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Verifying Flowmeter Accuracy


Verifying Flowmeter Accuracy

Calibration techniques to ensure measurement performance
Greg Livelli
September 26, 2010
Many factors can cause a flowmeter to lose calibration, including:
buildup of deposits, minerals, oils, and solvents;
wearing, breakage, or failure of internal mechanical parts;
damaging impact;
improper installation; and
modified piping configurations.
A flowmeter calibration, usually carried out by the manufacturer, adjusts the output of the meter to bring
it back to a value within the specified accuracy tolerance. This article discusses the pros and cons of
several calibration techniques.

Flowmeter Calibration Relativity

Flowmeter calibrations are not absolute operations. A calibration compares a flowmeter measurement
relative to a standard. The comparison establishes a relationship between what the flowmeter measures
and what the standard measures. The standard consists of a system of pumps, pipes, fluids,
instrumentation, quantity reference measurement, calculations, and operators all combined to measure
the quantity of fluid passing through the flowmeters in a unit of time.
The relationship between the flowmeter under test and the standard must be expressed in a way that gives
a meaningful expectation of how the flowmeter will perform in use. In practice, accuracy is the term that
most users can relate to and that can usefully express an expectation and general specification. Accuracy
is a qualitative term, and the number associated with it must be taken in the spirit of this concept. It
indicates how close the flowmeter measurement agrees with the true measured flowrate.
READ ALSO: Flowmeter Piping Requirements
The standard must be able to reproduce the measurement that it claims to make with some degree of
confidence. To this end, all the measurements in the system have to show traceability to higher-level
measurements, and ultimately to national and international standards. Traceability must be through an
unbroken chain of comparisons with stated uncertainties.



Verifying Flowmeter Accuracy

The uncertainties of each calibration higher in the chain should be smaller at each step. Note, however,
that providing or claiming traceability makes no statement regarding the quality or uncertainty of the
final calibration; it only satisfies one aspect of the quality requirements for an accredited calibration.
The uncertainty quoted for a calibration or a standard depends on a detailed examination of all the
components of the system, the use of the system, and its history. The quote will specifically state which
parameters underlie the uncertainty. This may be the quantity measured by the standard or the quantity
passed through the flowmeter. This quoted uncertainty is not that of the calibration result. The resolution
of the meter, influencing factors, and finally the repeatability and linearity of the calibration results must
all be included to provide the uncertainty of the calibration.

Why Bother with Flowmeter Calibration?

For one, manufacturers want to establish the quality of their management systems, as spelled out in ISO
9001 of the International Standards Organization ( Third-party auditors and regulators of
this standard require documentation to verify the quality of these manufacturing management systems.
Obviously a manufacturing process that depends on an accurate flowmeter for maintaining product
quality will require documentation relating to its calibration.
Often a flowmeter measures the amount of fluid transferred by pipeline from one company to another
entity or division, sometimes known as fiscal metering. This is the case when you purchase gasoline. The
flowmeter measurement determines the cost of the transfer and sometimes involves taxation. Flowmeter
accuracy in these cases is obviously of paramount importance. Companies and governments will mandate
the calibration frequencies to check on flowmeter accuracy.
Another reason for flowmeter calibrations is better management of processes. With time, flowmeter
performance may slowly degrade, negatively affecting quality and/or costs. Timely calibrations help
management keep operating equipment functioning properly and efficiently.
But what is a timely calibration? For most applications, users must examine the operating conditions and
define their own calibration frequency. In other cases a third party or standard may mandate the
calibration frequency. The idea is to determine a calibration interval that minimizes the risk of an
incorrect meter reading that makes a significant impact on the process. Keeping a good history of past
calibrations helps to spot trends for predicting when calibrations become necessary.
Unfortunately, calibrating a flowmeter with good
confidence in the result is usually costly and difficult.
Practical calibration techniques do not exist, and
many methods depend heavily on operator skill.
Locating good testing points in the pipeline is usually
difficult. And flowmeters experiencing high
flowrates often cannot be calibrated.

Flowmeter Calibration In a Test



Verifying Flowmeter Accuracy


Figure 1. In the drop test, calibration engineers

determine the amount of liquid collected in a
tank within a certain time interval.

This technique requires removing the flowmeter and

shipping it to a calibration facility having a test rig traceable to the National Institute of Standards and
Technology ( These facilities generally consist of a reservoir, pumps, meter runs, and
weigh tanks. The system operates as a constant-flow facility. It uses timed collections of water to
compute the average flow through the meter being calibrated. The relative expanded uncertainty for these
facilities is between 0.2 percent and 0.5 percent.
The calibration report typically includes an uncertainty value for the calibration factor of the flowmeter.
Uncertainty depends on the reproducibility of the meter under test and the uncertainty of any
instrumentation associated with the flowmeter output. A flow calibration often includes five different
average flowrates and the standard flow made at each setpoint. Today, calibration in a test rig will
typically run about $5,000 per meter.

Drop Test or Volumetric Method

Calibrations using this technique determine the amount of liquid collected in a tank within a certain time
interval. The amount collected can be measured by weight or volume. The uncertainties tend to be large,
typically 5 percent to 10 percent. For example, suppose the diameter of the tank is 10 feet +/- two inches,
and the level changes three feet +/- one inch. The dimensional uncertainties compute to a difference of
7,040 to 7,500 gallons, or 6.1 percent. In addition, the tank may not have a perfectly circular cross
section or exactly plumb walls. Undetected leaks will further degrade accuracy.
The drop test diagram (Figure 1),
typically involves volumes that are
too large to be practical. Small
uncertainties in the tank internal
diameter or level can have a
significant effect on calibration
accuracy. Such tests are also time

Ultrasonic Clamp-On
The user can install clamp-on
ultrasonic transducers to the outside
wall of a pipe and take measurements
of flowrate to compare with readings
of a flowmeter to be calibrated
(Figure 2). These transit-time
Figure 2. Transit-time ultrasonic flowmeters measure the time
flowmeters measure the time
difference between ultrasonic beams moving with and against
difference between ultrasonic beams
the fluid flow.
moving with and against the fluid



Verifying Flowmeter Accuracy

flow. This time difference, combined with knowledge of the pipe''s internal diameter and the distance
between the two ultrasonic transducers, permits a calculation of the volumetric flowrate through the pipe.
The best measurement accuracies possible with clamp-on ultrasonic flowmeters are 2 percent to 5
percent. But many other unknown factors generally result in lesser accuracies5 percent to 10 percent.
The three major sources of error include the pipe''s internal diameter, the flow velocity profile, and
acoustic interference.
Nonlaminar profile uncertainties, amounting to 1 percent to 10 percent of the measured flow value, can
be corrected by determining the appropriate K factor from calibration at specific flow conditions, from
empirical calculations, or by sampling a greater fraction of the cross-sectional flow area. Acoustic shortcircuit interference can cause errors exceeding 7 percent if the signal/noise ratio is 10-to-one or less, or
errors greater than 0.6 percent for signal/noise ratios below 100-to-one. Beam path changes caused by
temperature, pressure, composition, or mechanical effects can be compensated for or eliminated by
positioning each transducer with permanent mounting pads in a positive manner, by empirically
calibrating the flowmeter at particular intervals of temperature, pressure, and composition, and by
modifying the pipe interior.
Errors relating to the pipe''s internal diameter can cause significant measurement errors. For example, if
the pipe''s nominal ID is 78.85 inches, and the maximum ID is 81.79 inches, the difference produces a
measurement uncertainty of 3.7 percent.
To improve the calibration accuracy, install the ultrasonic transducers at a location that minimizes the
discontinuities between the meter to be verified and the clamp-on meter. Discontinuities would include
pipe fittings and open branches. To ensure a well-developed flow profile, the straight-pipe section
upstream of the clamp-on meters should be at least 30 pipe diameters in length. Since uncertainty
increases if the cross-sectional area calculation depends on single measurement of pipe diameter, you
should average two perpendicular diameters.

Insertion Probes
Insertion probes, which measure fluid velocity at a
point within a pipe''s cross-section, can check the
performance of an installed full-bore meter. An
insertion flowmeter (Figure 3), measures the fluid
velocity at a point. It is unaware of surrounding flow
velocities outside of the immediate location of the
probe tip. The user or a secondary device must
calculate the volumetric flowrate based on knowledge
of the flow profile within the pipe. (For more
information on flow profiles, see Part III of this series
- Flow Control, May 2007, page 14.) Measurement
accuracy ranges from 2 percent to 5 percent. This
technique works best for a fully developed flow
profile at the measuring location, usually achieved by
installing the probe after a long length of straight
pipe. The proper straight length depends on the
nature of the upstream disturbances to the flow.



Verifying Flowmeter Accuracy

Attempting calibration in a location without a welldeveloped flow profile can lead to large errors.
Figure 4 shows a fluid flow profile following an
elbow fitting. An insertion probe tip sitting at a point
one-quarter of the pipe diameter will measure a fluid
velocity that is about 30 percent too high. To develop
the flow profile, the engineer can make multiple
velocity measurements across the pipe''s diameter
a time-consuming operation.

Figure 3. Insertion probes, which measure fluid

velocity at a point within a pipe''s cross section,
can check the performance of an installed fullbore meter.

Figure 4. An insertion probe inserted onequarter into the pipe having this flow velocity
profile will measure a fluid velocity that is
about 30% too high.
Other sources of inaccuracy with insertion probes include:
errors in internal pipe diameter, cross-sectional area, and pipe ovality;
pulsating and unstable flows;
varying flowrates between point measurements while determining profiles;
errors and uncertainties in associated instrumentation; and
particulate material in the fluid.

Tracer Methods
Tracer techniques for calibrating flowrates include the transit-time and the dilution methods. Attainable
measurement accuracies range from 2 percent to 5 percent.
Using the transit-time method, engineers inject a pulse of tracer fluid into the main flow stream and



Verifying Flowmeter Accuracy

measure the time taken for the tracer to pass between two detection points (Figure 5). Since the volume
of the pipe between the detectors is known, they can determine the volumetric flowrate. Some
disadvantages include:
not suitable for sluggish or slow moving flows;
difficulties in determining the volume between detectors; and
often requires many measurements, which can be time consuming.
For the dilution method (Figure 6), engineers use a tracer fluid that is detectable in low concentrations
and inject it into the flow at a known rate. They then sample the mainstream flow downstream of the
injection point, far enough to allow homogeneous mixing. The downstream detector measures the tracer
fluid concentration. Since the tracer fluid flowrate q is comparatively small, they can derive the main
flowrate Q via the equation: Q = q/C, where C is the measured tracer concentration.
The primary source of error occurs in accurately determining the tracer concentration. Additionally, the
technique also requires many measurements and can be quite time consuming.

Hydraulic Model Testing

For some piping flow situations, engineers may find it difficult to calibrate the flow measurement system
using either the dilution or volumetric tracer technique. For example, they may be unable to reproduce
the full operating flow range in the system. In some cases, testing would potentially result in a release of
an unacceptable contaminant loading to the environment. (For example, test flowrates may be limited by
seasonal downstream receiving water restrictions.) If the site handles only emergency overflows, testing
may be ruled out by water quality limitations.
For these situations, engineers may be
able to construct a hydraulic model of
the flow system and then run
calibration tests on the model under
laboratory conditions. They would
design the hydraulic model based on
the principle of hydraulic similitude.
With this approach, the model
represents a geometric reduction of
the actual flow measurement system.
The model is scaled down via a fixed
ratio between the model and actual
Figure 5. Transit-time tracer calibrations measure the time the
flow system for all homogeneous
injected tracer fluid passes between two detectors.
lengths, velocities, and forces
involved in motion. Engineers should pick a scale factor that provides model flows as close as practical
to actual flows. Of course the model must be consistent with pumping capacity available at the testing
The hydraulic model should be constructed based on field-measured dimensions that are confirmed
before construction. Common construction materials for a hydraulic model are wood and steel. In
laboratory testing facilities, flowrate through the model is usually determined by applying the volumetric
tracer method. Measurement accuracy ranges from 10 percent to 15 percent.



Verifying Flowmeter Accuracy

Figure 6. In the dilution tracer calibration

technique, the fluid flowrate is a function of the
tracer injection rate and its downstream

Figure 7. In the case of the reference meter in

series, one flowmeter verifies another.

A detailed description of hydraulic similitude and hydraulic model studies may be found in Hwang
(1981) and Streeter and Wylie (1985) [1, 2].

Reference Meter in Series

Another way to verify the calibration of a flowmeter is to install two or more in a single pipeline (Figure
7). In this case, one meter verifies another. For example, one flowmeter may be used as the pay meter
and the other as a check meter. The pay meter serves for billing purposes and the check meter ensures
that the pay meter is still within calibration. The meters are checked against one another on a regular
basis. Good practice calls for proving the pay meter on an annual basis.
To minimize discrepancies, the meter readings must be taken at the same time every reporting period. If
possible, it is best to record the inventory readings from both meters simultaneously. The longer the
reporting period, the smaller the errors associated with recording the inventory readings will be.
Measurement accuracies for reference meters in series typically range from 0.5 percent to 1 percent.
Obviously having two flowmeters in series for a single measurement can be quite expensive and is often
not practical.

Flowmter Calibration Applied:

CalMaster Magmeter Verification

In the case of electromagnetic flowmeters, ABB
Instrumentation ( offers a
verification system that can check calibration of
ABB''s Magmaster flowmeters without access to



Verifying Flowmeter Accuracy

the pipe or the sensing electrodes. Called the

CalMaster system, it permits in-place verification
and certification of the magmeter to ensure that it
remains within its specified calibration.
When connected to a MagMaster transmitter and a
personal computer (Figure 8), the portable
CalMaster system performs a complex series of
tests over the course of 20 minutes. It compares key
flowmeter parameters to those measured by the
factory at the time of meter manufacture. The tests
evaluate the status of the complete system,
including the sensor coils, electrodes, cables, and
transmitter. The flowmeter will require servicing
Figure 8. The CalMaster verification system
only when it fails the calibration check.
from ABB Instrumentation compares key
magmeter parameters to those measured by the
The CalMaster system also serves as a diagnostic
factory at the time of meter manufacture.
and condition-monitoring tool. It automatically
stores all the measured values and calibration
information in its own database files for each meter. It maintains a calibration history log, making it
easy to undertake long-term trend analysis. Trends can give early warning of possible system failure,
enabling the maintenance engineer to anticipate problems and take remedial action in advance.
Greg Livelli is a senior product manager for ABB Instrumentation, based in Warminster, Pa. He has
more than 15 years experience in the design and marketing of flowmetering equipment. Mr. Livelli
earned an MBA from Regis University and a bachelors degree in Mechanical Engineering from New
Jersey Institute of Technology. Mr. Livelli can be reached at or 215 674-6641.
1. Hwang, N.C. 1981, Fundamentals of Hydraulic Engineering Systems, Prentice-Hall Series in
Environmental Sciences.
2. Streeter, V.L., E.B. Wylie. 1985, Fluid Mechanics, Eighth Edition, McGraw-Hill.