Vol. Measurement
Chapter Basic Principles of Instrument Calibration and Ranging

# An Analogy for Calibration Vs Ranging

The concepts of calibration (trimming) and ranging are often difficult for new students of instrumentation to immediately grasp. A simple analogy useful for understanding these topics is that of setting a digital alarm clock.

Suppose you purchase a digital alarm clock to wake you up at 7:00 AM in the morning so that you can get to school on time. It would be foolish to simply unpack your new clock from its box, power it up, and set the wake-up time to 7:00 AM expecting it will wake you at the correct time. Before trusting this alarm time of 7:00 AM, you would first have to synchronize your new clock to some standard time source (such as the time broadcast by your local telephone service, or better yet the shortwave radio broadcast of WWV or WWVH) so that it accurately registers time for the zone in which you live. Otherwise, the wake-up setting of 7:00 AM will be hopelessly uncertain.

Once your clock is synchronized against a trusted time source, however, the wake-up (alarm) time may be set at will. If your class schedule changed, allowing one more hour of sleep, you could re-set the wake-up time from 7:00 AM to 8:00 AM without any need to re-synchronize (re-calibrate) the clock. The only reason for re-synchronizing your clock to the time standard is to compensate for inevitable drift due to imperfections in the clock circuitry.

Synchronizing the clock to a standard time source is analogous to “calibrating” or “trimming” a smart transmitter: you are establishing an accurate correspondence between what the device’s microprocessor perceives and what the actual (real-life) values are. This step need only be done at the very beginning of the device’s service, and every so often as warranted by the device’s calibration drift over time.

Setting the wake-up (alarm) time on the clock is analogous to setting the LRV and URV parameters of a smart transmitter: you are defining the action(s) taken by the device at certain measured values. For the alarm clock, you are defining the hour and minute of day when the alarm sounds. For the transmitter, you are defining the measured variable values at which it will output 4 mA and 20 mA (for a 4-20 mA analog output range).

By contrast, an analog transmitter blends the functions of calibration and ranging into one. A useful analogy for this is to imagine using a simple wind-up mechanical timer to wake you at 7:00 AM. Such a crude timing device does not even register time in hours and minutes like a digital alarm clock: instead, it simply counts down time from its starting point and sounds an alarm when the descending count reaches zero. In order to set this device for a 7:00 AM wake-up alarm, you must first determine the current time and then calculate how many hours the timer must run before the time reaches 7:00 AM (e.g. if you are setting the wind-up alarm when you go to bed at 10:30 PM, this would equate to a timing period of 8.5 hours).

Every single time you set this wind-up alarm, you must consult a time standard to know how many hours and minutes of count-down time to set it for. If you decide to wake up at a different time in the morning, you must (once again) consult a standard time source, perform the necessary arithmetic, and set the timer accordingly. Setting the alarm time on this mechanism necessitates re-calibrating it to the local standard time without exception. Here, there is no distinction between synchronization and alarm setting; no distinction between calibration and ranging – to do one is to do the other.