Monday, January 22, 2018

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Pneumatic Instrumentation - Advantages and Disadvantages of Pneumatic Instruments

The disadvantages of pneumatic instruments are painfully evident to anyone familiar with both pneumatic and electronic instruments. Sensitivity to vibration, changes in temperature, mounting position, and the like affect calibration accuracy to a far greater degree for pneumatic instruments than electronic instruments. Compressed air is an expensive utility – much more expensive per equivalent watt-hour than electricity – making the operational cost of pneumatic instruments far greater than electronic. The installed cost of pneumatic instruments can be quite high as well, given the need for special (stainless steel, copper, or tough plastic) tubes to carry supply air and pneumatic signals to distant locations. The volume of air tubes used to convey pneumatic signals over distances acts as a low-pass filter, naturally damping the instrument’s response and thereby reducing its ability to respond quickly to changing process conditions. Pneumatic instruments cannot be made “smart” like electronic instruments, either. With all these disadvantages, one might wonder why pneumatic instruments are still used at all in modern industry.

Part of the answer is legacy. For an industrial facility built decades ago, it makes little sense to replace instruments that still work just fine. The cost of labor to remove old tubing, install new conduit and wires, and configure new (expensive) electronic instruments often is not worth the benefits.

However, pneumatic instruments actually enjoy some definite technical advantages which secure their continued use in certain applications even in the 21st century. One decided advantage is the intrinsic safety of pneumatic field instruments. Instruments that do not run on electricity cannot generate electrical sparks. This is of utmost importance in “classified” industrial environments where explosive gases, liquids, dusts, and powders exist. Pneumatic instruments are also self-purging. Their continual bleeding of compressed air from vent ports in pneumatic relays and nozzles acts as a natural clean-air purge for the inside of the instrument, preventing the intrusion of dust and vapor from the outside with a slight positive pressure inside the instrument case. It is not uncommon to find a field-mounted pneumatic instrument encrusted with corrosion and filth on the outside, but factory-clean on the inside due to this continual purge of clean air. Pneumatic instruments mounted inside larger enclosures with other devices tend to protect them all by providing a positive-pressure air purge for the entire enclosure.

Some pneumatic instruments can also function in high-temperature and high-radiation environments that would damage electronic instruments. Although it is often possible to “harden” electronic field instruments to such harsh conditions, pneumatic instruments are practically immune by nature.

An interesting feature of pneumatic instruments is that they may operate on compressed gases other than air. This is an advantage in remote natural gas installations, where the natural gas itself is sometimes used as a source of pneumatic “power” for instruments. So long as there is compressed natural gas in the pipeline to measure and to control, the instruments will operate. No air compressor or electrical power source is needed in these installations. What is needed, however, is good filtering equipment to prevent contaminants in the natural gas (dirt, debris, liquids) from causing problems within the sensitive instrument mechanisms.

 

Go back to the previous page, Proper Care and Feeding of Pneumatic Instruments

Go to the first page, Pneumatic Instrumentation - Introduction

Go Back to Lessons in Instrumentation Table of Contents


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