# How to Make 4-20 mA Current Loop Measurements

by Roger Lockhart of DATAQ Instruments

originally published 9/30/2013, reprinted with permission

It seems that at least one 4-20 milliamp (mA) measurement is required by our typical customer, and the way to do it is a constant source of confusion for many.  So I thought I’d zero in on the various 4-20 mA current loop configurations and elaborate on the specifics you need to know to make a successful measurement.  The following is ordered from the most to least common configuration, and I hope to cover all those that I encountered in customer applications.  If yours isn’t included, please contact DATAQ technical support.

dataq.com

4-20 mA Current Loop Basics

Sensors or other devices with a 4-20 mA current loop output are extremely common in industrial measurement and control applications. They are easy to deploy, have wide power supply requirements, generate a low noise output, and can be transmitted without loss over great distances. We encounter them all the time in both process control and basic measurement data logger and data acquisition applications.

The idea behind 4-20 mA current loop operation is that the sensor draws current from its power source in direct proportion to the mechanical property it measures. Take the example of a 100 psi sensor with a current loop output. With 0 psi applied, the sensor draws 4 mA from its power source. With 100 psi applied the sensor draws 20 mA. At 50 psi the sensor draws 12 mA and so on. The relationship of mechanical property measurement to current output is almost always linear, allowing the resulting current loop data to be scaled with a simple mx+b formula to reveal more useful measurements scaled into engineering units.

How you actually measure the 4-20 mA current loop signal is a function of the sensor’s architecture and the capabilities of the instrument you’ll use for the measurement.

Terminology

So that my discussion translates well across the various kinds of 4-20 mA current loop configurations, I’ve opted to standardize the terminology I use to describe each. Here’s an overview:

“E” (DC excitation)

Most configurations that follow will show a DC voltage excitation source that I denote as “E”. Many who use current loop sensors for the first time are surprised to learn that they need to supply this excitation source. Nonetheless, unless the sensor is self-powered (i.e. AC line powered) an external dc source is required. The good news is that this can sometimes be supplied by the instrument, and the range of acceptable supplied voltage values is usually very wide, typically 10 to 24 VDC.

“R” (shunt resistor)

Here’s a bit of trivia for you:

No instruments measure current directly.

They all do it indirectly by measuring the voltage dropped across a resistor of known value, and then they use Ohm’s Law to calculate actual current. The resistor is referred to as a “shunt”, is absolutely required to make a current measurement, and is either supplied externally to, or built into the measuring instrument. For clarity, I assume that it’s supplied externally.

“i” (current loop value ranging from 4 to 20 mA)

This is the 4 to 20 mA current signal generated by the sensor. Note that some sensors may valium draw 0 to 20 mA and even other values, but the vast majority of them use the 4 to 20 mA convention.

“v” (shunt voltage that’s proportional to current)

This is the voltage drop across the shunt that is actually measured by the instrument. Since our industry has standardized on a shunt value of 250 Ohms, “v” will range between 1 and 5 volts for a 4-20 mA current loop signal.

Note that shunt resistor value is arbitrary as long as it’s a known (fixed) value. You also need to ensure that it doesn’t burden the loop, so lower values are better than gabapentin higher.

Yes, I mean lower.

Remember that we’re working with current, not voltage, so the rules are inverted. Just as infinitely-high resistor loads work well for a voltage source, you can take the load all the way to zero Ohms for a current source without consequence.

Self-Powered Sensors (Most Common)

I promised to order these configurations from most to least common, and the self-powered sensor just noses out the first runner up. Self-powered sensors are those that, well, power themselves. The sensor may have an integral ac power supply, thereby negating the need for an external DC power source. https://madronadermatology.com/accutane-online/

Or it may not be a sensor at all. It could be an output from a Programmable Logic Controller (PLC) or other source that is internally powered.

2-wire Sensors (Low-side Shunt)

Okay, this can get confusing for first-time  4-20 mA current loop users.

Yes, it is possible to both power the sensor and measure the current it draws over the same two wires. In the 2-wire examples shown here, only two wires connect the sensor to its power supply, and the sensor draws current from it in direct proportion to the mechanical property that it measures. As current changes, the voltage developed across resistor “R” will change, thus providing a signal that’s suitable to connect to a measuring instrument like a data logger or data acquisition antabuse system.

In most situations, care should be taken to place the resistor in the low-side of the loop as shown here, as opposed to the high-side. Doing so will allow non-isolated instruments to make the measurement. In the next section, I’ll deal with a high-side shunt placement and discuss these cautions in more detail.

2-wire Sensors (High-side Shunt)

This configuration is almost exactly like the low-side, 2-wire approach, but it places the shunt resistor in the high-side of the loop. Note that while the voltage across the resistor is proportional to the current drawn by the sensor (just like the low-side approach), there is also a common mode voltage (CMV) present on either side to ground. On one side to ground the CMV is equal to the supply voltage. On the other side to ground it’s equal to the supply voltage, less the voltage dropped by the resistor (v).

The presence of the CMVs places conditions on the instrument that you use to measure v. Specially, the instrument needs to have an isolated front end so it can float to the level of the CMV and still successfully make the measurement. Try this with a non-isolated, single-ended instrument and you will short-circuit the sensor to ground. A non-isolated differential instrument will either saturate or provide erroneous results.

3-wire Sensors

Three-wire sensors with a process current output have a separate wire for ground, signal (4-20 mA), and the power supply. This configuration is the easiest for current loop beginners to grasp, one input for power and a second for the current loop with a common ground. The primary advantage of a 3-wire sensor over its 2-wire counterpart is its ability to drive higher resistive loads. Resistors drop voltage for any given current in direct proportion to their resistance value. Holding current constant, higher resistances drop more voltage. Turning back to the 2-wire sensor and holding current constant, as the shunt resistance increases the voltage drop across it also increases. You might reach a point where the voltage dropped by the shunt lowers the voltage drop across the sensor below the minimum required for it to operate properly.

We had a customer whose 2-wire current loop measurements functioned beautifully until loop current reached about 18 mA, at which point everything went haywire. Upon close examination, we determined that the supply voltage she used was too low by at least 0.56 volts. She needed 2 mA more measurement to reach full scale, which translates to 0.56 V with her 250-Ohm resistor. The solution was to use a higher voltage power supply to ensure that the voltage drop across the sensor stayed above the minimum level. She could have also used a 3-wire sensor, which ensures that the voltage applied to the sensor is independent of shunt resistor voltage drop.

Watch Your Grounds (or use an isolated instrument)

Contrary to what many believe (and have been erroneously taught in school), grounds are almost never the same in industrial settings, exactly where most 4-20 mA current loop sensors are used.

Two or more grounds that are the same means that they are at the same potential. If so, a measurement between the grounds of the various field sensors and the instrument using a digital volt meter (DVM) on both its DC and AC settings will show zero volts, or very close to it.

In reality, you’ll measure at least several volts, and I’ve seen as much as 75 Volts. When grounds that are not at the same potential are tied together (which you need to do to make a measurement), current flows through them, creating several possible measurement outcomes for non-isolated instruments:

1. The measurement is noisy.
2. The measurement is inaccurate.
3. You irreparably damage the instrument.
4. You saturate the instrument (it’s not damaged, but you can’t make a successful measurement, either.)

To remedy these problems requires the following:

1. Use an isolated instrument for your 4-20 mA current loop measurements. This single decision allows you to ignore all other grounding issues in exchange for successful measurements in any situation. If you don’t have an isolated instrument, read on…
2. Ensure that the loop power source is isolated. This means that its output ground (the one connected to the sensor) is not tied to its input ground (the one that connects to AC line power.) An isolated power source means that the output ground can be tied to another ground (like a non-isolated instrument) without consequence.
3. If using self-powered sensors, ensure that the low-side of the loop is isolated from its power source.
4. If using sensors that require an external dc power source, ensure that the shunt resistor is placed in the low side of the loop (see “2-wire Sensors (Low-side Shunt)” above.)
5. If you lack control over the power sources and determine that they are not isolated, then your only option is to power ALL devices (power supplies, self-powered sensors, the instrument, and its connected PC) from exactly the same power outlet. Don’t make the mistake of using outlets that are close to each other. If you run out of receptacles on a single outlet, then use a power strip.

Again, it’s worth repeating that all of the cautions associated with proper grounding disappear if an isolated instrument is used to make the measurement.

Sensors with 4-20 mA outputs are encountered in all disciplines and in many configurations.

Contact DATAQ with any questions that arise in your unique situation.

dataq.com

This article has been reprinted with permission from DATAQ Instruments, a manufacturer of quality data acquisition and data logger products used by many professionals and amateur rocketry hobbyists.

The RRS is thankful to DATAQ for their assistance.

Also, you can watch DATAQ YouTube instructional videos on this and other subjects.

For information on DATAQ products, go to their website:

www.dataq.com

# August 2020 virtual meeting

By Dave Nordling, Reaction Research Society

In the absence of our secretary, I took a few notes from the meeting. This is what I recorded. Contact the RRS secretary for updates and corrections.

The Reaction Research Society held its monthly meeting by teleconference on August 14, 2020. Our monthly meetings are always held on the 2nd Friday of every month. We’ve had a lot of success with holding our meetings remotely and we will likely continue for the next coming months to continue our commitment to safety in light of the pandemic. Our membership is in regular contact with our community which has allowed us to promote and hold events including our first launch at the Mojave Test Area (MTA) on July 25, 2020. You can read the details in the firing report posted on this website.

Our members are doing well and thus far no one has reported being infected with COVID-19 which we hope continues to be the case. Frank is in regular contact with the Los Angeles Police Department’s (LAPD) Community Safety Partnership (CSP) but under current circumstances, the next school event may not be until next year. Options are being considered on how to continue our educational programs while maintaining social distancing.

## REVIEW OF THE 7/25/2020 LAUNCH EVENT OPERATIONS

The first topic was the recent launch event we held on July 25th at the Mojave Test Area for the first time since the start of the pandemic. We had some difficulties in operating under the summer heat (106 Fahenheit at the peak) but this is nothing unusual for this time of year. Many of us were well prepared for the hot sun with our hats, sunscreen and iced beverages and chilled water. We also did a good job of watching out for each other. Still, the heat was responsible for leaving all but one of the micrograin rockets downrange. It also underscores the importance good planning, coordination and putting safety over all other considerations. We had several mis-fires which we were able to resolve, but maintaining discipline during the event proved to be a larger challenge. The launch protocols will be explained more thoroughly in the next safety briefing. The meeting highlighted that every member and pyro-op attending the event holds a joint responsibilty for the safety of all and it starts with self-discipline and patience by all.

We also discussed proper protocols such as announcing the pyro-op in charge well before the event and the necessity of providing detailed information about the intended operations to the pyro-op in charge in advance. Most of the planned projects were well understood as they were micrograin rockets and the previous hybrid rocket attempted at the last launch event.

## DATA REVIEW OF THE STANDARD ALPHA FLIGHT OF 7/25/2020

The only micrograin rocket to be recovered from the launch event of 7/25/2020 was the standard alpha with plain steel nozzle. John Krell has been developing progressively better and more powerful avionics payloads designed to fit the narrow confines of the RRS standard alpha payload tube. John was able to spot and recover one of his payloads and process the flight data captured that day. The avionics payload was intact after being extracted from the desert floor including the solid-state data chip. John was able to recover the data and accurately reveal the huge acceleration of the RRS standard alpha with unprecedented accuracy. A peak acceleration of 114 G’s was recorded at roughly 0.3 seconds just before tail-off and burn-out at 0.4 seconds from launch. I was able to screen capture his plot below.

The second plot shows the velocity derived from the accelerometer readings in the half-second which captures burnout at 0.4 seconds. Burnout velocity was measured at 670 feet/second which is consistent with prior data and trajectory predictions. The alpha is subsonic but travels at substantial speed from the swift acceleration. Given the high air temperature that day, 106 Fahrenheit, the speed of sound was 1165 ft/sec. The altitude of burnout was determined to be 130 feet which is consistent with prior flight data and high speed video footage.

The third plot was made for the whole flight of standard alpha from the 7/25/2020 event from launch to impact at 35 seconds. Given the roets were impacting 2000 to 3000 feet downrange, the sound delay matches with the time to impact witnessed in the observation bunker. The maximum altitude was just over 4,400 feet based on the barometric pressure measurements using the 1976 standard atmosphere model. Base atmospheric pressure reading at the start of the flight shows the elevation of alpha launch rail platform is 2,048 feet.

John Krell has really accomplished something with these custom avionics packages. He has been mentoring some of our other RRS members and the society encourages other members to build and fly their own payloads to spread the knowledge.

The society hopes to recover the other two alphas and the beta for further data analysis. Both of the unrecovered alphas from this last launch event had ceramic coated nozzles which should not erode. This should result in a more ideal performance as the throat area will not open up. The actual effect of this design improvement can best be assessed with recorded flight data. Also, we hope to compare the trajectory of the four-foot propellant tube with the standard length. Lastly. if the beta is recovered with recorded flight data, we may be able to assess its performance in unprecedented detail. The society hopes to report this flight data soon.

## IMPROVEMENTS TO THE NITROUS OXIDE FILL/DRAIN MANIFOLD

The failure to launch the second build of the hybrid rocket was discussed at the August 2020 meeting. After discussing the launch procedures and corrective actions followed during the attempt to launch the nitrous oxide hybrid at the MTA with Osvaldo (the Level 1 pyro-op in charge) and racing experts at Nitrous Supply Inc., Huntington Beach, California, the cause of the fill valve’s failure to open became clear.

nitroussupply.com

In the racing industry, these normally-closed direct-acting solenoid valves are commonly used to open the flow of stored nitrous oxide bottles against the full supply pressure in the storage bottle. These are called “purge solenoid valves” among racers because it is this solenoid valve that opens the flow of nitrous oxide which displaces or purges out the air in the engine lines during the race. Buying these 12-volt DC high pressure solenoid valves from racing suppliers is much cheaper given they are made in greater numbers for the racing industry. (~\$120 each versus \$400+ each from reputable solenoid valve manufacturers).

In researching common designs for normally closed (NC) solenoid valves, the excessive heat of that day simply created too much inlet pressure against the internal valve seat for the electromagnetic solenoid coil to overcome and open the flow path. 1000 psig is likely the limit to reliably open these valves according to advice given by Nitrous Supply Inc. who has decades of practical experience at racing tracks around the country using purge solenoid valves for an application nearly identical to the needs of hybrid rocketry fill and drain operations. The ambient temperature at the MTA on launch day was creating a bottle temperature of 1400 psig accordling to the bottle pressure gauge and the separate pressure gauge in the manifold when the bottle was opened. This is well above the 900 psi recommended pressure range seen by marking on the gauge. The bottle, valve body and fittings are rated for these higher pressures, but opening mechanism of the solenoid valve was not.

A color-coded example of direct-acting normally closed solenoid valve is below. Blue shows the high pressure fluid path which is holding the seat down along with some assistance from an internal spring only for low inlet pressure conditions. With current applied to the electromagnetic solenoid (Orange), it pulls up on the moving armature (in red) which then allows the fluid to slip past the seal and through the flow control orifice when commanded open. Only a slight amount of movement is necessary to lift open the valve. However, if the fluid inlet pressure is too great, the solenoid can not provide enough force to lift and open the seal, therefore the valve stays shut.

To understand the relationship between pressure and temperature of the nitrous oxide you must consult the vapor pressure curve for nitrous oxide. This set of data points spans between the triple point and critical point of any pure fluid. NIST provides accurate data to generate such a curve.

webbook.nist.gov

The critical point of any pure fluid is where the distinction between gas and liquid phases disappears. This is not necessarily hazardous but it does mark a fundamental change in fluid behavior. The critical point of nitrous oxide (N2O) is 1053.3 psia and 97.6 degrees Fahrenheit according to Air Products company literature. This means the nitrous oxide conditions in the bottle at the launch (1400 psig as read on the gauges with an fluid temperature of 106 Fahrenheit or more) was well in the supercritical range, but again, this is only hazardous if the pressure vessels and plumbing connections aren’t able to safely contain the pressure. If the solenoid valve could have been opened, the pressure drop would have returned the supercritical fluid back to normal conitions and would flow dense liquid into the rocket when the fluid naturally chills down from the expansion.

Keeping the bottle pressure below 1000 psia means controlling the external temperature of the bottle to a lower temperature. Below is a tabulation of state points along the vapor pressure curve for nitrous oxide (N2O) for common ambient temperatures. You can see that small shifts in ambient temperature can greatly affect the vapor pressure of the pressurized liquid. Keeping nitrous oxide under pressure is the key to retaining its denser liquid state. As long as the tank pressure is above the vapor pressure at that fluid temperature, you will have a liquid phase in the tank. If the pressure on the fluid drops below the vapor pressure, the liquid will begin to boil away.

• 30 F, 440.05 psia
• 40 F, 506.63 psia
• 50 F, 580.33 psia
• 60 F, 661.71 psia
• 70 F, 751.46 psia; liquid density 48.21 lbm/ft3, vapor density 0.1145 lbm/ft3
• 80 F, 850.46 psia
• 90 F, 960.09 psia
• 97.6 F, 1053.3 psia; density 28.22 lbm/ft3, CRITICAL POINT
• Molecular weight = 44.01 lbm/lb-mol

At first, it was thought that there wasn’t sufficient current from the lawnmower lead-acid battery we use. The summer heat can cause batteries to fail, but even after switching to a car battery, the failure to open was the same. Having a 12-volt solenoid requires greater current to actuate the solenoid valve, but it is a common standard for automotive grade parts which can be less expensive yet reliable. A current draw of 15 Amps over the long cable runs of a few hundred feet can be taxing to the firing circuit battery. This was not the cause of the problem, but it is a regular concern making sure sufficient voltage and current is available to both ignition and valve control.

To exclude outright failure of the solenoid valve, Osvaldo brought the unit home, allowed it to cool to room temperature then dry-cycled the valve from a battery to see if it still actuated. This simple test was successful and the filling valve in our nitrous oxide manifold continues to operate. At the next launch attempt, we will be prepared to chill the nitrous oxide supply bottle with an ice bath if necessary as was originally suggested at the prior launch event. Keeping the bottle pressure in an appropriate pressure range for fill operations is dependent on controlling the fluid temperature (60 to 90 F) under extreme heat or cold environments.

In researching purge solenoid valves, a second 12 VDC normally-closed valve was found and purchased. Nitrous Supply Inc., was out of purge solenoid valves but offered many alternative suppliers in the Los Angeles area. After some searching, I selected a high flow purge solenoid valve sold by Motorcycle Performance Specialties (MPS) Racing in Casselbury, Florida, for the purge solenoid valve used for venting our nitrous oxide manifold. The control panel is already equipped with the second command channel to open the vent from the blockhouse should it be necessary in launch operations. A schematic illustration is provided in this article.

mpsracing.com

The previous drain solenoid valve equipped with the nitrous manifold I bought was not deisgned for the full bottle pressure in the manifold so it quickly failed during initial checkouts. A manual valve was used in its place to carefully bleed out the remaining pressure in the line after the main bottle valve was tightly closed. This second solenoid valve will be used for draining the nitrous in the event of a launch scrub. Although the Contrails hybrid motor already has a small orifice and vent tube at the head end of the nitrous tank to provide slow release of pressure buildup, it is better to have a remote option to quickly depressurize the vehicle if the need arises.

With some re-plumbing of the nitrous oxide manifold to include the new vent solenoid, a soap-bubble leak check would be needed to prove the system before use. Given the significant overhanging weight of two solenoid valves, it may be wise to mount both valves on a separate plate structure to avoid excessive bending loads on the bottle connection. Design changes like this will be considered in preparation for the next launch event.

PYROTECHNIC OPERATOR TRAINING SESSION BY FRIENDS OF AMATEUR ROCKETRY

Mark Holthaus of the Friends of Amateur Rocketry (FAR) organization is offering an online training session for those interested in becoming licensed pyrotechnic operators in the state of California. The event requires registration on the FAR website and a fee paid to FAR (\$10) to attend this two-hour introduction to the licensing and application process to be held on August 26th.

Amateur rocketry in California is controlled by the same laws governing fireworks which require licensing by a state exam. The application forms and guidelines are available through the Office of the State Fire Marshal in the state of California (CALFIRE).

https://osfm.fire.ca.gov/divisions/fire-engineering-and-investigations/fireworks/

This training course for pyro-op applicants is another example of FAR and the RRS partnering to help the cause of amateur rocketry. The RRS, FAR and Rocketry Organization of California (ROC) last year met to create a joint set of recommendations to help CALFIRE improve the definitions used to govern amateur rocketry when CALFIRE they were seeking input from rocketry organizations. It is to the mutual benefit of the whole rocketry community and the public that there be more licensed pyro-op’s in amateur rocketry to both increase awareness of state laws and improve the culture of safety in our hobby and professions.

This FAR training course only serves to provide applicants with basic guidance on how to begin the application process and prepare to take the examination. Members of FAR, the RRS, ROC and any other amateur or model rocketry organization are welcome to apply. Several members of the RRS have already applied as the society continues its campaign to grow our ranks of licensed pyro-op’s at all three levels.

Completion of this training course does not substitute for any part of the pyro-op application process set by CALFIRE. As each applicant is required to pay their own fees including fingerprinting, they must also provide five letters of recommendation from licensed pyro-ops at or above the level of license being sought. After this class, each applicant must formally request these letters from state licensed pyro-ops in writing. For a licensed pyro-op to offer a letter of recommendation to an applicant, they must be willing to endorse their skills, knowledge and character to the state of California based on their personal experience with that individual. This is done through active participation at launch events through rocketry organizations having licensed pyro-ops leading their operations. Apprenticing, studying and attentiveness are all ways that a pyro-op can get to know an applicant personally and thus build confidence that the applicant is ready to have the responsibility of being licensed in rocketry. A letter of recommendation is given solely at the discretion of the licensed pyro-op which means their standards and expectations may vary significantly from others. It is important to establish a working relationship with both the society and the specific pyrotechnic operator over several projects to demonstrate skills and learn best practices through active participation.

As the RRS has more licensed pyro-ops than FAR at this time, this training course will be successful if both organizations support it. Some of the RRS pyro-ops have already offered their support as this means more people will need to become active with the RRS and conduct their projects at the MTA.

## ROCKET LABORATORY AT THE COMPTON AIRPORT

Keith Yoerg announced that there is a tentative plan to create a rocket laboratory in a hangar at the Compton Airport, Although, the hangar will be used from time to time to store or service light aircraft, there is a great deal of working space which will help the RRS continue their liquid rocket project already underway. Several members of the RRS are also active with civil aviation and are members of Chapter 96 of the Experimental Aircraft Association (EAA 96). The EAA has generously supported the RRS over the last two years and we hope to continue and expand this partnership.

## NEXT EVENT AT THE MOJAVE TEST AREA

The RRS has been planning the next event at the Mojave Test Area which will be dedicated to repairing some of our facilities including the adjustable rail launcher damaged in solid rocket launch explosion in August 2019. The consensus at the meeting was that we should not to return to the MTA for a formal launch event until the seasonal temperatures decrease from the excruciating desert summer. October 3rd was selected for this work event, Our hope is the weather will be cooler and we can accomplish more on that day. We may also take some time to search for more rockets planted downrange from past launch events.

The RRS may also conduct a few static firings or even a launch if member projects are ready. All such proposed hot-fire and launch activities must be proposed to the RRS president and the selected pyro-op in charge for that day. Some of our member projects such as Wolfram Blume’s Gas Guzzler two-stage ramjet and my second-build of the high-powered hybrid rocket are both still works in progress and may be ready for the early October launch date. Larry Hoffing has been working on an improved solid motor chemistry which he may want to test at the MTA.

The RRS is available for private events before that time, but one must make their request to the RRS president as usual. Some have indicated interest in returning to the site for just a few hours to recover more rockets downrange. Its our policy that at least two members be present for any excursions to the MTA and the RRS president must be notified in advance.

## IN CLOSING

Some topics were not able to be covered including the overview of the new RRS Constitution as it gets ready for administrative membership review. Also, facility improvement plans at the RRS MTA including new restroom facilities and blockhouse should be discussed.

The next RRS meeting will be held by teleconference on September 11, 2020 as it is unlikely we will be permitted to return to the Ken Nakaoka Community Center by then. We hope everyone continues to stay safe during these days of the pandemic and try to stay in touch as we are planning another event at the MTA for October 3, 2020.

If there are any questions, please contact the RRS secretary.

secretary@rrs.org