Selecting the Right Flowmeter - Part 1

By Corte Swearingen
Reprinted from the July 1999 edition of Chemical Engineering magazine
("Choosing the Best Flowmeter")

With the many flowmeters available today, choosing the most appropriate one for a given application can be difficult. This article discusses six popular flowmeter technologies, in terms of the major advantages and disadvantages of each type, describes some unique designs, and gives several application examples.

Dozens of flowmeter technologies are available. This article covers six flowmeter designs—variable-area, mass, Coriolis, differential-pressure, turbine, and oval-gear. Table 1 compares the various technologies.

Table 1 - A Comparison of Flowmeter Options

Table scrolls horizontally

Attribute Variable-area Coriolis Gas mass-flow Differential-Pressure Turbine Oval Gear
Clean gases yes yes yes yes yes
Clean Liquids yes yes yes yes yes
Viscous Liquids yes (special calibration) yes no yes (special calibration) yes, >10 centistokes (cst)
Corrosive Liquids yes yes no yes yes
Accuracy, ± 2-4% full scale 0.05-0.15% of reading 1.5% full scale 2-3% full-scale 0.25-1% of reading 0.1-0.5% of reading
Repeatability, ± 0.25% full scale 0.05-0.10% of reading 0.5% full scale 1% full-scale 0.1% of reading 0.1% of reading
Max pressure, psi 200 and up 900 and up 500 and up 100 5,000 and up 4,000 and up
Max temp., °F 250 and up 250 and up 150 and up 122 300 and up 175 and up
Pressure drop medium low low medium medium medium
Turndown ratio 10:1 100:1 50:1 20:1 10:1 25:1
Average cost* $200-600 $2,500-5,000 $600-1,000 $500-800 $600-1,000 $600-1,200

*Cost values can vary quite a bit depending on process temperature and pressures, accuracy required, and approvals needed.

Variable-Area Flowmeters

Figure 1
The plastic or glass tube of the variable-area flowmeter lets the user visually inspect the float, whose position in the tapered tub is proportional to the volumetric flowrate.

Design overview: The variable-area flowmeter (Figure 1) is one of the oldest technologies available and arguably the most well-known. It is constructed of a tapered tube (usually plastic or glass) and a metal or glass float. The volumetric flowrate through the tapered tube is proportional to the displacement of the float.

Fluid moving through the tube form bottom to top causes a pressure drop across the float, which produces an upward force that causes the float to move up the tube. As this happens, the cross-sectional area between the tube walls and the float (the annulus) increases (hence the term variable-area).

Because the variable-area flowmeter relies on gravity, it must be installed vertically (with the flowtube perpendicular to the floor). Some variable-area meters overcome this slight inconvenience by spring loading the float withing the tube (Figure 2). Such a design can simplify installation and add operator flexibility, especially when the meter must be installed in a tight physical space and a vertical installation is not possible.

Two types of variable-area flowmeters are generally available: direct-reading and correlated. The direct-reading meter allows the user to read the liquid or gas flowrate in engineering units (i.e., gal/min and L/min) printed directly on the tube, by aligning the top of the float with the tick mark on the flowtube.

The advantage of a direct-reading flowmeter is that the flowrate is literally read directly off the flowtube. Correlated meters, on the other hand, have a unitless scale (typically tick marks from 0 to 65, or 0 to 150), and come with a separate data sheet that correlates the scale reading on the flowtube to the flowrate in a particular engineering unit. The correlation sheets usually give 25 or so data points along the scale of the flowtube, allowing the user to determine the actual flowrate in gal/min, L/min, or whatever engineering unit is needed.

The advantage of the correlated meter is that the same flowmeter can be used for various gases and liquids (whose flow is represented by different units) by selecting the appropriate correlation sheets, where additional direct-reading meters would be required for different fluid applications. Similarly, if pressure or temperature parameters change for a given application, the user would simply use a different correlation sheet to reflect these new parameters. By comparison, for a direct-reading meter, a change in operating parameters will compromise the meter's accuracy, forcing it to be returned to the factory for recalibration. In general, the average accuracy of a variable-area flowmeter is ±2-4% of fullscale flow.

Figure 2
This variable-area meter with a spring-loaded float can be installed at any angle. This accommodation is not available for traditional variable-area flowmeters, whose operation relies on gravity.

Advantages: The major advantage of the variable-area flowmeter is its relative low cost and ease of installation. Because of its simplicity of design, the variable-area meter is virtually maintenance-free and, hence, tends to have a long operating life.

Another advantage is its flexibility in handling a wide range of chemicals. Today, all-PTFE meters are available to resist corrosive damage by aggressive chemicals. The advantage of a PTFE flowmeter with a built-in valve is that you can not only monitor the fluid flowrate, but you can control it, as well, by opening and closing the valve. If the application requires an all-PTFE meter, chances are the fluid is pretty corrosive, and many users would like the option of controlling the flowrate by simply turning a valve that is built into the flowmeter itself.

Disadvantages: One potential disadvantage of a variable-area flowmeter occurs when the fluid temperature and pressure deviate from the calibration temperature and pressure. Because temperature and pressure variations will cause a gas to expand and contract, thereby changing density and viscosity, the calibration of a particular variable-area flowmeter will no longer be valid as these conditions fluctuate. Manufacturers typically calibrate their gas flowmeters to a standard temperature and pressure (usually 70°F with the flowmeter outlet open to the atmosphere, i.e., with no backpressure).

During operation, the flowmeter accuracy can quickly degrade once the temperatures and pressures start fluctuating from the standard calibration temperature and pressure. Meters used for water tend to show less variability, since water viscosity and density changes very little with normal temperature and pressure fluctuations. While there is a way to correlate the flow from actual operating conditions back to the calibration conditions, the conventional formulas used are very simplified, and don't take into account the effect of viscosity, which can cause large errors.

Table 2 - The Effect of Pressure Deviations on a Variable-Area Flowmeter

Maximum flowrate, L/min Fluid temperature, °F Outlet pressure, psi
Fluid type: Air
2.23 70 0
1.65 70 15
1.30 70 35
2.26 90 0
2.28 110 0
2.32 150 0
Fluid type: water
4.82 70 0
4.82 70 15
4.82 70 35
4.86 90 0
4.89 110 0
4.95 150 0

As Table 2 shows, the effect of pressure deviations can be quite significant. This table was created using data from a variable-area flowmeter that was calibrated for air at 70°F and with the outlet of the flowmeter vented to the open atmosphere (i.e. , 0 psi of outlet pressure).

The flowmeter was calibrated to read a maximum of 2.23 L/min at this temperature and pressure. When the outlet pressure increases as all other parameters remain constant, the flowrate drops off. This pressure change affects the viscosity and density of the gas and will cause the actual flowrate to deviate from the theoretical, calibrated flowrate. This relationship is extremely important to be aware of, and underscores the difficulty in measuring gas flow. Also note that even though gas flowrate changes with a change in gas temperature (with all other parameters remaining constant), this effect is much less significant with air than with other gases.

Table 2 shows this same variation with a meter calibrated for water at 9 psi venting pressure and a temperature of 70°F. Here, one can assume water to be incompressible. As shown, there is no direct effect on water flow with a change in back-pressure. The temp-erature change is not that significant either. But, for various fluids, a change in temperature could change the viscosity enough to degrade the accuracy below acceptable limits.

The bottom line is that the user must be aware of any variation between calibration conditions and operating conditions for gas flows, and must correct the reading according to the manufacturer's recommendations. Some users have the manufacturer calibrate the meter to existing conditions, but this presumes that operating conditions will remain the same—which they rarely do.

The effect of viscosity changes is another potential disadvantage of the variable-area meter when measuring liquids. When a viscous liquid makes its way through a variable-area flowmeter, drag layers of fluid will build up on the float. this will cause a slower-moving viscous liquid to yield the same buoyant force as a faster-moving fluid of lower viscosity. The larger the viscosity, the higher the error. The general rule of thumb is as follows—unless the meter has been specifically calibrated for a higher-viscosity liquid, only water-like liquids should be run through a variable-area flowmeter.

Sometimes, for liquids that are slightly thicker than water, a manufacturer-supplied correction factor can be used without the need to recalibrate the whole meter. As always, check with the manufacturer if you plan on deviating from its calibration fluid and calibration conditions. For a more-detailed discussion of the proper correction equations to apply to variable-area flowmeters in both water and gas service when they deviate from standard conditions, consult Refs. 9 and 10.

Applications: Variable-area flowmeters are well suited for a wide variety of liquid and gas applications, including the following:

  • Measuring water and gas flow in plants or labs
  • Monitoring chemical lines
  • Purging instrument air lines (i.e., lines that use a valved meter)
  • Monitoring filtration loading
  • Monitoring flow in material-blending applications (i.e., lines that use a valved meter)
  • Monitoring hydraulic oils (although this may require special calibration)
  • Monitor makeup water for food & beverage plants

Mass Flowmeters

Figure 3
Because the mass flowmeter measures mass flow rather than volumetric flow, this popular device is relatively undaunted by fluctuations in line pressures and temperatures, especially compared with a variable-area flowmeter. The unit shown provides an integral digital display, as well as a built-in control valve.

Design Overview: Mass flowmeters are one of the most popular gas-measurement technologies in use today (Figure 3). Most thermal mass flowmeters for gases are based on the following design principles, which are shown in Figure 4. a gas stream moves into the flowmeter chamber and is immediately split into two distinct flow paths. Most of the gas will go through a bypass tube, but a fraction of it goes through a special capillary sensor tube, which contains two temperature coils.

Heat flux is introduced at two sections of the capillary tube by means of these two wound coils. When gas flows through the device, it carries heat from the coils upstream to the coils downstream. The resulting temperature differerential creates a proportional resistance change in the sensor windings.

Special circuits, known as Wheatstone bridges, are used to monitor the instantaneous resistance of each of the sensor windings. The resistance change, created by the temperature differential, is amplified and calibrated to give a digital readout of the flow.

As shown in Figure 3, the mass flowmeter is available with a built-in valve for flow-control applications. This allows for external control and the programming of a setpoint for a critical flowpoint. Most mass flowmeters also have an analog or digital output signal to record the flowrate. The average mass flowmeter has an accuracy of ±1.5-2% of fullscale flow.

Advantages: The main advantage of a mass flowmeter for gas streams is its ability (within limitations) to "ignore" fluctuating and changing line temperatures and pressures. As mentioned above for variable-area flowmeters, fluctuating temperatures and pressures will cause gas density to change, yielding significant flow errors. Because of the inherent design of the mass flowmeter, this problem is much less significant than that found in variable-area flowmeters. Mass flowmeters measure the mass or molecular flow, as opposed to the volumetric flow. One can think of the mass flowrate as the volumetric flowrate normalized to a specific temperature and pressure.

A more intuitive way to understand mass versus volumetric measurement is to imagine a gas-filled ballon. Although the volume of the balloon may be altered by squeezing it (changing the gas pressure), or by taking the balloon into a hot or cold environment (changing the gas temperature), the mass of the gas contained inside the balloon remains constant. So it is with mass flow as opposed to volumetric flow.

A variable-area flowmeter measures volumetric flow. The flowrate on the flowtube reflects the volume of gas passing from the inlet to the outlet. This volume can change when gas temperatures and pressures change. Because a mass flowmeter is measuring the actual mass of gas passing form inlet to outlet, there is very little dependence on fluctuating temperatures and pressures. If you were piping an expensive gas, you would certainly want to keep track of the amount of gas used based on mass, not volumetric, flow.

Makers of mass flowmeters measure their products' ability to withstand changing pressures and temperatures by giving coefficients that state the deviation of accuracy per degree or psi change. For example, typical coefficient values are 0.10% error per degree C, and 0.02% error per psi. This means that each degree or psi change away from the meter's calibration conditions will degrade the accuracy by these coefficient amounts. So, although there is a dependence on pressure and temperature for a mass meter, its is very small, if not negligible. This is the biggest advantage of a mass flowmeter. Another is that there are no moving parts to wear out

Disadvantages: Aside from the fact that the gas going through the mass flowmeter should be dry and free from particulate matter, there are no major disadvantage to the mass flow technology. Mass flowmeters must be calibrated for a given gas or gas blend.

Applications: Applications for mass flowmeters are diverse, but here are some typical uses:

  • Monitoring and controlling air flow during gas chromatography
  • Monitoring CO2 for food packaging
  • Gas delivery and control for fermenters and bioreactors
  • Leak testing
  • Hydrogen flow monitoring (e.g., in the utility industry)
  • Control of methane or argon to gas burners
  • Blending of air into dairy products
  • Regulating CO2 injected into bottles during beverage production
  • Nitrogen delivery and control for tank blanketing