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Choosing the Right Flow Meter for an Application

By David L. Hamilton
Business Development Manager
AW-Lake Company

Flow meters ensure proper flow rate measurement for a variety of fluids for industrial
applications ranging from chemical processes, lubrication and cooling systems, hydraulic fluid
power, paint manufacturing/application to fuel management and custody transfer. They are
essential to accurately monitor operations to ensure quality, diagnose system errors, and
monitor pump performance.

Mechanical and electronic flow meters are available on the market for measuring liquids.
Mechanical flow meters feature a moving part such as a gear, float, or rotor to measure
volumetric flow as fluid passes through it during a set interval of time. A variable area flow
meter is an example of a mechanical meter where a ball floats proportional to the rate of liquid
flowing the meter’s clear housing.

Electronic flow meters, on the other hand, do not possess moving parts and incorporate
electronics as the basis to calculate flow. For example, Coriolis flow meters use a pair of
vibrating tubes with sensors on inbound and outbound ends. Each sensor outputs a sine wave
that aligns under no-flow conditions. As flow increases, they separate in time. This difference in
time (billionths of a second) is proportional to flow. Thermal mass and ultrasonic are other
examples of electronic flow meters.

With the array of flow meter technologies from which to choose, a critical step in determining
the best one is knowing the operating, installation, and design specifications for an application.
Here is a checklist of factors to consider when identifying the right flow meter for your

What type of fluid will be measured?

While most flow meters do measure both gas and liquids, this discussion will focus on liquids.
To that end, the user should first determine what kind of liquid that the flow meter will
measure in an application. Will the instrument be exposed to caustic chemicals, dirty water,
industrial solvents, resins or adhesives? If so, an electronic meter without moving parts might
be the best choice for the application as components are less susceptible to corrosion or
mechanical failure. Meters with no moving parts are also easier to flush and clean.
To get the best accuracy and performance from a flow meter, ensure its construction is
compatible with the type of fluid passing through the pipeline. For example, electromagnetic
flow meters are well suited for wastewater applications with dirty liquid as they have no
moving parts. Ultrasonic flow meters that operate with non-intrusive Doppler sound waves also
are suitable for these applications as they have no moving parts, low-pressure drop, and
excellent chemical compatibility.

What Do You Know About the Flow?

Fluid in motion represents the flow. How will the fluid behave when flowing through the
pipeline? Fluid flow falls into three ranges: laminar, transition, and turbulent.

· Laminar: fluids flow smoothly without mixing in regular paths at low velocities.
· Transitional Flow: when materials fluctuate between laminar and turbulent flow.
Usually, turbulence occurs in the middle of the pipeline and laminar at the endpoints.
· Turbulent Flow: an unsteady flow with increased mixing (eddies and wakes) that results
in rapid changes in pressure and velocity.

If the flow profile of a pipeline transitions from the turbulent (high velocities) to a laminar (low
profile), flow meters may experience a change in “K factor” that can result in low resolution.
Consult with the meter manufacturer to determine the best size and type of meter to match
fluid flow.

What is the Operating Environment?

When selecting a flow meter, it’s important to consider how the operating environment will
affect the accuracy and efficiency as well as the construction of the instrument. Will the flow
meter be installed indoors or outside? Will it be exposed to hot and cold temperature
variations? Is it in an explosive or other hazardous environment?

For example, refineries pose flow metering challenges associated with high pressures, pulsating
flows, corrosive media, and harsh environments. Temperature and pressure can affect flow
meters, altering accuracy and performance. In these situations, flow meter construction
should withstand high pressures. However, certain limitations exist on how much pressure a
flow meter can withstand.

Subsea applications require highly reliable and accurate instruments that can tolerate corrosive
sea-water environments while meters used in sanitary processes often must be certified to
operate in these situations. Check if a flow meter is compatible and classified to work in a
particular operating environment.

Installation Location – Pipe Runs

Flow meters installed in straight pipe runs and accessible for maintenance provide the best
results. Orientation considerations may also be important. Follow the recommendations of the
flow meter manufacturer for the ideal installation location.

Cost vs. Performance

If accuracy is not a high priority and flow meters do not integrate into a control system, a low-
cost mechanical flow meter such as a variable area and differential pressure meter might be
good choices. If higher accuracy is required, a positive displacement meter is perfect for
process control and monitoring. In addition to accommodating a broad range of flow, these
flow meters work in both high and low viscosity materials for exceptional accuracy.

If highest accuracy is paramount, then consider a Coriolis flow meter. In addition to working
with just about any liquid application, Coriolis meters typically offer the highest and most
repeatable accuracies of all metering technologies.

Advantages of Different Flow Meters

Each flow meter technology has its unique operating advantages (see chart 1). Understanding
the benefits of different technologies within each category is important to match them to
address application specifications. For example, positive displacement meters are volumetric
flow measurement instruments ideal for low flow rates, highly viscous fluids, and measurement
of flows involving starts and stops or pulsing. In comparison, Coriolis flow meters are highly
accurate, have a low-pressure drop, can handle low pressures, and work with both gases and

The wrong flow meter can result in measurement inaccuracies or early failure that can affect
the accuracy of process systems. The distributor or manufacturer can help you determine the
best flow meter based on your application requirements and operating environment.

Remember that choosing the best flow meter doesn’t mean the least expensive one. Invest in
the right features for accuracy, long-term performance and decreased mean time between
maintenance or replacement. Customize when necessary as not all applications are satisfied
with off-the-shelf solutions.
Flow Technology Cost Accuracy Viscosity Flow Range Temp.Limit Max Pressure
Paddle Wheel Lowest ±2% of full Low Low to Medium Medium
scale Medium
Variable Area Low ±2% of full Low Low to High Ultra high High
Differential Low ±0.6% of flow Low Med to High Ultra high
Turbine Mid-high ±1% of flow Low Med to High High High
Electromagnetic Mid-high ±0.5% of flow Low Low to High High Low
Ultrasonic Mid-high ±1% of flow Low to High Low to High High High
Rotary Piston High ±1% of flow Low Ultra-low to Medium Ultra high
Positive High ±0.5% of flow Low to High Low to High High High
Gear Meter
Coriolis Highest ±0.1% of flow Low to High Low to High High High