Guide to Improving Temperature Measurement Accuracy

Guide to Improving Temperature Measurement Accuracy
Guide to Improving Temperature Measurement Accuracy

Some processes do not require temperature measurement accuracy, and others do. However, you may be unsure whether accuracy is important for your particular application, or whether improving accuracy will make enough of a difference in your process results to justify the cost and effort. This article identifies problems that result from inaccurate measurements and outlines ways to solve them that are both effective and economical.
Temperature measurements can be categorized into three groups:

  1. Those that do not require accuracy. You simply need to know if the temperature is stable or going up or going down.
  2. Those that do require accuracy. Strategies in this article will help with those measurements.
  3. Those where there is uncertainty about the accuracy requirement. If the measurements in this category are on a preventive maintenance schedule for calibration or verification, you may want to take steps to improve accuracy. The same steps we take to achieve higher accuracy also result in reduced drift and that would have a positive impact on your maintenance frequency.

Improving accuracy and reducing measurement drift are often related and can have measurable results. This article shows how to:

  • select the best sensor for the application
  • reduce errors caused by the external environment
  • reduce errors caused by lead wires
  • reduce measurement errors.


InTech Focus: Pressure & Temperature 2020 | InTech Focus ebooks (pdfs) from ISA focus on the fundamentals of essential automation components. This May 2020 edition covers pressure and temperature instrumentation. View other articles in the issue.

Sensors and accuracy

There are times when the temperature sensor is selected based on convenience, what is on the shelf, or the “plant standard.” It is not uncommon to see a Type J or K thermocouple measuring a temperature that should be measured with a Platinum resistance temperature detector (RTD). ASTM and IEC temperature standards provide us with sensor measurement uncertainty. If we pick a sample temperature of 500°F (260°C), the uncertainty of a standard grade J or K thermocouple is ±4°F (±2.2°C), while a Class  A 100W Pt RTD has an uncertainty of ±1.2°F (±0.67°C).
Many process engineers and technicians prefer RTDs. Selecting the best sensor for the application greatly affects the accuracy of the measurement, and an RTD is the most accurate sensor to use when the process temperature is within its measuring range. But you will need to use less accurate thermo- couples when you need to measure temperatures that are hotter than the RTD’s upper measuring limits. In these instances, you will want to take specific steps with thermocouples to improve the accuracy of the measurement results.
You can improve thermocouple accuracy by using thermocouples constructed with special tolerance (also called premium grade) wire. The reduced error is achieved by using wire with higher purity alloys. At 500°F (260°C), the uncertainty of a special tolerance thermocouple is about ±2.0°F (1.1°C).
Sensor selection is very important to measurement accuracy. As stated above, a Class A Pt RTD uncertainty is about ±1.2°F (±0.67°C) at the same operating temperature. To simplify the process of choosing a sensor, you can operate from the assumption that changing from a standard grade thermocouple to a premium grade thermocouple cuts the error rate in half; changing from a premium grade thermocouple to a Class A RTD cuts the error in half again.

Role of thermocouple extension wire 

Thermocouples wired back to a programmable logic controller (PLC) or distributed control system (DCS) must use thermocouple extension wire. Unfortunately, the extension wire is yet another source of measurement error. Using standard grade J or K extension wire also adds another ±4°F (±2.2°C) error. You can cut the error rate by using premium grade extension wire, which has half the error rate of standard extension wire, just as with premium thermocouples. (These error figures are only true when the wire is new and “pure.”) Over time, the error gets worse as the wire is contaminated from the atmosphere in your plant and the wire is exposed to temperatures greater than or lower than the wire tolerances. There are many instances where contamination causes even more “drift” than the original uncertainty of new thermocouple wire.
 If the uncertainty caused by thermocouples was a fixed offset, we could simply calibrate it out and be done with it. But when the error is in the form of drift that changes over time, calibration becomes a preventive maintenance program that few want to take on. Most plants prefer to avoid that extra labor whenever possible. How do you solve these problems? Start by determining how much error is caused by the thermocouple extension wire. Most people overlook this option until plant operations declares there is a problem or a catastrophic measurement failure occurs. We all know thermocouples fail, but it is easy to forget that thermocouple extension wire also fails. When it does, it has to be replaced. If you replace the extension wire with new extension wire, you perpetuate the same problems by reintroducing the error and drift it causes. You may have to live with thermocouples, but you do not have to live with thermocouple extension wire—you can replace it with other solutions.
Two options for replacing thermocouple extension wire are temperature transmitters and remote I/O hardware. Both use copper wire to transport their signals back to the control system. Unlike thermocouple extension wire, you can expect the copper to last the life of the plant. Modern I/O products have performance characteristics similar to transmitters and can save a lot of money. You still need short sections of extension wire when you use these transmitters or I/O products. Use special grade thermocouple wire instead of standard extension wire in these cases to further minimize the error.
Compensating for RTD lead wire inaccuracies
Copper wire is used for RTD lead wires. If you are familiar with three-wire RTDs you know one lead is called the compensating lead. Between copper and a compensating lead, you might believe that RTD lead wire does not contribute to the measurement error. Unfortunately, this is not true. Copper wire can cause significant error in an RTD measurement, because RTDs are resistors and copper wire is resistance. There are many contaminants in a typical process plant that cause corrosion, and this corrosion changes the resistance of the copper lead wires. This resistance change in the lead wire can cause error. To eliminate lead wire error the solution is to use four-wire RTDs. Here is why:
When a third lead wire is added to the RTD, today’s electronics make the measurement by taking two voltage measurements (as shown, V1 and V2). The important thing to remember is that these are high- impedance voltage measurements. For all practical purposes, there is no current flow through that third lead; thus R3 never enters into the equation (figure 2).
V1 gives the value of the lead wire resistance R1. V2 gives the value of the RTD + R4 lead resistance. We subtract V1 from V2, and as long as the lead resistance R1 = R4, only the value of the RTD remains. This is an accurate measurement.
Realize that too many things work against making R1 and R4 identical when accuracy is your primary concern. Wire gauge intolerance and work hardening varies the resistance. Even if no human error takes place during installation, corrosion constantly works against the measurement and is the main reason R1 never equals R4. So what happens if the lead’s resistances are not equal?
If the resistance imbalance is as little as 1 ohm, a 100 PT RTD has an error of about ±4.7°F
(±2.6°C). If you are trying to achieve a ±1°F (0.55°C) degree measurement accuracy, this corrosion is standing between you and success. You can spend your life calibrating this error out or eliminate the error totally with a four-wire RTD.
Remember the voltage measurement is high impedance, so for all practical purposes, there is no current flow through R2 and R3 and no voltage drop. The voltage is only measured across the RTD. R1 and R4 are never measured; thus they cannot create a differential resistance and an error. When using four-wire RTDs, for all practical purposes there is no error caused by the lead wire.
Four-wire RTDs can have a lead wire of any length, and the leads can undergo constant resistance change and still cause no measurement error. It is still important to ensure your total resistance does not exceed the drive capacity of your constant current source. Typically, modern day temperature transmitters offer enough current drive to support RTD circuits that have up to 3–4K ohms of total resistance. With the lead wire error eliminated, you are able to focus on the sensor and measuring device to further reduce error. The only reasonable objection to using the four-wire RTD is that the existing legacy input card only accepts three-wire RTDs. This is old technology and should be considered for replacement.
Consider another option if for whatever reason you are not able to use four-wire RTDs: switch from 100W RTDs to 1000W PT RTDs. As stated earlier in this article, 1 of resistance imbalance in your current carrying legs produces about ±4.7°F (±2.6°C) error. If you change to a 1000W sensor, that same 1W of imbalance will have one-tenth of the effect. The 1W of imbalance error drops to about ±0.47°F (±0.26°C).
While the use of the 1000 three-wire RTD is a big improvement over the use of a 100 three-wire RTD, it is not a panacea. When the lead wire resistance imbalance changes, it causes the measurement accuracy to change. That means you still need a calibration program to temporarily eliminate the error. The four-wire RTD is still the single best solution, because it removes all lead wire error and eliminates the need to calibrate due to the inevitable corrosion.

Plant noise

VFDs, motors, and radios create “normal” levels of electromagnetic interference and radio frequency interference, which can cause errors in temperature measurements. Thermocouple and RTD signals are very low-level mV signals. It does not take much noise to cause significant distortion of the measure- ments. If you are wiring these low-level signals back to the control system, please use best practices, such as using drain wires, proper grounding, and physical separation, to keep noise off these signal wires.
A better solution is to convert the low-level signals to high-level signals as close to the temperature sensor as possible. The same amount of noise will affect high signals less than low-level signals. Signals like 4–20 mA, HART, or RS-485 survive most typical levels of noise.

The temperature measurement device and remote I/O

When you finally get to the actual temperature measurement device, your ability to make significant improvements to accuracy has passed. Modern temperature transmitters and temperature I/O systems from major instrument companies have similar performance specifications. If you are trying to differentiate the finer points, you might compare these specifications:

  • The greater the input resolution that the measuring circuit can detect, the smaller the changes in the sensor’s temperature that can be detected.
  • Long-term drift spec is a measure of the transmitter’s stability.
  • RTD excitation current should be low to minimize the self-heating error.
  • Seek the highest input impedance possible, so that the measuring device does not draw current.
  • Advanced diagnostics help to predict failures.

If you are pursuing the very highest accuracy, you have to deal with the final “as built” error in the RTD. The transmitter can be used to calibrate out that final offset error and match you to the ideal curve. Such   a process delivers a typical transmitter and sensor combined accuracy of less than 0.05 percent of span.
Putting a temperature transmitter or remote I/O near your sensor digitizes your temperature measurement. You create two more errors if you then send that signal back to the control or data acquisition system using 4–20 mA:

  1. D/A error occurs when creating the 4–20 mA.
  2. At the control system, an A/D error occurs when turning the signal back to digital.

Using the HART digital signal is one way to avoid the conversion errors. MODBUS Serial or MODBUS over Ethernet is another option to keep the measured value digital.
In summary, using transmitters and remote I/O helps:

  • eliminate errors caused by thermocouple extension wire
  • avoid errors caused by noise
  • keep the signal digital and avoid the analog conversion errors.

If you are direct wiring temperature sensors back to the DCS or PLC, it likely means that you did not want to pay for temperature transmitters for each of those data acquisition points. If you use modern I/O instrumentation instead, you will actually save money on instrumentation and wiring. It has the same accuracy, ambient temperature specifications, and sometimes similar hazardous area certifications as you would find on temperature transmitters at a fraction of the cost. The remote I/O digitizes all the temperatures and delivers them as 32-bit floats to the DCS MODBUS port using your choice of physical layers. Remote I/O also eliminates thermocouple extension wire and all the associated drift, errors, and replacement costs.
Practical steps to improve your measurements
In conclusion, here are a few practical steps you can take to improve your temperature measurement accuracy. Remember that these steps also improve the stability of your measurement, which minimizes your calibration expenses.

  • Four-wire RTDs eliminate the errors caused by the copper lead wire.
  • Always use Class A RTDs that have been aged through temperature cycling—the difference in cost is insignificant.
  • Use premium grade thermocouples and premium grade extension wire if the temperature to be measured requires the use of thermocouples.
  • Be sure to use noise protection installation techniques whenever you have long extension wire runs.
  • Mount transmitters or remote I/O as close to the sensors as possible in order to get rid of long thermocouple extension wire runs, which are an error source, have a finite life, and are expensive to replace.
  • Get rid of the final RTD offset error by bath calibrating.
  • Buy the highest accuracy and highest stability transmitter or I/O you can afford.
  • Once you have spent all that money to get your signal digital, keep it digital, so there are no more errors introduced.

About The Author

Gary Prentice is the vice president of sales at Moore Industries International Inc. He has a BSEE from Lafayette College in Pennsylvania and more than 40 years of experience in the process control industry.

Did you enjoy this great article?

Check out our free e-newsletters to read more great articles..