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Functional uses of Temperature Detectors

Temperature sensing devices, such as RTDs and thermocouples, provide necessary temperature indications for the safe and continued operation of industrial facility fluid systems. These temperature indications may include:

  • Hot and cold leg temperatures
  • Purification demineralizer inlet temperature
  • Cooling water to and from various components
  • Secondary feed temperature

Functions of Temperature Detectors

Although the temperatures that are monitored vary slightly depending on the details of facility design, temperature detectors are used to provide three basic functions: indication, alarm, and control. The temperatures monitored may normally be displayed in a central location, such as a control room, and may have audible and visual alarms associated with them when specified preset limits are exceeded. These temperatures may have control functions associated with them so that equipment is started or stopped to support a given temperature condition or so that a protective action occurs.

Detector Problems

In the event that key temperature sensing instruments become inoperative, there are several alternate methods that may be used. Some applications utilize installed spare temperature detectors or dual-element RTDs. The dual-element RTD has two sensing elements of which only one is normally connected. If the operating element becomes faulty, the second element may be used to provide temperature indication. If an installed spare is not utilized, a contact pyrometer (portable thermocouple) may be used to obtain temperature readings on those pieces of equipment or systems that are accessible.

If the malfunction is in the circuitry and the detector itself is still functional, it may be possible to obtain temperatures by connecting an external bridge circuit to the detector. Resistance readings may then be taken and a corresponding temperature obtained from the detector calibration curves.

Environmental Concerns

Ambient temperature variations will affect the accuracy and reliability of temperature detection instrumentation. Variations in ambient temperature can directly affect the resistance of components in a bridge circuit and the resistance of the reference junction for a thermocouple.

In addition, ambient temperature variations can affect the calibration of electric/electronic equipment. The effects of temperature variations are reduced by the design of the circuitry and by maintaining the temperature detection instrumentation in the proper environment.

The presence of humidity will also affect most electrical equipment, especially electronic equipment. High humidity causes moisture to collect on the equipment. This moisture can cause short circuits, grounds, and corrosion, which, in turn, may damage components. The effects due to humidity are controlled by maintaining the equipment in the proper environment.

Resistance Temperature Detectors

The resistance of certain metals will change as temperature changes. This characteristic is the basis for the operation of an RTD.


The hotness or coldness of a piece of plastic, wood, metal, or other material depends upon the molecular activity of the material. Kinetic energy is a measure of the activity of the atoms which make up the molecules of any material. Therefore, temperature is a measure of the kinetic energy of the material in question.

Whether you want to know the temperature of the surrounding air, the water cooling a cars engine, or the components of an industrial facility, you must have some means to measure the kinetic energy of the material. Most temperature measuring devices use the energy of the material or system they are monitoring to raise (or lower) the kinetic energy of the device. A normal household thermometer is one example. The mercury, or other liquid, in the bulb of the thermometer expands as its kinetic energy is raised. By observing how far the liquid rises in the tube, you can tell the temperature of the measured object.

Because temperature is one of the most important parameters of a material, many instruments have been developed to measure it. One type of detector used is the resistance temperature detector (RTD). The RTD is used at many industrial facilities to measure temperatures of the process or materials being monitored.

RTD Construction

The RTD incorporates pure metals or certain alloys that increase in resistance as temperature increases and, conversely, decrease in resistance as temperature decreases. RTDs act somewhat like an electrical transducer, converting changes in temperature to voltage signals by the measurement of resistance. The metals that are best suited for use as RTD sensors are pure, of uniform quality, stable within a given range of temperature, and able to give reproducible resistance-temperature readings. Only a few metals have the properties necessary for use in RTD elements.

Figure 1 Electrical Resistance-Temperature Curves

RTD elements are normally constructed of platinum, copper, or nickel. These metals are best suited for RTD applications because of their linear resistance-temperature characteristics (as shown in Figure 1), their high coefficient of resistance, and their ability to withstand repeated temperature cycles.

The coefficient of resistance is the change in resistance per degree change in temperature, usually expressed as a percentage per degree of temperature. The material used must be capable of being drawn into fine wire so that the element can be easily constructed.

RTD elements are usually long, spring-like wires surrounded by an insulator and enclosed in a sheath of metal. Figure 2 shows the internal construction of an RTD.

Figure 2 Internal Construction of a Typical RTD

This particular design has a platinum element that is surrounded by a porcelain insulator. The insulator prevents a short circuit between the wire and the metal sheath.

Inconel, a nickel-iron-chromium alloy, is normally used in manufacturing the RTD sheath because of its inherent corrosion resistance. When placed in a liquid or gas medium, the Inconel sheath quickly reaches the temperature of the medium. The change in temperature will cause the platinum wire to heat or cool, resulting in a proportional change in resistance.

This change in resistance is then measured by a precision resistance measuring device that is calibrated to give the proper temperature reading. This device is normally a bridge circuit, which will be covered in detail later in this text.

Figure 3 shows an RTD protective well and terminal head. The well protects the RTD from damage by the gas or liquid being measured. Protecting wells are normally made of stainless steel, carbon steel, Inconel, or cast iron, and they are used for temperatures up to 1100°C;.

Figure 3 RTD Protective Well and Terminal Head

Temperature Detection Circuitry

The bridge circuit is used whenever extremely accurate resistance measurements are required (such as RTD measurements).

Bridge Circuit Construction

Figure 4 shows a basic bridge circuit which consists of three known resistances, R1, R2, and R3 (variable), an unknown variable resistor RX (RTD), a source of voltage, and a sensitive ammeter.

Figure 4 Bridge Circuit

Resistors R1 and R2 are the ratio arms of the bridge. They ratio the two variable resistances for current flow through the ammeter. R3 is a variable resistor known as the standard arm that is adjusted to match the unknown resistor. The sensing ammeter visually displays the current that is flowing through the bridge circuit. Analysis of the circuit shows that when R3 is adjusted so that the ammeter reads zero current, the resistance of both arms of the bridge circuit is the same.

Equation 1-1 shows the relationship of the resistance between the two arms of the bridge.

Since the values of R1, R2, and R3 are known values, the only unknown is Rx. The value of Rx can be calculated for the bridge during an ammeter zero current condition. Knowing this resistance value provides a baseline point for calibration of the instrument attached to the bridge circuit. The unknown resistance, Rx, is given by Equation 1-2.

Bridge Circuit Operation

The bridge operates by placing Rx in the circuit, as shown in Figure 5, and then adjusting R3 so that all current flows through the arms of the bridge circuit. When this condition exists, there is no current flow through the ammeter, and the bridge is said to be balanced. When the bridge is balanced, the currents through each of the arms are exactly proportional. They are equal if R1 = R2. Most of the time the bridge is constructed so that R1 = R2. When this is the case, and the bridge is balanced, then the resistance of Rx is the same as R3, or Rx = R3.

When balance exists, R3 will be equal to the unknown resistance, even if the voltage source is unstable or is not accurately known. A typical Wheatstone bridge has several dials used to vary the resistance. Once the bridge is balanced, the dials can be read to find the value of R3. Bridge circuits can be used to measure resistance to tenths or even hundredths of a percent accuracy.

When used to measure temperature, some Wheatstone bridges with precision resistors are accurate to about + 0.1°F;.

Two types of bridge circuits (unbalanced and balanced) are utilized in resistance thermometer temperature detection circuits. The unbalanced bridge circuit (Figure 5) uses a milli-voltmeter that is calibrated in units of temperature that correspond to the RTD resistance.

Figure 5 Unbalanced Bridge Circuit

The battery is connected to two opposite points of the bridge circuit. The milli-voltmeter is connected to the two remaining points. The rheostat regulates bridge current. The regulated current is divided between the branch with the fixed resistor and range resistor R1, and the branch with the RTD and range resistor R2. As the electrical resistance of the RTD changes, the voltage at points X and Y changes. The milli-voltmeter detects the change in voltage caused by unequal division of current in the two branches. The meter can be calibrated in units of temperature because the only changing resistance value is that of the RTD.

The balanced bridge circuit (Figure 6) uses a galvanometer to compare the RTD resistance with that of a fixed resistor. The galvanometer uses a pointer that deflects on either side of zero when the resistance of the arms is not equal. The resistance of the slide wire is adjusted until the galvanometer indicates zero. The value of the slide resistance is then used to determine the temperature of the system being monitored.

Figure 6 Balanced Bridge Circuit

A slide-wire resistor is used to balance the arms of the bridge. The circuit will be in balance whenever the value of the slide-wire resistance is such that no current flows through the galvanometer. For each temperature change, there is a new value; therefore, the slider must be moved to a new position to balance the circuit.

Temperature Detection Circuit

Figure 7 is a block diagram of a typical temperature detection circuit. This represents a balanced bridge temperature detection circuit that has been modified to eliminate the galvanometer.

Figure 7 Block Diagram of a Typical Temperature Detection Circuit

The block consists of a temperature detector (RTD) that measures the temperature. The detector is felt as resistance to the bridge network. The bridge network converts this resistance to a DC voltage signal.

An electronic instrument has been developed in which the DC voltage of the potentiometer, or the bridge, is converted to an AC voltage. The AC voltage is then amplified to a higher (usable) voltage that is used to drive a bi-directional motor. The bi-directional motor positions the slider on the slide-wire to balance the circuit resistance.

If the RTD becomes open in either the unbalanced and balanced bridge circuits, the resistance will be infinite, and the meter will indicate a very high temperature. If it becomes shorted, resistance will be zero, and the meter will indicate a very low temperature.

When calibrating the circuit, a precision resistor of known value is substituted for the resistance bulb, as shown in Figure 8.

Figure 8 Resistance Thermometer Circuit with Precision Resistor in Place of Resistance Bulb

Battery voltage is then adjusted by varying Rb until the meter indication is correct for the known resistance.

Temperature Compensation

Because of changes in ambient temperature, the resistance thermometer circuitry must be compensated. The resistors that are used in the measuring circuitry are selected so that their resistance will remain constant over the range of temperature expected. Temperature compensation is also accomplished through the design of the electronic circuitry to compensate for ambient changes in the equipment cabinet. It is also possible for the resistance of the detector leads to change due to a change in ambient temperature. To compensate for this change, three and four wire RTD circuits are used. In this way, the same amount of lead wire is used in both branches of the bridge circuit, and the change in resistance will be felt on both branches, negating the effects of the change in temperature.


The thermocouple is a device that converts thermal energy into electrical energy.

Thermocouple Construction

A thermocouple is constructed of two dissimilar metal wires joined at one end. When one end of each wire is connected to a measuring instrument, the thermocouple becomes a sensitive and highly accurate measuring device. Thermocouples may be constructed of several different combinations of materials. The performance of a thermocouple material is generally determined by using that material with platinum. The most important factor to be considered when selecting a pair of materials is the "thermoelectric difference" between the two materials. A significant difference between the two materials will result in better thermocouple performance. Figure 9 illustrates the characteristics of the more commonly used materials when used with platinum.

Figure 9 Thermocouple Material Characteristics When Used with Platinum

Figure 10 shows the internal construction of a typical thermocouple. The leads of the thermocouple are encased in a rigid metal sheath. The measuring junction is normally formed at the bottom of the thermocouple housing. Magnesium oxide surrounds the thermocouple wires to prevent vibration that could damage the fine wires and to enhance heat transfer between the measuring junction and the medium surrounding the thermocouple.

Figure 10 Internal Construction of a Typical Thermocouple

Thermocouple Operation

Thermocouples will cause an electric current to flow in the attached circuit when subjected to changes in temperature. The amount of current that will be produced is dependent on the temperature difference between the measurement and reference junction; the characteristics of the two metals used; and the characteristics of the attached circuit. Figure 11 illustrates a simple thermocouple circuit.

Figure 11 Simple Thermocouple Circuit

Heating the measuring junction of the thermocouple produces a voltage which is greater than the voltage across the reference junction. The difference between the two voltages is proportional to the difference in temperature and can be measured on the voltmeter (in millivolts). For ease of operator use, some voltmeters are set up to read out directly in temperature through use of electronic circuitry.

Other applications provide only the millivolt readout. In order to convert the millivolt reading to its corresponding temperature, you must refer to tables like the one shown in Figure 12. These tables can be obtained from the thermocouple manufacturer, and they list the specific temperature corresponding to a series of millivolt readings.

Figure 12 Temperature-vs-Voltage Reference Table