Flow measurement is the quantification of bulk fluid movement. It can be measured in a variety of ways.
Both gas and liquid flow can be measured in volumetric or mass flow rates, such as litres per second or kilograms per second. These measurements can be converted between one another if the material's density is known. The density for a liquid is almost independent of the liquid conditions; however, this is not the case for a gas, the density of which depends greatly upon pressure, temperature and to a lesser extent, the gas composition.
When gases or liquids are transferred for their energy content, such as the sale of natural gas, the flow rate may also be expressed in terms of energy flow, such as GJ/hour or BTU/day. The energy flow rate is the volume flow rate multiplied by the energy content per unit volume or mass flow rate multiplied by the energy content per unit mass. Where accurate energy flow rate is desired, most flow meters will be used to calculate the volume or mass flow rate which is then adjusted to the energy flow rate by the use of a flow computer.
Gases are compressible and change volume when placed under pressure or are heated or cooled. A volume of gas under one set of pressure and temperature conditions is not equivalent to the same gas under different conditions. References will be made to "actual" flow rate through a meter and "standard" or "base" flow rate through a meter with units such as acm/h (actual cubic meters per hour), Kscm/h (Kilo standard cubic meters per hour), or MSCFD (thousands of standard cubic feet per day).
For liquids, various units are used depending upon the application and industry, but might include gallons (U.S. liquid or imperial) per minute, liters per second, bushels per minute or, when describing river flows, cumecs (cubic metres per second) or acre-feet per day. In oceanography a common unit to measure volume transport (volume of water transported by a current for example) is a Sverdrup (Sv) equivalent to 106 m 3 / s.
There are several types of mechanical flow meter.
Perhaps the simplest way to measure volumetric flow is to measure how long it takes to fill a container. A simple example is using a bucket of known volume, filled by a hose. The stopwatch is started when the flow starts, and stopped when the bucket overflows. The volume divided by the time gives the flow. The bucket-and-stopwatch method is an off-line method, meaning that the measurement cannot be taken without interrupting the normal flow.
Because they are used for domestic water measurement, piston meters, also known as rotary piston or semi-positive displacement meters, are the most common flow measurement devices in the UK and are used for almost all meter sizes up to and including 40 mm (1 1/2"). The piston meter operates on the principle of a piston rotating within a chamber of known volume. For each rotation, an amount of water passes through the piston chamber. Through a gear mechanism and, sometimes, a magnetic drive, a needle dial and odometer type display are advanced.
The variable area (VA) meter, also commonly called a rotameter, consists of a tapered tube, typically made of glass, with a float inside that is pushed up by fluid flow and pulled down by gravity. As flow rate increases, greater viscous and pressure forces on the float cause it to rise until it becomes stationary at a location in the tube that is wide enough for the forces to balance. Floats are made in many different shapes, with spheres and spherical ellipses being the most common. Some are designed to spin visibly in the fluid stream to aid the user in determining whether the float is stuck or not. Rotameters are available for a wide range of liquids but are most commonly used with water or air. They can be made to reliably measure flow down to 1% accuracy.
The turbine flow meter (better described as an axial turbine) translates the mechanical action of the turbine rotating in the liquid flow around an axis into a user-readable rate of flow (gpm, lpm, etc.). The turbine tends to have all the flow traveling around it.
The turbine wheel is set in the path of a fluid stream. The flowing fluid impinges on the turbine blades, imparting a force to the blade surface and setting the rotor in motion. When a steady rotation speed has been reached, the speed is proportional to fluid velocity.
Turbine flow meters are used for the measurement of natural gas and liquid flow.
The Woltmann meter comprises a rotor with helical blades inserted axially in the flow, much like a ducted fan; it can be considered a type of turbine flow meter. They are commonly referred to as helix meters, and are popular at larger sizes.
This is similar to the single jet meter, except that the impeller is small with respect to the width of the pipe, and projects only partially into the flow, like the paddle wheel on a Mississippi riverboat.
A multiple jet or multijet meter is a velocity type meter which has an impeller which rotates horizontally on a vertical shaft. The impeller element is in a housing in which multiple inlet ports direct the fluid flow at the impeller causing it to rotate in a specific direction in proportion to the flow velocity. This meter works mechanically much like a single jet meter except that the ports direct the flow at the impeller equally from several points around the circumference of the element, not just one point; this minimizes uneven wear on the impeller and its shaft.
The Pelton wheel turbine (better described as a radial turbine) translates the mechanical action of the Pelton wheel rotating in the liquid flow around an axis into a user-readable rate of flow (gpm, lpm, etc.). The Pelton wheel tends to have all the flow traveling around it with the inlet flow focused on the blades by a jet. The original Pelton wheels were used for the generation of power and consisted of a radial flow turbine with "reaction cups" which not only move with the force of the water on the face but return the flow in opposite direction using this change of fluid direction to further increase the efficiency of the turbine.
An oval gear meter is a positive displacement meter that uses two or more oblong gears configured to rotate at right angles to one another, forming a tee shape. Such a meter has two sides, which can be called A and B. No fluid passes through the center of the meter, where the teeth of the two gears always mesh. On one side of the meter (A), the teeth of the gears close off the fluid flow because the elongated gear on side A is protruding into the measurement chamber, while on the other side of the meter (B), a cavity holds a fixed volume of fluid in a measurement chamber. As the fluid pushes the gears, it rotates them, allowing the fluid in the measurement chamber on side B to be released into the outlet port. Meanwhile, fluid entering the inlet port will be driven into the measurement chamber of side A, which is now open. The teeth on side B will now close off the fluid from entering side B. This cycle continues as the gears rotate and fluid is metered through alternating measurement chambers. Permanent magnets in the rotating gears can transmit a signal to an electric reed switch or current transducer for flow measurement.
This is the most commonly used measurement system for measuring water supply. The fluid, most commonly water, enters in one side of the meter and strikes the nutating disk, which is eccentrically mounted. The disk must then "wobble" or nutate about the vertical axis, since the bottom and the top of the disk remain in contact with the mounting chamber. A partition separates the inlet and outlet chambers. As the disk nutates, it gives direct indication of the volume of the liquid that has passed through the meter as volumetric flow is indicated by a gearing and register arrangement, which is connected to the disk. It is reliable for flow measurements within 1 percent.
There are several types of flow meter that rely on Bernoulli's principle, either by measuring the differential pressure within a constriction, or by measuring static and stagnation pressures to derive the dynamic pressure.
A Venturi meter constricts the flow in some fashion, and pressure sensors measure the differential pressure before and within the constriction. This method is widely used to measure flow rate in the transmission of gas through pipelines, and has been used since Roman Empire times.The coefficient of discharge of Venturi meter ranges from 0.93 to 0.97.
An orifice plate is a plate with a hole through it, placed in the flow; it constricts the flow, and measuring the pressure differential across the constriction gives the flow rate. It is basically a crude form of Venturi meter, but with higher energy losses. There are three type of orifice: concentric, eccentric, and segmental. 
The Dall tube is a shortened version of a Venturi meter, with a lower pressure drop than an orifice plate. As with these flow meters the flow rate in a Dall tube is determined by measuring the pressure drop caused by restriction in the conduit. The pressure differential is typically measured using diaphragm pressure transducers with digital readout. Since these meters have significantly lower permanent pressure losses than orifice meters, Dall tubes are widely used for measuring the flow rate of large pipeworks.
A Pitot tube is a pressure measuring instrument used to measure fluid flow velocity by determining the stagnation pressure. Bernoulli's equation is used to calculate the dynamic pressure and hence fluid velocity.
Multi-hole pressure probes (also called impact probes) extend the theory of pitot tube to more than one dimension. A typical impact probe consists of three or more holes (depending on the type of probe) on the measuring tip arranged in a specific pattern. More holes allow the instrument to measure the direction of the flow velocity in addition to its magnitude (after appropriate calibration). Three holes arranged in a line allow the pressure probes to measure the velocity vector in two dimensions. Introduction of more holes, e.g. five holes arranged in a "plus" formation, allow measurement of the three-dimensional velocity vector.
Optical flow meters use light to determine flow rate. Small particles which accompany natural and industrial gases pass through two laser beams focused in a pipe by illuminating optics. Laser light is scattered when a particle crosses the first beam. The detecting optics collects scattered light on a photodetector, which then generates a pulse signal. If the same particle crosses the second beam, the detecting optics collect scattered light on a second photodetector, which converts the incoming light into a second electrical pulse. By measuring the time interval between these pulses, the gas velocity is calculated as V = D / T where D is the distance between the laser beams and T is the time interval.
Laser-based optical flow meters measure the actual speed of particles, a property which is not dependent on thermal conductivity of gases, variations in gas flow or composition of gases. The operating principle enables optical laser technology to deliver highly accurate flow data, even in challenging environments which may include high temperature, low flow rates, high pressure, high humidity, pipe vibration and acoustic noise.
Optical flow meters are very stable with no moving parts and deliver a highly repeatable measurement over the life of the product. Because distance between the two laser sheets does not change, optical flow meters do not require periodic calibration after their initial commissioning. Optical flow meters require only one installation point, instead of the two installation points typically required by other types of meters. A single installation point is simpler, requires less maintenance and is less prone to errors.
Optical flow meters are capable of measuring flow from 0.1 m/s to faster than 100 m/s (1000:1 turn down ratio) and have been demonstrated to be effective for the measurement of flare gases, a major global contributor to the emissions associated with climate change.
The level of the water is measured at a designated point behind a hydraulic structure (a weir or flume) using various means (bubblers, ultrasonic, float, and differential pressure are common methods). This depth is converted to a flow rate according to a theoretical formula of the form Q = KHX where Q is the flow rate, K is a constant, H is the water level, and X is an exponent which varies with the device used; or it is converted according to empirically derived level/flow data points (a "flow curve"). The flow rate can then integrated over time into volumetric flow.
The cross-sectional area of the flow is calculated from a depth measurement and the average velocity of the flow is measured directly (Doppler and propeller methods are common). Velocity times the cross-sectional area yields a flow rate which can be integrated into volumetric flow.
Acoustic Doppler velocimetry (ADV) is designed to record instantaneous velocity components at a single point with a relatively high frequency. Measurements are performed by measuring the velocity of particles in a remote sampling volume based upon the Doppler shift effect.
Thermal mass flow meters generally use combinations of heated elements and temperature sensors to measure the difference between static and flowing heat transfer to a fluid and infer its flow with a knowledge of the fluid's specific heat and density. The fluid temperature is also measured and compensated for. If the density and specific heat characteristics of the fluid are constant, the meter can provide a direct mass flow readout, and does not need any additional pressure temperature compensation over their specified range.
Technological progress has allowed the manufacture of thermal mass flow meters on a microscopic scale as MEMS sensors; these flow devices can be used to measure flow rates in the range of nanolitres or microlitres per minute.
Thermal mass flow meter technology is used for compressed air, nitrogen, helium, argon, oxygen, and natural gas. In fact, most gases can be measured as long as they are fairly clean and non-corrosive. For more aggressive gases, the meter may be made out of special alloys (e.g. Hastelloy), and pre-drying the gas also helps to minimize corrosion.
Another method of flow measurement involves placing a bluff body (called a shedder bar) in the path of the fluid. As the fluid passes this bar, disturbances in the flow called vortices are created. The vortices trail behind the cylinder, alternatively from each side of the bluff body. This vortex trail is called the Von Kármán vortex street after von Kármán's 1912 mathematical description of the phenomenon. The frequency at which these vortices alternate sides is essentially proportional to the flow rate of the fluid. Inside, atop, or downstream of the shedder bar is a sensor for measuring the frequency of the vortex shedding. This sensor is often a piezoelectric crystal, which produces a small, but measurable, voltage pulse every time a vortex is created. Since the frequency of such a voltage pulse is also proportional to the fluid velocity, a volumetric flow rate is calculated using the cross sectional area of the flow meter. The frequency is measured and the flow rate is calculated by the flowmeter electronics using the equation f = SV / L where f is the frequency of the vortices, L the characteristic length of the bluff body, V is the velocity of the flow over the bluff body, and S is the Strouhal number, which is essentially a constant for a given body shape within its operating limits.
Modern innovations in the measurement of flow rate incorporate electronic devices that can correct for varying pressure and temperature (i.e. density) conditions, non-linearities, and for the characteristics of the fluid.
The most common flow meter apart from mechanical flow meters is the magnetic flow meter, commonly referred to as a "mag meter" or an "electromag". A magnetic field is applied to the metering tube, which results in a potential difference proportional to the flow velocity perpendicular to the flux lines. The physical principle at work is Faraday's law of electromagnetic induction. The magnetic flow meter requires a conducting fluid, e.g. water, and an electrical insulating pipe surface, e.g. a rubber lined nonmagnetic steel tube.
Ultrasonic flow meters measure the difference of the transit time of ultrasonic pulses propagating in and against flow direction. This time difference is a measure for the average velocity of the fluid along the path of the ultrasonic beam. By using the absolute transit times both the averaged fluid velocity and the speed of sound can be calculated. Using the two transit times tup and tdown and the distance between receiving and transmitting transducers L and the inclination angle α one can write the equations:
where v is the average velocity of the fluid along the sound path and c is the speed of sound.
Ultrasonic flow meters are used for the measurement of natural gas flow. One can also calculate the expected speed of sound for a given sample of gas; this can be compared to the speed of sound empirically measured by an ultrasonic flow meter and for the purposes of monitoring the quality of the flow meter's measurements. A drop in quality is an indication that the meter needs servicing.
Measurement of the Doppler shift resulting in reflecting an ultrasonic beam off the flowing fluid is another recent innovation. By passing an ultrasonic beam through the tissues, bouncing it off a reflective plate, then reversing the direction of the beam and repeating the measurement, the volume of blood flow can be estimated. The frequency of the transmitted beam is affected by the movement of blood in the vessel and by comparing the frequency of the upstream beam versus downstream the flow of blood through the vessel can be measured. The difference between the two frequencies is a measure of true volume flow. A wide-beam sensor can also be used to measure flow independent of the cross-sectional area of the blood vessel.
For the Doppler principle to work in a flowmeter it is mandatory that the flow stream contains sonically reflective materials, such as solid particles or entrained air bubbles.
A related technology is acoustic Doppler velocimetry.
Using the Coriolis effect that causes a laterally vibrating tube to distort, a direct measurement of mass flow can be obtained in a coriolis flow meter. Furthermore a direct measure of the density of the fluid is obtained. Coriolis measurement can be very accurate irrespective of the type of gas or liquid that is measured; the same measurement tube can be used for hydrogen gas and bitumen without recalibration.
Coriolis flow meters can be used for the measurement of natural gas flow.
Blood flow can be measured through the use of a monochromatic laser diode. The laser probe is inserted into a tissue and turned on, where the light scatters and a small portion is reflected back to the probe. The signal is then processed to calculate flow within the tissues. There are limitations to the use of a laser Doppler probe; flow within a tissue is dependent on volume illuminated, which is often assumed rather than measured and varies with the optical properties of the tissue. In addition, variations in the type and placement of the probe within identical tissues and individuals result in variations in reading. The laser Doppler has the advantage of sampling a small volume of tissue, allowing for great precision, but does not necessarily represent the flow within an entire organ. The flow meter is much more useful for relative rather than absolute measurements.
Even though ideally the flowmeter should be unaffected by its environment, in practice this is unlikely to be the case. Often measurement errors originate from incorrect installation or other environment dependent factors. In Situ methods are used when flow meter is calibrated in the correct flow conditions.
For pipe flows a so-called transit time method is applied where a radiotracer is injected as a pulse into the measured flow. The transit time is defined with the help of radiation detectors placed on the outside of the pipe. The volume flow is obtained by multiplying the measured average fluid flow velocity by the inner pipe cross section. This reference flow value is compared with the simultaneous flow value given by the flow measurement to be calibrated.
The procedure is standardised (ISO 2975/VII for liquids and BS 5857-2.4 for gases). The best accredited measurement uncertainty for liquids and gases is 0.5 %.
The radiotracer dilution method is used to calibrate open channel flow measurements. A solution with a known tracer concentration is injected at a constant known velocity into the channel flow. Downstream where the tracer solution is thoroughly mixed over the flow cross section, a continuous sample is taken and its tracer concentration in relation to that of the injected solution is determined. The flow reference value is determined by using the tracer balance condition between the injected tracer flow and the diluting flow.
The procedure is standardised (ISO 9555-1 and ISO 9555-2 for liquid flow in open channels). The best accredited measurement uncertainty is 1 %.