Tuesday, October 10, 2017

Two-Wire vs. Four-Wire Transmitter For Analog Process Signals - What to Consider?

industrial I/O modules for process signal conditioning
I/O modules are an integral part of process signal connectivity.
Image courtesy of Acromag
Transmitters are everywhere in process control. They take a sensor output signal,amplify and condition it, then send it to monitoring and decision making devices. The most common analog electrical signal used for transmitting process control signals is a 4-20 mA (milliampere) current flow. It has succeeded in its adoption for a number of reasons, not the least of which are its resistance to interference and ability to transmit a signal across a substantial length of cable.

Aside from the sensor connection, there are two basic wiring schemes for these devices. The simplest employs just two conductors to transmit the signal and coincidentally provide operating power for the transmitter electronics. This type of transmitter is commonly referred to as a "loop powered" or "two-wire" device. A DC power supply, typically 24 volts, is wired in series with the 4-20 mA output signal and the transmitter derives its operating power from this source. Loop powered devices generally consume very little power, but process designers must consider the total resistance imposed on the loop by all connected devices. The cable, unless the length is monstrous, poses a measurable but comparatively small resistance. Careful consideration should be given to the resistance imposed by receiving devices, especially if there are several in series, receiving the loop signal. The output voltage of the power supply and the maximum tolerable voltage of the connected devices will serve as limiting factors on loop instrument quantity. Where they can be applied, two-wire transmitters offer a straight forward solution for delivery of analog process measurement signals.

A "four-wire" transmitter gets its name from, you guessed it, the two pairs of wires used to provide operating power and a signal transmission path. Provided with a separate power source, possibly even 120 volts AC, this transmitter type will often be found in applications where the sensor may have power requirements that cannot be met with the limitations inherent in the loop powered device. While it may seem that the separate power supply negates the need to consider total resistance load on the signal loop, this is not the case. The signal loop still will be limited by the DC power supply that serves as the driving force of the loop.

In many cases, the question of "two-wire or four-wire" will be answered by the transmitter manufacturer. Since the two-wire scheme is a less burdensome installation, it may be the only product offering when a suitable device can be designed for an application. That said, a diligent search will probably find two and four-wire versions of transmitters for almost every application.

What are some decision making guidelines?
  • Some types of transmitters have sufficiently high power requirements that they cannot be loop powered. In this case, four-wire may be the only option.
  • For low resistance loads, use 2 wire transmitters for a simpler installation.
  • Allow some headroom in the loop resistance to accommodate at least one added receiving device in the future. For example, a temperature signal may serve as an input to a controller now, but need to service a recording device potentially added in the future.
  • Distance should not be mindlessly overlooked, but is generally not a limiting factor, as most installations would be compatible with the distance limitations for two- or four-wire device output signals.
  • When signal transmission distances become unwieldy, due to cabling costs or other factors, consider a wireless transmitter instead of a wired device.
An important aspect of applying 4-20 mA signal loops is to maintain the capability to add another receiving device to the circuit. The use of information in the form of process signals has been growing for a long time and is likely to continue. It is certainly easier to wire an additional device into an existing loop, than to install an additional sensor, transmitter, power supply, and cabling to accommodate the additional device.

Share your process measurement requirements and challenges with process instrumentation experts, leveraging your own process knowledge and experience with their product application expertise to develop complete and effective solutions.