Is Your Control Valve an Imposter?

Beware the Disguised Positioner

By Greg McMillan

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When I was leaving home for the first time, my dad said, "Be as honest as the day is long, and don't be fooled into using on-off valves as control valves." I was puzzled since I was only going to summer camp. Years later I realized that my Dad was warning me about the greatest hoax of the century in the automation business. Positioners were put on piping valves and sold as throttling valves. Who wouldn't want a lower-priced valve that was in the piping spec and had the name "High Performance" because of an exceptionally low leakage classification? The valve could serve as both a throttling valve and isolation valve. What a deal!

Users did not realize the flow characteristic was sometimes quick-opening and in many cases, too flat for large openings. Even more insidious was that the backlash and stiction was more than an order of magnitude larger than valves originally designed for throttling service. Adding insult to injury, poor precision pistons (e.g., link arm, rack and pinion, and scotch yoke) and less expensive positioners (e.g., spool instead of relay type) were used that deteriorated the resolution by a factor of five or more. The result was a dramatic increase in nonlinearity, dead time, response time, dead band and stick-slip.

Users were clueless as to the source of the limit cycles and increased process variability. Pneumatic positioners offered no position readback. Even more deceptive was the fact that many installations of smart positioners had actuator shaft rather than internal closure member  position feedback. The actuator shaft would move even though the closure member did not. Diagnostics and response test metrics from the positioner said things were not too bad. The smart positioner was basically lying.

Nearly all control loops in the chemical industry depend upon the manipulation of flow by the use of a final element such as a control valve. It's generally taken for granted that, when a controller changes its output, there's an actual change in the position of the closure member of the valve (plug, ball or disk). However, the specification of control valves doesn't adequately emphasize the very basic requirement that the positioner respond in a timely manner or even at all, and this has resulted in shortcomings that introduce variability into the process.

Before the advent of smart HART and fieldbus positioners, feedback measurements of position were rare because a separate position transmitter had to be installed and wired. The user generally wasn't aware that differences in valve, actuator and pneumatic positioner design were the source of cycling in the process.

Typically, besides traditional factors such as size and materials of construction, control valve specifications have focused on minimizing leakage through the valve at shutoff and emissions to the environment from packing. Too often, to reduce project costs, plants pick on/off valves to address requirements. This can create performance problems that can't be fixed simply by adding a smart positioner. While installing a smart positioner is always beneficial, an incorrect feedback mechanism in the valve design can give a false indication of performance.

To avoid problems, always consider five basic valve requirements—linearity, dead time, response time, resolution and dead band. They can give crucial guidance and justification for a final element that leads to better control. Rangeability and sensitivity also are important, but, as we'll see, properly meeting the other requirements will address them.

Linear in a Nonlinear World

To get on a common basis, we need to define process gain for a self-regulating process as the final percent change in the controlled variable divided by the percent change in valve position. Note that the calibration span of the transmitter for the controlled variable is a factor. Because the changes seen in data historians for process variables are in engineering units, they must be converted to percent of scale. The maximum allowable controller gain is inversely proportional to the process gain. The process gain for flow is the slope on a plot of percent flow versus percent valve position (travel).

The plot should reflect the installed flow characteristic, not the inherent trim characteristic. This accounts for the reduced pressure drop available to the control valve at higher flows, because of the increase in pressure drop in the rest of the system from frictional losses and a decrease in pump discharge pressure. The changing valve drop makes an equal-percentage trim more like a linear characteristic, and a linear trim more like a quick-opening characteristic. The effect increases as the valve pressure drop as a percent of the total system pressure drop is decreased.

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