Practical Sensors: The Many Ways We Measure Heat Electronically

Measuring temperature turns out to be a fundamental function for a huge number of devices. You furnace’s programmable thermostat and digital clocks are obvious examples. If you just needed to know if a certain temperature is exceeded, you could use a bimetalic coil and a microswitch (or a mercury switch as was the method with old thermostats). But these days we want precision over a range of readings, so there are thermocouples that generate a small voltage, RTDs that change resistance with temperature, thermistors that also change resistance with temperature, infrared sensors, and vibrating wire sensors. The bandgap voltage of a semiconductor junction varies with temperature and that’s predictable and measurable, too. There are probably other methods too, some of which are probably pretty creative.

Bimetalic coil by [Hustvede], CC-BY-SA 3.0.
You can often think of creative ways to do any measurement. There’s an old joke about the smart-alec student in physics class. The question was how do you find the height of a building using a barometer. One answer was to drop the barometer from the top of the building and time how long it takes to hit the ground. Another answer — doubtlessly an engineering student — wanted to find the building engineer and offer to give them the barometer in exchange for the height of the building. By the same token, you could find the temperature by monitoring a standard thermometer with a camera or even a level sensor which is a topic for another post.

The point is, there are plenty of ways to measure anything, but in every case, you are converting what you want to know (temperature) into something you know how to measure like voltage, current, or physical position. Let’s take a look at how some of the most interesting temperature sensors accomplish this.

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Move Aside Mercury: Measuring Temperature Accurately With An RTD

Temperature is one of the most frequently measured physical quantities, and features prominently in many of our projects, from weather stations to 3D printers. Most commonly we’ll see thermistors, thermocouples, infrared sensors, or a dedicated IC used to measure temperature. It’s even possible to use only an ordinary diode, leading to some interesting techniques.

Often we only need to know the temperature within a degree Celsius or two, and any of these tools are fine. Until fairly recently, when we needed to know the temperature precisely, reliably, and over a wide range we used mercury thermometers. The devices themselves were marvels of instrumentation, but mercury is a hazardous substance, and since 2011 NIST will no longer calibrate mercury thermometers.

A typical Pt100 RTD probe

Luckily, resistance temperature detectors (RTDs) are an excellent alternative. These usually consist of very thin wires of pure platinum, and are identified by their resistance at 0 °C. For example, a Pt100 RTD has a resistance of 100 Ω at 0 °C.

An accuracy of +/- 0.15 °C at 0 °C is typical, but accuracies down to +/- 0.03 °C are available. The functional temperature range is typically quite high, with -70 °C to 200 °C being common, with some specialized probes working well over 900 °C.

It’s not uncommon for the lead wires on these probes to be a meter or more in length, and this can be a significant source of error. To account for this, you will see that RTD probes are sold in two, three, and four wire configurations. Two-wire configurations do not account for lead wire resistance, three-wire probes account for lead resistance but assume all lead wires have the same resistance, and four-wire configurations are most effective at eliminating this error.

In this article we’ll be using a 3-wire probe as it’s a good balance between cost, space, and accuracy. I found this detailed treatment of the differences between probe types useful in making this decision.

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