How Does A Flow Meter Work

by Anna

Flow meters, also known as flow sensors, are devices used to measure the flow rate or quantity of a gas or liquid moving through a pipe. They are essential tools in various industries, including water management, oil and gas, chemical manufacturing, and pharmaceuticals. The accurate measurement of flow rate is crucial for process control, resource management, and ensuring safety standards. This article delves into the working principles of different types of flow meters, their applications, and the significance of choosing the right flow meter for specific industrial needs.


Basic Principles of Flow Measurement

Flow measurement can be categorized into two main types: volumetric and mass flow measurement. Volumetric flow meters measure the volume of fluid passing through a point per unit time, typically expressed in liters per minute (L/min) or cubic meters per hour (m³/h). Mass flow meters, on the other hand, measure the mass of the fluid passing through a point per unit time, expressed in kilograms per hour (kg/h) or pounds per hour (lb/h).


Volumetric Flow Meters

Volumetric flow meters measure the volume of fluid passing through a point in a given time. The most common types include:

1. Differential Pressure Flow Meters

These meters calculate flow rate by measuring the pressure drop across a constriction in the flow path, such as an orifice plate, venturi tube, or flow nozzle. According to Bernoulli’s principle, the pressure difference is proportional to the square of the flow rate.

2. Positive Displacement Flow Meters

These meters trap a fixed amount of fluid and then release it, counting the number of times the chamber is filled and emptied. They are highly accurate and are often used for viscous fluids. Examples include gear meters, piston meters, and diaphragm meters.

3. Turbine Flow Meters

These meters use a rotor with blades that spin when fluid passes through the meter. The rotational speed of the rotor is proportional to the flow rate. They are suitable for clean, low-viscosity fluids.

Mass Flow Meters

Mass flow meters measure the mass flow rate directly and are essential for applications where the mass, not volume, of the fluid is critical. The main types include:

1. Coriolis Flow Meters

These meters utilize the Coriolis effect, where a vibrating tube is subjected to angular momentum changes as fluid passes through it. The resulting deflection of the tube is proportional to the mass flow rate. They provide high accuracy and are suitable for a wide range of fluids.

2. Thermal Flow Meters

These meters measure the heat transfer from a heated element to the fluid flowing past it. The rate of heat transfer is directly proportional to the mass flow rate. They are particularly useful for measuring the flow of gases.

Working Principles of Common Flow Meters

Differential Pressure Flow Meters

How They Work

Differential pressure flow meters work by creating a pressure drop across a restriction in the flow path. This restriction can be an orifice plate, a venturi tube, or a flow nozzle. As the fluid flows through the restriction, its velocity increases, causing a drop in pressure. By measuring the upstream and downstream pressures, the flow rate can be calculated using the Bernoulli equation and continuity equation.


These meters are widely used in water supply systems, steam flow measurement, and natural gas distribution due to their robustness and reliability.

Positive Displacement Flow Meters

How They Work

Positive displacement flow meters measure the volume of fluid by trapping it in compartments of known volume and counting the number of times these compartments are filled and emptied. For instance, in a gear meter, fluid moves the gears, and each rotation represents a fixed volume of fluid passing through.


They are ideal for measuring viscous fluids such as oil, resin, and food products. Their high accuracy makes them suitable for custody transfer applications in the oil and gas industry.

Turbine Flow Meters

How They Work

Turbine flow meters consist of a rotor with blades placed in the path of the fluid. As the fluid flows, it causes the rotor to spin. The rotational speed of the rotor is proportional to the flow rate. The rotations are detected by a magnetic or optical sensor and converted into flow rate data.


These meters are commonly used in water treatment, chemical processing, and fuel measurement due to their accuracy and ability to handle clean, low-viscosity fluids.

Coriolis Flow Meters

How They Work

Coriolis flow meters measure mass flow rate by utilizing the Coriolis effect. Fluid passes through one or more vibrating tubes, causing a phase shift in the vibration that is proportional to the mass flow rate. The meter’s electronics measure this phase shift to determine the flow rate accurately.


These meters are used in high-accuracy applications such as chemical and petrochemical processing, food and beverage production, and pharmaceutical manufacturing. They are capable of measuring both liquids and gases.

Thermal Flow Meters

How They Work

Thermal flow meters measure the flow rate based on heat transfer. They typically have two temperature sensors: one heated and one unheated. As the fluid flows past the sensors, the rate of cooling of the heated sensor is used to determine the mass flow rate. The difference in temperature is proportional to the flow rate.


They are particularly effective in measuring the flow of gases such as air, natural gas, and industrial gases. They are often used in HVAC systems, environmental monitoring, and process control in chemical industries.

Importance of Selecting the Right Flow Meter

Choosing the appropriate flow meter is critical for ensuring accurate measurements and efficient operations. Factors to consider include:

Fluid Properties: The type of fluid (liquid or gas), viscosity, density, and chemical composition influence the choice of flow meter.

Flow Range: The expected range of flow rates needs to be within the operational limits of the flow meter.

Accuracy Requirements: Different applications require varying levels of accuracy. Custody transfer applications demand high accuracy, while others might tolerate less precision.

Environmental Conditions: Factors such as temperature, pressure, and presence of corrosive or abrasive substances can impact the performance and longevity of flow meters.

Installation Constraints: The physical space available for installing the flow meter and the nature of the piping system (straight runs, bends, etc.) can affect the selection.

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Flow meters are indispensable tools in numerous industries, providing critical data for process control, resource management, and safety. Understanding the working principles of different types of flow meters—such as differential pressure, positive displacement, turbine, Coriolis, and thermal flow meters—helps in selecting the right instrument for specific applications. Each type of flow meter has its strengths and is suited to particular fluids and operational conditions. By carefully considering the properties of the fluid, the required accuracy, and the environmental conditions, one can ensure optimal performance and reliability in flow measurement.


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