Is Your Control Valve an Imposter?

Beware the Disguised Positioner

By Greg McMillan

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Don't rely on stated resolution because this normally is for the valve at mid-position where the seating or sealing friction is lower. High friction and the discontinuity in process gains near the seat cause loops to oscillate around the split range point where there is a transition from one valve to another. The realistic rangeability of a control valve (the largest flow divided by the smallest controllable flow) is set by the installed characteristic and resolution near the seat. Furthermore, repeatability isn't as important as the ability of the valve to respond, as the process loop will correct for changes in the magnitude of the response.

Dead band is the smallest change in signal in the opposite direction that will result in a change in position. The dead band also is known as backlash or lost motion because it primarily originates from shaft connections and linkages. It's particularly noticeable in rotary valves when there's a translation of linear motion of an actuator to rotary motion of the ball or disk. Don't count on rotary actuators as a solution; these actuators typically have been designed for on/off service and consequently don't generally provide adequate resolution and dead band specifications. The effect is aggravated by high sealing friction and may result in shaft windup where the actuator shaft twists, but the closure member is stuck and then considerably overshoots the desired position when it breaks free.

Particularly insidious on a rotary valve is a digital positioner feedback that uses actuator shaft position rather than closure member position, because the positioner can think the valve moves when the ball or disk sticks. The response for Valve B in Figure 3 (p. 52) shows how such a positioner sees a change in position for step inputs of 1% when, in fact, the flow hasn't changed until the step inputs are 5%. For some rotary on/off valves made into control valves by putting on a digital positioner, the actual dead band was 8%, even though the smart positioner had extensive data showing the dead band was 0.5%.

Resolution and dead band add a dead time to the loop beyond that due to the actuator and positioner. This can be estimated as the resolution or half of the dead band divided by the rate of change of the controller output. Resolution will cause a limit cycle (constant amplitude, persistent oscillation) in any loop regardless of tuning. For an integrating process, such as level with a controller with integral action or a cascade control system where both the primary and secondary controller have integral action, dead band also will cause a limit cycle.

The amplitude of these cycles is the resolution or dead band multiplied by process gain for the process variable of interest. For temperature and pH loops, this process gain can be 10 or more, and can cause severe oscillations and process problems. Whereas problems from nonlinearity and response time are triggered by disturbances and tend to die out if the controller is properly tuned, limit cycles are continual. A digital positioner with good closure-member feedback that is tuned with a high gain and rate action can  reduce the amplitude of the limit cycles significantly.

For pH control, the resolution of a reagent valve can determine the number of stages of neutralization needed. A fine adjustment valve in parallel with a coarse adjustment valve simultaneously manipulated by a model-predictive controller can extend the sensitivity and rangeability of a reagent system enough to eliminate a stage.

Throttle Your Valve Problems

A control valve package is only as good as its weakest link, whether it's the actuator, positioner, feedback mechanism, packing or valve design. If the control valve and actuator are similar to those used for isolation valves, you're a candidate for significant limit cycles (sustained variability) in your process. This is particularly a problem with packaged equipment (skids) where control valves are chosen based on piping specifications and lowest price rather than on loop performance. Cost-effective solutions exist.

For example, a sliding stem valve designed for minimal seating friction and packing friction, coupled with a diaphragm actuator and a smart positioner, can reduce resolution and dead band to better than what you can achieve with a standard variable-speed pump. Figure 4 shows that even operating near the seat, a sliding stem control valve with a digital positioner can respond to changes as small as 0.1%.

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