You are on page 1of 17

Pressure Measurement

Fundamentals of Pressure and Force

Force Per Unit Area

In a fluid, the pressure at a given point is independent of direction. Because fluids are
continuous media, pressure imposed on a fluid at rest is transmitted undiminished to all
other points in the fluid and to the walls of the containing vessel (Pascal’s law).

An understanding of Pascal’s law is fundamental to understanding pressure and pressure


Pressure Generated by Weight

The force required to generate pressure can be provided by brute force, as with the
hydraulic jack, or it can be provided by gravitational acceleration on a mass. The
gravitational force is commonly called weight.

Weight is the force exerted by gravity on a mass.

Pressure of a Fluid Column

The force that generates pressure can be caused by any weight or mass. Therefore, the
weight of the fluids’ mass generates pressure. A column of fluid generates pressure
proportional to the density of the fluid and the vertical height of the column. The pressure
at a given depth is independent of the area of the column and the shape of the container
(see Figure 1).

The weight (W) of the fluid in the container is distributed over the area (A) of the base.
At the bottom of the container:

P = W/A;
because W = bmg and P = bmg/A
Mass (m) = density (r) × volume (V),
so P = brVg/A
V = Ah,
so P = brAhg/A, and
P = brgh

Thus, P is independent of A and dependent only on b (unit conversion constant), r

(volumetric density, weight per unit volume), h (height of column), and g (acceleration of
gravity). So, if you ignore the slight local variations of gravity and have consistent units,
P = rh.

It should also be apparent that the pressure measured at any depth in the column is
proportional to depth. This phenomenon is used for measuring pressure head.
For example, the pressure 100 in. below the surface of a column of mercury at 80°F
(density = 0.48879 lb./in.3) is P = rh = 0.48879h.

At a depth of 100 in., P = rh = (0.48879) (100) = 48.879 psi. At 50 in., P = rh = (0.48879)

(50) = 24.4395 psi.

If the surface of the mercury is exposed to local atmospheric pressure, it will be pounds-
per-square-inch gauge. If it’s exposed to a vacuum, it’s pounds-per-square-inch absolute.

A critical variable for accurate conversion from head pressure to pounds per square inch
is the temperature of the fluid because density varies with temperature. With large head,
the head pressure can also slightly increase density near the bottom of the column. Most
liquids are essentially incompressible, so this is usually insignificant. However, if the
fluid is a compressible gas (e.g., the atmosphere), the compressibility can be significant.
Thus, atmospheric pressure doesn’t vary directly with altitude (depth), but water pressure
is nearly directly proportional to depth.

Force Generated by Pressure

For the walls of a fluid container to remain stationary, the force exerted by the
pressurized medium must be opposed by an equal and opposite force. Imagine what
happens when the fluid pressure force is greater than the opposing force—the vessel
ruptures or the piston moves, a much more desirable result. Summing all the forces
caused by the fluid pressure on all the infinitesimal areas of the piston, you find that the
total force is equal to the pressure times the area:

F2 = (F1/A) × A2 = P × A2

And this is true for any area of the container you choose.

Figure 1. Pressure at the bottom of a fluid column of height (h) is generated by the weight of the column of fluid divided by the
area: P = F/A = W/A. Weight (W) is a function of volume (V) and density (d). Volume V = h × A. Therefore P = (d × h × A)/A or P =
d × h. Pressure can be expressed as head pressure in terms of the depth (h) of the fluid.

Types of Pressure Measurements

Absolute pressure is measured relative to a perfect vacuum. An example is atmospheric
pressure. A common unit of measure is pounds per square inch absolute (psia).

Differential pressure is the difference in pressure between two points of measurement.

This is commonly measured in units of pounds per square inch differential (psid).

Gauge pressure is measured relative to ambient pressure. Blood pressure is one example.
Common measurement units are pressure per square inch gauge (psig). Intake manifold
vacuum in an automobile engine is an example of a vacuum gauge measurement (vacuum
is negative gauge pressure).

The three types of measurements are

shown in Figure 7. Note that the same
sensor may be used for all three types;
only the reference is different. Differential pressures may be measured anywhere in the
range—above, below, and around atmospheric pressure.

Figure 2. Pressure is always measured relative to some reference. If the reference is absolute vacuum, the pressure is absolute
pressure. If the reference is local ambient pressure, the pressure is gauge pressure. If you're measuring a pressure difference
between two points without regard to the absolute or gauge pressure, the measurement is differential pressure.
Pressure measuring Devices

Fluid Head—Manometers. The height of a

column of liquid, or the difference between the
heights of two liquid columns, is used to measure
pressure head in devices called U-tube
manometers (see Figure 2). If a fluid is installed
in an open U-shaped tube, the fluid level in each
side will be the same. When pressure is applied to
one side, that level will go down and the level on
the other side will rise until the difference
between the heights is equal to the pressure head.
The height difference is proportional to the
Figure 2. The U-tube manometer is a primary
pressure and to the density of the fluid. The U- standard for pressure measurement. The pressure
tube manometer is a primary standard for pressure being measured is balanced by the height of a column
of liquid (A); if pressure is applied to one leg, that
measurement. level will go down and the level on the other leg will
rise (B).
Figure 3. U-tube manometers can take many configurations, but whatever the size or shape of the two legs, the difference in liquid
column heights will always be a true indication of the pressure difference.

Although many manometers are simply a piece of glass tubing formed into a U shape
with a reference scale for measuring heights, there are many variations in terms of size,
shape, and material (see Figure 3). If the left side is connected to the measurement point,
and the right is left open to atmosphere, the manometer will indicate gauge pressure,
positive or negative (vacuum). Differential pressure can be measured by connecting each
of the legs to one of the measurement points. Absolute pressure can be measured by
evacuating the reference side. A mercury barometer is such an absolute pressure
measuring manometer indicating atmospheric pressure.

In some versions, the two legs of the U are of different diameters. Some types incorporate
a large-diameter “well” on one side. In others, one tube is inclined in order to provide
better resolution of the reading. But they all operate on the same principle. Because of the
many constraints on geometry of installation and observation, and their limited range,
manometers are not practical or effective for most pressure measurements.

Force-Summing Devices. Mechanical pressure gauges and electromechanical pressure

sensors incorporate an elastic element called a force-summing device that changes shape
when pressure is applied to it (see Figure 4).
Figure 9. The basic pressure sensing element can be configured as a C-shaped Bourdon tube (A); a helical Bourdon tube (B); flat
diaphragm (C); a convoluted diaphragm (D); a capsule (E); or a set of bellows (F).

Figure 4. Of the wide variety of force-summing devices used for pressure

sensing, the most common is the Bourdon tube. The springs and linkages that
convert the device's motion to that of a pointer are designed with adjustments for
zero, linearity, and span to permit mechanical calibration.
The shape change is then converted to a displacement. Of the wide variety of force-
summing devices, the most common are Bourdon tubes and diaphragms. Bourdon tubes
provide fairly large displacement motion that is useful in mechanical pressure gauges; the
lesser motion of diaphragms is better in electromechanical sensors.

The motion of the force-summing device can be linked to a linear variable differential
transformer, which acts as the electromechanical transduction element. Alternatively, it
can be linked, usually through a motion amplifying mechanism, to the wiper of a
potentiomenter. To reduce acceleration error, a balancing mass may be provided.

Mechanical Pressure Gauges. In mechanical gauges, the motion generated by the force-
summing device is converted by mechanical linkage into dial or pointer movement. The
better gauges provide adjustments for zero, span, linearity, and (sometimes) temperature
compensation for mechanical calibration. High-accuracy mechanical gauges take
advantage of special materials, balanced movements, compensation techniques, mirror
scales, knife-edge pointers, and expanded scales to improve the precision and accuracy of
readings. The most accurate mechanical gauges, test gauges, are used as transfer
standards for pressure calibration, but for applications requiring remote sensing,
monitoring, or recording they are impractical. Their mechanical linkages also limit their
frequency response for dynamic pressure measurements.
Bourdon Tube-Type Detectors Figure 2 Bourdon Tube The bourdon tube
pressure instrument is one of the oldest pressure sensing instruments in use
today. The bourdon tube (refer to Figure 2) consists of a thin-walled tube that is
flattened diametrically on opposite sides to produce a cross-sectional area
elliptical in shape, having two long flat sides and two short round sides.
The tube is bent lengthwise into an arc of a circle of 270 to 300 degrees.
Pressure applied to the inside of the tube causes distention of the flat
sections and tends to restore its original round cross-section. This change in
cross-section causes the tube to straighten slightly. Since the tube is
permanently fastened at one end, the tip of the tube traces a curve that is the result
of the change in angular position with respect to the center. Within limits, the
movement of the tip of the tube can then be used to position a pointer or to develop
an equivalent electrical signal (which is discussed later in the text) to indicate the
value of the applied internal pressure.

Bellows-Type Detectors The need for a pressure sensing element that was
extremely sensitive to low pressures and provided power for activating recording
and indicating mechanisms resulted in the development of the metallic bellows
pressure sensing element. The metallic bellows is most accurate when measuring
pressures from 0.5 to 75 psig. However, when used in conjunction with a heavy
range spring, some bellows can be used to measure pressures of over 1000
psig. Figure 1 shows a basic metallic bellows pressure sensing element. The
bellows is a one-piece, collapsible, seamless metallic unit that has deep folds formed
from very thin-walled tubing. The diameter of the bellows ranges from 0.5 to 12 in.
and may have as many as 24 folds. System pressure is applied to the internal
volume of the bellows. As the inlet pressure to the instrument varies, the bellows
will expand or contract. The moving end of the bellows is connected to a
mechanical linkage assembly. As the bellows and linkage assembly moves, either an
electrical signal is generated or a direct pressure indication is provided. The
flexibility of a metallic bellows is similar in character to that of a helical, coiled
compression spring. Up to the elastic limit of the bellows, the relation
between increments of load and deflection is linear. However, this
relationship exists only when the bellows is under compression. It is
necessary to construct the bellows such that all of the travel occurs on the
compression side of the point of equilibrium. Therefore, in practice, the bellows
must always be opposed by a spring, and the deflection characteristics will be the
resulting force of the spring and bellows.
Figure 1 Basic Metallic Bellows

Electromechanical Pressure Sensors. Electromechanical pressure sensors, or pressure

transducers, convert motion generated by a force-summing device into an electrical
signal. These sensors are much more useful and adaptable than mechanical gauges,
especially when applied in data acquisition and control systems. In well-designed
transducers, the electrical output is directly proportional to the applied pressure over a
wide pressure range. For rapidly changing—dynamic—pressure measurement, frequency
characteristics of the transducer are an important consideration.

Types of Pressure Sensors

Pressure sensors are available with a variety of reference pressure options: gauge (psig),
absolute (psia), differential (psid), and sealed (psis). All use a force-summing device to
convert the pressure to a displacement, but that displacement is then converted to an
electrical output by any of several transduction methods. The most common are strain
gauges, variable capacitance, and piezoelectric.

Resistance-Type Transducers Included in this category of transducers are strain

gauges and moving contacts (slidewire variable resistors). Figure 3 illustrates a
simple strain gauge. A strain gauge measures the external force (pressure) applied
to a fine wire. The fine wire is usually arranged in the form of a grid. The
pressure change causes a resistance change due to the distortion of the wire. The
value of the pressure can be found by measuring the change in resistance of
the wire grid. Equation 2-1 shows the pressure to resistance relationship.
R =K L / A where (2-1)

R = resistance of the wire grid in ohms

K = resistivity constant for the particular type of wire grid

L = length of wire grid

A = cross sectional area of wire grid

Figure 3 Strain Gauge

Figure 4 Strain Gauge Pressure Transducer

As the wire grid is distorted by elastic deformation, its length is increased, and its cross-
sectional area decreases. These changes cause an increase in the resistance of the wire of the
strain gauge. This change in resistance is used as the variable resistance in a bridge circuit
that provides an electrical signal for indication of pressure. Figure 4 illustrates a strain gauge
pressure transducer.
. Figure 6 Bellows Resistance Transducer

Other resistance-type transducers combine a bellows or a bourdon tube with a variable resistor, as shown
in Figure 6. As pressure changes, the bellows will either expand or contract. This expansion and
contraction causes the attached slider to move along the slidewire, increasing or decreasing the resistance,
and thereby indicating an increase or decrease in pressure

Variable Capacitance Transducers. When one

plate of a capacitor is displaced relative to the
other, the capacitance between the two plates
changes. If one of the plates is the diaphragm of a
pressure sensor, the capacitance can be correlated
to the pressure applied to it (see Figure 10). This
change of capacitance is either used to vary the
frequency of an oscillator or is detected by a
Figure 10. Variable capacitance sensors offer very
bridge circuit. If the dielectric material is good hysteresis, linearity, stability, and repeatability,
maintained constant, this mechanism provides a in addition to static pressure measurement capability
and a quasi-digital outputt. Their disadvantages are
very repeatable transducer. The primary high impedance output, high temperature sensitivity,
advantages are low hysteresis; good linearity, and the need for complex electronics.

stability, and repeatability; static pressure

measurement capability; and a quasi-digital
output. However, complicated electronics are
Capacitance pressure transducers were originally developed for use in low vacuum
research. This capacitance change results from the movement of a diaphragm
element (Figure 3-5). The diaphragm is usually metal or metal-coated quartz and is
exposed to the process pressure on one side and to the reference pressure on the
other. Depending on the type of pressure, the capacitive transducer can be either an
absolute, gauge, or differential pressure transducer.

Figure 18. A more complex capacitive pressure sensor can be built to detect differential pressure.

In a capacitance-type pressure sensor, a high-frequency, high-voltage oscillator is

used to charge the sensing electrode elements. In a two-plate capacitor sensor
design, the movement of the diaphragm between the plates is detected as an
indication of the changes in process pressure.

Figure 3-5: Capacitance-Based Pressure Cell

As shown in Figure 3-5, the deflection of the diaphragm causes a change in
capacitance that is detected by a bridge circuit. This circuit can be operated in either
a balanced or unbalanced mode. In balanced mode, the output voltage is fed to a
null detector and the capacitor arms are varied to maintain the bridge at null.
Therefore, in the balanced mode, the null setting itself is a measure of process
pressure. When operated in unbalanced mode, the process pressure measurement is
related to the ratio between the output voltage and the excitation voltage.
Single-plate capacitor designs are also common. In this design, the plate is located
on the back side of the diaphragm and the variable capacitance is a function of
deflection of the diaphragm. Therefore, the detected capacitance is an indication of
the process pressure. The capacitance is converted into either a direct current or a
voltage signal that can be read directly by panel meters or microprocessor-based
input/output boards.
Capacitance pressure transducers are widespread in part because of their wide
rangeability, from high vacuums in the micron range to 10,000 psig (70 MPa).
Differential pressures as low as 0.01 inches of water can readily be measured. And,
compared with strain gage transducers, they do not drift much. Better designs are
available that are accurate to within 0.1% of reading or 0.01% of full scale. A typical
temperature effect is 0.25% of full scale per 1000¡ F.
Capacitance-type sensors are often used as secondary standards, especially in low-
differential and low-absolute pressure applications. They also are quite responsive,
because the distance the diaphragm must physically travel is only a few microns.
Newer capacitance pressure transducers are more resistant to corrosion and are less
sensitive to stray capacitance and vibration effects that used to cause "reading
jitters" in older designs.

Inductance-Type Transducers

The inductance-type transducer consists of three parts: a coil, a movable

magnetic core, and a pressure sensing element. The element is attached to the
core, and, as pressure varies, the element causes the core to move inside the
coil. An AC voltage is applied to the coil, and, as the core moves, the inductance
of the coil changes. The current through the coil will increase as the inductance
decreases. For increased sensitivity, the coil can be separated into two coils by
utilizing a center tap, as shown in Figure 7. As the core moves within the coils,
the inductance of one coil will increase, while the other will decrease.
Figure 7 Inductance-Type Pressure Transducer Coil

Figure 8 Differential Transformer

Another type of inductance transducer, illustrated in Figure 8, utilizes two

coils wound on a single tube and is commonly referred to as a Differential
Transformer The primary coil is wound around the center of the tube. The secondary
coil is divided with one half wound around each end of the tube. Each end is wound
in the opposite direction, which causes the voltages induced to oppose one another.
A core, positioned by a pressure element, is movable within the tube. When
the core is in the lower position, the lower half of the secondary coil provides
the output. When the core is in the upper position, the upper half of the secondary
coil provides the output. The magnitude and direction of the output depends on the
amount the core is displaced from its center position. When the core is in the mid-
position, there is no secondary output.

Piezoelectric Transducers. Piezoelectric (PE) pressure transducers (see Figure 11) use
stacks of piezoelectric crystal or ceramic elements to convert the motion of the force-
summing device to an electrical output. Quartz, tourmaline, and several other naturally
occurring crystals generate an electrical charge when strained. Specially formulated
ceramics can be artificially polarized to be piezoelectric, and they have higher
sensitivities than natural crystals. Unlike strain gauge transducers, PE devices require no
external excitation. Because their output is very high impedance and their signal levels
low, they require special signal conditioning such as charge amplifiers and noise-treated
coaxial cable.

Some designs of PE transducers (ICP or voltage mode) therefore include an integral

preamplifier within the transducer’s case. The output can then be an amplified (millivolt
level) low output impedance signal, greatly reducing cabling problems and simplifying
signal conditioning. The integral amplifier requires external power from a constant-
current supply, using the same two conductors as the signal circuit. The signal
conditioner has a blocking capacitor to block the DC power supply voltage and to
transmit an AC signal.

Figure 11. Piezoelectric pressure sensors use stacks of piezoelectric crystal or ceramic elements to convert the motion of a force-
summing device to an electrical output.

Because the PE transducers are self-generating, dependent on changes of strain to

generate electrical charge, they are not usable with DC or steady-state conditions. They
have an inherent low-frequency rolloff that is dependent on the signal conditioning’s low-
frequency time constant.

Their primary advantage is their ruggedness, and, without integral electronics, their
usefulness at high temperatures. If not properly compensated, though, they are sensitive
to shock and vibration and may exhibit large changes of sensitivity with temperature


Any of the pressure detectors previously discussed can be joined to an electrical device to
form a pressure transducer. Transducers can produce a change in resistance,
inductance, or capacitance.

Figure 8. The typical pressure sensor has three functional blocks.

Figure 10 Typical Pressure Detection Block Diagram

Figure 10 shows a block diagram of a typical pressure detection circuit. The sensing
element senses the pressure of the monitored system and converts the pressure to a
mechanical signal. The sensing element supplies the mechanical signal to a
transducer, as discussed above. The transducer converts the mechanical signal to
an electrical signal that is proportional to system pressure. If the mechanical
signal from the sensing element is used directly, a transducer is not required and
therefore not used. The detector circuitry will amplify and/or transmit this signal to
the pressure indicator. The electrical signal generated by the detection circuitry is
proportional to system pressure. The exact operation of detector circuitry depends upon
the type of transducer used. The pressure indicator provides remote indication of the
system pressure being measured.