Proper Care and Feeding of Pneumatic Instruments

Chapter 12 - Basics of Pneumatic Instruments

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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 breakage.