8 common pitfalls in moisture measurements and how to avoid them

Measurement of moisture content is a complex subject but does not need to be difficult. This post explains some common mistakes made in trace moisture measurements, the causes of the problems, and how to avoid them.

Mistakes and bad practices can cause moisture measurements to vary from the expectation and a good sampling technique is crucial for accurate and reliable results. When designing a moisture sampling system you should consider these elements:

  1. Material permeability
  2. Adsorption and desorption
  3. Sample tubing length
  4. Dead volumes and trapped moisture
  5. Sample conditioning
  6. Condensation and leaks
  7. Sample tubing and length
  8. Flow rates

Each of these is discussed in detail below.

Material Permeability and Moisture

All materials are permeable to water vapor, as water molecules are extremely small compared to the structure of solids, even when compared to the crystalline structure of metals. The graph below shows the dew point inside tubing of different materials when purged with very dry gas, where the exterior of the tubing is in the ambient environment.

Material permability comparsison graph
Material Permeability Comparison

Many materials contain moisture as part of their structure, particularly organic materials (natural or synthetic), salts (or anything which contains them) and anything which has small pores. It is important to ensure that the materials used are suitable for the application.

If the partial water vapor pressure exerted on the outside of a compressed air line is higher than on the inside, the atmospheric water vapor will naturally push through the porous medium causing water to migrate into the pressurized air line. This effect is called transpiration.

Adsorption and Desorption

Adsorption is the adhesion of atoms, ions, or molecules from a gas, liquid, or dissolved solid to the surface of a material, creating a film. The rate of adsorption is increased at higher pressures and lower temperatures.

Desorption is the release of a substance from or through the surface of a material. In constant environmental conditions, an adsorbed substance will remain on a surface almost indefinitely. However, as the temperature rises, so does the likelihood of desorption occurring.

In practical terms, as the temperature of the environment fluctuates, water molecules are adsorbed and desorbed from the internal surfaces of the sample tubing, causing small fluctuations in the measured dew point.

Sample Tubing Length

The sample point should always be as close to the critical measurement point as possible, in order to obtain a truly representative measurement. The length of the sample line to the sensor or instrument should be as short as possible. Interconnection points and valves trap moisture, so using the simplest sampling arrangement possible will reduce the time it takes for the sample system to dry out when purged with dry gas.

Over a long tubing run, water will inevitably migrate into any line, and the effects of adsorption and desorption will become more apparent. It is clear from the graph shown above that the best materials to resist transpiration are stainless steel and PTFE.

Dead Volumes and Trapped Moisture

Dead volumes (areas which are not in a direct flow path) in sample lines, hold onto water molecules which are slowly released into the passing gas; this results in increased purge and response times, and wetter than expected readings. Hygroscopic materials in filters, valves (e.g. rubber from pressure regulators) or any other parts of the system can also trap moisture.

Diagram showing deadspace in a sample configuration
Dead volume

Sample Conditioning

Sample conditioning is often necessary to avoid exposure of sensitive measuring components to liquids and other contaminants which may cause damage or affect the accuracy over time, depending on the measurement technology.

Particulate filters are used for removing dirt, rust, scale and any other solids that may be in a sample stream. For protection against liquids, a coalescing filter should be used.

The membrane filter is a more expensive but highly effective alternative to a coalescing filter. It provides protection from liquid droplets and can even stop flow to the analyzer completely when a large slug of liquid is encountered.

Condensation and Leaks

Maintaining the temperature of the sample system tubing above the dew point of the sample is vital to prevent condensation. Any condensation invalidates the sampling process as it changes the water vapor content of the gas being measured. Condensed liquid can alter the humidity elsewhere by dripping or running to other locations where it may re-evaporate.

The integrity of all connections is also an important consideration, especially when sampling low dew points at an elevated pressure. If a small leak occurs in a high-pressure line, gas will leak out but vortices at the leak point and a negative vapor pressure differential will also allow water vapor to contaminate the flow.

Flow Rates

Theoretically flow rate has no direct effect on the measured moisture content, but in practice it can have unanticipated effects on response speed and accuracy. The optimal flow rate varies depending on the measurement technology and can always be found in the instrument or sensor manual.

An inadequate flow rate can:

  • Accentuate adsorption and desorption effects on the gas passing through the sampling system.
  • Allow pockets of wet gas to remain undisturbed in a complex sampling system, which will then gradually be released into the sample flow.
  • Increase the chance of contamination from back diffusion: ambient air that is wetter than the sample can flow from the exhaust back into the system. A longer exhaust (sometimes called a pigtail) can also help alleviate this problem.
  • Slow the response of the sensor to changes in moisture content.

Selecting the best sampling option for your application

We offer ready-to-use moisture sampling systems which are compatible with our ranges of dew-point transmitters. Their modular design allows for system configurations to suit a wide range of applications. Contact us to find out more or arrange a call to discuss your application needs in more detail.

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