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EMEM 416: Thermal-Fluids Laboratory I

John D. Wellin

An Explanation of Variable Area Flow Meters


The figure on the right shows the basic configuration of the variable area flow meters used in the Vortex Tube Characterization, made by Omega Engineering, Inc. A metal float is suspended in the glass tube by the fluid forces acting on it as the flow passes over the float. The calibrated flow rate is then read from a scale etched or printed on the outside of the tube. The tube itself is tapered, so that as the flow rate increases, the float will stabilize at a higher position in the tube; and it is tapered by the appropriate amount so that the flow scale is linear. The tapered design is what gives the variable area flow meter its name. To understand the operational principle, consider the free-body diagram of the float shown below. Assume the float has reached a stable equilibrium point in the tube because of some flow over it. By a balance of forces, we have: W float = Fdrag + Fbuoy Fluid Drag Force: Fdrag Fluid Buoyancy Force: Fbuoy This result is quite general, but can be simplified when the fluid is a gas. Consider the relationship between the weight of the float and the buoyancy force: W float Fbuoy = ( float ) g Vfloat Where Vfloat is the volume of the float, float is its density, is the fluid density, and g is the acceleration of gravity. Because float is typically much greater than for gases, it is generally safe to neglect the buoyancy force in comparison to the floats weight. In our specific case, the float is made from stainless steel, and the fluid is air. Because the density of stainless steel is anywhere from 7000 to 8000 times the density of air, we will indeed neglect Fbuoy in our specific case, so we have to an excellent approximation: W float = Fdrag Now, the fluid drag force acting on an object is generally given by an expression like:
Fdrag C D 1 v 2 A front 2

Float Weight:

Wfloat

Where is the fluid density (assumed uniform within the flow meter), v is the velocity, CD is the drag coefficient, and Afront is the frontal area of the object; that is, the projected, cross-sectional area that lies perpendicular to the oncoming flow. Let Q to be the volumetric flow rate through the flow meter, and let A be the flow area, which is actually the annular region contained between the tube wall and the float itself. By the relationship that Q = vA, we have:
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EMEM 416: Thermal-Fluids Laboratory I

John D. Wellin

W float = Fdrag C D 1 Q 2 2

A front A2

Because the float has a finite extent in the flow direction, there is some ambiguity as to where the flow area A (and therefore v) is determined, but we could certainly assume without loss of generality that it is taken at the measurement edge of the float (the lower lip of the conical cap depicted in the free-body diagram above). Over narrow flow ranges, the drag coefficient for a bluff body like the float is nearly constant, and Afront and Wfloat are constant by definition. As a matter of fact, the float is often designed in such a way as to achieve a constant drag coefficient, which has the added benefit of making the flow meter relatively insensitive to fluid viscosity. Thus we have, after re-arrangement:
Q=K A

Where K is some constant value for the flow meter. This is the key operational principle sought: it says that the indicated flow rate Q will be linearly distributed along the height of the meter, if the tube cross-sectional area is linearly distributed along the height. We also have that the indicated flow rate depends upon the square root of the density, which is important when considering a change in thermodynamic conditions or a change in fluid. Note that this derivation parallels those of Figliola & Beasley (2006) and Holman (2001). More complete derivations following Bernoullis principle are given by Brain & Scott (1982) and Doebelin (2004), but the simplifying conditions relevant to our investigation yield the same basic results above. In practice, a variable area flow meter is designed for use with a particular fluid, and then calibrated with that fluid. Especially in the case of a gas, the thermodynamic conditions of the calibration must be carefully controlled and documented since, as noted, the density is important for proper indication. Any situation that involves a different density than that used for calibration of the flow metereither because of compressibility, or a change in fluid type requires that a correction be applied to the indicated flow rate. For our purposes, consider the following scenario: we wish to measure the volumetric flow rate of air at some density , set by the conditions of temperature T and pressure P, with a variable area flow meter that was calibrated at conditions T0 , P0, and corresponding 0. If we define Q0 to be the flow rate directly indicated by the meter, we know that the true flow rate Q at T and P will not be Q0. The next figure illustrates this scenario. Floats at same height, so flow area A is the same

Flow conditions at T0 and P0 : Q0 indicated by scale is correct

Flow conditions at T and P: scale indicates Q0, but true value is Q

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EMEM 416: Thermal-Fluids Laboratory I

John D. Wellin

Because the height of the float determines the value of KA, which is therefore the same value in the two cases shown, we have:

0 Q0 = Q
Treating air as an ideal gas with P = RT generally (R = gas constant), and solving for Q yields:
Q = Q0 P0 T P T0

Recall that Q is the true flow rate at the actual conditions of T and P. This bears distinction from the concept of an actual flow rate vs. a standard flow rate. The volumetric flow rates Q0 and Q refer to actual flow rates, given the context of the derivation. Further conversion would be required to change the true, actual volumetric flow Q into its standardized counterpart. For the sake of further discussion, lets resort to the nomenclature used for the Vortex Tube Characterization, where we will be working with standardized volumetric flow rates in SCFM, and actual flow rates in ACFM. The flow meters from Omega are conveniently calibrated at standard conditions Tstandard and Pstandard, which means that the values for Q0 will be the same in ACFM or SCFM, so we will take the latter. Thus, lets refer to Q0, the indicated flow rate of the meter, as SCFMmeter, and the generic true value for Q as ACFM. Instead of T and P, lets refer to the measured conditions as Tactual and Pactual. By these re-assignments, the previous equation translates to:
ACFM = SCFM meter Ps tan dard Pactual Tactual Ts tan dard

The Omega flow meters were designed to indicate standardized values, so it is appropriate to label the output as SCFMmeter. In practice, we will want the true flow rate in standardized terms as well, so we need to convert the true ACFM to SCFM according to:

SCFM = ACFM
Combining, there results:
SCFM = SCFM meter

Pactual Ps tan dard

Ts tan dard Tactual

Pactual Ps tan dard

Ts tan dard Tactual

The end result is nothing more than a flip of the square-root terms in the original relationship. This is the expression we need most for the Vortex Tube Characterization; it lets us convert the indicated SCFMmeter to the true SCFM through the vortex tube, for the actual operating conditions Tactual and Pactual.

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EMEM 416: Thermal-Fluids Laboratory I

John D. Wellin

References
Brain, T. J. S., & Scott, R. W. W. (1982). Survey of Pipeline Flowmeters. Journal of Physics E: Scientific Instruments, 15, 967-980. Doebelin, E. O. (2004). Constant-Pressure-Drop, Variable-Area Meters (Rotameters). In Measurement Systems: Application and Design (5th ed., pp. 633-635). New York, NY: McGraw-Hill Higher Education. Figliola, R. S., & Beasley, D. E. (2006). Rotameters. In Theory and Design for Mechanical Measurements (4th ed., pp. 410-411). Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons, Inc. Holman, J. P. (2001). Flow Measurement by Drag Effects - Rotameter. In Experimental Methods for Engineers (7th ed., pp. 306-309). New York, NY: McGraw-Hill Higher Education.

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