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WHY DO WE CONVERT SIGNALS INTO 4-20mA.?

There are a wide variety of sensors available to provide us with


electrical signals representing many different parameters which we
wish to measure. For example we can measure temperature with
thermocouples and resistance thermometers, pH and conductivity
with suitable electrodes, and mass with strain gauges.
All these devices have different characteristics of signal type,
amplitude and linearity.
To make use of them in an industrial environment it is useful to
convert their signals into a standard signal which we can connect to
our measuring and control equipment. We are then able to use the
same measuring and control equipment to process many different
physical parameters. This simplifies design and is more economical
especially when spare units have to be kept for backup. Instead of
having five different units and five spares we can have five identical
units with only one spare.
Over the years several standards have developed, some of which
are unique to certain countries and many which have gained
popularity around the world.
The most popular standards worldwide are (not in any particular
order):-
0-5V 0-10V 1-5V 2-10V 1-5mA 0-20mA 4-20mA 10-50mA The first
four are DC voltage signals whose uses are fairly obvious. 0-5V is
especially popular with microprocessor applications as 5V is the
popular supply voltage for these products. It does however suffer
from a drawback that it is very difficult to tell when you are at zero.
Take the example where a thermometer is calibrated so that 0°C =
0V and 100°C = 5V. Typically the circuit is powered by a single 5V
supply so that the output cannot go negative. If we are reading 0V
are we at 0°C or even lower. Could the output voltage have failed
or perhaps a faulty sensor is giving us a false reading?
If instead we use a 1-5V signal we can see if the temperature starts
to go below zero as the reading drops below 1V and we can use a
level close to 0V to warn us of loss of power. This type of offset is
referred to as an ELEVATED ZERO and is the preferred type of
signal in industry.
The advantage of a voltage signal is simplicity. Almost everyone
understands the concept. The signal is on two wires, one positive
the other negative. Power must be provided to the electronics
which drives the voltage signal and this may be provided as two
extra wires, or a single extra wire using one of the signal wires
(usually the negative) as a common.
The disadvantages of voltage signals are primarily loss of accuracy
caused by the input impedance of the measuring instrument and
electrical interference from nearby power cables and radio
transmitters.
To overcome both of the above problems a current signal is more
effective. Assume a situation where 0-20mA is used to represent 0-
100°C. In our measuring instrument we have a 250ohm resistor
through which the current passes and we measure the voltage
across it.
At 100°C we have 20mA passing through the resistor giving us a
voltage of 5V. Ah-ha you say. This is just a 0-5V signal. Not so.
This 5V signal remains the same even if the resistance of the wires
carrying it changes, whereas with a voltage signal a change in wire
resistance causes a change in signal at the measuring instrument
unless it has an infinite impedance.
This means that a current signal may be transmitted long distances
through conductors of varying resistance with no loss of accuracy.
Neat!
The other advantage of the current signal is improved noise
immunity. Spurious signals are superimposed on the signal we wish
to measure by varying magnetic fields (maybe generated by AC
power cables) which cut the conductors and induce currents in the
same fashion as a generator. If our conductors are small and close
together (theoretically in the same place) these fields generate
equal and opposite currents in the two conductors which cancel. In
practice a twisted pair of conductors of telephone cable sized wire
works well.
The story about elevated zeros also works the same as with
voltage signals but has one extra plus feature.
If we are using a 0-20mA signal we have to supply power to our
electronics in a similar way as to power a voltage signal using one
or two extra power supply lines.
With a 4-20mA signal we always have at least 4mA flowing in the
loop. This means that if we can power our electronics from the
residual 4mA we can have our power supply AND signal on the
same pair of conductors. This technique simplifies installation,
especially in large plants, as only a twisted pair is needed to
transmit a signal from a sensing device to a measuring or control
instrument.
An instrument which transmits a 4-20mA signal is usually referred
to as a TRANSMITTER and if it derives its power from the 4mA
residual current it is called a LOOP POWERED TRANSMITTER.

The principle of operation is not however immediately obvious to


engineers used to dealing with voltage signals.

The transmitter is a current sinking circuit, which means that it will


attempt to draw a current from an external power supply. This is
usually a 4-20mA signal powered from 24V DC which is often an
integral part of the measuring instrument to which the transmitter is
connected.

Unlike voltage transducers which are wired in parallel to measuring


instruments, the current transmitter is wired in a series circuit.

Conventional current flows from the positive terminal of the power


supply, through the transmitter, through the internal load resistor of
the measuring instrument and back to the negative terminal of the
power supply. The voltage generated across the internal load
resistor is the signal which the measuring instrument processes.

These days it is common to use a PLC or computer based system


with multiple input channels. Several 4-20mA transmitters can be
used with a single power supply as shown here.
Transmitters can drive above 20mA, particularly under fault
conditions. The power supply should be rated to ensure adequate
available current. If the maximum output of the transmitter is 30mA
the power supply for three units should be rated at least 90mA.

Of course if the power supply goes down, or gets shorted, we will


lose the signals from all the transmitters it powers. Sometimes it is
a good idea to use smaller individual power supplies for each loop.
That way problems with one loop do not affect the others.