By Josh Cosford, Contributing Editor
Pressure compensated pumps, pressure compensated flow controls or even just straight-up pressure compensators – these terms are thrown around constantly. But unless you’re a hydraulic specialist, you may not know what these are, let alone what they do. Of course, you’ve probably heard of systems analysts and cartographers too, but even those guys don’t know what they do.
The word pressure is self-explanatory, but just considering the meaning of compensate goes far to explain its use here. The dictionary says: reduce or counteract (something unwelcome or unpleasant) by exerting an opposite force or effect. Take that pressure! Your shenanigans are not welcome here! Okay, so we do want pressure and lots of it. But sometimes we don’t, and that’s where a compensator comes in.
A pressure compensator works by comparing two pressure signals, one of which is a target and the other a pilot reading of downstream pressure. I’ve created a diagram showing a cutaway of a pressure compensated flow control and a symbol for the same (note, these valves are not identical). The primary difference between the two examples is the location of the compensator. The cutaway places the compensation before the variable orifice, while the symbol example places the compensator after the orifice. However, both will work so long as the compensator measures the pressure drop across the orifice.
Because flow rate is a function of pressure drop, and because pressure differential changes with flow rate, these understandings allow us to make sense of pressure compensator operation. Starting with the pressure compensated flow control symbol on the right, the flow path starts at port 1 and continues past port 3 out to the subcircuit being regulated.
The compensator has a spring value of 90 psi, and just like this example, most often, the spring value comes fixed. The compensator spool uses two pilot passages to measure pressure drop across the needle valve. In this case, port b measures pressure upstream of the needle valve at port 1, while port a measures downstream pressure at port 2.
The compensator spool will open or close itself to maintain 90 psi of differential pressure across the needle valve. Should load-induced pressure increase at port 2, the yellow pilot path to port a will push the spool backwards to open the combined flow path from port 1 to port 3. Should downstream pressure again decrease or supply pressure upstream of port 1 increase, any differential pressure than 90 psi will push the valve closed to restrict flow.
The cutaway example works much the same way. The red inlet flow must first pass a metering notch before entering the orange chamber, where the flow accesses its input. Next, metered flow crosses from orange to yellow before exiting the valve at the top. The yellow passage comprises the differential pressure to the tune of the spring (assume 90 psi once again) trapped by the magenta spool. The difference in pressure between the orange and yellow defines the pressure drop through the needle valve.
Should downstream load-induced pressure at yellow start to decrease pressure drop from orange to yellow, the magenta spool moves backwards to open the flow path from red to orange, thereby increasing flow to sustain 90 psi pressure drop. Conversely, should pump-side pressure increase upstream of red, the increased pressure in the orange chamber will close the magenta spool against the spring. With less flow entering the orange chamber, pressure drop from orange to yellow remains stable at 90 psi.
In many ways, a pressure compensator is both a pressure and flow valve, but really quite simple in operation. For more information on pressure compensators, watch the Lunchbox Session videos on the subject. Expertly narrated by Carl Dyke, the first in the series can be found here.