Pressure regulators have numerous applications in industrial and consumer markets, but their importance is most significant in industrial automation and aviation. At the most general level, a pressure regulator is a device that helps control the pressure of a fluid to a set level. However, the means by which the regulator achieves that goal may vary significantly with design, making it essential to understand the fundamentals of pressure regulation first. In this blog, we will discuss the basic operating principles of pressure regulation and the various ways these devices may be implemented in industrial automation and aerospace applications.
Before diving into the operation of pressure regulators, it is first necessary to review some basics about the quantification of pressure in various forms. Pressure is a physical quantity that may be calculated by taking the ratio of force over a given area (P=F/A). Since this equation is written as a quotient, pressure is directly proportional to the force applied and inversely proportional to the area in which the force is applied. The most intuitive way to understand pressure is by imagining the difference in pain between an arm being poked with a finger versus a pencil. Although the same force may be applied with the same magnitude, the surface area of the pencil is much smaller.
In addition to the conventional definition of pressure, it is equally important to understand the basic principles of hydrostatic or fluid pressure. In hydrostatics, pressure is defined as P=pgh, where "p" is the fluid's density, "g" is the acceleration due to gravity, and "h" is the depth of the fluid. This equation elegantly demonstrates that pressure increases with the depth of the fluid when in an enclosed space. This is most evident in a pool, where the fluid pressure is hardly noticed towards the surface but becomes overwhelming with even 10 feet of depth.
Pressure regulators aim to maintain the pressure and flow of a fluid within narrow tolerances at a set rate. In the context of engineering, gas may also be considered a fluid because it readily follows most laws of fluid dynamics. Although designs vary, pressure regulators consist of a restricting, loading, and measuring element. Restricting elements are surfaces or devices that provide a physical impediment to flow. It is this component that is in direct contact with the medium at all times. Adjacent to the restricting element is the loading element, which is an accessory device that supports the force requirements of the restricting portion. Finally, the measuring element is used to ensure that the proper flow and pressure values are maintained throughout the duration of use.
The most common classes of pressure regulators are direct-operated and pilot-operated. Direct-operated regulators function optimally at lower set pressures, usually under 10psi. At these low levels, they are extremely accurate and less prone to fluctuations. However, as pressure increases to several hundred psi, direct-operated regulators only have 1/10th of the accuracy. Their simple design consists of a diaphragm, which is sensitive to changes in pressure and flow rate, and a spring-actuated valve. As the diaphragm is activated by the flowing medium, it acts directly on the spring-actuated valve to provide an exact amount of resistance.
Pilot-operated regulators are better suited to handle fluctuations in pressure and flow rate while maintaining a stable output. Instead of relying upon a diagram to drive the valve, pilot-operated regulators employ a manual pressure adjustment device that controls the pressure of the diaphragm and main regulating valve. When flow rate and pressure increase, another valve is forced to open, creating a differential between the inlet and outlet side of the device. When set correctly, this ensures that the media output is at a sustained or lower pressure than when it enters.
Pressure regulators are often used alongside air compressors and other devices in an industrial automation setting. In such cases, a pilot-operated regulator is commonly chosen to help ensure accuracy even with variable flow rates. In aviation, pressure regulation devices play an important role in cabin pressurization, water control, and canopy seal. Like many other aerospace components, aircraft pressure regulators must be equipped to handle severe fluctuations in temperature and pressure.
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