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Other Differential Producers

Other pressure-based flow elements exist as alternatives to the orifice plate. The Pitot tube, for example, senses pressure as the fluid stagnates (comes to a complete stop) against the open end of a forward-facing tube. A shortcoming of the classic single-tube Pitot assembly is sensitivity to fluid velocity at just one point in the pipe, so a more common form of Pitot tube seen in industry is the averaging Pitot tube consisting of several stagnation holes sensing velocity at multiple points across the width of the flow:


A variation on the latter theme is the Annubar flow element, a trade name of the Dieterich Standard corporation. An “Annubar” is an averaging pitot tube consolidating high and low pressure-sensing ports in a single probe assembly:



What appears at first glance to be a single, square-shaped tube inserted into the pipe is actually a double-ported tube with holes on both the upstream and downstream edges:


A section of Annubar tube clearly shows the porting and dual chambers, designed to bring upstream (stagnation) and downstream pressures out of the pipe to a differential pressure-sensing instrument:


A less sophisticated realization of the stagnation principle is the target flow sensor, consisting of a blunt “paddle” (or “drag disk”) inserted into the flowstream. The force exerted on this paddle by the moving fluid is sensed by a special transmitter mechanism, which then outputs a signal corresponding to flow rate (proportional to the square of fluid velocity, just like an orifice plate):

The classic venturi tube pioneered by Clemens Herschel in 1887 has been adapted in a variety of forms broadly classified as flow tubes. All flow tubes work on the same principle: developing a differential pressure by channeling fluid flow from a wide tube to a narrow tube. The differ from the classic venturi only in construction details, the most significant detail being a significantly shorter length than the classic venturi tube. Examples of flow tube designs include the Dall tube, Lo-Loss flow tube, Gentile or Bethlehem flow tube, and the B.I.F. Universal Venturi.

Another variation on the venturi theme is called a flow nozzle, designed to be clamped between the faces of two pipe flanges in a manner similar to an orifice plate. The goal here is to achieve simplicity of installation approximating that of an orifice plate while improving performance (less permanent pressure loss) over orifice plates:

Two more variations on the venturi theme are the V-cone and Segmental wedge flow elements. The V-cone (or “venturi cone,” a trade name of the McCrometer division of the Danaher corporation) may be thought of as a venturi tube in reverse: instead of narrowing the tube’s diameter to cause fluid acceleration, fluid must flow around a cone-shaped obstruction placed in the middle of the tube. The tube’s effective area will be reduced by the presence of this cone, causing fluid to accelerate through the restriction just as it would through the throat of a classic venturi tube:


This cone is hollow, with a pressure-sensing port on the downstream side allowing for easy detection of fluid pressure near the vena contracta. Upstream pressure is sensed by another port in the pipe wall upstream of the cone. The following photograph shows a V-cone flow tube, cut away for demonstration purposes:

Segmental wedge elements are special pipe sections with wedge-shaped restrictions built in. These devices, albeit crude, are useful for measuring the flow rates of slurries, especially when pressure is sensed by the transmitter through remote-seal diaphragms (to eliminate the possibility of impulse tube plugging):


Finally, the lowly pipe elbow may be pressed into service as a flow-measuring element, since fluid turning a corner in the elbow experiences radial acceleration and therefore generates a differential pressure along the axis of acceleration:


Pipe elbows should be considered for flow measurement only as a last resort. Their inaccuracies tend to be extreme, owing to the non-precise construction of most pipe elbows and the relatively weak differential pressures generated1.

A final point should be mentioned on the subject of differential-producing elements, and that is their energy dissipation. Orifice plates are simple and relatively inexpensive to install, but their permanent pressure loss is high compared with other primary elements such as venturi tubes. Permanent pressure loss is permanent energy loss from the flowstream, which usually represents a loss in energy invested into the process by pumps, compressors, and/or blowers. Fluid energy dissipated by an orifice plate thus (usually) translates into a requirement of greater energy input to that process2.

With the financial and ecological costs of energy being non-trivial in our modern world, it is important to consider energy loss as a significant factor in choosing the appropriate primary element for a pressure-based flowmeter. It might very well be that an “expensive” venturi tube saves more money in the long term than a “cheap” orifice plate, while delivering greater measurement accuracy as an added benefit.


1The fact that a pipe elbow generates small differential pressure is an accuracy concern because other sources of pressure become larger by comparison. Noise generated by fluid turbulence in the elbow, for example, becomes a significant portion of the pressure sensed by the transmitter when the differential pressure is so low (i.e. the signal-to-noise ratio becomes smaller). Errors caused by differences in elbow tap elevation and different impulse line fill fluids, for example, become more significant as well.

2This is not always the case, as primary elements are often found on throttled process lines. In such cases where a control valve normally throttles the flow rate, any energy dissipated by the orifice plate is simply less energy that the valve would otherwise be required to dissipate. Therefore, the presence or absence of an orifice plate has no net impact on energy dissipation when used on a process flow throttled by a control valve.

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