14.6 Proper care and feeding of pneumatic instruments

Perhaps the most important rule to obey when using pneumatic instruments is to maintain clean and dry instrument air. Compressed air containing dirt, rust, oil, water, or other contaminants will cause operational problems for pneumatic instruments. First and foremost is the concern that tiny orifices and nozzles inside the pneumatic mechanisms will clog over time. Clogged orifices tend to result in decreased output pressure, while clogged nozzles tend to result in increased output pressure. In either case, the “first aid” repair is to pass a welding torch tip cleaner through the plugged hole to break loose the residue or debris plugging it.

Moisture in compressed air tends to corrode metal parts inside pneumatic mechanisms. This corrosion may break loose to form debris that plugs orifices and nozzles, or it may simply eat through thin diaphragms and bellows until air leaks develop. Grossly excessive moisture will cause erratic operation as “plugs” of liquid travel through thin tubes, orifices, and nozzles designed only for air passage.

A common mistake made when installing pneumatic instruments is to connect them to a general-service (“utility”) compressed air supply instead of a dedicated instrument-service compressed air system. Utility air systems are designed to supply air tools and large air-powered actuators with pneumatic power. These high-flow compressed air systems are often seeded with antifreeze and/or lubricating chemicals to prolong the operating life of the piping and air-consuming devices, but the same liquids will wreak havoc on sensitive instrumentation. Instrument air supplies should be sourced by their own dedicated air compressor(s), complete with automatic air-dryer equipment, and distributed through stainless steel, copper, or plastic tubing (never black iron or galvanized iron pipe!).

The worst example of moisture in an instrument air system I have ever witnessed is an event that happened at an oil refinery where I worked as an instrument technician. Someone on the operations staff decided they would use 100 PSI instrument air to purge a process pipe filled with acid. Unfortunately, the acid pressure in the process pipe exceeded 100 PSI, and as a result acid flushed backward into the instrument air system. Within days most of the pneumatic instruments in that section of the refinery failed due to accelerated corrosion of metal components within the instruments. The total failure of multiple instruments over such a short time could have easily resulted in a disaster, but fortunately the crisis was minimal. Once the first couple of faulty instruments were disassembled after removal, the cause of failure became evident and the technicians took action to flush the lines of acid before too many more instruments suffered the same fate.

Pneumatic instruments must be fed compressed air of the proper pressure as well. Just as electronic circuits require power supply voltages within specified limits, pneumatic instruments do not operate well if their air supply pressure is too low or too high. If the supply pressure is too low, the instrument cannot generate a full-scale output signal. If the supply pressure is too high, internal failure may result from ruptured diaphragms, seals, or bellows. Many pneumatic instruments are equipped with their own local pressure regulators directly attached to ensure each instrument receives the correct pressure despite pressure fluctuations in the supply line.

Another “killer” of pneumatic instruments is mechanical vibration. These are precision mechanical devices, so they do not generally respond well to repeated shaking. At the very least, calibration adjustments may loosen and shift, causing the instrument’s accuracy to suffer. At worst, actual failure may result from component breakage16 .

14.7 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.

14.8 Review of fundamental principles

Shown here is a partial listing of principles applied in the subject matter of this chapter, given for the purpose of expanding the reader’s view of this chapter’s concepts and of their general inter-relationships with concepts elsewhere in the book. Your abilities as a problem-solver and as a life-long learner will be greatly enhanced by mastering the applications of these principles to a wide variety of topics, the more varied the better.

  • Linear equations: any function represented by a straight line on a graph may be represented symbolically by the slope-intercept formula mx b. Relevant to instrument input/output scaling.
  • Pascal’s principle: changes in fluid pressure are transmitted evenly throughout an enclosed fluid volume. Relevant to pneumatic signaling, where air pressure is evenly distributed throughout a signal tube so that the pressure at one end will be equal to the pressure at the other.
  • Amplification: the control of a relatively large signal by a relatively small signal. Relevant to the role of pneumatic relays, controlling relatively large amounts of air pressure and air flow based on the command of a much smaller air pressure signal generated by a baffle/nozzle assembly.
  • Negative feedback: when the output of a system is degeneratively fed back to the input of that same system, the result is decreased (overall) gain and greater stability. Relevant to the internal construction of pneumatic instruments, where negative feedback is used in the form of either force-balance or motion-balance to achieve a highly linear response between input and output.
  • Self-balancing pneumatic mechanisms: all self-balancing pneumatic instruments work on the principle of negative feedback maintaining a nearly constant baffle-nozzle gap. Force-balance mechanisms maintain this constant gap by balancing force against force with negligible motion, like a tug-of-war. Motion-balance mechanisms maintain this constant gap by balancing one motion with another motion, like two dancers moving in unison.
  • Self-balancing opamp circuits: all self-balancing operational amplifier circuits work on the principle of negative feedback maintaining a nearly zero differential input voltage to the opamp. Making the “simplifying assumption” that the opamp’s differential input voltage is exactly zero assists in circuit analysis, as does the assumption that the input terminals draw negligible current.


“13A d/p Cell Transmitter”, instruction manual (document MI 022-310), The Foxboro Company, Foxboro, MA, 1999.

“ASCO Nuclear Catalog”, ASCO Valve, Inc.

Black, Harold S., “Wave Translation System”, US Patent 2,102,671, filed 22 April 1932, issued to Bell Labs on 21 December 1937.

“E69 Current-to-Pneumatic Signal Converter”, instruction manual (document MI 018-430), The Foxboro Company, Foxboro, MA, 1995.

Patrick, Dale R. and Patrick, Steven R., Pneumatic Instrumentation, Delmar Publishers, Inc., Albany, NY, 1993.

“Type 546, 546S, and 546NS Electro-Pneumatic Transducers”, instruction manual form 1783, Fisher Controls International, Marshalltown, IA, 1997.

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