Definitions

hygrometer

hygrometer

[hahy-grom-i-ter]
hygrometer, instrument used to measure the moisture content of a gas, as in determining the relative humidity of air. The temperature at which dew or frost forms is a measure of the absolute humidity—the weight of water vapor per unit volume of air or other gas at the temperature before cooling. Knowing absolute humidity and air temperature, the observer can calculate relative humidity. The most common type of hygrometer is the dry- and wet-bulb psychrometer. It consists of two identical mercury or electrical thermometers, one of which has a wet cotton or linen wick around its bulb. Evaporating water from the wick absorbs heat from the thermometer bulb, causing the thermometer reading to drop. The difference between dry-bulb and wet-bulb temperatures are compared on psychrometric charts. The temperature at which dew forms, called the dew point, is determined by a dew-point, or condensation-type, hygrometer, which is basically a mirror, usually of polished metal, cooled until dew or frost forms on it. Various cooling methods employ compressed carbon dioxide, dry ice, liquid air, or mechanical refrigeration. When dew or frost forms on the mirror, the temperatures between when dew appeared and when it disappeared is the dew point and is read with optical, electrical, or nuclear techniques. Because human observation varies, photoelectric cells are sometimes used to register the time at which the mirror fogs. Another type of hygrometer works on the principle that electrical resistance varies in a material that absorbs moisture, with the resistance to a current passing between wires measured by special sensors. The most accurate way to measure humidity is with an electric hygrometer, in which a known volume of gas passes over a hygroscopic, or moisture-absorbing, material such as phosphorus pentoxide. It is weighed before and after to determine how much water it took out of the gas. The older types of mechanical hygrometer use human hair, which stretches as it absorbs moisture, with a linkage connecting the center of a bundle of hairs under tension to a pointer. Another uses goldbeater's skin, a membrane from the intestines of oxen. Some materials can determine relative changes in humidity because they change color as they absorb moisture.

Hygrometers are instruments used for measuring humidity. A simple form of a hygrometer is specifically known as a "psychrometer" and consists of two thermometers, one of which includes a dry bulb and the other of which includes a bulb that is kept wet to measure wet-bulb temperature. Evaporation from the wet bulb lowers the temperature, so that the wet-bulb thermometer usually shows a lower temperature than that of the dry-bulb thermometer, which measures dry-bulb temperature. When the air temperature is below freezing, however, the wet bulb is covered with a thin coating of ice and yet may be warmer than the dry bulb. Relative humidity is computed from the ambient temperature as shown by the dry-bulb thermometer and the difference in temperatures as shown by the wet-bulb and dry-bulb thermometers. Relative humidity can also be determined by locating the intersection of the wet- and dry-bulb temperatures on a psychrometric chart. One device that uses the wet/dry bulb method is the sling psychrometer, where the thermometers are attached to a handle or length of rope and spun around in the air for a few minutes.

Calibration

Accurate calibration of the thermometers used is of course fundamental to precise humidity determination by the wet-dry method; it is also important for the most accurate results to protect the thermometers from radiant heat and ensure a sufficiently high speed of airflow over the wet bulb. One of the most precise types of wet-dry bulb psychrometer was invented in the late 19th century by Adolph Richard Aßmann (1845-1918); in English-language references the device is usually spelled "Assmann psychrometer." In this device, each thermometer is suspended within a vertical tube of polished metal, and that tube is in turn suspended within a second metal tube of slightly larger diameter; these double tubes serve to isolate the thermometers from radiant heating. Air is drawn through the tubes with a fan that is driven by a clockwork mechanism to ensure a consistent speed (some modern versions use an electric fan with electronic speed control). According to Middleton, 1966, "an essential point is that air is drawn between the concentric tubes, as well as through the inner one."

One solution sometimes used for accurate humidity measurement when the air temperature is below freezing is to use a thermostatically-controlled electric heater to raise the temperature of outside air to above freezing. In this arrangement, a fan draws outside air past (1) a thermometer to measure the ambient dry-bulb temperature, (2) the heating element, (3) a second thermometer to measure the dry-bulb temperature of the heated air, then finally (4) a wet-bulb thermometer. According to the WMO Guide, "The principle of the heated psychrometer is that the water vapour content of an air mass does not change if it is heated. This property may be exploited to the advantage of the psychrometer by avoiding the need to maintain an ice bulb under freezing conditions." . Since the humidity of the ambient air is calculated indirectly from three temperature measurements, in such a device accurate thermometer calibration is even more important than for a two-bulb configuration.

Other types of hygrometers are also commonly used to determine the ambient humidity. Such devices frequently use a human or animal hair under tension. The traditional folk art device known as a "weather house" works on this principle. In order to see changes that occur over time, several hygrometers record the value of humidity on a piece of graduated paper so that the values can be read off the chart.

Difficulty of accurate humidity measurement

Humidity measurement is among the more difficult problems in basic metrology. According to the WMO Guide, "The achievable accuracies [for humidity determination] listed in the table refer to good quality instruments that are well operated and maintained. In practice, these are not easy to achieve." Two thermometers can be compared by immersing them both in an insulated vessel of water and stirring vigorously to minimize temperature variations. A high-quality liquid-in-glass thermometer if handled with care should remain stable for some years. Hygrometers must be calibrated in air, which is a much less effective heat transfer medium than is water, and many types are subject to driftso need regular recalibration. A further difficulty is that most hygrometers sense relative humidity rather than the absolute amount of water present, but RH is a function of both temperature and absolute moisture content, so small temperature variations within the air in a test chamber will translate into RH variations.

Dewpoint Hygrometers

Dewpoint is the temperature at which a sample of moist air (or any other water vapor) at constant pressure reaches water vapor saturation. At this saturation temperature, further cooling results in condensation of water. Cooled mirror dewpoint hygrometers are the most precise instruments available. They use a chilled mirror and optoelectronic mechanism to detect condensation on the mirror surface. The temperature of the mirror is controlled by electronic feedback to maintain a dynamic equilibrium between evaporation and condensation on the mirror, thus closely measuring the dewpoint temperature.

Modern instruments use electronic means of recording the information. The two most common electronic sensors are capacitive or resistive. The capacitive sensors sense water by applying an AC signal between two plates and measuring the change in capacitance caused by the amount of water present. The resistive sensors use a polymer membrane which changes conductivity according to absorbed water. Recently, an unbalanced AC Bridge approach was adapted for low power/energy operation and has shown to provide better measurement performance over a wide operating range. To further increase accuracy in this same device, which combines a sensor in data logging instrument, a calibration method utilizing a large memory array was developed to maximize performance.In most instruments, resistive sensors can be read by common meters or data acquisition boards. Temperature must also be measured, as it affects the calibration of all these sensors.

Besides greenhouses and industrial spaces, hygrometers are also used in some saunas, humidors and museums. In residential settings, hygrometers are used to aid humidity control (too low humidity damages human skin and body, while too high humidity favours growth of mildew and dust mite). The sling or motorized psychrometer is used in meteorology.

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