Pressure measurements and instrumentation

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The construction of a bourdon tube gauge, construction elements are made of brass
Digital air pressure sensor
Compact digital barometric pressure sensor

Many techniques have been developed for the measurement of pressure and vacuum. Instruments used to measure pressure are called pressure gauges or vacuum gauges.

A manometer could also be referring to a pressure measuring instrument, usually limited to measuring pressures near to atmospheric. The term manometer is often used to refer specifically to liquid column hydrostatic instruments.

A vacuum gauge is used to measure the pressure in a vacuum --- which is further divided into two subcategories: high and low vacuum (and sometimes ultra-high vacuum). The applicable pressure range of many of the techniques used to measure vacuums have an overlap. Hence, by combining several different types of gauge, it is possible to measure system pressure continuously from 10 mbar down to 10−11 mbar.

A pressure sensor measures pressure, typically of gases or liquids. Pressure is an expression of the force required to stop a fluid from expanding, and is usually stated in terms of force per unit area. A pressure sensor usually acts as a transducer; it generates a signal as a function of the pressure imposed. For the purposes of this article, such a signal is electrical.

Pressure sensors are used for control and monitoring in thousands of everyday applications. Pressure sensors can also be used to indirectly measure other variables such as fluid/gas flow, speed, water level, and altitude. Pressure sensors can alternatively be called pressure transducers, pressure transmitters, pressure senders, pressure indicators and piezometers, manometers, among other names.

Pressure sensors can vary drastically in technology, design, performance, application suitability and cost. A conservative estimate would be that there may be over 50 technologies and at least 300 companies making pressure sensors worldwide.

There is also a category of pressure sensors that are designed to measure in a dynamic mode for capturing very high speed changes in pressure. Example applications for this type of sensor would be in the measuring of combustion pressure in an engine cylinder or in a gas turbine. These sensors are commonly manufactured out of piezoelectric materials such as quartz.


Types of pressure measurements

silicon piezoresistive pressure sensors

Pressure sensors can be classified in terms of pressure ranges they measure, temperature ranges of operation, and most importantly the type of pressure they measure. In terms of pressure type, pressure sensors can be divided into five categories:

  • Absolute pressure sensor

This sensor measures the pressure relative to perfect vacuum pressure (0 PSI or no pressure). Atmospheric pressure, is 101.325 kPa (14.7 PSI) at sea level with reference to vacuum.

  • Gauge pressure sensor

This sensor is used in different applications because it can be calibrated to measure the pressure relative to a given atmospheric pressure at a given location. A tire pressure gauge is an example of gauge pressure indication. When the tire pressure gauge reads 0 PSI, there is really 14.7 PSI (atmospheric pressure) in the tire.

  • Vacuum pressure sensor

This sensor is used to measure pressure less than the atmospheric pressure at a given location. This has the potential to cause some confusion as industry may refer to a vacuum sensor as one which is referenced to either atmospheric pressure (ie measure Negative gauge pressure) or relative to absolute vacuum.

  • Differential pressure sensor

This sensor measures the difference between two or more pressures introduced as inputs to the sensing unit, for example, measuring the pressure drop across an oil filter. Differential pressure is also used to measure flow or level in pressurized vessels.

  • Sealed pressure sensor

This sensor is the same as the gauge pressure sensor except that it is previously calibrated by manufacturers to measure pressure relative to sea level pressure.


technical atmosphere
pound-force per
square inch (psi)
1 Pa ≡ 1 N/m2 10−5 1.0197×10−5 9.8692×10−6 7.5006×10−3 145.04×10−6
1 bar 100,000 ≡ 106 dyn/cm2 1.0197 0.98692 750.06 14.5037744
1 at 98,066.5 0.980665 ≡ 1 kgf/cm2 0.96784 735.56 14.223
1 atm 101,325 1.01325 1.0332 ≡ 1 atm 760 14.696
1 torr 133.322 1.3332×10−3 1.3595×10−3 1.3158×10−3 ≡ 1 Torr; ≈ 1 mmHg 19.337×10−3
1 psi 6.894×103 68.948×10−3 70.307×10−3 68.046×10−3 51.715 ≡ 1 lbf/in2

The SI unit for pressure is the pascal (Pa), equal to one newton per square metre (N·m−2 or kg·m−1·s−2). This special name for the unit was added in 1971; before that, pressure in SI was expressed in units such as N/m². When indicated, the zero reference is stated in parenthesis following the unit, for example 101 kPa (abs). The pound per square inch (psi) is still in widespread use in the US and Canada, notably for cars. A letter is often appended to the psi unit to indicate the measurement's zero reference; psia for absolute, psig for gauge, psid for differential, although this practice is discouraged by the NIST (NIST).

Because pressure was once commonly measured by its ability to displace a column of liquid in a manometer, pressures are often expressed as a depth of a particular fluid (e.g. inches of water). The most common choices are mercury (Hg) and water; water is nontoxic and readily available, while mercury's density allows for a shorter column (and so a smaller manometer) to measure a given pressure.

Fluid density and local gravity can vary from one reading to another depending on local factors, so the height of a fluid column does not define pressure precisely. When 'millimetres of mercury' or 'inches of mercury' are quoted today, these units are not based on a physical column of mercury; rather, they have been given precise definitions that can be expressed in terms of SI units. The water-based units usually assume one of the older definitions of the kilogram as the weight of a litre of water.

Although no longer favoured by measurement experts, these manometric units are still encountered in many fields. Blood pressure is measured in millimetres of mercury in most of the world, and lung pressures in centimeters of water are still common. Natural gas pipeline pressures are measured in inches of water, expressed as '"WC' ('Water Column'). Scuba divers often use a manometric rule of thumb: the pressure exerted by ten metres depth of water is approximately equal to one atmosphere. In vacuum systems, the units torr, micrometre of mercury (micron), and inch of mercury (inHg) are most commonly used. Torr and micron usually indicates an absolute pressure, while inHg usually indicates a gauge pressure.

Atmospheric pressures are usually stated using kilopascal (kPa), or atmospheres (atm), except in American meteorology where the hectopascal (hPa) and millibar (mbar) are preferred. In American and Canadian engineering, stress is often measured in kip. Note that stress is not a true pressure since it is not scalar. In the cgs system the unit of pressure was the barye (ba), equal to 1 dyn·cm−2. In the mts system, the unit of pressure was the pieze, equal to 1 sthene per square metre.

Many other hybrid units are used such as mmHg/cm² or grams-force/cm² (sometimes as kg/cm² and g/mol2 without properly identifying the force units). Using the names kilogram, gram, kilogram-force, or gram-force (or their symbols) as a unit of force is forbidden in SI; the unit of force in SI is the newton (N).

Static and dynamic pressure

Static pressure is uniform in all directions, so pressure measurements are independent of direction in an immovable (static) fluid. Flow, however, applies additional pressure on surfaces perpendicular to the flow direction, while having little impact on surfaces parallel to the flow direction. This directional component of pressure in a moving (dynamic) fluid is called dynamic pressure. An instrument facing the flow direction measures the sum of the static and dynamic pressures; this measurement is called the total pressure or stagnation pressure. Since dynamic pressure is referenced to static pressure, it is neither gauge nor absolute; it is a differential pressure.

While static gauge pressure is of primary importance to determining net loads on pipe walls, dynamic pressure is used to measure flow rates and airspeed. Dynamic pressure can be measured by taking the differential pressure between instruments parallel and perpendicular to the flow. Pitot-static tubes, for example perform this measurement on airplanes to determine airspeed. The presence of the measuring instrument inevitably acts to divert flow and create turbulence, so its shape is critical to accuracy and the calibration curves are often non-linear.

Mechanical Instruments

Many instruments have been invented to measure pressure, with different advantages and disadvantages. Pressure range, sensitivity, dynamic response and cost all vary by several orders of magnitude from one instrument design to the next. The oldest type is the liquid column (a vertical tube filled with mercury) manometer invented by Evangelista Torricelli in 1643. The U-Tube was invented by Christian Huygens in 1661.


Hydrostatic gauges (such as the mercury column manometer) compare pressure to the hydrostatic force per unit area at the base of a column of fluid. Hydrostatic gauge measurements are independent of the type of gas being measured, and can be designed to have a very linear calibration. They have poor dynamic response.


Piston-type gauges counterbalance the pressure of a fluid with a solid weight or a spring. Another name for piston gauge is deadweight tester. For example, dead-weight testers used for calibration or tire-pressure gauges.

Liquid column

The difference in fluid height in a liquid column manometer is proportional to the pressure difference. H=\frac{P_a-P_o}{g \rho}

Liquid column gauges consist of a vertical column of liquid in a tube whose ends are exposed to different pressures. The column will rise or fall until its weight is in equilibrium with the pressure differential between the two ends of the tube. A very simple version is a U-shaped tube half-full of liquid, one side of which is connected to the region of interest while the reference pressure (which might be the atmospheric pressure or a vacuum) is applied to the other. The difference in liquid level represents the applied pressure. The pressure exerted by a column of fluid of height h and density ρ is given by the hydrostatic pressure equation, P = hgρ. Therefore the pressure difference between the applied pressure Pa and the reference pressure P0 in a U-tube manometer can be found by solving Pa − P0 = hgρ. If the fluid being measured is significantly dense, hydrostatic corrections may have to be made for the height between the moving surface of the manometer working fluid and the location where the pressure measurement is desired.

Although any fluid can be used, mercury is preferred for its high density (13.534 g/cm3) and low vapour pressure. For low pressure differences well above the vapour pressure of water, water is commonly used (and "inches of water" is a common pressure unit). Liquid-column pressure gauges are independent of the type of gas being measured and have a highly linear calibration. They have poor dynamic response. When measuring vacuum, the working liquid may evaporate and contaminate the vacuum if its vapor pressure is too high. When measuring liquid pressure, a loop filled with gas or a light fluid must isolate the liquids to prevent them from mixing. Simple hydrostatic gauges can measure pressures ranging from a few Torr (a few 100 Pa) to a few atmospheres. (Approximately 1,000,000 Pa)

A single-limb liquid-column manometer has a larger reservoir instead of one side of the U-tube and has a scale beside the narrower column. The column may be inclined to further amplify the liquid movement. Based on the use and structure following type of manometers are used.

1. Simple Manometer
2. Micromanometer
3. Differential manometer
4. Inverted differential manometer

McLeod gauge

A McLeod gauge, drained of mercury

A McLeod gauge isolates a sample of gas and compresses it in a modified mercury manometer until the pressure is a few mmHg. The gas must be well-behaved during its compression (it must not condense, for example). The technique is slow and unsuited to continual monitoring, but is capable of good accuracy.

Useful range: above 10-4 torr (Techniques of high vacuum) (roughly 10-2 Pa) as high as 10−6 Torr (0.1 mPa),

0.1 mPa is the lowest direct measurement of pressure that is possible with current technology. Other vacuum gauges can measure lower pressures, but only indirectly by measurement of other pressure-controlled properties. These indirect measurements must be calibrated to SI units via a direct measurement, most commonly a McLeod gauge.(Beckwith, et al.).


Aneroid gauges are based on a metallic pressure sensing element which flexes elastically under the effect of a pressure difference across the element. "Aneroid" means "without fluid," and the term originally distinguished these gauges from the hydrostatic gauges described above. However, aneroid gauges can be used to measure the pressure of a liquid as well as a gas, and they are not the only type of gauge that can operate without fluid. For this reason, they are often called mechanical gauges in modern language. Aneroid gauges are not dependent on the type of gas being measured, unlike thermal and ionization gauges, and are less likely to contaminate the system than hydrostatic gauges. The pressure sensing element may be a Bourdon tube, a diaphragm, a capsule, or a set of bellows, which will change shape in response to the pressure of the region in question. The deflection of the pressure sensing element may be read by a linkage connected to a needle, or it may be read by a secondary transducer. The most common secondary transducers in modern vacuum gauges measure a change in capacitance due to the mechanical deflection. Gauges that rely on a change in capacitances are often referred to as Baratron gauges.


Membrane-type manometer

The Bourdon pressure gauge uses the principle that a flattened tube tends to change to a more circular cross-section when pressurized. Although this change in cross-section may be hardly noticeable, and thus involving moderate stresses within the elastic range of easily workable materials, the strain of the material of the tube is magnified by forming the tube into a C shape or even a helix, such that the entire tube tends to straighten out or uncoil, elastically, as it is pressurized. Eugene Bourdon patented his gauge in France in 1849, and it was widely adopted because of its superior sensitivity, linearity, and accuracy; Edward Ashcroft purchased Bourdon's American patent rights in 1852 and became a major manufacturer of gauges. Also in 1849, Bernard Schaeffer in Magdeburg, Germany patented a successful diaphragm (see below) pressure gauge, which together with the Bourdon gauge, revolutionized pressure measurement in industry.(Engine Indicator) But in 1875 after Bourdon's patents expired, his company Schaeffer and Budenberg also manufactured Bourdon tube gauges.

In practice, a flattened thin-wall, closed-end tube is connected at the hollow end to a fixed pipe containing the fluid pressure to be measured. As the pressure increases, the closed end moves in an arc, and this motion is converted into the rotation of a (segment of a) gear by a connecting link which is usually adjustable. A small diameter pinion gear is on the pointer shaft, so the motion is magnified further by the gear ratio. The positioning of the indicator card behind the pointer, the initial pointer shaft position, the linkage length and initial position, all provide means to calibrate the pointer to indicate the desired range of pressure for variations in the behaviour of the Bourdon tube itself. Differential pressure can be measured by gauges containing two different Bourdon tubes, with connecting linkages.

Bourdon tubes measure gage pressure, relative to ambient atmospheric pressure, as opposed to absolute pressure; vacuum is sensed as a reverse motion. Some aneroid barometers use Bourdon tubes closed at both ends (but most use diaphrams or capsules, see below). When the measured pressure is rapidly pulsing, such as when the gauge is near a reprocating pump, an orfice restriction in the connecting pipe is frequently used to avoid unnecessary wear on the gears and provide an average reading; when the whole gauge is subject to mechanical vibration, the entire case including the pointer and indicator card can be filled with an oil or glycerin. Typical high-quality modern gauges provide an accuracy of ±2% of span, and a special high-precision gauge can be as accurate as 0.1% of full scale.

Indicator side with card and dial
Mechanical side with Bourdon tube

In the following illustrations the transparent cover face of the pictured combination pressure and vacuum gauge has been removed and the mechanism removed from the case. This particular gauge is a combination vacuum and pressure gauge used for automotive diagnosis: Indicator side with card and dial Mechanical side with Bourdon tube

  • the left side of the face, used for measuring manifold vacuum, is calibrated in centimetres of mercury on its inner scale and inches of mercury on its outer scale.
  • the right portion of the face is used to measure fuel pump pressure and is calibrated in fractions of 1 kgf/cm² on its inner scale and pounds per square inch on its outer scale.


A pile of pressure capsules with corrugated diaphragms in an aneroid barograph.

A second type of aneroid gauge uses the deflection of a flexible membrane that separates regions of different pressure. The amount of deflection is repeatable for known pressures so the pressure can be determined by using calibration. The deformation of a thin diaphragm is dependent on the difference in pressure between its two faces. The reference face can be open to atmosphere to measure gauge pressure, open to a second port to measure differential pressure, or can be sealed against a vacuum or other fixed reference pressure to measure absolute pressure. The deformation can be measured using mechanical, optical or capacitive techniques. Ceramic and metallic diaphragms are used.

Useful range: above 10-2 Torr (roughly 1 Pa)

For absolute measurements, welded pressure capsules with diaphragms on either side are often used.


  • Flat
  • corrugated
  • flattened tube
  • capsule

Pressure Sensing Technology

There are two basic categories of analog pressure sensors.

Force Collector Types These types of electronic pressure sensors generally use a force collector (such a diaphragm, piston, bourdon tube, or bellows) to measure strain (or deflection) due to applied force (pressure) over an area.

  • Piezoresistive Strain Gage
Uses the piezoresistive effect of bonded or formed strain gages to detect strain due to applied pressure. Common technology types are Silicon (Monocrystalline), Polysilicon Thin Film, Bonded Metal Foil, Thick Film, and Sputtered Thin Film. Generally, the strain gauges are connected to form a Wheatstone bridge circuit to maximize the output of the sensor. This is the most commonly employed sensing technology for general purpose pressure measurement. Generally, these technologies are suited to measure absolute, gauge, vacuum, and differential pressures.
  • Capacitive
Uses a diaphragm and pressure cavity to create a variable capacitor to detect strain due to applied pressure. Common technologies use metal, ceramic, and silicon diaphragms. Generally, these technologies are most applied to low pressures (Absolute, Differential and Gauge)
  • Electromagnetic
Measures the displacement of a diaphragm by means of changes in inductance (reluctance), LVDT, Hall Effect, or by eddy current principal.
  • Piezoelectric
Uses the piezoelectric effect in certain materials such as quartz to measure the strain upon the sensing mechanism due to pressure. This technology is commonly employed for the measurement of highly dynamic pressures.
  • Optical
Uses the physical change of an optical fiber to detect strain due to applied pressure. A common example of this type utilizes Fiber Bragg Gratings. This technology is employed in challenging applications where the measurement may be highly remote, under high temperature, or may benefit from technologies inherently immune to electromagnetic interference.
  • Potentiometric
Uses the motion of a wiper along a resistive mechanism to detect the strain caused by applied pressure.

Other Types

These types of electronic pressure sensors use other properties (such as density) to infer pressure of a gas, or liquid.

  • Resonant
Uses the changes in resonant frequency in a sensing mechanism to measure stress, or changes in gas density, caused by applied pressure. This technology may be used in conjunction with a force collector, such as those in the category above. Alternatively, resonant technology may be employed by expose the resonating element itself to the media, whereby the resonant frequency is dependent upon the density of the media. Sensors have been made out of vibrating wire, vibrating cylinders, quartz, and silicon MEMS. Generally, this technology is considered to provide very stable readings over time.
  • Thermal
Uses the changes in thermal conductivity of a gas due to density changes to measure pressure. A common example of this type is the Pirani gauge.
  • Ionization
Measures the flow of charged gas particles (ions) which varies due to density changes to measure pressure. Common examples are the Hot and Cold Cathode gages.
  • Others
There are numerous other ways to derive pressure from its density (speed of sound, mass, index of refraction) among others.


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