces will likewise be approximately equal and therefore nearly cancel. This makes for a control valve that is easier to actuate (i.e. the stem position is less affected by process fluid pressures).

The following photograph shows a disassembled Fisher “A-body” double-ported globe valve, with the double plug plainly visible on the right:



While double-ported globe valves certainly enjoy the advantage of easier actuation compared to their single-ported cousins, they also suffer from a distinct disadvantage: the near impossibility of tight shut-off. With two plugs needing to come to simultaneous rest on two seats to achieve a fluid-tight seal, there is precious little room for error or dimensional instability. Even if a double-ported valve is prepared in a shop for the best shut-off possible2, it may not completely shut off when installed due to dimensional changes caused by process fluid heating or cooling the valve stem and body. This is especially problematic when the stem is made of a different material than the body.

Globe valve stems are commonly manufactured from stainless steel bar stock, while globe valve bodies are commonly cast of iron. Cold-formed stainless steel has a different coefficient of thermal expansion than hot-cast iron, which means the plugs will no longer simultaneously seat once the valve warms or cools much from the temperature it was at when it seated tightly.

A more modern version of the globe valve design uses a piston-shaped plug inside a surrounding cage with ports cast or machined into it. These cage-guided globe valves throttle flow by uncovering more or less of the port area in the surrounding cage as the plug moves up and down. The cage also serves to guide the plug so the stem need not be subjected to lateral forces as in a stem-guided valve design. A photograph of a cut-away control valve shows the appearance of the cage (in this case, with the plug in the fully closed position). Note the “T”-shaped ports in the cage, through which fluid flows as the plug moves up and out of the way:



An advantage of the cage-guided design is that the valve’s flowing characteristics may be easily altered just by replacing the cage with another having different size or shape of holes. Many different cage styles are available for certain plug (piston) sizes, which means the plug need not be replaced while changing the cage. This is decidedly more convenient than the plug change necessary for changing characteristics of stem-guided or port-guided globe valve designs.

Cage-guided globe valves are available with both balanced and unbalanced plugs. A balanced plug has one or more ports drilled from top to bottom, allowing fluid pressure to equalize on both sides of the plug. This helps minimize the forces acting on the plug which must be overcome by the actuator:




Unbalanced plugs generate a force equal to the product of the differential pressure across the plug and the plug’s area (F = PA), which may be quite substantial in some applications. Balanced plugs do not generate this same force because they equalize the pressure on both sides of the plug, however, they exhibit the disadvantage of one more leak path when the valve is in the fully closed position (through the balancing ports, past the piston ring, and out the cage ports):


Gate valves

Gate valves work by inserting a dam (“gate”) into the path of the flow to restrict it, in a manner similar to the action of a sliding door. Gate valves are more often used for on/off control than for throttling.

The following set of photographs shows a hand-operated gate valve (cut away and painted for use as an instructional tool) in three different positions, from full closed to full open (left to right):




Diaphragm valves

Diaphragm valves use a flexible sheet pressed close to the edge of a solid dam to narrow the flow path for fluid. These valves are well suited for flows containing solid particulate matter such as slurries, although precise throttling may be difficult to achieve due to the elasticity of the diaphragm. The next photograph shows a diaphragm valve actuated by an electric motor, used to control the flow of treated sewage:



2The standard preparatory technique is called lapping. To “lap” a valve plug and seat assembly, an abrasive paste known as lapping compound is applied to the valve plug(s) and seat(s) at the areas of mutual contact when the valve is disassembled. The valve mechanism is reassembled, and the stem is then rotated in a cyclic motion such that the plug(s) grind into the seat(s), creating a matched fit. The precision of this fit may be checked by disassembling the valve, cleaning off all remaining lapping compound, applying a metal-staining compound such as Prussian blue, then reassembling. The stem is rotated once more such that the plug(s) will rub against the seat(s), wearing through the applied stain. Upon disassembly, the worn stain may be inspected to reveal the extend of metal-to-metal contact between the plug(s) and the seat(s). If the contact area is deemed insufficient, the lapping process may be repeated.

Rotary-stem valves

A different strategy for controlling the flow of fluid is to insert a rotary element into the flow path. Instead of sliding a stem into and out of the valve body to actuate a throttling mechanism, rotary valves rely on the rotation of a shaft to actuate the trim. An important advantage of rotary control valves over sliding-stem designs such as the globe valve and diaphragm valve is a virtually obstructionless path for fluid when the valve is wide-open3.




Ball valves

In the ball valve design, a spherical ball with a passageway cut through the center rotates to allow fluid more or less access to the passageway. When the passageway is parallel to the direction of fluid motion, the valve is wide open; when the passageway is aligned perpendicular to the direction of fluid motion, the valve is fully shut (closed).

The following set of photographs shows a hand-operated ball valve in three different positions, from nearly full closed to nearly full open (left to right):


Simple ball valves with full-sized bores in the rotating ball are generally better suited for on/off service than for throttling (partially-open) service. A better design of ball valve for throttling service is the characterized or segmented ball valve, shown in various stages of opening in the following set of photographs:


The V-shaped notch cut into the opening lip of the ball provides a narrower area for fluid flow at low opening angles, providing more precise flow control than a plain-bore ball valve.


Butterfly valves

Butterfly valves are quite simple to understand: the “butterfly” element is a disk that rotates perpendicular to the path of fluid flow. When parallel to the axis of flow, the disk presents minimal obstruction; when perpendicular to the axis, the disk completely blocks any flow. Fluid-tight shutoff is difficult to obtain in the classic butterfly design unless the seating area is lined with a soft (elastic) material.


Disk valves

Disk valves (often referred to as eccentric disk valves, or as high-performance butterfly valves) are a variation on the butterfly design intended to improve seat shut-off. The disk’s center is offset from the shaft centerline, causing it to approach the seat with a “cam” action that results in high seating pressure. Thus, tight shut-off of flow is possible even when using metal seats and disks.

The following photograph shows the body of a Fisher E-plug control valve, with the disk in a partially-open position:



3Of course, gate valves also offer obstructionless flow when wide-open, but their poor throttling characteristics give most rotary valve designs the overall advantage.

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