Expanded flow diagnostics cast a wider net

Here’s how to use several methods, such as element status checking, to improve flowmeter availability, increase consistency, and reduce costs in many applications and environments.

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Despite limitations, some flowmeter suppliers are embedding diagnostics that verify the integrity of the flowmeter primary. In general, certain parameters associated with the flowmeter primary are measured in the field and compared with measurements previously made at the factory. As long as the difference between the factory values and field measurements remain within tolerances, the calibration of the flowmeter primary is presumed not to have shifted. Some expanded diagnostics are continuously monitored, while others are performed periodically.


An operator monitors the flow into the 300,000 lb. capacity weight and volumetric calibration water tank at Utah State University's Hydraulics Lab in Logan, Utah.

This approach isn’t a flowmeter calibration. However, it is an in-situ flowmeter verification check that implies (but doesn’t definitively determine) that the calibration of the flowmeter primary hasn’t shifted because there are other failure modes that may not have been checked.

Using expanded diagnostics can be likened to verifying that the condition and dimensions of an orifice plate hasn’t changed, which implies that its calibration hasn’t changed. However, this orifice plate check wouldn’t detect an out-of-round pipe, coating, plugging, or an obstruction that could change the calibration of the orifice plate flow measurement system. These conditions could be detected using an in-situ flowmeter calibration.

Diagnostics Aid Consistency
Despite its limitations, expanded diagnostic coverage is an in-situ flowmeter verification tool that can improve flowmeter availability and extend intervals between routine calibrations and/or verifications. For example, Micro Motion recently announced the availability of expanded diagnostic coverage for its Coriolis mass flowmeters. It found that verifying the density measurement by periodically filling the flowmeter with known fluids (typically water and air) implies that the flowmeter calibration hasn’t changed due to product build-up or corrosion. This is an example of a periodic diagnostic that can reduce calibration costs by increasing the time between routine reference device verifications.

Franki Parson, industry manager of life sciences at Micro Motion, says that, “Many GMP-validated pharmaceutical manufacturing facilities must routinely verify field instrumentation to demonstrate process consistency. The ability to verify consistent performance, without external calibration laboratories or reference flowmeters, can reduce production interruptions, and can extend intervals between routine verifications. This generally requires less human intervention and can reduce labor costs.”

Joseph LaFauci. associate director of automation technology at Merck & Co., adds that, “The use of expanded diagnostics should be considered to reduce costs associated with maintaining flowmeter performance.” He notes that hard data supporting the cost savings generally isn’t available because flowmeters with expanded diagnostics have been on the market for a relatively short time.

Joseph adds the benefits of expanded diagnostics are amplified when used with fieldbus technology that allows faster and more accurate troubleshooting. “However, the benefit received from expanded diagnostics depends upon the criticality of the instrument in the process,” he says. “For example, in critical applications, safety can be improved when transmitter diagnostic status is used to override potentially dangerous, fast-acting process events. Using advanced diagnostics coupled with control system interlocks provides predictable results and safeguards correct operator action.”

Some flowmeter suppliers, such as ABB, Krohne and Siemens, can provide portable equipment to periodically check their magnetic flowmeter primaries for insulation resistance and other internal electrical parameters that are indicative of flowmeter primary problems. These are also periodic diagnostics that can reduce the cost of calibrations.

Meanwhile, Joe Incontri, sales and marketing director at Krohne, reports his company offers a magnetic flowmeter transmitter that can continuously perform expanded diagnostics on the flowmeter primary, such as checking for gas bubbles, electrode corrosion, low conductivity, liner damage, electrode fouling, external magnetic fields, partially full conditions, flow profile changes, and conductivity changes.

Incontri adds that Krohne also offers a separate, portable, handheld device that performs similar functions. An advantage of this approach is that the portable can be brought into a laboratory and calibrated, so it will be traceable to an external standard.

Availability Increases Safety
One measurement specialist at a multinational chemical company points out that the value of expanded diagnostics is more evident in Europe, where proof testing of Safety Instrumented Systems (SIS) has been common for more than a decade. Standards require proof testing of failure modes not covered by diagnostics. Therefore, high diagnostic coverage could reduce testing costs because fewer failure modes need to be tested. In addition, allowances for diagnostics might increase process availability in some applications. For example, a  1oo2D (1 out of 2 redundant decision, digital) installation using transmitters with expanded diagnostics might be able to replace a 1oo2 installation that uses conventional transmitters. Compared to the 1oo2, the 1oo2D would tend to reduce the number of false trips.

Another part of improving flowmeter performance is increasing the time that the flowmeter produces good measurements by pinpointing the cause of a problem and/or detecting the problem before it affects the flow measurement and the process. This is especially important when the flowmeter is difficult to access, according to Edgar Fajardo, senior instrument and electrical engineer at BASF in the Netherlands. Edgar works with instruments that have been installed for about a year on an unmanned platform that communicates to land via a fiber-optic link. Expanded diagnostics can help reduce costly helicopter trips to the platform by allowing some problems to be fixed from his office on land. If a trip becomes necessary, remote expanded diagnostics can help the technician select and bring the proper equipment and parts.

Flowmeters with expanded diagnostics have only been installed recently. The prospects for this technology look promising, but time will tell whether the use of expanded technology will take plant operation to a new level.

  About the Author
David W. Spitzer is a principal in Spitzer and Boyes LLC, which offers consulting services for the process industries in addition to product development, marketing and distribution consulting for manufacturing and automation companies. He can be reached at 845/623-1830 or at spitzerandboyes.com.
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