Electrochemical sensors: how long on the shelf, and how long in the field?

You might have heard the term ‘shelf life’ and ‘operational life’ before in reference to electrochemical sensors.  They’re the type of terms that lots of people know, but not everybody knows the finer details of what they mean.

How long on the shelf?

For the purposes of this piece, “shelf life” is the time between manufacture of a product and initial operation.

Electrochemical sensors typically have a stated shelf life of six months from manufacture, provided they’re stored in ideal conditions at 20˚C. Inevitably, a small proportion of this period is taken up during the manufacture of the gas detector and in shipping to the customer.

With that in mind, we’d always advise that when acquiring sensors and any spare parts during its lifetime, you plan and time your purchases for minimal delay between storage and usage.

How long in the field?

Again, “operational life” in this context refers to the time from when a sensor starts being used, until it’s no longer fit for purpose.

In absolutely ideal conditions – stable temperature and humidity in the region of 20˚C and 60%RH with no incidence of contaminants – electrochemical sensors have been known to operate in excess of 4000 days (11 years)!  Periodic exposure to the target gas doesn’t limit the life of these tiny fuel cells: high quality sensors have a large amount of catalyst material and robust conductors which don’t become depleted by the reaction.

However, absolutely ideal conditions don’t always exist, or stay that way, so it’s vital to err on the side of caution when it comes to gas sensors.

With that in mind, electrochemical sensors for common gases (for example carbon monoxide or hydrogen sulphide) have a typical operational life of 2-3 years. A more exotic gas sensor, such as hydrogen fluoride, may have only 12-18 months.

You can read more about sensor life in our HazardEx article.

Why you shouldn’t spark up

Think back to the last time you wanted to test your flammable gas detector.  You’re busy; you want something quick and convenient.  An obvious answer is a cigarette lighter, isn’t it?  A quick squirt of gas should do the job.  Shouldn’t it?

If ‘the job’ is ruining your detector’s sensor at the flick of a switch, then yes!

If you use a cigarette lighter to test your sensors, you run the risk of:

  • Rendering your sensor useless
  • Compromising your warranty – carbon deposits are a dead giveaway for manufacturers who then won’t honour your claim due to incorrect testing

Why cigarette lighters are bad news for your sensors

Pellistor-type sensors (also known as catalytic beads) are used in industrial gas detectors to detect a wide variety of gases and vapours.  The sensors are made up of a matched pair of ‘beads’ which are heated to react with gases.  The sensors operate in the ‘Lower Explosive Limit’ (LEL) range, so provide a warning well before a flammable level of gas concentration accumulates.

Periodic and irregular exposure to high gas concentrations is likely to compromise sensor performance, and cigarette lighters expose the sensor to 100% gas volume.  Not only that, but this exposure can potentially crack the sensor beads.  Cigarette lighters also leave damaging carbon deposits on the beads – leaving you with useless sensors, and potentially putting your life at risk.

How to safely test your sensors

Bump test!  Or you can calibrate using 50% LEL gas – but make sure you’re using the correct gas calibration adaptor from your gas cylinder, and that your cylinder’s flow is regulated to 0.5 to 1 litre per minute.