What’s the difference between a pellistor and an IR sensor?

Sensors play a key role when it comes to monitoring flammable gases and vapours. Environment, response time and temperature range are just some of the things to consider when deciding which technology is best.

In this blog, we’re highlighting the differences between pellistor (catalytic) sensors and infrared (IR) sensors, why there are pros and cons to both technologies, and how to know which is best to suit different environments.

Pellistor sensor

A pellistor gas sensor is a device used to detect combustible gases or vapours that fall within the explosive range to warn of rising gas levels. The sensor is a coil of platinum wire with a catalyst inserted inside to form a small active bead which lowers the temperature at which gas ignites around it. When a combustible gas is present the temperature and resistance of the bead increases in relation to the resistance of the inert reference bead. The difference in resistance can be measured, allowing measurement of gas present. Because of the catalysts and beads, a pellistor sensor is also known as a catalytic or catalytic bead sensor.

Originally created in the 1960’s by British scientist and inventor, Alan Baker, pellistor sensors were initially designed as a solution to the long-running flame safety lamp and canary techniques. More recently, the devices are used in industrial and underground applications such as mines or tunnelling, oil refineries and oil rigs.

Pellistor sensors are relatively lower in cost due to differences in the level of technology in comparison to IR sensors, however they may be required to be replaced more frequently.

With a linear output corresponding to the gas concentration, correction factors can be used to calculate the approximate response of pellistors to other flammable gases, which can make pellistors a good choice when there are multiple flammable vapours present.

Not only this but pellistors within fixed detectors with mV bridge outputs such as the Xgard type 3 are highly suited to areas that are hard to reach as calibration adjustments can take place at the local control panel.

On the other hand, pellistors struggle in environments where there is low or little oxygen, as the combustion process by which they work, requires oxygen. For this reason, confined space instruments which contain catalytic pellistor type LEL sensors often include a sensor for measuring oxygen.

In environments where compounds contain silicon, lead, sulphur and phosphates the sensor is susceptible to poisoning (irreversible loss of sensitivity) or inhibition (reversible loss of sensitivity), which can be a hazard to people in the workplace.

If exposed to high gas concentrations, pellistor sensors can be damaged. In such situations, pellistors do not ‘fail safe’, meaning no notification is given when an instrument fault is detected. Any fault can only be identified through bump testing prior to each use to ensure that performance is not being degraded.

 

IR sensor

Infrared sensor technology is based on the principle that Infrared (IR) light of a particular wavelength will be absorbed by the target gas. Typically there are two emitters within a sensor generating beams of IR light: a measurement beam with a wavelength that will be absorbed by the target gas, and a reference beam which will not be absorbed. Each beam is of equal intensity and is deflected by a mirror inside the sensor onto a photo-receiver. The resulting difference in intensity, between the reference and measurement beam, in the presence of the target gas is used to measure the concentration of gas present.

In many cases, infrared (IR) sensor technology can have a number of advantages over pellistors or be more reliable in areas where pellistor-based sensor performance can be impaired- including low oxygen and inert environments. Just the beam of infrared interacts with the surrounding gas molecules, giving the sensor the advantage of not facing the threat of poisoning or inhibition.

IR technology provides fail-safe testing. This means that if the infrared beam was to fail, the user would be notified of this fault.

Gas-Pro TK uses a dual IR sensor – the best technology for the specialist environments where standard gas detectors just won’t work, whether tank purging or gas freeing.

An example of one of our IR based detectors is the Crowcon Gas-Pro IR, ideal for the oil and gas industry, with the availability to detect methane, pentane or propane in potentially explosive, low oxygen environments where pellistor sensors may struggle. We also use a dual range %LEL and %Volume sensor in our Gas-Pro TK, which is suitable for measuring and switching between both measurements so it’s always safely operating to the correct parameter.

However, IR sensors aren’t all perfect as they only have a linear output to target gas; the response of an IR sensor to other flammable vapours then the target gas will be non-linear.

Like pellistors are susceptible to poisoning, IR sensors are susceptible to severe mechanical and thermal shock and also strongly affected by gross pressure changes. Additionally, infrared sensors cannot be used to detect Hydrogen gas, therefore we suggest using pellistors or electromechanical sensors in this circumstance.

The prime objective for safety is to select the best detection technology to minimise hazards in the workplace. We hope that by clearly identifying the differences between these two sensors we can raise awareness on how various industrial and hazardous environments can remain safe.

For further guidance on pellistor and IR sensors, you can download our whitepaper which includes illustrations and diagrams to help determine the best technology for your application.

You won’t find Crowcon sensors sleeping on the job

MOS (metal oxide semiconductor) sensors have been seen as one of the most recent solutions for tackling detection of hydrogen sulphide (H2S) in fluctuating temperatures from up to 50°C down to the mid-twenties, as well as humid climates such as the Middle East.

However, users and gas detection professionals have realised MOS sensors are not the most reliable detection technology. This blog covers why this technology can prove difficult to maintain and what issues users can face.

One of the major drawbacks of the technology is the liability of the sensor “going to sleep” when it doesn’t encounter gas for a period of time. Of course, this is a huge safety risk for workers in the area… no-one wants to face a gas detector that ultimately doesn’t detect gas.

MOS sensors require a heater to equalise, enabling them to produce a consistent reading. However, when initially switched on, the heater takes time to warm up, causing a significant delay between turning on the sensors and it responding to hazardous gas. MOS manufacturers therefore recommend users to allow the sensor to equilibrate for 24-48 hours before calibration. Some users may find this a hinderance for production, as well as extended time for servicing and maintenance.

The heater delay isn’t the only problem. It uses a lot of power which poses an additional issue of dramatic changes of temperature in the DC power cable, causing changes in voltage as the detector head and inaccuracies in gas level reading. 

As its metal oxide semiconductor name suggests, the sensors are based around semiconductors which are recognised to drift with changes in humidity- something that is not ideal for the humid Middle Eastern climate. In other industries, semiconductors are often encased in epoxy resin to avoid this, however in a gas sensor this coating would the gas detection mechanism as the gas couldn’t reach the semiconductor. The device is also open to the acidic environment created by the local sand in the Middle East, effecting conductivity and accuracy of gas read-out.

Another significant safety implication of a MOS sensor is that with output at near-zero levels of H2S can be false alarms. Often the sensor is used with a level of “zero suppression” at the control panel. This means that the control panel may show a zero read-out for some time after levels of H2S have begun to rise. This late registering of low-level gas presence can then delay the warning of a serious gas leak, opportunity for evacuation and the extreme risk of lives.

MOS sensors excel in reacting quickly to H2S, therefore the need for a sinter counteracts this benefit. Due to H2S being a “sticky” gas, it is able to be adsorbed onto surfaces including those of sinters, in result slowing down the rate at which gas reaches the detection surface.

To tackle the drawbacks of MOS sensors, we’ve revisited and improved on the electrochemical technology with our new High Temperature (HT) H2S sensor for XgardIQ. The new developments of our sensor allow operation of up to 70°C at 0-95%rh- a significant difference against other manufacturers claiming detection of up to 60°C, especially under the harsh Middle Eastern environments.

Our new HT H2S sensor has been proven to be a reliable and resilient solution for the detection of H2S at high temperatures- a solution that doesn’t fall asleep on the job!

Click here for more information on our new High Temperature (HT) H2S sensor for XgardIQ.

An ingenious solution to the problem of high temperature H2S

Due to extreme heat in the Middle East climbing up to 50°C in the height of summer, the necessity for reliable gas detection is critical. In this blog, we’re focusing on the requirement for detection of hydrogen sulphide (H2S)- a long running challenge for the Middle East’s gas detection industry.

By combining a new trick with old technology, we’ve got the answer to reliable gas detection for environments in the harsh Middle Eastern climate. Our new High Temperature (HT) H2S sensor for XgardIQ has been revisited and improved by our team of Crowcon experts by using a combination of two ingenious adaptations to its original design.

In traditional H2S sensors, detection is based on electrochemical technology, where electrodes are used to detect changes induced in an electrolyte by the presence of the target gas. However, high temperatures combined with low humidity causes the electrolyte to dry out, impairing sensor performance so that the sensor has to be replaced regularly; meaning high replacement costs, time and efforts.

Making the new sensor so advanced from its predecessor is its ability to retain the moisture levels within the sensor, preventing evaporation even in high temperature climates. The updated sensor is based on electrolytic gel, adapted to make it more hygroscopic and avoiding dehydration for longer.

As well as this, the pore in the sensor housing has been reduced, limiting the moisture from escaping. This chart indicated weight loss which is indicative of moisture loss. When stored at 55°C or 65°C for a year just 3% of weight is lost. Another typical sensor would lose 50% of its weight in 100 days in the same conditions.

For optimal leak detection, our remarkable new sensor also features an optional remote sensor housing, while the transmitter’s displays screen and push-button controls are positioned for safe and easy access for operators up to 15metres away.

 

The results of our new HT H2S sensor for XgardIQ speak for themselves, with an operating environment of up to 70°C at 0-95%rh, as well featuring a 0-200ppm and T90 response time of less than 30 seconds. Unlike other sensors for detecting H2S, it offers a life expectancy of over 24 months, even in tough climates like the Middle East.

The answer to the Middle East’s gas detection challenges fall in the hands of our new sensor, providing its users with cost-effective and reliable performance.

Click here for more information about the Crowcon HT H2S sensor.

What you need to be aware of when…

…zeroing your CO2 detector

Without wishing to sound accusing, where were you the last time you zeroed your CO2 detector?  In your vehicle?  In the office before you travelled to the location you were working in?

It might not have caused you problems so far, but the air around you can make a big difference to the performance of your CO2 detector.

What is zeroing?

Zeroing your detector means calibrating it so its ‘clean air’ gas level indication is correct.

When is zero not really zero?

Many CO2 detectors are programmed to zero at 0.04% CO2 rather than 0%, because 0.04% is the normal volume of CO2 in fresh air.  In this case, when you zero your detector, it automatically sets the baseline level to 0.04%.

What happens if you zero your CO2 monitor where you shouldn’t?

If you zero your detector where you shouldn’t, the actual CO2 concentration could be much higher than the standard 0.04% – up to ten times higher, in some cases.

The end result?  An inaccurate reading, and no true way of knowing how much CO2 you’re actually exposed to.

What are the dangers of CO2?

CO2 is already in the earth’s atmosphere, but it doesn’t take much for it to reach dangerous levels.

  • 1% toxicity can cause drowsiness with prolonged exposure
  • 2% toxicity is mildly narcotic and causes increased blood pleasure, pulse rate, and reduced hearing
  • 5% toxicity causes dizziness, confusion, difficulty in breathing, and panic attacks
  • 8% toxicity causes headaches, sweating and tremors. You’ll lose consciousness after five to ten minutes of exposure.

What can I do to make sure I’m safe?

Only zero your instruments if you really have to, and make sure you zero your detector in fresh air – away from buildings and CO2 emissions, and at arm’s length to make sure your own breath doesn’t affect the reading.

What if I think my zero reading is incorrect?

It’s best to test the instrument with 100% nitrogen to check the real zero point, and then with a known level of CO2 test gas. If the zero gas reading is incorrect, or any other gas reading for that matter, the detector will need a full service calibration – contact your local service provider for help.

If you have a Crowcon detector, you can use our Portables Pro software to correct its zero reading.  For further information, call Crowcon customer support on +44 (0)1235 557711.

Just what are Intrinsic Safety Barriers?

In your industry, you may have heard of Intrinsic Safety barriers, commonly known as I.S. barriers.  But what are they, exactly?

I.S. barriers are protection devices for electrical equipment such as gas detectors, fire detectors, alarms etc mounted in a hazardous area.  They protect equipment from current surges, which would otherwise run the risk of turning the equipment into an ignition source – disastrous when the detector is in an area where there may be explosive gases.

A good analogy is a steam engine with a pressure relief whistle – when the engine is under too much pressure, it’s relieved through the whistle by literally letting off steam.

How do they work?

I.S. barriers work by limiting the energy available to the I.S. device.  Here at Crowcon, we use two types of I.S. barriers – zener barriers and galvanic isolators.

Zener barriers contain zener diodes which divert any excess energy to earth – so you need to make sure that there’s an intrinsically safe earth point available.  When you don’t have an earth point, you can use a galvanic isolator, which provides electrical isolation between the hazardous area and the safe area circuits via a transformer.

When do you need to use them?

Basically, when you’re using certified devices that use the I.S. protection method.  If your device uses this method, you’ll see the following in their ATEX and IECEx certificates:

  • ‘ia’ or ‘ib’ in their certification classification
  • For example – Ex ia IIC T4 Ga (the classification for our Xgard Type 1 fixed detector)

Some products might use more than one protection method – a common example is I.S. and flameproof protection.  In these cases, the product is unlikely to require the use of an external I.S. barrier.  However, as always, we recommend that you consult your product manual for guidance.

How do you use them?

I.S. barriers should be located between the devices in the hazardous area and the control equipment (installed in a safe area).  The I.S. barrier needs to be within the safe area.

The ATEX certificate for the I.S. device will stipulate acceptable parameters for the I.S. barrier.

When should they be avoided?

Detectors which don’t use the ‘intrinsic safety’ method of protection shouldn’t be used with  an I.S. barrier.

For example, the Xgard type 5 uses the flameproof (Exd) method of protection – so it doesn’t need an I.S. barrier.  However, not all versions of the Xgard have flameproof protection, so do need an I.S. barrier – it all boils down to the product you’re using.

When your detector and control equipment are both installed in the safe area, you don’t need I.S. barriers.

One thing you should remember – using an I.S. barrier with a detector that doesn’t use the intrinsic safety method of protection doesn’t make the detector intrinsically safe.

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.

 

 

Your sensor is more sensitive than you think

 

We all know that pellistor sensors are one of the primary technologies for detecting hydrocarbons.  In most circumstances, they’re a reliable, cost-effective means of monitoring flammable levels of combustible gases.

As with any technology, there are some circumstances in which pellistors shouldn’t be relied on, and other sensors, like infrared (IR) technology, should be considered.

Problems with pellistors

Pellistors are generally extremely reliable at detecting flammable gases.  However, every type of technology has its limits, and there are a few occasions where pellistors shouldn’t be assumed to be most suitable.

Perhaps the biggest drawback of pellistors is that they’re susceptible to poisoning (irreversible loss of sensitivity) or inhibition (reversible loss of sensitivity) by many chemicals found in related industries.

What happens when a pellistor is poisoned?

Basically, a poisoned pellistor produces no output when exposed to flammable gas. This means a detector would not go into alarm, giving the impression that the environment was safe.

Compounds containing silicon, lead, sulphur, and phosphates at just a few parts per million (ppm) can impair pellistor performance.  So whether it’s something in your general working environment, or something as innocuous as cleaning equipment or hand cream, you could be compromising your sensor’s effectiveness without even realising it.

What’s so bad about silicons?

Silicons have their virtues, but they may be more prevalent than you think; including sealants, adhesives, lubricants, and thermal and electrical insulation. They can poison pellistor sensors at extremely low levels.  For example, there was an incident where a company replaced a window pane in a room where they stored their gas detection equipment.  A standard silicon-based sealant was used in the process, and as a result all of their pellistor sensors failed their subsequent testing.  Fortunately this company tested their equipment regularly; it would have been a very different and more tragic story had they not done so.

Situations like this ably demonstrate the importance of bump testing (we’re written about it previously – take a look), which highlights poisoned or inhibited sensors.

What can I do to avoid poisoning my sensor?

Be aware, in essence –bump-test your equipment regularly, and make sure your detectors are suited to the environment you’re working in.

Find out more about infra-red technology in our previous blog.

  

Pellistor sensors – all you need to know

We’ve written about pellistor sensors before, but the information still remains vital and useful.  Here’s all you need to know…

Pellistor sensors (or catalytic bead sensors) have been the primary technology for detecting flammable gases since the ‘60s. Despite having discussed a number of issues relating to the detection of flammable gases and VOC, we have not yet looked at how pellistors work. To make up for this, we are including a video explanation, which we hope you will download and use as part of any training you are conducting:

A pellistor is based on a Wheatstone bridge circuit, and includes two “beads”, both of which encase platinum coils.  One of the beads (the ‘active’ bead) is treated with a catalyst, which lowers the temperature at which the gas around it ignites. This bead becomes hot from the combustion, resulting in a temperature difference between this active and the other ‘reference’ bead.  This causes a difference in resistance, which is measured; the amount of gas present is directly proportional to it, so gas concentration as a percentage of its lower explosive limit (%LEL*) can be accurately determined.

The hot bead and electrical circuitry are contained in flameproof sensor housing, behind the sintered metal flame arrestor (or sinter) through which the gas passes. Confined within this sensor housing, which maintains an internal temperature of 500°C, controlled combustion can occur, isolated from the outside environment. In high gas concentrations, the combustion process can be incomplete, resulting in a layer of soot on the active bead. This will partially or completely impair performance. Care needs to be taken in environments where gas levels over 70% LEL may be encountered.

For more information about sensor technology for flammable gases, read our comparison article on pellistors vs Infrared sensor technology: Are silicone implants degrading your gas detection?.

*Lower Explosive Limit – Learn more

 Click in the top right hand corner of the video to access a downloadable file.

How much life have you got left?

When something stops working, you rarely get a heads-up.  When was the last time you flipped a switch, only for your light bulb to give up the ghost?  Or have you had a cold, frosty morning this winter when your car simply won’t start?

Continue reading “How much life have you got left?”