Thursday, May 3, 2018

Advantages and Disadvantages of Thermocouples

Industrial thermocouples
Industrial thermocouples in ceramic
protection tubes (Duro-Sense)
Temperature sensors, inherent to their design or operating principle, are often the weakest link in the control loop. Fragility, noise sensitivity, and material deterioration have to be considered when applying temperature sensors. Generally speaking, when it comes to temperature sensing technology, RTDs are more accurate and stable, but are also fragile; thermistors have greater temperature sensitivity, but their electrical properties can change overtime; thermocouples (TC) are rugged, inexpensive, and operate over a wide temperature range, but they do have drawbacks that need to be understood for successful implementation.

The thermocouple's primary disadvantage is their weak output signal and their susceptibility to electrical noise. The mV signal generated is so small it requires conditioning, namely amplification and linearization.  The good news is this conditioning is built-in to and provided by the TC's corresponding controller, indicator or transmitter.  Calibration drift due to oxidation, contamination, or other physical changes to the alloys is another problem associated with thermocouples, requiring a facility to implement periodic recalibration procedures. Lastly, thermocouples require alloy-matching thermocouple extension wire when running lead wires any distance from sensor to instrument. This adds cost, as thermocouple extension wire is more expensive than standard wire.

Despite these concerns, thermocouples are widely used in industry because of their relative low cost, ruggedness, wide selection of operating ranges, and versatility in size, shape, and configuration. They have been used in millions of process control applications for over a generation, and provide an excellent balance of performance, cost, and simplicity. Successful application depends on knowing thermocouple's strengths and weaknesses, and consulting with an applications expert prior to specifying or installing any temperature sensor is always recommended to ensure the sensor's longest life and best performance.