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.

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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 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 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.

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 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


Static Fire Test of Hybrid Motor at FAR, 2021-04-17

Dave Nordling, Reaction Research Society


Based on the recent lacking performance of the Contrails H222 nitrous oxide commercial hybrid motor, a pair of static fire tests were conducted to improve the ignition and severance of the nylon fill line. The latest of these static firings was conducted at the Friends of Amateur Rocketry site south of the RRS MTA on 4-17-2021. This was done for simple convenience since I was unable to attend the MTA launch event in the week prior. Mark Holthaus and John Newman oversaw my static firing and offered good advice. Fellow RRS member, Dmitri Timohovich, joined me that day and brought his four channel firing box to conduct the remote fill and fire operations of the hybrid.

Dmitri connects the fill manifold to the nitrous oxide bottle at FAR
Orange fill and firing box for the hybrid motor
Fill, drain and firing circuit for a Contrails hybrid rocket motor. The separate vent solenoid valve hasn’t been added. Weight scale is also a separate feature and not necessary for operation.

Nylon is one of the stronger polymer tubing materials which can handle the 900 to 1200 psig nitrous oxide pressure when flow is supplied from the solenoid valve controlled manifold. The problem is that this strength makes it difficult to quickly and cleanly sever the Parker NBR brand, 3/16” OD fill line allowing the nitrous oxide to flow against the fuel grain while getting reliable ignition.

The original ignition method as designed by the manufacturer is a small resistor in place of an electric match and the use of a Pyrodex pellet which is essentially a pressed cylinder of black powder. The first flight attempt of the nitrous oxide hybrid rocket used this method but was not successful.

Contrails Rocketry, H222, 38mm, 16-inch high powered nitrous oxide hybrid motor

Earlier builds of the hybrid motor used electric matches and small scraps of composite propellant grain for a swifter and hotter ignition. The first two flights showed evidence of the fill line remaining connected. A better means of ignition and fill line severance was needed.

February 2021 launch of the hybrid motor in Larry’s 3-inch rocket body. It is clear that a hot plume is exiting the nozzle but the sharp arc to the north seems to indicate that the fill line is still attached.

The composite propellant is an ammonium perchlorate, aluminum powder and HTPB binder mixture with some red iron oxide used as an accelerant. These scraps were from RRS member, Larry Hoffing’s, small solid motor that he unsuccessfully tested at the MTA in 2019.

The Contrails H222 motor was mounted upside down due to the lack of a proper motor retainer feature. The static firing was the primary purpose which resulted in a feeble puncture of the filling line and no subsequent ignition.
The aft end of the hybrid motor mounted for static fire at the RRS MTA on 3-20-2021
Failed ignition resulted from the 3-20-2021 static firing. Disassembly revealed an excessive amount of electrical tape and an uneven burn around the fill line circumference was the most likely cause.
Previous solid propellant grain motor test in 2019 was a failure, but the remaining tailings from the casting were useful in boosting the ignition power in prior hybrid motor tests

The last static test at the MTA failed to achieve ignition and only created a small tear in the fill line without achieving ignition of the grain. The composite fuel grain fragments were getting clean ignition but the electrical tape wrapping method I used failed to adequately focus the high temperatures to getting clean ignition and severance of the black nylon fill line.

At John Newman’s suggestion, we used a small ring of composite propellant grain at the forward end inside the hybrid high-performance (HP) fuel grain. These were made from a 22mm cylinder that was cut to a 3/4-inch length and drilled out to a 3/8-inch hole size which is roughly twice the diameter of the black nylon filling line passing through. This larger hole would allow the electric match head to be in close contact with composite propellant ring. As the solid propellant charge burns it focuses the tremendous heat of combustion on the nylon fill line causing it to soften, extrude and cleanly sever.

John Newman uses his lathe at his shop to gently machine fuel grains for custom applications.
The ring of 22mm diameter composite propellant grain fits within the head-end of the hybrid fuel grain and can be pressed flush to the edge. A 3/8-inch hole is run through the 3/4” long segment to allow the nylon fill line to pass through with enough room for the electric match head
Floating injector (left) with the nylon fill line pushed into the Parker push-to-connect fitting. Composite propellant grain is pressed in flush to the edge and electric match head can be seen beofre it is secured to the fill line to get the proper position when the motor is assembled
Snap ring, graphite nozzle and steel nozzle washer finish the motor grain assembly inside the 16-inch aluminum body of the H222 model
The complete motor assembly clamped into the unistrut holding fixture. The clear vent line at the head end must protrude to the outside to give a visible and audible indication when the oxidizer volume is filled with liquid before committing to firing.
Dmitri Timohovich makes adjustments to the clamps holding the hybrid motor in place. Peak thrust is just above 200 lbf according to the official thrust curve data for this H222 model.
Four channel firing box sits at a safe distance from the static fire test stand.
Dmitri Timohovich (left) and Dave Nordling (right) pose next to the unistrut mounted static fire mounting of the Contrails Rocketry H222 high-powered 38mm hybrid motor ready for testing at the FAR site on 4-17-2021

With everything in place, we called over the pyrotechnic operators in charge for this FAR event. After inspecting the connections and describing the fill and fire procedures, we were authorized to begin the short filling process.

Successful ignition of the hybrid motor at FAR

The hybrid motor was loaded, fired, reloaded and fired again. Both times stable ignition was achieved and the fill line dropped out of the motor as expected. We had to abort the initial second firing as visual confirmation of the nitrous oxide completing fill was not apparent. Given the hybrid motor has a small weep hole in the head end of the motor means that given time the nitrous oxide will leak out safely. The clear 1/8” acrylic vent line had become tangled in the unistrut obscuring the liquid plume. Trimming the acrylic vent line helped to keep the tip more visible on the second and last firing that day.

Cheap and simple, the 3-inch Little John from Mad Cow Rocketry

The next step will be to purchase a 75mm rocket body able to integrate the 16-inch long, 38mm standard hybrid motor inside. The 3-inch Little John rocket from Mad Cow Rocketry was selected and should arrive soon. With luck, the rocket can be built and ready for 1010-rail launched flight at the next RRS MTA event on 5/1/2021.

The RRS is thankful for the support of FAR at their facility for this static fire. Dmitri and I conducted a safe dispoal burn of the scrap propellant. I was able to acquire a few more propellant ring segments for subsequent tests of the hybrid in flight. Later, we plan to revisit the Pyrodex black powder charges with the electric resistors as the initiator. It is not clear if this will be as effective as the high temperature composite grains and an electric match, but it is worth a try.